A first visit becomes the first of many here in north Florida. In fact, 9 out of 10 visitors are repeat. It’s long been a favorite drive destination, attracting groups looking to include spouses or families. Now, with the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport and anchor carrier Southwest Airlines, the region has opened up for national business.
SITE Southeast + Sandestin Resort
My trip here to experience the beach/business venues in February coincided with SITE Southeast’s “Share the Love” conference, which focused on sustainability education and peer networking. The decision to convene here was made to support the area following last year’s BP spill.
“We’re delighted to have selected this venue, we specifically chose this destination to make a statement,” said Carol Owen, president of SITE Southeast. “Every summer we brainstorm about our upcoming programs, and last summer the oil spill hit. The northwest coast of Florida is not in our region but it’s our backyard…. This is Atlanta’s beach, I come here myself. We wanted to show solidarity for a destination we love, and go home with stories about how great a place it is to hold meetings.”
Conference HQ was the 1,400-room Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, which offers that always desirable, all-in-one setting with beach, golf, spa, shopping, dining, a marina and 65,000 sf of meeting space. Trams, bikes and golf carts are the preferred mode of transit everywhere, including two shopping malls flanking the property. One of them, Silver Sands, is America’s largest designer factory outlet mall.
Groups looking for standalone meeting space will find it at the resort’s Linkside Conference Center & Exhibit Hall. Others prefer the central Baytowne Conference Center. The range of meeting space reflects the variety of accommodations too. The more price-sensitive are drawn to the Bayside Inn, while others choose spacious studios or 1- to 4-bedroom condos in the Grand Sandestin Tower. For your VIPs there are two lovely 2- and 4-bedroom penthouses.
Budget-conscious planners will also appreciate everything included with the guestroom: bicycles, boogie boards, kayaks, beach toys, tram transportation, and an hour a day of tennis. For teambuilding, there’s golfing at four on-property courses, bay fishing from the marina and deep sea fishing.
Adjacent to Grand Sandestin, the Village of Baytowne Wharf is designed similar to ski-in villages. Groups up to 500 pax love this pedestrian dinearound option. Diverse eateries are sprinkled between shops, bars and clubs along the bay, and the dueling piano bar was rockin’ that night.
On the village’s central lawn, ingenious, socially-responsible centerpieces from Recentered Pieces sparked conversation around hightops at SITE Southeast’s pre-dinearound reception. Overlooking the Gulf, Finz Beachside Grille hosted another evening in a casual, fun beachfront atmosphere (270 pax).
Taking advantage of the increased airlift, conference and trade show planners are also drawn to the area’s extensive convention space, especially when you combine Sandestin Resort with the 600-room Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. Although independent, both hotels cooperate to accommodate large groups, sharing space and amenities.
The upscale Hilton Sandestin has a coveted beach location, where extensive renovations were completed this spring, including Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill. Located between two outdoor pools, it’s fantastic for events with a breezy outdoor space and gorgeous Gulf views. Indoors, three ballrooms each divide into flexible meeting space totaling 32,000 sf, including a bevy of breakouts.
Guestrooms are oversized and comfortable, including kitchen facilities scaled to the accommodation, and the suites are huge with sparkling water views. Groups bringing families love the guest rooms with the cutest bunk beds for the kids, tucked in their own little enclave complete with TV. And the balconies and wide windows showcase panoramic beach or resort views that are calming, rejuvenating and spectacular.
So is the award-winning Serenity by the Sea spa—try their amazing, skin softening ‘Fiji Ritual.’
The culinary experience is similarly spectacular at Hilton’s 5-star New York-style steakhouse by the sea. The 4-diamond Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood features private rooms and full or partial buy-outs for groups up to 180 pax, while the exclusive 800-label wine room seats four VIPs.
Caesar salad is still made tableside. The local blue crab cocktail with huge Gulf shrimp is delicious with both the delicate pink brandy sauce and tangy homemade cocktail sauce. Go for the salmon entree—a distinctive preparation with crispy golden mandolin-thread potatoes enrobing the freshest, meltingly-tender filet. Unbelievable!