Naples Bay docks

Tips to live it up like a local in Southwest Florida

Florida, the nation’s third most-populous state, gets a lot of publicity for its bright lights, big cities and renowned attractions. All that notoriety is justified, as anyone who’s held a meeting in the Sunshine State will tell you.

There’s one corner of Florida, however, where the pleasures are simpler, the crowds are smaller and the light is from the sun and stars. That place is Southwest Florida. In this unassuming region, you will discover colorful, offbeat villages, tiny offshore islands accessible only by boat, the swamps and wildlife of the Everglades, and superb resorts on private beaches.

Southwest Florida boasts more than 600 miles of shoreline, much of which is peaceful and uncrowded beach. With its natural beauty, relaxed pace and Old Florida ambience, Southwest Florida is a great place for meetings. There is a plethora of excellent hotels, plentiful amenities such as golf courses and singular dining experiences.

Lee and Collier counties hold special interest to planners, as they include The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, and Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades. Both offer sweet surprises for planners and attendees. The secret to uncovering these surprises is simple: Do it like a local.

“Florida’s Paradise Coast offers a wide range of opportunities for planners to create compelling programs,” says Jack Wert, executive director of Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our hotels have excellent conference facilities, and there are great offsite options at our nature-based attractions such as Naples Botanical Garden, Naples Zoo and the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center.”

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

In Lee County, anchored by the historic town of Fort Myers, doing it like a local means experiencing some very cool restaurants, inspiring your attendees at the adjacent homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, enjoying a string of beaches that’s pretty much unbroken for the length of the county and exploring tiny islands in the Gulf of Mexico—some with colorful little villages and others dotted with hidden coves and inhabited only by exotic tropical birds.

gasparilla-inn-and-clubGasparilla Inn & Club, Gasparilla Island

“We found the restful atmosphere of Southwest Florida to be very conducive to idea-exchange and networking,” says Tom Miller, program administrator for Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division. In October, Miller brought 50 attendees to Gasparilla Inn & Club, a beautiful Old Florida-style resort on scenic Gasparilla Island.

“When you cross that old drawbridge onto the island, it’s like stepping back in time,” Miller says. “And our attendees all thought the unusual ambience of the resort, the natural beauty of the island and the scenic village of Boca Grande contributed to one of our most successful meetings.”

Locals will tell you the area’s most popular natural attraction is its 50 miles of white-sand beaches, with more than 400 varieties of seashells, widely considered to be the most beautiful on Earth. When attendees awake each morning and look out to the beach, they may see people searching for shells, doing what the locals call the “Sanibel Stoop.”

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island offers some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities in North America, featuring a tropical swamp/mangrove terrain you won’t see anywhere else. Out in the Gulf waters, you’ll run out of time long before you run out of fish.

westin-cape-coralThe Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village, Captiva Island

Area residents rhapsodize about remote Cabbage Key and Useppa Island. On Cabbage Key, there is an old historic inn and restaurant with colorful characters, classic favorites and dollar bills plastered all over the wall. The boat trip to and from the island is fun, and dolphins can often be seen swimming and frolicking right alongside your boat.

Fort Myers takes its name from Col. Abraham Myers, an officer at the Army fort that was built there in 1850, and from which the town emerged. The early days take on new life at places such as Southwest Florida Museum of History and Sanibel Historical Village and Museum, which features historic homes dating back to the 1880s.

Other interesting spots favored by locals include Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel Island, great for picnicking; Manatee Park (from November through March), where attendees can get up-close and personal with Florida’s endangered sea cows; Cayo Costa Island State Park, a 2,426-acre spot accessible only by boat and great for group outings; and Offshore Sailing & Power School, which offers corporate team-building programs.

edison-and-ford-winter-estatesEdison & Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers

If you’d like to inspire attendees to generate new ideas, take them to the adjoining Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. They can wander through Thomas Edison’s 14-acre estate on the banks of the Caloosahatchee, built in 1886. They’ll be able to enter the laboratory and gardens where he created many of his 1,000-plus inventions. On the 3-acre winter estate of Henry Ford, groups can view Ford vehicles dating back to 1914. Both homes have meeting space.

Lee County has several distinctive meeting resorts, as well. Gasparilla Inn & Club offers 163 guest rooms and 6,576 sq. ft. of event space, along with a Golden Age of Piracy ambience and waterfront views. South Seas Island Resort, at the tip of beautiful Captiva Island, boasts three pools, beachfront golf, shops and atmospheric restaurants, as well as 471 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

bubble-roomBubble Room, Captiva Island

Captiva Island features one of America’s most unique restaurants: Local folks will tell you that you can’t leave this area without visiting Bubble Room. Serving classic American comfort food, this place is truly a feast for the senses. The walls and ceilings overflow with thousands of classic American pop culture items, among them a Lionel train circling overhead along the ceiling. It offers five private dining rooms for meetings and events.

Although this part of Florida has a slower pace than the big cities, there’s nothing slow about the evolving meeting-hotel scene. The 454-room Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa recently completed a $4.1 million renovation of its more than 73,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, adding new furnishings, lighting and upgraded technology. The Westin Cape Coral at Marina Village, with 263 guest rooms and 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, is planning to add a 34,000-square-foot conference center within two years.

There are also plans to renovate Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers, although specific details and a timeline are not yet available. The facility currently offers 41,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space.

“Southwest Florida is easily accessible from pretty much anywhere in the country,” says JoAnn Lee, president and CEO of Beaules, Inc., a New York City consulting company. She brought 110 attendees from Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance to South Seas Plantation in January.

“The area is really beautiful,” she says. “And our attendees thought South Seas was a wonderful place to hold a meeting. It’s a full-service, first-class resort with everything you need right there—recreation, varied dining options, beautiful grounds, shopping. I wouldn’t think twice about going back.”

Naples, Marco Island & the Everglades

naples-botanical-gardenNaples Botanical Garden

Collier County appropriately calls itself Florida’s Paradise Coast. In this area, it’s easy to find your own private paradise. It’s also easy to find meeting locales that will make your attendees think they’ve landed in paradise.

Centered around the sophisticated town of Naples, this destination offers the opportunity to kayak through the stillness of Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades; cruise to isolated offshore islands filled with wildlife; or play a round of golf in the afternoon and be back in time to enjoy dinner at one of the atmospheric restaurants.

The region is also ideal for team building. Wert suggests kayak expeditions in Everglades National Park, beach games and parties on deserted islands, and golf and fishing tournaments.

Where do locals go for their own private pieces of paradise? The water! Naples and Marco Island are prime boating communities. One favorite destination is Keewaydin Island, an 8-mile-long barrier island. Almost all of Keewaydin is in its original natural state, with miles of deserted beach that’s perfect for group events. Meeting attendees can enjoy fun in the sun or a sunset reception arranged by Experience Paradise, a coalition of meeting services and on-the-water companies. During boat rides, cruise past lush tropical islands inhabited only by nesting ospreys, egrets, herons and ibis.

Locals love exploring the 30 miles of beaches, inlets and coves in canoes and kayaks, as well as on paddleboards and WaveRunners. You’ll see locals along Fifth AvenueE South in town, too, shopping in the eclectic stores and galleries and looking for unusual gifts in the funky Tin City shops on the docks.

Some head out from the harbor on wine-tasting or sunset cruises, or sample Naples’ booming foodie scene and its locally owned restaurants. Many head west into the Everglades with fishing poles and buckets for a day of adventure.

Florida’s Paradise Coast has meeting hotels befitting that name. The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club has long been a favorite of attendees. A local landmark since 1946, the 319-room property boasts a list of amenities including tennis, golf, a full-service spa, the excellent HB’s On the Gulf restaurant, 34,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a lawn overlooking the Gulf where 500 can be accommodated.

Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa is undergoing a $300 million renovation that will culminate in the hotel becoming the first beachfront JW Marriott in the continental United States early next year. The grand front entrance, expanded pool decks and upgraded guest rooms are already complete. When the curtain is lifted, the resort will have 810 guest rooms, and will have doubled its meeting space to 100,000 sq. ft.

Naples actually has two Ritz-Carltons—one on the beach and one on the links. The Ritz-Carlton Naples has 450 guest rooms and more than 42,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space, while The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples has 295 guest rooms and 16,500 sq. ft., along with two golf courses designed by Greg Norman. The newest player on the local meeting scene is Hyatt House Naples/5th Avenue, an island-motif hotel that opened in March with 183 guest rooms and 3,160 sq. ft. of meeting space.

ngala-wildlife-preserveNgala Wildlife Preserve meeting space, Naples

For planners, one of the best things about the Paradise Coast is its incredible variety of offsite meeting places and experiences. On the Dolphin Explorer cruise boat, for example, attendees can become researchers for a day. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida offers experiences such as a Rookery Bay Eco-Cruise, nature walks and fossil digs. For a walk on the wild side, literally, Naples Zoo has the variety and types of animals usually found only at zoos in much larger metropolitan areas.

rhino-ngala-wildlife-preserveNgala Wildlife Preserve, Naples

Ngala Wildlife Preserve is filled with African animals and has large tents for events, along with interactive animal encounters for groups. There’s creative event space for up to 1,000.

The serene Naples Botanical Garden has event spaces that can accommodate up to 125 guests.

Brian Fitzpatrick, partner, senior vice president and general manager of Frost & Sullivan, a New York-based global growth consultancy, has been bringing groups of 300 for meetings at Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa for years.

“Most of our attendees are C-level people,” Fitzpatrick says, “and they expect excellent meeting spaces and a lot of amenities. That’s exactly what we get at the Marriott. The weather’s beautiful, the recreational facilities and dining options are excellent, and it’s right on the beach.”

Steve Winston is an award-winning writer who has traveled extensively and writes for national and international magazines.

Opportunities to Practice CSR

Southwest Florida welcomes visiting companies that want to contribute to the community. Here are some organizations that can use your help.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium
Encourages public appreciation of the unique ecosystems and wildlife in Southwest Florida. Group activities include painting, cleaning, and butterfly garden and trail maintenance. Visit or call 239-275-3435.

Crew Land and Water Trust
Focused on preservation and stewardship of the land and water resources in the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. Trail maintenance is among the group activities. Visit or call 239-657-2253.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
Preserves natural resources and wildlife habitat on and around Sanibel and Captiva islands. Group activities include kayaking to clean up trash from waterways, nursery maintenance (weeding and mulching) and habitat restoration in the nature center. Visit or call 239-472-2329.

Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades

Collier Harvest
Picks up donated food for delivery to area agencies feeding the hungry of Southwest Florida. Visit or call 239-455-3663.

Marco Island Historical Society
Discovers, researches and preserves the multifaceted history of the Marco Island-Goodland region, and educates the community. Visit or call 239-389-6447.

Special Olympics of Collier County
Provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for people with intellectual disabilities. Visit or call 239-775-1991.

Major Meeting Venues

Naples, Marco Island & the Everglades

Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa
298 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; beachfront property is closed while undergoing $40 million renovation; expected to reopen in the fall;
WaveRunner tours; dolphin-watch cruises; spa.

Hilton Naples

Hilton_Naples_King_Guest_RoomPhoto by (c) 2016 Hilton Hotels & Resorts

199 guest rooms; 16,061 sq. ft. of meeting space; Shula’s Steakhouse is consistently voted best in Southwest Florida; free shuttle to beach; free Wi-Fi throughout hotel; 24-hour fitness center; complimentary bicycle rentals.

LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort
189 guest rooms; 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space with water views; signature restaurant, Baleen, is a favorite of locals; full-service Spaterre; fitness club; water sports include parasailing, fishing and kayaking.

Marco Beach Ocean Resort
98-suite boutique hotel with luxurious decor; 10,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space, including a private meeting floor; three eateries, including signature Sale e Pepe; pool; golf at private club; spa services; fitness center.

Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa
Landmark resort undergoing $300 million conversion to a JW Marriott in January 2017; 810 upgraded guest rooms; meeting space will double to more than 100,000 sq. ft.; pool decks; two new restaurants.

Naples Bay Resort
Stylish boutique hotel with 80 guest rooms exudes Tuscan-style luxury; 6,082 sq. ft. of meeting space; convenient to shopping, dining and arts district; 1500 South restaurant by celebrity chef Art Smith; spa; three pools, water sports rentals.

Naples Grande Beach Resort
Set on 23 waterfront acres, next to mangrove estuary; 475 guest rooms; more than 83,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space; seven restaurants, including Catch of the Pelican; boardwalk leads to beach; gift shop; three pools.

The Inn on Fifth & Club Level Suites
A longtime downtown Naples landmark; elegant, classic ambience; Excellent Avenue5 and Truluck’s restaurants; 119 guest rooms and luxurious suites; 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; onsite catering for meetings.

The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club
Historic 319-room resort; opened in 1946; golf course; tennis; full-service spa; waterfront dining at HB’s On the Gulf; 34,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space includes Watkins Lawn, overlooking the Gulf.

The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples
Beautifully landscaped, Mediterranean-style resort; 295 guest rooms; 16,500 sq. ft. of meeting space; two Greg Norman golf courses; pro shop; free shuttle to beachside Ritz-Carlton; award-winning Lemonia Restaurant; fitness center; The Spa.

The Ritz-Carlton Naplesritz-carlton-naplesWorld-class beachfront resort and Florida Green Lodging property; 450 guest rooms; 42,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; spa; pool; free shuttle to The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort; seven restaurants.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

DiamondHead Beach Resort & Spa
Florida Green Lodging award-winner; 124 guest rooms; 8,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space; Esterra Spa; fitness center; guest bicycles; beachfront heated pool; business center; gift shop.

Gasparilla Inn & Club
Century-old National Historic Landmark on barrier island in Gulf; 163 guest rooms; 6,576 sq. ft. of meeting space; four restaurants; five retail shops; charming Old Florida accommodations; two pools; fitness center.

Harborside Event Center
Located in historic downtown Fort Myers, along Caloosahatchee River; 41,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; great views; within walking distance of shops, restaurants, entertainment.

Holiday Inn Fort Myers Airport at Town Center
2 miles from airport; complimentary shuttle; 169 guest rooms; 6,800 sq. ft. of meeting space; Oasis Restaurant; pools; hot tub; outdoor fire pit; hotel provides A/V equipment.

Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa
On 26 acres, overlooking Estero Bay; 454 guest rooms; more than 73,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Adventure Pool with 140-foot waterslide; seven restaurants include elegant Tarpon Bay; Stillwater Spa; Raptor Bay Golf Club.

Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina
First Green Lodging hotel on Fort Myers Beach; 212 guest rooms; 7,318 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space; more than 37,000 sq. ft. outdoors; two restaurants; private dining on beach; fitness center; spa; Offshore Sailing School offers team-building events.

Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa
Set on an 85-acre peninsula; floor-to-ceiling windows in all 347 guest rooms; 30,108 sq. ft. of meeting space, much of it with scenic water views; full-service spa; Sanibel Harbour Princess available for group functions; five eateries.

South Seas Island Resort
Expansive, lushly landscaped resort at tip of Captiva Island; 471 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; seven unique eateries; boat cruises; water sports rentals; three pools; sailing lessons.

Sundial Beach Resort & Spasundial-beach-resort-and-spaAward-winning property; 400 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; four restaurants; tennis courts and pro shop; full-service spa.

The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village
AAA Four Diamond property; 263 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 24-hour fitness center; three pools; Esterra Spa & Salon; Promenade Shops; nature trail; Marker 92 Waterfront Bistro features American cuisine.