I traveled to the Sunshine State to attend the 33rd annual Florida Encounter — a hosted-buyer trade show and conference presented by VISIT FLORIDA that matches planners with destination and venue reps from the Panhandle to the Keys — and then spent two days seeing the sights in host city Fort Lauderdale. Although it was pouring when I checked into my room at the Bonaventure Resort & Spa, a 23-acre, AAA Four-Diamond property with an 80,000-square-foot conference center, the weather was warm and sunny for most of my early-December stay.
Eighty-five meeting professionals from across the United States and Canada and 91 suppliers attended Florida Encounter 2014. Over the two-and-a-half-day program, some 10,052 one-on-one appointments took place.
After attending a breakfast keynote session by fitness guru Billy Beck III, I did a few laps around the bustling show floor, then met up with five fellow journalists and representatives from VISIT FLORIDA and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau to head out to the Everglades. As a notoriously bad wildlife-spotter, I was thrilled to see a total of four alligators in the water — one of which was so close to our boat that our guide Charlie could have tossed him a fish.
We stopped for lunch at Casablanca Café on Florida’s beachfront State Road A1A, where I put away three perfectly grilled steak kebabs with eggplant, peppers, and harissa. Offering three different menus for groups, Casablanca can accommodate 56 guests upstairs, 36 downstairs, and 149 for a buyout.
Next was a tour of the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, formerly the winter retreat of an eccentric New York City painter who collected everything from sea glass to Sèvres china. After a quick stop back at the Bonaventure to change, we headed out to world-famous Las Olas Boulevard for small bites at the Riverside Hotel’s Wild Sea bistro, which offers wine tastings and private dinners for up to 30 people. We snacked on chef Toby Joseph’s rock-shrimp beignets, cornmeal-fried oysters, and chopped salmon dip with jalapeños and just-baked focaccia.
Our next stop was Johnny V, an upscale but unpretentious restaurant farther along the boulevard, where chef Johnny Vinczencz puts his own stamp on classic surf-and-turf dishes. Our dinner began with an amuse bouche of smoked-tomato soup, followed by Parmesan focaccia with a blue-cheese dipping sauce. My entrée of scallops and braised beef short ribs with truffled mashed potatoes and chilled lobster salad was unforgettable.
We set out just before noon on the second morning of the trip for lunch on the Windridge K, a stylish, recently renovated yacht that can comfortably accommodate 150 people. Groups of 30 or more can book private parties. During our cruise, field greens dressed with dried cherries, candied pecans, Gorgonzola cheese, and a lemon vinaigrette were followed by a filet of fresh branzini pan-roasted in brown butter and a tournedo of beef served over truffle risotto.
After a water-taxi ride to downtown Fort Lauderdale, we toured three meeting venues: the newly opened Broward Center for the Performing Arts, suitable for events of up to 2,700 people; the Museum of Art, which can accommodate nearly 900 in five separate meeting spaces; and the Museum of Discovery and Science, a great option for groups of any size.
Our last hurrah was the Florida Encounter closing reception, held poolside at the Hilton Diplomat Resort & Spa in nearby Hollywood. After filling up on sushi, seafood, and Mediterranean small bites, we took a quick tour of the hotel’s meeting spaces, which encompass more than 200,000 square feet in total, before heading back to the Bonaventure for our final night in Fort Lauderdale.