Meeting planners, travel groups and tourists of all kinds have a wide variety of Florida destinations to consider when seeking a place for fun or to get important work done. Millions of people prefer a slower-paced, less-congested part of the state. For that, they head to northwest Florida.
“You’re in the Florida Panhandle, what’s called the Emerald Coast, with hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches,” said David Griffin, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort. Griffin is as much a “chamber of commerce ambassador” as he is a hotel executive. His enthusiasm for this sliver of the Gulf of Mexico coastline is quite apparent.
“The clear blue water and the white beaches will attract you first,” he said. “If you’re coming down from the North, we have the nearest beaches in Florida. It’s an easy drive here from anywhere in Florida and also from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana.”
Or you can fly. Northwest Beaches International Airport is just 18 miles from Panama City Beach. Many of the airline arrivals come from Atlanta, the nation’s busiest airport. The flight from there to the Florida Panhandle is just 40 minutes. There are numerous other nonstop flights from around the country.
The Panhandle enjoys an average of 320 days of sunshine per year. And its pace of life stands out for many visitors.
“This is a totally different Florida experience,” said Renee Wuerdeman, vice president of sales for Visit Panama City Beach, the local convention and visitors bureau.
“We have a quiet, cool, old Florida vibe, and you’ll have an experience that you won’t get in a bigger Florida city,” she said. “We are not a glitzy Florida location that competes with Orlando, Miami or the other Atlantic locations because we are so different.”
Meeting planners and hospitality industry professionals can experience Panama City Beach for themselves when they attend the Small Market Meetings Summit, which will take place there May 13-14.
On the Rebound
A tragic and frightening week that locals will never forget came in October 2018 when Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 monster, whipped ashore on the Florida Panhandle. Both Panama City and Panama City Beach felt the wrath of the storm.
“Panama City was ravaged and nearby Mexico Beach is basically gone,” the CVB’s Wuerdeman said.
Many people who have not lived through a hurricane may not realize that it usually takes well over a year to get communities back to some semblance of order. Determination, careful planning, hard work and a measure of luck played key roles in this particular recovery.
“For us, the east end of Panama City Beach was hit pretty hard, but now our buildings are back online,” Wuerdeman said. “We were up and running three to four months after the hurricane. The silver lining in a disaster is that what was old and needed to be replaced anyway now has been. There’s fresh construction going on everywhere, and new businesses, like restaurants, hotels and resorts, are coming in.”
An out-of-town visitor casually driving around Panama City Beach would perhaps notice little remaining serious storm damage. As before the storm, visitors can still enjoy a treasure chest of activities to keep them busy.
Beds and Meeting Spaces
Panama City Beach and surrounding Bay County have more than 18,000 guest rooms ranging from hotels, resorts and villas to condos, townhomes and bed-and-breakfast spots. They can be rented for a single night or for an extended stay. They cater to everyone, including meeting groups, families, couples, reunion attendees and travelers just passing through. Prices range from budget conscious to money-is-no-object.
Griffin’s Sheraton resort property was one of several Panama City Beach sites that were damaged along the waterfront. The resort had been renovated not long before Hurricane Michael arrived. Now the resort is rebuilt — again — and better than ever.
“We get quite a few SMERF [social, military, educational, religious, fraternal] groups here,” said Griffin. “Florida is somewhat of a military state, so we host many meetings associated with the government. Our state and national association markets are large, too.”
The Sheraton property, a AAA Four Diamond resort with 320 guest rooms, has 60,000 square feet of flexible meeting space indoors and attractive and large patio and lawn spaces outside as well. “We have just what the planner needs, which is a place for the general sessions, facilities to feed everyone and an exhibit area,” he said. “We are very affordable compared to resort areas in other parts of the country.”
Some other notable major meeting facilities in Panama City Beach are the Boardwalk Beach Resort and Convention Center, Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort, and Laketown Wharf. If planners want to combine great spaces with quick access to the water, they might consider booking one of six retreat spaces that are either on the beach or right across the street from it. Several other meeting spaces with Gulf views are a cut above the usual chain hotels, among them the Hampton Inn Beachfront, the Holiday Inn Resort and Springhill Suites.
“After a long day of meetings, what we can do is take you to a place where you can have a great time with music and dancing,” said the CVB’s Wuerdeman. “Then you take your shoes off, walk a few steps away and enjoy a bonfire on the beach. A lot of groups send their people off that way on the last night of a conference. That’s who we are — very casual and affordable.”
Water Equals Fun
With the Gulf of Mexico as its front porch, Panama City Beach is the site of many water-related sports and activities. There’s a huge fishing community there. The area is home to an acclaimed nationally syndicated fishing and coastal lifestyle show on the Discovery Channel called “Chasin’ the Sun.” The show’s hosts load up their boat with fishing enthusiasts and take them offshore, up the creeks, under bridges off the pier, practically anywhere fish are biting around Panama City Beach. Captain Justin Leake is one of the guides.
“There is a never-ending supply of fishing activities here year-round,” said Leake. “We do a lot of natural reef, coastal and migration fishing and also do blue-water fishing starting at 50 miles offshore. I’d say we’re the red snapper capital of the world.”
Much of what is caught in these waters is cooked in restaurants in Panama City Beach, part of an area known as the Seafood Capital of the South.
Wreck diving, snorkeling, sailing, wind surfing, jet skiing, parasailing and sightseeing cruises are other ways visitors enjoy the beautiful waters of the Gulf.
Though it was known for some time as a hard-partying spring break destination, Panama City Beach has taken the steam out of that trend.
“We decided that that is really not who we are,” said Wuerdeman. “So we moved them [visiting students] out of the area, changed our image and various liquor laws, and marketed to the families that had left. Within two years of spring break leaving, we basically had our family base back.”
Pier Park is a remarkable 1.1 million-square-foot, open-air complex that features 124 top retail stores, wonderful restaurants and tourist attractions such as an Imax theater. The center also presents live music and year-round festivals.
Family entertainment is easy to find nearby, with amusements like Wonderworks, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, ZooWorld Zoological and Botanical Park, Gulf World Marine Park, Shipwreck Island Waterpark, Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, Pier Park Amusement Rides and Museum of Man in the Sea, to name a handful.
There are several fine golf courses operating in the area, including the only Jack Nicholas-designed course in northwest Florida.
Many choose to fish, camp or hike in natural preserves such as St. Andrews State Park, which boasts 1,200 beautiful acres, two and a half miles of beaches and two fishing piers. Many watersports are available, and people also see wildlife, enjoy picnics and snack at the concession stands.
Camp Helen State Park on the western edge of Panama City Beach is an ecological wonder. It is bordered on three sides by water. Lake Powell forms one of the park’s borders and is a rare coastal dune lake. There are very few of them in the world.
“Everything we do here in Panama City Beach revolves around the water,” said the CVB’s Wuerdeman. “We’re laid-back. You’re going to get a very serene experience while you’re here, unless you also like a very lively experience — then we have that, too.”