An Encounter With Old Florida

Now in its 34th year, Florida Encounter brings meeting planners and Florida-based suppliers together for three days of face-to-face appointments, educational sessions, and local activities. For many participants, it’s also a much-anticipated reunion with comrades and colleagues, as well as an excuse to get better acquainted with the show’s host city.

Photo by iStock.

“It was like speed dating meets meeting planning … in a good way,” said Mike Broder, president of Super Conventions, which produces Florida Supercon, Magic City Comicon, and ANIMATE! MIAMI, who attended Florida Encounter 2015 on Nov. 30–Dec. 2. “It’s interesting to be able to meet with so many CVBs and properties in a short amount of time. We have a few strong leads that will hopefully bear fruit for future events, so it was worth the trip, and it’s fun to hang out and get to know other meeting planners in a comfortable atmosphere.”

This year, Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort hosted the VISIT FLORIDA–sponsored event — which was especially fitting, because the AAA Four Diamond resort completed an $85-million renovation in 2013 and is still rolling out new elements throughout its 1,350-acre property. Florida Encounter guests were first treated to a close-up of the resort’s prime oceanfront location during the opening evening reception, which took over the large stretch of beach fronting its main pools. Guests were asked to stick to an all-white dress code, and a live band singing top-40 hits made the setup — comfortable lounge areas mixed with multiple food and drink stations — lively and warm.

The first day of Florida Encounter brought the 85 meeting planners and 95 suppliers in attendance together for morning appointments, followed by a keynote lunch featuring Cheryl Cecchetto, founder and president of Sequoia Productions, who has produced the Academy Awards Governors Ball for more than 25 years. Cecchetto left the crowd motivated and chatty after sharing stories of event-planning highs and high jinks, in addition to gifting the crowd copies of her book, Passion to Create: Your Invitation to Celebrate.

That afternoon, the Omni’s executive chef, Daven Wardynski, gave our group of 10 journalists a personal tour of one of the resort’s new additions, The Sprouting Project. A storage-shed-turned-greenhouse, The Sprouting Project grows everything from strawberries to mint. A few feet away, several beehives churn out more than 1,400 pounds of palmetto honey annually, a small jar of which we received as a parting gift. The greenhouse and the space around it also serve as an event space for groups of up to 300. With a canopy of oaks overhead, the enclave feels like guests are stepping into a bygone era of Old Florida.

That gothic feeling creeps up quite often in Amelia Island, especially when you venture into downtown Fernandina Beach’s 50-block historic district, about 10 miles from the resort. Lined with impeccably kept Victorian homes and antique shops, Old Town, as it’s also known, is the jumping-off point for touring the surrounding barrier islands. We spent the afternoon on a two-hour narrated cruise, courtesy of Amelia River Cruises & Charters, that took us past the city’s few remaining shrimp boats; the remnants of 19th-century-era Fort Clinch, now a state park; and Cumberland Island, famous for its roving bands of wild horses. We stayed downtown for dinner, spending our second evening at David’s Restaurant & Lounge, a relaxed steakhouse offering two spaces for private groups of up to 50.

Besides morning yoga on the beach, this year’s Florida Encounter gave attendees a number of ways to experience the destination. Optional activities offered on the last afternoon included kayaking nearby rivers and a tour of Marlin + Barrel Distillery. I opted for the latter. Opened last year, the craft distillery specializes in creating small-batch vodka and rum from Florida sugar cane, and its space easily accommodated our group of 30 for a tour and tasting.

From there, it was time for more mixed drinks and mingling. For its closing evening reception, Florida Encounter went slow and Southern at the Omni’s marsh-front Walker Landing venue, serving variations on comfort-food classics like Lowcountry Boil. It was the perfect laid-back end to three days in Old Florida.

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.