I arrived at the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers on the first Sunday evening in December, a little late to the party. The “Meet Me in the Sun” weeklong press trip organized by VISIT FLORIDA had kicked off several days earlier at Florida Encounter — the official Meetings Show for Florida that brings together meeting professionals with Florida venues, attractions, and other suppliers. But I needn’t have been concerned about catching up. While my colleagues in convention media had already been schooled in much of what Florida has to offer as a meetings and conventions destination at the three-day Florida Encounter program, the Sunshine State has so much up its sleeve — and along and between its coasts — that there was plenty more in store for me to see, experience, and taste on my leg of the trip.
Glimpse of Paradise
After a 30-minute drive, I arrived around midnight at the Naples Grande Beach Resort. I awoke the next morning to a balcony view of the appropriately named Paradise Coast. The resort finished an $18-million renovation of its 474 rooms and more than 83,000 square feet of meeting space in 2015, followed by another refresh and restoration after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Its three pools looked particularly inviting, but poolside sunbathing wasn’t on our schedule. We packed into a shuttle for a five-mile ride to downtown Naples, where we enjoyed a culinary walking tour of treats before boarding a Naples Princess Cruise. The 149-passenger yacht — available for private events and the only dinner cruise operator in Naples — was our home for a lunchtime tour of Port Royal, a waterfront neighborhood lined with multimillion-dollar mansions.
Bienvenidos a Miami
After a day of basking in the Gulf Coast sunshine, we hopped aboard our shuttle to explore the opposite side of the state. The 125-mile journey to Miami took us through Big Cypress National Preserve, a 729,000-acre swampland that supports the health of the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the U.S., Everglades National Park. I would have loved a chance to canoe, hike, or spot an alligator (from afar), but there was no room in our action-packed agenda for a pit stop. The creative and cosmopolitan energy of Miami and Miami Beach beckoned.
The beaches along the Atlantic may be the most-recognized real estate in south Florida, but there is another section of equally stunning waterfront. The appeal of hosting a meeting next to the Miami River became immediately apparent once we arrived at our host hotel, the 615-room Hyatt Miami Regency. A pharmaceutical company was putting a portion of the property’s 100,000 square feet of meeting space to use, including an evening reception on the riverwalk.
After welcome tequila cocktails crafted by the property’s beverage team, we left the downtown scene for a 10-minute drive to dinner at The Rusty Pelican. Located on Key Biscayne, the barrier island restaurant serves sushi, seafood, and steaks — with a side of a jaw-dropping Miami skyline view.
On tap for the following morning: some welcome exercise after the previous day of indulging our appetites. After a seven-mile drive across the Bay to Miami Beach, we took an Art Deco walking tour with the Miami Design Preservation League. From The Carlyle, the hotel-turned-vacation-rental-property where Robin Williams’ and Nathan Lane’s The Birdcage was filmed, to the Fountainebleau Miami Beach of Scarface fame, the neighborhood has served as the setting for movie classics.
After the walking tour, we strolled over to the New World Center, a Frank Gehry–designed building where the New World Symphony performs.
Miami residents have frequented the center — which redefines the concept of a classical music hall — to catch the symphony’s immersive performances with 3D-projection mapping on the ceiling. “We wanted to make it more inviting than a typical stodgy classical performance venue,” Craig Hall, vice president of communication at New World Symphony, said. “It was designed to bring the outside in with the clearest windows you can find.”
The center’s aesthetics have attracted events such as the star-studded premiere of HBO’s Ballers, but what’s inside the walls is equally impressive. Hall said that the venue has 17 miles of dark fiber — a type of connectivity designed for academic collaboration that operates approximately 100 times faster than commercial internet — which meets the high bar set by Internet2, a community of universities, corporations, and public education networks focused on unlocking the possibilities of new technologies that enable long-distance collaboration and learning. The New World Center has been such a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of technology that it helped launch the Network Performing Arts Production Workshop, an annual conference that explores emerging technologies. The conference occurs biennially at the New World Center, rotating among other host destinations when those tech enthusiasts do not come to Miami Beach.
While the New World Center helps connect musicians in different regions of the world, another cast of creatives was in town for Art Basel Miami Beach. This year’s celebration marked the 17th edition of the show, with one big difference: Its home, the Miami Beach Convention Center, looked quite a bit different after finishing a $620-million renovation that features a grand new entrance, a new ballroom, and a total footprint of 1.4 million square feet of space, all LEED certified.
Art Basel brought the who’s who of the arts community to the city for a weeklong party, but the focus on art will be an everyday occurrence at the center. The renovated building includes $7 million of site-specific art, and the first piece — a 1,400-square-foot hand-painted mural by Berlin-based Franz Ackermann called “About Sand” — debuted at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 4. The entire Miami Beach hospitality community was on hand for the ceremony, and the renovation held a personal meaning for Mayor Dan Gelber. As a teenager, Gelber had worked as an usher at the convention center, and he made it clear that the venue had come a long way since his adolescent employment. “If you’re going to a convention somewhere else, you’re only going because you couldn’t book this place,” Gelber said. “It’s been a long time coming, and it’s only going to continue.”
Among the continuation plans: a new 800-room headquarter hotel project that received the green light from voters in November. That project will be a few years away, but there is no shortage of other hotel options for attendees. The 790-room Loews Miami Beach recently completed a $50-million renovation project, and the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach is in the midst of an overhaul of its 375 guest rooms. Kimpton, Marriott, Wyndham, and Thompson Hotels all plan to open new doors in Miami and Miami Beach in 2019.
All that exciting development was balanced by the “Meet Me in the Sun” trip’s closing note, a walking tour of Little Havana that underscored South Florida’s already significant cultural and historical heritage. We enjoyed a cigar-rolling tutorial, learned about the exodus of Cuban children to the U.S. from 1960–1962, and met some of those immigrants as they enjoyed the tradition of playing dominoes at Maximo Gomez Park, one of the neighborhood’s landmarks. The neighborhood moves to its own rhythm — and we followed along while listening to a piano-saxophone-percussion trio at the Ball and Chain bar and lounge. It was only noon, but the band played like it was midnight. We all raised mojitos in a lunchtime toast. Our guide even showed me how to salsa dance.
I may have been late to the party, but I didn’t miss out on any of the celebration.