When Elvis appeared in Girl Happy in 1965, the movie established Las Olas Beach in Fort Lauderdale as one of the world’s most iconic stretches of white sand and blue sea. Today, the beach is lined with an unparalleled collection of luxury resorts and hip restaurants buzzing with travelers from around the world.
Meeting planners, however, should also look beyond the beach when planning a program here.
Fort Lauderdale is called the “Venice of America” for good reason. There are 266 miles of inland canals throughout Broward County connecting Las Olas Beach to a maze of diverse communities where residents live in tune with the rhythms of the tides.
Within those neighborhoods and inlets, there’s a growing breadth of creative event venues and group experiences that immerse attendees in the local culture and South Florida lifestyle. In addition, there’s also a number of newly emerging urban neighborhoods in the downtown core undergoing a surge of revitalization that’s attracting a fresh crop of media, production and technology startups.
That’s bringing a whole new kind of creative energy to the heart of Fort Lauderdale, which planners can incorporate into their events.
“Today, people want to discover a destination that offers authentic experiences, and that includes business travelers visiting Fort Lauderdale for meetings and conferences,” says Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Beyond our beautiful beaches, this is a diverse and distinctive destination with a lot of hidden gems, including eco-adventures and a vibrant cultural scene.”
Furthermore, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is located less than three miles from downtown, while Miami International Airport is about 45 minutes away. That kind of close proximity between a major gateway airport and an expansive inventory of large group hotels is rare in a first-tier U.S. destination today.
Life on the Waterways
The Intracoastal Waterway is the Grand Canal of Broward County, running north/south between mainland Florida and the barrier island skirting the Atlantic Ocean in both Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. It is the heartbeat of the region connecting land, sea and important group venues like the Greater Fort Lauderdale / Broward County Convention Center, perched over the water next to the Port Everglades cruise ship docks.
Across the harbor from the convention center, the $50 million Nova Southeastern University Guy Harvey Oceanographic Facility is one of the most advanced marine education sites in the country. For groups interested in themes revolving around sustainability, innovation, clean technology, and environmental management, the NSU Guy Harvey is a great resource as a venue and a pool for speakers. The facility features a number of spaces, including a multimedia auditorium and high-tech labs and conference rooms.
“We lead the nation, even the world, in the research that is being done right here in our own backyard,” says Howard Greenberg, chairman of the Marine Research Hub of South Florida, based in Fort Lauderdale.
Also accessible by boat via the Intracoastal, the 35-acre Bonnet House Museum and Gardens is one of the most important estate homes in South Florida. Built in 1920 by Chicago artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, the house today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The old Florida architecture, period furnishings, native barrier island habitat and extensive gardens, including one of the country’s most envied orchid collections, provide an altogether different corporate event backdrop compared to the rest of the city.
Bonnet House offers partial and full estate rentals for corporate groups, ranging from intimate soirees in the gardens to lavish gala events in the elegant residence.
Just north of Bonnet House, the 180-acre Hugh Taylor Birch State Park is another protected area of the barrier island where planners can book private group kayak and biking tours. Standard Oil attorney Hugh Taylor Birch built an Art Deco-style house here in 1940, which is now the Terramar Visitor Center where event attendees can learn about the early days of South Florida.
Fort Lauderdale’s Urban Renaissance
From the Intracoastal, dozens of rivers, tributaries, and man-made canals snake their way inland toward the Florida Everglades. Tarpon River is the main waterway connecting the Intracoastal to downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has seen a boom of late with hundreds of millions of dollars in new development.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ annual 2019 real estate outlook, Fort Lauderdale entered the “Top 10 U.S. Markets to Watch” for the first time, ever. The Miami Herald also reports: “Fort Lauderdale’s compact, riverside downtown has suddenly become the region’s latest boomtown, bristling with construction cranes and a jostling urban energy that looks to claim its star in the constellation of South Florida’s urban renaissance.”
With all of that new growth, there’s been a surge of creative and high-end restaurants opening with a global perspective and local vibe. The new Casa Sensei, for example, overlooks Himmarshee Canal in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and thanks to a partnership with Riverfront Gondola Tours, planners can book combo dinner and cruise events. The “Pan-Asian Latin Fusion” cuisine is turning heads, mixing muses from Korea to Colombia with dishes like Mexican sushi rolls with lobster guacamole.
A big catalyst behind downtown’s growth is the launch of the new high-speed Virgin Trains USA service in May 2018, connecting Fort Lauderdale to Miami and Palm Beach County. The new Virgin train station is located in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale, and the high-speed line will eventually connect to Orlando.
With so many hotels, restaurants and nightlife along the beaches, meeting planners haven’t always prioritized the downtown core as much as other major cities. They should, though, because Tarpon River provides boat access inland to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Discovery & Science, the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, and the Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District.
All of them are available for corporate events, ranging from speaker sessions at the Broward Center to group art classes at the NSU Art Museum.
The Big Buzz Behind FATVillage
One of the biggest developments in Fort Lauderdale, from a group visitor experience perspective, is the emergence of the creative Flagler Village community in recent years, north of the downtown core.
Flagler Village, which a decade ago was a run-down neighborhood filled with of old warehouses, is now a booming cultural and tech hub reminiscent of the Wynwood Arts District in Miami. All of the new independent galleries, retail, restaurants, nightlife, coffee shops and street art are attracting artists and professionals, and visitors and locals, alike.
Inside Flagler Village, two separate arts districts have blossomed. Mass District (Music and Arts South of Sunrise) is a collection of businesses and creatives that aim to grow Fort Lauderdale’s economy through the arts. Just a few blocks south, the FATVillage Arts District (Flagler Arts Technology) has evolved as a cluster of cowork spaces and tech startups working in everything from augmented media to 3D manufacturing.
Envisioned by developer Doug McGraw, FATVillage was designed to be a catalyst for an artist community that would attract both venture capital and philanthropic support. “A lot of the seeds that were planted years and years ago are now coming to fruition in Flagler Village,” said McGraw, speaking to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
For groups looking for a ready-made entre into the local art, food and maker scene, the FATVillage Artwalk takes place the last Saturday of the month. The vibrant event gives meetings attendees a chance to interact directly with Fort Lauderdale’s creatives as they show off their best handmade wares, street art and artisan food.
For a more curated experience, the FATVillage grounds have an eclectic range of private venues for groups, ranging from outdoor courtyards and open warehouse spaces to media production facilities and the popular Flagler Village Brewery. Outdoors, the colorful array of murals and art installations give the neighborhood an added burst of vitality and energy that’s breeding a new spirit of connection, creativity and commerce beyond the beach in Broward County.
In the meetings and events industry today, both planners and attendees are seeking a greater convergence and complexity of experiences that inspire the mind, heart and body. That makes it easier to customize programs to individual participants, and it provides a forum for bringing together different perspectives. Greater Fort Lauderdale can deliver that synergistic environment today when planners combine the impossibly beautiful beaches and buzzy new energy along the many inland waterways.