Tisha Maraj still remembers the first time she saw the beaches along Florida’s northwest Gulf Coast.
“The first time I saw the beaches, I was so dumbstruck,” she said. “I grew up in New Jersey going to the Jersey shore.”
The distinctive soft, white sand is the result a natural phenomenon concentrated in a stretch along Florida’s northwest panhandle and Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
“It’s actually 93.8 percent quartz crystal washing down from the Appalachian Mountains,” said Maraj, sales and marketing manager for the Emerald Coast Convention Center in Fort Walton Beach. “It’s a process that started millions of years ago and is still going on. Our beaches are actually growing; quartz being washed down, polished and shaped is still going on, and they are deposited here on this small spot on the map.”
Like its beachfront, opportunities for meetings have also been growing along this 50-mile stretch of Okaloosa and Walton counties between Pensacola and Panama City.
From resorts to villages
Meeting planners can opt for a convention center, a full-service resort, a beachfront hotel or a seaside village of colorful beach cottages.
No matter the choice, two constants on the northwest Florida Gulf Coast are white sand and stunning waters described as turquoise or emerald green, depending on who is doing the describing.
On a late-October journalist familiarization trip hosted by the South Walton Tourist Development Council, I sampled the coast’s options.
I arrived at the Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Walton Beach, whose attractive and spacious terminal opened in late 2004.
The region is also served by the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City, which opened in May 2010, the first new international airport to be built in the United States in more than a decade. Most meeting sites are within a half-hour of one of the airports.
Before joining the fam, I stopped in Okaloosa County to tour the Emerald Coast Convention Center, the region’s only free-standing, full-service convention center. It is located on Highway 98, the region’s main highway.
“The gulf is right across the street,” said Stephanie Milano, events coordinator at the convention center.
The center’s 35,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space includes a 21,000-square-foot free-expanse multifunction room and more than 6,000 square feet of prefunction space. Aramark is the in-house caterer.
“We are rather small comparatively, but we have had shows of all kinds,” said Milano. “We once had cats and birds at the same time.”
“We have a lot of military association conventions,” said Maraj. “There is a lot of military surrounding us. We also have business-to-business trade shows; a lot of banquets, reunions and corporate; and a lot of sports events such as cheer and dance competitions.”
Business at the center is brisk, with events scheduled most days. Among its largest events is a local sports association’s annual banquet for 1,300.
“That is our largest banquet. We max the place out,” said Maraj. “One of the things that is unique about our area is a lot of professional sports people grew up here between Pensacola and Panama City. ”