The beaches are legendary. The difference is the sand. It’s not like most beach sand you wiggle your toes in. It is sugar-white and squeaks when you walk on it. The 52-mile shoreline is rated one of the top 25 beaches in the United States by TripAdvisor. For a bonus, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico appear emerald green, all while the sea oats rustle in the warm breeze. The beauty all around seems to inspire many meeting delegates that are visiting Pensacola, Florida.
“Some people go for the laid-back meeting. You know, change it up,” said Leslie Mathews, corporate and convention sales manager for Visit Pensacola, the local convention and visitors bureau. “They’ll take their easel outside and put some chairs around it in the sand. What kind of conversations do you think they’ll have during that breakout?”
You might call that combining productivity with pleasure. Tourists often feel the same way about Pensacola. The area draws about 3.8 million overnight visitors per year.
Pensacola and its beautiful bay are located on the edge of the northwest Florida Panhandle near the Alabama state line. Nearby is the protected Gulf Islands National Seashore. What you might call modern Pensacola was settled by European explorers more than 450 years ago; so multiple cultural influences abound.
“What makes us a unique place in northwest Florida is that you can have a meeting on arguably the most beautiful beach, and then after that, explore some of the historic, cultural and culinary aspects of Pensacola,” said Visit Pensacola president Steve Hayes. “As a meetings destination, we have what we call the beach meeting campus, which encompasses three hotels right on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico, and then our downtown meeting campus.”
Meet and Sleep Near the Ocean
All together, metropolitan Pensacola has 9,700 hotel rooms with widely varying features and pricing from which to choose. The area has a total of about a quarter-million square feet of meeting space available for planners to consider.
The Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front Hotel is the area’s busiest meeting site with about 500 group visits per year. The hotel has 17,000 square feet of meeting space.
“We draw in a 600-mile-radius driving market. The average group size fills about 75 rooms,” said Tom Rasinen, director of sales at the Hilton. “A large group for us is about 150.”
The site draws meetings from markets such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Atlanta; Montgomery, Alabama; Mississippi; and the rest of Florida. Its primary market is association meetings, but the fall and spring seasons also see quite a few religious groups, retreats and reunions. It also handles numerous corporate meetings for local companies.
The Hilton has 272 sleeping rooms. One of the main features of the property is the 92-room all-suites tower; 26 of those rooms were originally built as condos, so there is plenty of extra space in each.
“But we sell more than the property,” said Rasinen. “We sell the experience of Pensacola. The beach is the main draw, but it also includes the historic downtown, museums and culture. Our proximity to the airport is good. It’s also an international airport.”
More Options For Planners
The Crowne Plaza Pensacola Grand Hotel is a busy site, with its 8,800 square feet of meeting space and 210 sleeping rooms. The Crowne Plaza is quite historic. The hotel sits on the site of the L&N rail depot, which dates back to 1912. It has been cleverly preserved and serves as the modern hotel’s lobby, meeting area and bar.
The Holiday Inn Resort is a bustling place, with 6,500 square feet of meeting footage and 206 guest rooms. The Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach provides 181 hotel rooms and 4,400 square feet to configure any way planners need it. The Hilton Garden Inn has meeting space and is inland near the medical center.
Another reliable place to meet is the Pensacola Bay Center, with its 10,000-seat arena, 20,000 square feet of exhibition space and 13,000 square feet of meeting configurations. It’s both a large meeting venue and an entertainment center that stages everything from big-name concerts to sporting events.
Three more meeting choices are New World Landing, ideal for off-site events downtown; Lee House, a historic boutique hotel and events venue; and Saenger Theater, with 15,000 square feet of fixed seating. Saenger dates back to the Roaring ’20s and is a showcase of opulent beauty.
Hayes said Pensacola draws a nice variety of corporate, sports, military and religious meetings. Recent examples include SkillsUSA, a collection of students, teachers and industry representatives who work to get more young people trained for highly skilled jobs. Another is Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, a megachurch with 65,000 members. Second Baptist sent 2,600 delegates to Pensacola for its annual high school retreat and religious conference.
“It was a great opportunity for us to host a type of conference we had not seen before,” said Hayes.
Other groups that met in Pensacola this year are the Alabama Optometric Association, Mississippi Roofing Contractors, General Electric, the Florida State Florist Association and the Pall Corporation, a manufacturing firm.