Southwest Florida is the softer side of Florida. Its treasures are subtle, like a sunset cruise or a kayak paddle on the Intracoastal Waterway, gliding past mangrove-filled islands populated only by egrets and herons and nesting ospreys.
Called the Paradise Coast, the area consists of the town of Naples, Marco Island and the western part of the Everglades, including the picturesque old fishing town of Everglades City.
With 8,000 hotel rooms and a half-million square feet of meeting space, it is an area that naturally attracts small meetings, particularly those of the corporate and association markets.
For example, last year, the Shamrock Corp., a producer of gift-wrap items, had its annual sales meeting at the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club.
“We’ve been having our national sales meetings there for 15 years,” said Brian Williams, national sales manager. “After you go to Naples once, you wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.”
“The association market has been a source of strength for us during the recession,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB. “And now the corporate meetings market is starting to come back as well.”
Although new hotels have been limited to a few limited-service properties, the hotels and resorts continue to add amenities and make improvements.
Perhaps the biggest new splash is a $5 million complex of four pools — two beachside, one for fun and one for peace and quiet — at the 318-room Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club. The addition means more outdoor and sunset event spaces at the area’s first major resort.
At the beachside Ritz-Carlton Naples, there’s new fun indoors in an entertainment lounge outfitted with interactive virtual-reality games played on consoles connected to 40-inch televisions.
The Ritz and the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort nearby give Naples the distinction of being the only place in the world with two Ritz-Carltons: the beachside 450-room Ritz-Carlton Naples, with 42,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 295-room Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, with 17,000 square feet of meeting space.
The area’s largest meeting center is the 727-room Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club and Spa, with 80,000 square feet of meeting space.
On the smaller side are properties like the Inn on Fifth, amidst the swank shops and restaurants of Fifth Avenue South in Naples, and the Bellasera Hotel, recently named among the “Top 10 Hidden Gems in the U.S.” by TripAdvisor.com.
The Bellasera recently added a spa, as did the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort.
The Naples Grande Beach Resort, formerly the Registry Resort and Club, is now a member of the Hilton family and the Waldorf Astoria Collection. It brings the first Golden Door Spa to the eastern United States, and its sister property, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, offers reciprocal privileges and helps accommodate large groups.
In the Naples area, the outdoors is always in, and there are numerous ways to get meeting groups outside.
A new company, Swamp Explorers, offers Everglades swamp walks, kayaking, dry hikes and photo safaris.
Adventure Training Concepts is an adventure-based team training facility that uses U.S. Army strategies to train and build teams. Its Indiana Jones and Survivor theme events are growing in popularity.
The water also plays into meeting agendas. In addition to boat tours and kayak trips, even getting around town can be a water sport thanks to the Naples Bay Water Shuttle service. It transports visitors between the city’s main waterfront locations, operating on Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the summer months, with expanded days and times in the fall.
So far, the Naples area has been free of direct impact from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many hoteliers are offering clean-beach guarantees to reassure travelers.
“Since NOAA has announced that our part of Southwest Florida has less than a 1 percent chance of receiving any direct impacts from the oil, many of our area hotels and resorts are eager to offer that reassurance to guests in the form of clean-beach guarantees, which we have compiled and displayed on our new Paradise Promise webpage,” said Wert. — Steve Winston