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South Seas adjusts its sails

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
–William Arthur Ward

After being nearly obliterated by a hell raiser named Hurricane Charley in 2004, South Seas Island Resort has taken the realist’s approach, charting a new course and casting a wider net to lure more meetings to its idyllic 330 acres at the northern tip of Florida’s Captiva Island.

The Gulf Coast resort, developed in the 1980s on a barrier island off Fort Myers, has new skippers: the Blackstone Group, owner of Hilton Hotels and LXR Luxury Resorts and Hotels, of which South Seas is now a part.

Blackstone bought South Seas in early 2006 in the middle of a major rebuilding begun by previous owner Meristar Hospitality Corp. More than $140 million has been spent to not only put the resort back together but also update accommodations and amenities that were a tad timeworn. The resort fully reopened in 2007 after a soft opening in 2006.

Landscaping restores lush look

The resort’s rebound might be most evident in more than $1 million worth of landscaping. The valiant effort to restore the island’s leafy greenness — more than half of the resort is a protected nature preserve — helps appease the returning guest who remembers the nearly two-mile allee of mangroves that formed a canopy over the road into South Seas.

Improvements to 470 accommodations — a mix of hotel rooms, condos, villas and homes — and 41,000 square feet of indoor meeting space haven’t completely altered South Seas’

Among the improvements made to the resort is a lagoon-style pool area.

comfortable feel.

“We didn’t want to go in and throw marble everywhere,” said Rick Hayduk, the resort’s managing director. Enough polish was added to impress reliable fans and to rid the resort of some dated decor and several 1980s rectangular pools. “All of the amenities needed updating,” said Hayduk.

Fans applaud resort before and after storm

Before the hurricane and after, Jennifer Ahearn has been enamored of the resort. Not only has she planned meetings at South Seas for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, she’s vacationed there.

“I have done a lot of meetings all over the place, and I think it’s the most beautiful place you could go,” she said. “The biggest change I notice is that before the hurricane, it was very quaint, very beachy, but afterward, it has become a lot more upscale.”

The resort’s natural setting has always outshined its man-made elements, but upgrades have brought condos, hotel rooms, restaurants and other features up a notch.

“The original developers developed a five-diamond location with a three-diamond resort,” said Hayduk. “While the resort is not a five, it is now definitely a four.”

The improvements have made guests realize that ugly storms can have an upside. More than one guest has told Hayduk, “In a way, Charley was a good thing.”

South Seas’ horizontal layout makes it feel more like two small villages than a single resort. It stretches 2.5 miles at the tip of 6-mile-long Captiva. Its private beach runs the resort’s length.

Meeting spaces, shopping, dining, recreation and many accommodations are concentrated in two areas: North Pointe, at the island’s northern tip, and South Village, at the midpoint.

North Pointe gets Bob March’s vote for most improved with its new lagoon-style pool complex overlooking Pine I

A new candy and ice cream shop called Scoops and Slices is a nod to the many youngsters who vacation at South Seas or tag along to meetings with their parents.

sland Sound, a former restaurant revised as meeting space, new restaurants, and 100 refurbished and restyled hotel rooms.

“The north end is fabulous,” said March, who planned an incentive trip for 90 people at the resort for NorthStar Memorial Group of Houston and is planning a 20-person meeting for the company there in July.

He isn’t at all interested in the South Village, where most of the resort’s conference space is located, including its conference center, deeming it too far from the more beautiful and desirable north end.

South Seas does operate a trolley to connect the two areas, but as Ahearn pointed out, meeting planners should be aware that their attendees should be capable of and comfortable with doing some walking to get to and from their meetings.

A quick look at South Seas Island Resort

South Seas Island Resort
5400 Plantation Road
Captiva Island, FL 33924
(800) 237-6000

What’s new: The resort reopened in 2006, two years after it was severely damaged by Hurricane Charley. While it was undergoing repairs, South Seas was purchased by Blackstone Real Estate, which invested more than $140 million in improvements. Plans for a freestanding spa and an 80-room hotel have been approved but are on hold until the economy improves.

Rooms: The resort’s 470 “keys” include privately owned condominiums and villas and 100 hotel rooms.

Meeting space: About 40,000 square feet of indoor meeting space as well as 100,000 square feet of outdoor event areas. The ideal meeting size is 40 to 110 rooms, although the resort can handle meetings that are a bit larger.

Location: The resort is on the northern tip of Captiva Island, a barrier island connected to the more populated Sanibel Island. Both islands are off Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The resort is 35 miles from South West Florida International Airport, 32 miles from Fort Myers, 165 miles south of Tampa and 235 miles southwest of Orlando. Because of traffic and two-lane roads through the islands, the trip from the airport is about an hour.

Amenities: Restaurants include a Caribbean grill, a barbecue restaurant and an upscale restaurant; a wine bar; Starbucks cafe; an ice cream and pizza shop; retail shops including clothing stores, a gourmet shop and deli, and an art gallery; 19 tennis courts; a nine-hole golf course along the Gulf; a day spa; 11 pools, including a lagoon pool and a children’s pool with water slides; water sports; fishing and fishing charters; a sailing school; trolley service around the resort; and 2.5 miles of private beach.

Events are held outdoors at every opportunity.

Stepping up its pursuit of meetings

Under its new ownership, South Seas has stepped up its pursuit of meetings in several ways, including turning several existing venues into meeting spaces.

For example, North Pointe’s former fine-dining restaurant is now an event space. The 2,800-square-foot King’s Crown dining room and adjacent lounge is next to the 8,000-square-foot King’s Crown lawn, which makes it “phenomenal” for events, said Hayduk. “You can go through the French doors to a covered deck to the lawn that overlooks Pine Island Sound.”

Two other main meeting spaces at North Pointe are the 1,584-square-foot Sextant and Spinnacher rooms, in adjacent buildings near the Harborside Bar and Grille and next to the resort’s 100 hotel rooms. The Sextant room has a
sizable deck.

In the South Village, where the resort’s conference center is located, another restaurant has been converted into meeting space, and a former clothing shop in Chadwick’s Square, a retail center, has become an art gallery that is often used for coffee breaks and receptions. Guests can view works by artists from Captiva and Sanibel islands as they spill out into a courtyard where hibiscus, Royal Point sienna and night-blooming jasmine grow.

A new restaurant, Holy Smokes Barbecue, allows meeting planners to dispense with planned lunches and send their groups out for lunch on their own.

The conference center’s largest space is the 5,000-square-foot Captiva Ballroom and its 3,500-square-foot foyer. Other meeting spaces include the 3,150-square-foot Sea Pearl room, the 3,000-square-foot Auger room and several smaller rooms. Many can be divided.

The resort’s beefed-up sales team — two new positions have been added — is also altering its approach.

“At first, we were casting the traditional net, going at it the traditional gorilla-method way,” said Hayduk. “Now, we turn down as many RFPs as we bid on.”

Rejecting requests for proposals is the result of the South Seas team’s realization that the resort is not a good fit for all meetings.

“We do well with the planner who is looking for a unique destination, who perhaps has gone to Mexico or the Caribbean in the past and is looking for something over and above a full day of meetings,” said Hayduk.

Staying indoors is not the norm

South Seas’ setting would make it almost criminal to spend an entire day in a meeting room, something few groups do when they go there. Because activities are so much a part of the business mix there, the staff is attuned to adding activities to agendas.

March experienced the resort staff’s knack for quick action during his incentive program.

Regulars say South Sea’s secluded setting and views of the Gulf make it seem more like an island in the Caribbean than an island off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Within 18 hours, the staff helped him put together a renewal of wedding vows for one couple; within a day, the staff and March planned an impromptu Kentucky Derby party.

“I was just looking for a couple of ways to add more to my event,” said March.

His group also got to enjoy the Gulf on a sunset cruise and on a team-building sailboat adventure organized by the Colgate Offshore Sailing School, which is a based at South Seas. A golf outing on the resort’s completely restored nine-hole executive course was on the agenda for the July meeting.

A series of guest recreation programs that focus on art, fishing, cooking and nature can be adapted for groups. “We can set up a fishing tournament, and even those who can’t fish, we’ll have them fishing within five minutes,” said Hayduk.

The established programs are also good options for family members, who tend to accompany meeting attendees to South Seas. “We just had a real estate group in, and about 40 percent of the attendees took their children out of school to come along on the conference,” said Hayduk. In the summer, Hayduk has seen 100 percent of attendees bring family along.

Ahearn looks forward to her next visit to South Seas; a painting of South Seas’ harbor that hangs in her office reminds her of what awaits. And she knows she is not alone in her desire to return.

“We do have a following that absolutely loves that resort,” she said. “The benefit to us is the attendance we get for the conference.”