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April 29, 2012

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK:Why Lee County loves meetings

Urban centers are prime destinations for meetings and conventions for many obvious reasons (ease of access, variety of accommodations and spaces, etc.), but some off-the-beaten-path places are good for events as well, and can offer some unexpected benefits.

In Southwestern Florida, about 150 miles south of Tampa, Lee County has a wide range of beaches and accommodations, and has been stepping up its efforts to attract more meetings, conventions and events to the independent businesses in the area. “The region used to be just for leisure,” recalls Lee Rose, communications manager for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (www.FortMyersSanibelMeetings.com). “It attracted an upscale clientele, so that fueled the meetings market.” Presidents and CEOs of various corporations also have vacation homes along the beachfronts, an added bonus for small corporate group events.

As the destination has increased in meetings and events business, the Visitor & Convention Bureau arranged for a representative in Washington, D.C. to help market the region, followed by a Midwestern representative in Minnesota. And the efforts are paying off: Last year, the VCB reported that the number of visitors attending conferences, meetings and other business functions had doubled over 2010. Overall, 288,000 people came to Lee County for business purposes in 2011, and 192,000 of those were for meetings and conferences.

To help bring in more business, the city-owned Harborside Event Center (www.harborsideevents.com) in Ft. Myers is planning to expand, which Rose says will encourage growth and development in the downtown area, particularly for hotels. Currently, the Event Center has 42,000 square feet of exhibition and general session space for trade shows, conventions and conferences, and is expected have 65,000 square feet after the expansion. 



The hotels, resorts and other attractions in the area are also working to appeal to a wider demographic: From 2010 to 2012, approximately $101.5 million will have been spent on upgrading, refurbishing and building new tourism-related attractions, accommodations and facilities within the Lee County area. (This includes recently completed projects, current projects, and planned work during 2012.) Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Visitor & Convention Bureau says that the destination is seeing a busy spring season as tourism-related businesses throughout the area continue major projects. 


Lee County has some brand-name properties: Bonita Springs has the 450-room Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort (coconutpoint.hyatt.com) that the company reportedly calls its “crown jewel,” with 72,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space; and Ft. Myers has the Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa (pictured), a Marriott property that can host meetings of nearly 1,000 people in 45,000 square feet of total meeting space. But, Rose says, most hotels and spaces cater to meetings of 500 people or less. “The appeal for meeting planners is personal service,” Rose says of these smaller properties. As an example, the South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island sprawls out over more than 300 acres, but will only host a maximum of 500 people for meetings, guaranteeing plenty of space and individual attention for everyone. 


Off the Beaten Path

Off-site venues are also a popular option for smaller meetings and events. The former winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford (www.edisonfordwinterestates.org) both have space that can be used by groups, and Lee notes that using historic properties adds a unique (and decidedly local) touch to events. The recently restored Caretaker’s House at the Estates is a good choice for meetings (it has a projector and screen for presentations), while porches and lawns can be used for receptions and less formal gatherings.

Lover’s Key State Park and the whole of Useppa Island, meanwhile, are good for executive retreats, with independent hotels, pavilions and beaches that can be used for small groups.

An extra perk that the VCB offers is a volunteer program of approximately 120 locals (many of them retired professionals) who will help groups with last-minute needs—for example, manning the registration desk, stuffing welcome bags before conferences or offering assistance in several languages. These services are provided free of charge to groups.


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