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Florida Meeting Guide: The Emerald Coast

Courtesy Emerald Coast CVB

Think of Florida and you might picture Fort Lauderdale, Marco Island or the shell-strewn sands of Sanibel. But there’s a 24-mile stretch of Gulf beachfront called the Emerald Coast that is every bit as striking.

Served by the Northwest Florida Regional Airport, located on the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, the area includes Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island.

Many meeting guests come from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, according to Tisha Maraj, sales and marketing manager at the Emerald Coast Convention Center, located on Okaloosa Island.

The convention center’s 21,000-square-foot ballroom and exhibit hall can be divided numerous ways. Three other rooms, ranging in size from 900 to 1,575 square feet, are also flexible. Pre-function space and patios just received bright new furniture, and the center has also recently added free wireless Internet access throughout the property.

“We have a construction project in the future,” Maraj said. “So stay tuned.”

Hotels near the convention center include the Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, with 14,000 square feet of meeting space, and the recently renovated Four Points by Sheraton, with 3,600 square feet of meeting space.

The Holiday Inn Resort in Fort Walton this year also renovated its 195 guestrooms, and about 80 percent of them front the beach. The property has 3,500 square feet of meeting space.

For offsite receptions and meetings, the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton is a short walk from the convention center. Opened in 1955, the Gulfarium closed for a few months this year for significant renovations. Now open, the aquarium’s interactive programs allow visitors to get close to the fish and other creatures. The 1,900-square-foot Living Sea event space has eight-foot-high glass walls that display tropical fish.

Planners seeking offsite excursions should look to Destin Harbor, home to Florida’s largest fishing fleet. For dramatic effect, the new Buccaneer Pirate Cruise is a private pirate-theme party for up to 149 guests on a 100-foot, double-deck boat. It is a notch above the usual fishing- vessels-turned tour boats. “It’s gorgeous,” said Sherry Rushing, travel industry sales director for the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Rushing also recommends the shops, restaurants and water sports businesses at HarborWalk Village on Destin Harbor. Local artists are often on hand, displaying their work. Destin Harbour is also the home of the Emerald Grande, a condo-hotel whose 5,000-square-foot Captain’s Deck can accommodate 450 people for  cocktails. The Grande also has a 1,950-square-foot conference and banquet hall.

Between receptions, meetings and activities, allow guests time to learn why the Emerald Coast is so aptly named. “Our guests are truly amazed by our sugar-white sand and emerald green water,” Maraj said.