Once notorious for unruly Spring Breaks overrun with drunken college students, Fort Lauderdale has cleaned up its act to become one of Florida’s finest meeting destinations. By Donna Carter, March/April 2008
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
There’s an old saying that it’s easier to get a reputation than it is to live one down, but Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has risen to the challenge. Just over 20 years ago, the city on the Sunshine State’s southeast coast was known as the Spring Break capital of North America, annually attracting thousands of college students who widely indulged in hedonistic revelry, alcohol, drugs and raucous behaviour causing significant damage to hotels, beaches and public property. The yearly influx of rabble-rousing students escalated from the 1960s forward to 1985, when Fort Lauderdale had had enough and implemented restrictions that sent Spring Breakers looking for more receptive destinations.
Today, the city is no longer tarnished by a yearly spate of rowdiness, and evidence of a remarkable turnaround is everywhere. For instance, a former Spring Break drinking hole called the Candy Store Lounge that once sponsored belly-flop and wet T-shirt contests is now the site of Florida’s first St. Regis Resort, a 166-room, $240-million property that opened in May, 2007. “The fact this worldwide luxury brand elected to open a five-star hotel in Fort Lauderdale is positive reinforcement,” says Stacy Copeland, convention sales manager for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB. “We have grown up, and while our domestic meetings market has been consistently strong, internationals have now begun to discover us.”
If new, upscale hotel builds like the St. Regis are a measure of buoyant growth significant to the meetings market, then Fort Lauderdale is on the crest of a wave. The Hilton Fort Lauderdale recently opened its 373-room beachfront property and the $205-million W Fort Lauderdale (a member of the Starwood Luxury Collection) is slated to open in October. The Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach Resort opened a 311-room hotel last year and construction continues on the ultra-luxurious Trump International Hotel, expected to open in 2009. Overall, within the Greater Fort Lauderdale Area, there are 33,000 hotel rooms housed in everything from up-market beach resorts to small lodging properties.
However, Copeland points out there is a great deal more to today’s Fort Lauderdale than its extensive range of accommodations. Historically, meeting groups have been drawn to the city for some of the same reasons that once attracted Spring Breakers. The annual average temperature is a balmy 77?F, there are miles of white-sand beaches, beautiful oceanfront promenades, 4,100 restaurants and 300 miles of inland waterways – a natural asset that led to the city’s nickname, the Venice of America.
“As a meeting destination, we have the perfect mix of attributes,” says Jessica Taylor, the CVB’s media relations director. Among the features she cites are the modern, 600,000-sq.-ft. Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center and the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, conveniently located just minutes from the convention centre and major hotels. “We are an affordable destination and a great place to extend a family vacation.”
Nathalie Lajoie, manager, conferences and special projects for Electro-Federation Canada, a Mississauga, Ont.-based association comprising 350 Canada-wide member companies involved in the electrical, electronics industry, agrees. Last year, she organized a four-day meeting in Fort Lauderdale for 550 delegates and spouses and claims the overall experience was outstanding. “Notwithstanding the venue’s beautiful oceanfront location and the destination’s wealth of options for entertainment, dining, tours and shopping, the co-operation received from the CVB, our host hotel and local DMCs was the best ever,” she says. Likewise, delegates praised the Florida (or ‘south of the border’) experience. In a post-meeting survey, 75 per cent of attendees ranked the destination ‘very good to excellent’ and the remaining 25 per cent ranked it ‘good to very good.’
By popular demand, Lajoie took 280 members of her group south to Miami’s famous Doral Golf Resort, where they played a double shotgun on the legendary Blue Monster and Great White courses. “It provided our members with a prestigious golf experience,” she says. However, Fort Lauderdale-based DMC Stuart Gardner, president of USA Hosts Florida, says that unless specifically requested, there’s no need to make the 45-minute drive to Miami. “We have more than 20 excellent courses here in our area, including Grand Oaks, where the popular movie Caddy Shack was filmed.
“Once Spring Breakers chose to move to other destinations due to various restrictions placed on them by the City Fathers, our city became like a phoenix rising out of the ashes,” says Gardner. “We are now a dynamic destination, with a good deal of sophistication and a highly developed infrastructure ideally suited to hosting groups.” He says having plenty of meeting space and a multitude of places to put heads in beds is one thing, but attractions like Las Olas Boulevard, a street lined with trendy restaurants, chic boutiques and galleries, is part of the icing on Fort Lauderdale’s cake. “It’s like a smaller, shopper-friendly Rodeo Drive or Worth Avenue,” says Gardner. “Twenty years ago, this street had no draw and certainly no sizzle; now, it’s one of the hottest spots in South Florida.” Lajoie’s group selected Las Olas for a dine-around that began with cocktails at one establishment, moved on to another for appetizers, a third for the main meal and yet another for dessert and coffee.
Meeting groups whose programmes accommodate leisure time will find plenty of options, says Gardner. “Although it can be pricy, deep-sea fishing is a tremendous draw.“ Other water-based choices include lunch or dinner cruises on inland waterways, with some yachts capable of accommodating up to 500. Alternatively, an abundance of Fort Lauderdale seagoing vessels can be privately chartered for snorkeling trips, island parties, sunset cruises, fishing tournaments and team-building events. Scuba enthusiasts can dive among 80 artificial offshore reefs created by sinking everything from a 435-ft. freighter to a DC-4 airplane and letting nature do the rest. Known as the ‘wreck capital’ of the United States, Fort Lauderdale is recognized as one of the world’s outstanding dive destinations.
Gardner says Everglades airboat tours venturing into the largest sub-tropical wetland wilderness in the U.S. are perennially popular. Spousal programmes frequently include a shopping spree at Sawgrass Mills, Florida’s second-most-visited attraction, which houses over 350 name-brand outlet stores. “We are becoming a sophisticated destination, with the Broward Center for the Performing Arts offering a variety of plays, concerts, opera and ballet,” he says. Planners can add some sizzle to a programme by including a night at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, a venue with more than 2,400 Las Vegas-style gaming machines, 50 poker tables, 17 restaurants and live entertainment.
At the western end of Las Olas is the city’s Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District, comprising 22 blocks of shopping, dining, parks and cultural attractions alongside the New River. This area can be utilized for a variety of group events, including a dine-around, a night at the theatre, a scavenger hunt or a Sunday jazz brunch.
Copeland says the city is endowed with an extensive selection of off-site venues for receptions and special events. Among them is the Museum of Discovery and Science, a facility featuring over 200 hands-on attractions, a 300-seat IMAX theatre and live animal exhibits ranging from sharks to snakes, bats, alligators and iguanas. The museum is fully equipped to host anything from a cocktail reception for 3,000 to a gala dinner for 650. The International Fishing Hall of Fame is a spectacular venue for a group gathering. The $32-million facility, accommodating 350 for a sit-down banquet and 1,150 for a standing reception, offers stunning visual settings and a host of interactive exhibits. For posh events, Gardner takes groups to the Tower Club, a private enclave on the 28th floor of a downtown bank building capable of hosting 150 for dinner and 250 for special receptions. “The views are fantastic and this is the perfect place to host VIPs,” he notes. Another premier venue is the Fort Lauderdale Antique Car Museum. An event here exposes attendees to a piece of American automotive history among a private collection of 1909-1940 Packard motor cars, luxury vehicles widely considered classics. “Delegates don’t have to be car enthusiasts to enjoy an event here,” says Gardner. The Packard museum can accommodate up to 300 for a reception or gala dinner.
Over the past 20 years, the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB and various industry partners have worked diligently to put a new face on the city that Gardner says was once little more than a sleepy town rudely awakened once a year by an invasion of disorderly Spring Breakers. “Somebody figured out it was possible to make the city into something that worked a lot better than selling beer and T-shirts to the Spring Break crowd,” he says. “Now we sell smiles and dreams to meeting groups and leisure travelers.“
Planners with clients seeking a top-of-the-line experience will want to consider the Lauderdale Luxe collection, a group of properties delivering exceptional accommodations, attentive service, superb dining and luxurious spas.
These properties all carry the Lauderdale Luxe symbol and include the Atlantic Resort & Spa, Fort Lauderdale Grande Hotel & Yacht Club, Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, Diplomat Golf Resort & Spa, Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, Hyatt Regency Bonaventure Conference Center & Spa, Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Resort & Spa, Lago Mar Resort and Club, St. Regis Resort, W Fort Lauderdale and Greater Fort Lauderdale’s largest meetings hotel, The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, boasting 1,000 rooms, a 209,000-sq.-ft. adjacent convention centre, four ballrooms and an 18-hole championship golf course.
Donna Carter is a Cobourg, Ont.-based freelance writer.
Photo: Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau