State of Creativity

By: Jeff Waddle

From state-of-the-art museums to lush gardens to historic missions, Florida has a wealth of options for meeting planners who want to showcase the Sunshine State’s abundant cultural offerings.

There's no doubt that Florida has some of the most spectacular hotels and resorts you'll find anywhere. Many feature elegant event space overlooking sunny beaches or championship golf courses, and they're often conveniently located near famous attractions like Walt Disney World or Busch Gardens.

But Florida is more than beachside luxury and beautiful weather. It has a long, colorful history and claims world-class cultural facilities and some of the nation's finest museums. And many of these institutions make great venues for events that offer experiences outside the hotel ballroom.

"We were blessed with the natural resources of surf, sand, blue skies, palm trees, and water, and everyone expects you to do something 'beachy,'" says Barry Moskowitz, senior vice president for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). "But we also want you to do something different because we have this great arts and culture scene that's diverse and eclectic."

A Symphonic Event

Moskowitz suggests two new performing arts centers in downtown Miami: the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the New World Symphony. The Arsht Center can host events for up to 6,000 people in a variety of spaces that include multiple theaters, private salons, rehearsal rooms, outdoor plazas, a large, stylish lounge, and a full-service, upscale restaurant. The orchestra level of Knight Concert Hall can be transformed into a grand ballroom that seats 850. The GMCVB itself used the facility when it wanted to showcase the city to two important groups, the Nursing Organizations Alliance and the Travel Industry Association, which came for its International Pow Wow event, attracting travel agents from around the world.

"We hosted a major reception for TIA at the Arsht Performing Arts Center using the concert and ballet halls and the outdoor plaza in between the two halls. We had all sorts of arts and culture types of entertainers throughout the evening," says Moskowitz. "The outdoor plaza is under stars and lushly landscaped, and we had acrobats going up and down the walls."

Moskowitz says groups are discovering that the New World Symphony's new facility, which opened last year, is another attractive location for events. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the facility features a large multipurpose room, a performance theater, dozens of smaller rehearsal rooms, and a rooftop reception area overlooking the ocean.

Moskowitz says the most impressive aspect of the venue is its soaring 7,000-square-foot outdoor wall, where indoor performances or other video presentations can be screened for the adjacent 2.5-acre SoundScape Park green space.

"What makes this place unique is that the façade is all glass, so you can be outside and see what's going on inside. And, at one portion of the venue, you have this huge, stark white wall where you can project anything out to this beautiful grassy area, from concerts to movies to presentations," he says.

Garden Party

A brief drive north on Interstate 95 is Fort Lauderdale, where the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens offers a glimpse of Florida's past. Built in 1920 by American artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, the 35-acre estate was one of the first homes in Fort Lauderdale to be built on the beach and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The estate, which includes an art gallery and one of the largest orchid collections in the Southeast, stretches from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean. It has several quaint spaces for events for up to 400 people, including its courtyard, hibiscus garden, and veranda.

The entire estate is available for rental. "Since the property is rented on an exclusive basis, guests feel as if they have arrived into a secret garden away from the busy city just outside the gates," says Nicholle Maudlin, the Bonnet House's events manager.

"The Bonnet House is a lush, intimate setting with historic character that is unrivaled by resort or hotel venues," says Jeff Souva, national events director for Lambda Legal, a national, nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization that has held an annual event for 400 at the estate since 2006. "It offers a more relaxed and personal feeling to guests than a manufactured or commercial resort venue."

Souva recommends that groups considering museums for their events be upfront with the venue about their needs and expectations and take time before booking to understand any specific regulations or rules that may be unique to the institution. Maudlin agrees, explaining that the Bonnet House may not be appropriate for some children's events due to the number of rare collectibles on display at the property.

Another museum with plenty of historic charm is the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Opened in 1961 on the grounds of the former residence of Arthur and Ninah Cummer, the museum showcases over 6,000 pieces of art, including a large collection of Meissen porcelain. The museum and grounds overlook the St. Johns River and are available for events for up to 350 people.

Cara Bower, the Cummer's director of events and programs, suggests that groups consider allowing the museum staff to create an arts program to complement their event. Staff can help provide docent-led tours, art classes, or music in the historic gardens, which date back to 1903. "Guests can enjoy the galleries, the gardens, and our interactive art experience, Art Connections, during any event," says Bower. Art Connections features hands-on, interactive exhibits that make it possible to walk through a painting, paint with a virtual paintbrush, make a collage, or listen to a sculpture.

Pam Paul, vice president of programming and strategic partnerships for the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, has hosted several events at the Cummer to promote a program and exhibit highlighting the middle- and high-school dropout problem. "This very civil atmosphere helped raise the level of conversation and interaction," says Paul. "We found that people really enjoyed being in a beautiful space amongst very high quality art." She adds that the facility's flexible space made it easy to customize events to fit the group and purpose, from legislative town-hall-style meetings to a VIP reception for 200 that included a presentation at the museum's Hixon Auditorium.

Convenience and flexibility are key reasons why the Florida Hospital Memorial Medical Center in Daytona Beach uses the city's Museum of Arts and Sciences (MOAS) to host its physician continuing-education symposium. "What attracts us to the museum is its convenience to major roads and highways coming from out of town," says Shannon Finley, manager of marketing and public relations for the medical center. "It is away from the distractions of the beachfront hotels, and the majority of our attendees do not have time to be caught up in the traffic and parking issues presented by holding events beachside or in typical meeting facilities. There is also an assumed air of respect holding events at the museum."

Finley adds that the MOAS auditorium has ample seating to accommodate the 260 physicians and clinical staff that usually attend the symposium. She also appreciates that MOAS allows the medical center, which became part of Adventist Health System in 2000, to bring in its own chefs and catering staff, something she says would be impossible at the typical hotel or resort. "While using our chefs and staff allows us to have a better handle on controlling costs, it is just as important to us to be able to control the menu and work within Adventist dietary restrictions," says Finley.

In addition to the 266-seat auditorium with a large stage, MOAS features Root Hall, which can host a banquet for up to 200 people. Receptions and other events can be held in the museum's 100,000 square feet of art, science, and history exhibits and its 90-acre nature preserve. MOAS offers special rates for nonprofit groups.

Dean Phelus, director of meetings and professional development for the American Association of Museums, says museums offer many inherent advantages for events. "Museums are typically located in sites or buildings of architectural significance, which adds to the dignity and ambience of the event," says Phelus, who has conducted events at several museums. "From a practical point of view, this also often means that an event planner might be spared the cost and creative work needed for decorating—the kind of decoration you might do in a hotel ballroom. The aesthetics and architecture are often all the decoration you need."

Museums add an educational value that can't be matched at other event facilities, Phelus notes. "The educational aspect is almost inherent in any event held at a museum, since the mission, the raison d'etre, of museums is education," he says. "Tours of the collection, or of special exhibitions, would be an added bonus for anyone attending your event. An added feature that many museum event planners might suggest is to have your VIPs taken on a private, behind-the-scenes tour with a curator of a particular exhibition, or even by the director. Museums give such tours, so don't be afraid to ask."

Mission Focus

Education is a big part of the appeal of Mission San Luis, located about 10 minutes west of downtown Tallahassee. The western capital of what was Spanish Florida, Mission San Luis was head of the mission system in which Spaniards and native Apalachee Indians peacefully coexisted for more than 50 years in the 17th century. Today, the 63-acre complex is an active archaeological research site that features several reconstructed buildings, including a five-story council house, Franciscan church, friary, and working blacksmith shop. Costumed characters and interpretive displays provide insight into the history of the settlement.

In 2009 the mission opened a visitors' center where events can be held. "It has a large banquet hall—it seats up to 250—and it's really beautiful space because it's got mission-style architecture while still being contemporary," says Jan Wiley, the mission's manager of design and communications. Wiley adds that the new facility also features a 125-seat theater with upholstered chairs and projection room, an outdoor courtyard adjoining the banquet hall that's used for receptions, a pre-function lobby, a warming kitchen, and two second-floor classrooms that can be combined to seat up to 60 people.

The reconstructed buildings at the facility are "a window into what life was like at that camp and mission," says John Jameson, a senior archeologist for the National Park Service who has used Mission San Luis for events involving NPS officials from Washington, DC, researchers from nearby Florida State University, and others. "It's a very interesting and unique environment, and there are now new, state-of-the-art facilities that are designed to host events."

"We're still trying to get the word out because we haven't been open very long," says Wiley. "There's really nothing quite like it. The history is unique, and there's so much to learn because most people don't realize that native populations actually lived together with the Spanish. People just love it once they come here."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]