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Travel Articles
Southwest Florida, Naturally
Meetings informed by inherent inspirations in nature
(Smart Meetings, 2012)
By Heather Larson


"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Albert Einstein wasn’t talking about meeting-goers in particular, but how better to foster creativity and recharge attendees than to take them where nature inspires and provides a respite from the frenetic pace of the business world? Southwest Florida—Sarasota, Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, Naples and Marco Island—is just such a place. The communities are distinct, yet each features possibilities for immersion in nature that can help a group reboot and reconnect, and ultimately be more productive.

Part of what makes southwest Florida ideal for utilizing nature is that it’s home to more than 2 million acres of protected land in Big Cypress Swamp National Preserve and Everglades National Park. The two take up most of the southwestern tip of the state. This vast landscape, home to bears and panthers, alligators and thousands of birds, provides a backdrop against which groups can bond, network, team-build and learn, all while based in resorts and conference facilities providing the highest level of comfort and service.

Meetings and nature in southwest Florida offer a compelling combination, a best-of-two worlds scenario in which positive results are almost a given.

Sarasota County

"Nature has always had more force than education."–Voltaire

South Florida Museum

Shark jaw at the South Florida Museum, Bradenton,
courtesy of Visit Sarasota County

It follows then that when you blend a natural setting with a learning forum, you double your chance of success. The city of Sarasota and its eight islands front the Gulf. Visitors can get upclose to the flora and fauna in tidewater flats and mangrove islands, or sail among dolphins in the waters offshore. A perspective on nature happens indoors, too, in off-sites such as the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, where groups can rent private space.

The Sarasota Bradenton International Convention Center is the go-to conference facility, with 97,600 sq. ft. Of meeting space and more than 3,000 hotel rooms located within two miles. The center is conveniently adjacent to the Sarasota- Bradenton International Airport.

Some of Sarasota’s top meeting spaces have recently employed spit and polish, making them even more attractive to planners and attendees. The Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel on Lido Beach has 179 guest rooms and renovated its 2,400 sq. ft. Of meeting space with new carpeting, paint, wallpaper and fixtures. At The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, the new Siesta Key Room adds 1,300 sq. ft. To the 18,000 sq. ft. Of function space already available.

“Sarasota promises meeting planners and attendees a perfect mix of small-town hospitality with all the amenities found in a metropolitan city. We are proud to say that when you are here, you are the big fish in a small pond,” says Kelly Defebo, meeting and group sales manager for Visit Sarasota County, the area’s CVB.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

"I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes." –Charles Lindbergh

Sanibel Island Lighthouse

Sanibel Island Lighthouse,
courtesy of Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

Have your group consider the world—and business—in new ways at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Sanibel. Known for its abundant birdlife, visitors can view more than 200 species of birds in addition to alligators and thriving mangrove forests. Tarpon Bay Explorers can set up guided tram tours through the refuge, and the visitor center is a worthy first stop.

Sea kayaking along the Great Calusa Blueway is also a popular group activity in the Fort Myers area. The 190-mile paddling trail runs the full length of Lee County, its back-bay waters calm enough that paddlers can go slowly, watching for dolphins, manatees or wading birds. “It’s easy to get inspired by the nature in this destination,” says Nancy Hamilton, director of communications for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

This area is third on TripAdvisor’s list of Top 15 Destinations on the Rise, and boating, sailing and fishing make it a recreational playground. Lodging facilities exude Old Florida charm and restaurants serve fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.

Harborside Event Center, on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers, is the area’s premier convention facility. It features 42,000 sq. ft. Of meeting space, all fully wired to accommodate a group’s networking needs. “Our VCB offers imaginative services for the entire planning process. We stay involved and are dedicated to meeting planners from the minute we receive the RFP through the conclusion of the meeting and beyond,” says Pamela Johnson, director of sales for the Lee County VCB.

Lee County also offers a range of accommodations. Just south of Fort Myers, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs will begin a renovation this summer, to include new soft goods and furniture for all 454 guest rooms. The hotel has more than 70,000 sq. ft. Of meeting space and an enviable location on 26 acres overlooking Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, and it was recently honored with Florida Green Lodging’s Three Palm eco-friendly certification.

In July, the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort and Spa will start to renovate its 347 guest rooms and 45,000 sq. ft. Of meeting space. Set on 85 acres across from Sanibel Island, the resort offers a nice de-stressing option for attendees: spa treatments on its 100-foot yacht. Fronting a pristine beach on Sanibel, Sundial Beach and Golf Resort features 12,000 sq. ft., and each of its 200 guest rooms is a one- or two-bedroom condominium suite.

Naples & The Paradise Coast

"The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration." –Claude Monet

Ngala Private Reserve

Event at Ngala Private Reserve, Naples

Birdwatching and wildlife tours can be incorporated into any meeting in Naples. Adventure Naples, for example, has introduced boats with a specially designed jet propulsion system that doesn’t use a propeller or rudder, making it safe for the environment and so quiet that passengers experience optimum bird- and wildlife watching on the tour.

Ngala Private Reserve is a very different kind of opportunity, an off-site venue in East Naples where groups step into the world of safari, complete with giraffes, zebras, leopards, camels and even the elusive and endangered Florida panther. Team-building activities and other services for corporate and incentive groups is the specialty of the staff at Ngala. The reserve has also formed a team-building collaboration with Drum Cafe, a group that recently performed at one of our Smart Meetings events. At Ngala, the combination of a safari setting and powerful African rhythms creates team-building magic.

There are many hotel choices in Naples. The Inn on Fifth, downtown, is in expansion mode. The hotel is adding a three-story building across the street that will include 32 suites on its Club Level along with a separate check-in and rooftop hot tub; it will bring meeting space to 8,000 sq. ft.

The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club has 317 rooms and 34,000 sq. ft. Of space, 22,000 sq. ft. Of it at the club house. The new 14,652-square-foot Grand Lawn Pavilion has doubled the amount of meeting space at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, which has 295 guest rooms. The pavilion accommodates up to 1,400 people and features a full sound system. Like the golf resort, sister property The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, with 450 guest rooms and more than 42,000 sq. ft. Of space, has achieved the Two Palm designation for its green initiatives.

The Naples Grande Beach Resort has been rebranded as the Waldorf Astoria Naples. It offers more than 80,000 sq. ft. Of space as well as the suitably opulent Golden Door Spa for rejuvenating between meetings.

“Florida’s Paradise Coast has excellent resort and hotel-based meeting facilities combined with beautiful, tropical surroundings, which blend to create meetings and conferences that are productive, inspiring and memorable for participants,” says Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The choices for team building and recreation range from golf and spa experiences to adventurous outdoor activities like stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking in the Everglades, Segway and bicycle tours, dolphin-watching cruises and even hikes through our pristine cypress swamps.”

One good choice for nature-based team building is a trip with the Dolphin Explorer. This cruise boat allows teams of participants to serve as citizen-scientist dolphin researchers, combining education, fun and team-challenge opportunities. Long the leader in the area in terms of giving visitors a better understanding of the local environment, the Naples Nature Center, part of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, is in the process of a major renovation. When it is completed later this fall, this venerable institution will be one of the greenest nature attractions in the country.

Dolphin Explorer

The Dolphin Explorer

Marco Island

"Our task must be to free ourselves...by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty." –Albert Einstein

Just 17 miles from Naples, Marco Island is a place where groups can take a break in every sense from the workaday world, and in doing so reach goals and arrive at productive solutions and ideas that remain elusive in the office. Groups who stay on Marco should definitely make heading into Everglades National Park or Big Cypress Swamp National Preserve part of their meeting itinerary.

Wildlands are near, but even closer are the pristine beaches of the Gulf. Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort Golf Club and Spa offers 727 rooms, 56,988 sq. ft. Of meeting space and a focus on green initiatives. One intriguing program: a custom flash-mob package for groups, complete with choreographer and videographer. Companies can share their flash-mob experience on their website or via social media, increasing website traffic and showcasing the true personality of the company.

Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa is a Four-Diamond beachfront property with 297 guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. Of meeting and event space. Among its largest venues is the Grand Ballroom, at 5,200 sq. ft. The hotel has a conference services coordinator on staff , and one of its amenities for groups is arranging airport transportation.

The power of convening face-to-face and the power of nature—a sublime fit in Florida.


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