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Sarasota shows her many shades

Sarasota, Fla., is awash in color. Azure water laps onto snow-white sand, orchids and bromeliads bloom high in trees, and quite unexpectedly, a purple performing arts center juts up from the shoreline.

Even iconic hobo clown Weary Willie’s huge red nose, made famous by Emmett Kelly who performed and wintered in Sarasota with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, pales in comparison.

A quick look at Sarasota

Sarasota and Her Islands Convention
and Visitors Bureau
766 Hudson Ave.
Sarasota, FL 34236
(941) 955-0991

What’s new: Last year was a big year for Sarasota’s meeting and event facilities: The Hyatt Regency Sarasota completed a $22 million renovation, the seven-year-old Ritz Carlton made Condé Nast Traveler’s 2008 list of the World’s Best Places to Stay, and the Sarasota Opera House completed a $20 million restoration. Longboat Key Club and Resort completed a $6.5 million renovation in 2008 as well and opened its Tennis Garden. The resort also announced plans for a $400 million expansion over the next several years. Siesta Beach placed second on Dr. Beach’s 2009 list of the country’s 10 best beaches.

Rooms: Sarasota and its islands have 15,000 guest rooms, 3,800 of them in 29 properties with meeting space.

Getting There: Sarasota is on the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida between Tampa to the north and Fort Myers to the south. Sarasota Bradenton International Airport is three miles from downtown, and the Tampa International Airport is 51 miles to the north. Cab service is available from both airports. Major access roads are Interstate 75 and U.S. Highway 41.

Sarasota’s meeting venues are just as colorful, ranging from resorts on barrier islands to upscale hotels in the heart of this small arts-infused city of 53,000.

Memorable places for off-site events dot the town that fronts on Sarasota Bay and its barrier islands, called keys, on the Gulf of Mexico. They include a botanical garden on the bay, a historic opera house, an aquarium and the renowned Ringling complex. (See lower left sidebar)

Even team building takes advantage of this west central Florida city’s location. Corporate Teams, a company that specializes in action-based experiential team building, offers a Ringling Circus Adventure, a Mangrove Mystery Kayak Challenge and a Sarasota Sneak, where teams race through the town (on foot or on bike) in search of the history that brought this city to life.

Although Florida has taken some hard economic knocks in the last few years, hotels have upgraded and are offering value packages to attract meeting business.

Hyatt Regency Sarasota

The largest is the 294-room Hyatt Regency Sarasota, where 20,000 square feet of function space includes a 10,000-square-foot ballroom with natural light, a boardroom for 26 and 3,000 square feet of prefunction space. The hotel received AAA’s Four Diamond award this fall.

Built in 1976, the hotel was gutted in 2008, part of a $22 million renovation that also upgraded bathrooms and added flat-screen televisions, new floors, carpeting and an infusion of color.

Inspired by Lily Pulitzer, the green, hot pink and white color scheme is unusual for a hotel but works well in this city. In addition to its bright decor, the hotel has some colorful venues for receptions and banquets.
“We can do cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for 15 on a boat,” said Melinda Garcia, meeting connections manager, “or meals in a nearby boathouse” with three sides to the water.

Another venue has windows to a garden and doors to a terrace for an outdoor reception and dinner for 60.

It is adjacent to Sarasota’s Municipal Auditorium with 10,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 1,500-square-foot stage.

G.WIZ and the Purple Cow

The Hyatt is a stone’s throw from Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, known here affectionately as the Purple Cow. The Van Wezel was designed by William Wesley Peters, a Taliesin architect who collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on projects like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. Wright’s wife picked the center’s color to match a seashell; it’s on display inside.

The 40-year-old hall, renovated in 2001, has 1,700 seats and a full schedule of theater, comedy and jazz performances.

It is also home to the Sarasota Orchestra. The 6,000-square-foot Grand Foyer is often used for receptions and dinners; when combined with an adjacent terrace and lawn, it can accommodate up to 1,500.

Nearby  is G.WIZ, a science and industry museum for children and grownups with several classrooms and an auditorium available for meetings.
“We do quite a few scientific meetings here,” said Molly Demeulenaere, director of marketing. The museum’s atrium can be set up for receptions or dinners. Later, guests can play.

Ritz-Carlton Sarasota

Also close to city center is the elegant Ritz-Carlton Sarasota with 18,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor conference and banquet facilities, including a 12,000-square-foot ballroom.

Opened seven years ago, the hotel has 266 guest rooms on its first eight floors. Above that are nine floors of residences that sell for $2 million to $18 million.

Rooms have private balconies, Egyptian linens and feather duvets, marble baths and high-speed Internet access. The hotel has earned Four Stars from Mobil and Five Diamonds from AAA and has appeared on Condé Nast Traveler’s list of the World’s Best Places to Stay in 2008.

“We are a city hotel with resort components,” said Suzanne Willis, director of public relations.

The trick at the Ritz is that those resort components — Lido Beach and the property’s Audubon-sanctioned golf course — are 16 miles away. Shuttles transport hotel guests to and fro. There are also three lighted tennis courts, a fitness center and an outdoor pool at the hotel.

Living up to its tony reputation, the hotel has amenities that include afternoon tea with a harpist and a 15,000-square-foot spa for men, women and pets. (Yes, it is pet-friendly hotel with special massages for pooches.)

Ringling museum complex is the greatest show in Sarasota

John and Mable Ringling picked a striking location on Sarasota Bay for their equally striking Venetian Gothic palace, Ca d’Zan.  The roomy terrace that overlooks the bay can accomodate groups of 250.


Sarasota’s John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art complex is the greatest show in town.

The 66-acre estate of circus magnate John Ringling, now owned by Florida State University, has risen from the ashes since the Ringling renaissance began there in 2000. The estate on Sarasota Bay is now a must-see and a site for memorable events.

Self-taught and well traveled, Ringling collected art by Rubens, Velazquez and Poussin and antiquities from Cyprus. The three wings of his museum flank a magnificent courtyard, massive enough for a 1,000-person event.

Stone stairways descend from a wraparound piazza to the courtyard’s lawn, where two fountains and casts of antiquities, including Michelangelo’s David and other replicas of Renaissance sculpture, will lead guests to think of Greece and Rome.

When Ringling moved the winter quarters of his Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus to Sarasota in 1926, he built himself a $1.5 million Venetian Gothic palace on the bay with 32 rooms and 15 bathrooms.

Ca d’Zan (the house of John) reopened to the public in 2002 after a $16 million renovation, and it is quite simply over the top.

A Della Robbia wreath hangs over the fireplace. Chairs are of tapestry, glass ducks are from Tiffany, and Willie Pogany’s dancers of nations cavort across the ballroom ceiling.

Although the mansion is not available for events, its expansive front terrace (where Ringling’s wife, Mable, used to tie her gondola) is. Events for up to 250 can include a mansion tour.

For a special, intimate private dinner (no more than seven people), rent the mansion’s 61-foot belvedere with its open-air landing and high domed ceiling.

Although the circus was sold in 1967, its heritage reposes in a circus museum with old wagons, Ringling’s private rail car and Weary Willie’s costume.

A 3,800-square-foot miniature circus built by a Knoxville man, with its eight tents, 1,300 performers and 800 animals, follows the circus’ arrival, setup and departure in an American town.

The museum’s Asolo Theater, built in 1798 for Queen Caterina Cornaro in Asolo, Italy, looks like a jewel box. It was moved to Sarasota in the 1950s and became the birthplace for the arts in west central Florida. It was incorporated into the Visitor Center that opened in 2006 and has a full schedule of performances.

The John and Mable
Ringling Museum of Art
(941) 359-5700

When groups book 10 or more rooms, Ritz-Carlton will donate 10 percent of the room revenue to the group’s favorite charity. It’s part of the company’s “meaningful meetings” program that began in 2007. For team building, groups can elect to build tricycles for underprivileged children or take on other community service projects.

Opera and orchids

Equally elegant for an off-site event is the Sarasota Opera House, built for vaudeville in 1926 and resplendent after a $20 million renovation completed last year.
The interior is restored in glowing sienna and gold, the original paint colors. Even the shell-shaped end caps on the seat rows were fashioned by the original company, which is still in business, from the original pattern.

“We are a destination opera,” said Richard Russell, who sang here for four seasons and is now director of marketing. “During our main season in February and March we do four operas at the same time in repertory. There are certain weekends where you can come and see all four.”

At other times of year, you can rent the 1,120-seat theater or book its courtyard for dinners and receptions for up to 700 people. There is also a meeting room for 100.

Orchids and other epiphytes  — plants that grow on other plants — are a specialty at the 13-acre Selby Botanical Gardens. So are outdoor events for up to 400 under enormous banyan trees overlooking Sarasota Bay.

“We can do about anything with these spaces,” said Dan Johnson, the events coordinator, “including Air Stars, light balloons filled with helium so they float around like guaranteed full moons casting light on an event.”

Also overlooking the bay is a great room with audio-visual equipment, wireless Internet access and a patio for meetings of up to 40 people, and the gracious Christy Payne Mansion for small board retreats or receptions for up to 70.

West of the city, a causeway cuts across the bay to three barrier islands with beaches, resorts and upscale shops that add to Sarasota’s allure.

The first crossing was built in 1927 by circus magnate John Ringling, who planned to develop the islands. His elephants helped build the bridge.

Longboat Key Club Resort and Spa

Twelve-mile-long Longboat Key is home to the Longboat Key Club Resort and Spa, whose theme is “All Here. All Yours.”

Although the resort measures up in terms of golf and dining with 45 holes and six restaurants, its meeting space is rather limited; however, the 218-suite resort hopes to expand that to 17,000 square feet over the next several years as part of a $400 million expansion.

The current maximum meeting size is 150 in the 3,000-square-foot Ringling ballroom, which can be divided into two sections. There’s also a small library, several large suites and a few other rooms suitable for small meetings.

Three miles away, the resort’s Harbor Side dining room, with an outside covered patio, can accommodate 250 for a banquet.

Mindy Boggs, executive director of the Florida Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, recently held a banquet for 200 there as part of her annual convention.

“It’s a beautiful venue,” she said, “and because it’s away from the hotel, it’s very private.”

The 27-year-old resort, which has earned the AAA Four-Diamond rating for 26 years, keeps its quarters in tiptop condition. A total renovation was wrapped up 18 months ago at a cost of $6.5 million.

Randy Bakel, executive director of the Florida Construction Users Roundtable, has held his annual meeting and golf scholarship fundraiser there for the past three years.

“It is unusual to find a resort of this caliber with 18-hole golf courses. It’s convenient, and there is an assistant golf pro who is terrific at organizing events,” he said. 

 A new professional-quality Tennis Garden, used for the first time in May for the Sarasota Open, has 20 Har-tru courts, five of them lighted. It also has a meeting room for 20 and a restaurant and patio that are available for private events in the evening.

Aware that the name “resort” can raise red flags for corporations, the staff focuses on value.

“We have adjusted our rates and do more with packages that include breakfast and lunch. We’ll create a menu for any budget,” said Rhonda Holliday, director of resort sales.

Swim with the big fish

Out on the islands, sharks swim silently in a tank near an events terrace at the Mote Aquarium.

The terrace is one of several venues there. Another meeting room overlooks a pool where two rescued dolphins, Moonshine and Harley, spin and frolic. Nearby, a sea turtle named Hang Tough gingerly explores his newly enlarged tank. He was rescued after being blinded by a fish hook and a boat strike.

Jill Copeland, executive director of the nonprofit organization START (Solutions to Avoid Red Tide), holds an annual Ocean Fest for 300 people at the aquarium with food and music by steel drums and strings.

Lido Beach Resort

Location is key for this popular beach resort on Lido Key. It’s a mile from St. Armand’s Circle and its upscale shops and restaurants, and Siesta Key, with the world’s best sand — it’s soft, fine, white and doesn’t get hot.

The resort specializes in meetings of 80 to 200 in 6,000 square feet of meeting space that was added to the 35-year-old hotel in a new tower five years ago. A 3,000-square-foot ballroom can be divided into three or six smaller rooms; the 1,700-square-foot Sunset Terrace room overlooks the beach.

Meeting space is clustered on the eighth floor of the tower, along with banquet space and a two-tier restaurant that groups can use.

Although meetings are a fairly new focus for this resort, “in the last three years, we’ve gotten very business-oriented,” said Karen Rangel, director of sales.

But that doesn’t mean all work and no play. During downtime, there’s kayaking in the mangroves, boat excursions, trolley hops into Sarasota and receptions on the pool deck.

Team Sand-tastic can lead a sand-sculpture clinic or build a company’s logo in the sand.

Siesta Beach, 10 minutes away, ranks No. 2 in Dr. Beach’s 2009 list of the Top 10 Beaches in America. Like the rest of Sarasota, it’s awash in color — the color of snow.