Florida conjures up images of white-sand beaches and ocean vistas dotted with sails. Of swimming and fishing and every imaginable water sport. Of world-class golf and tennis. And of facilities that understand the language of meeting planning.

It's easy to bring a group down. Air connections are excellent. Hotel staffs are well trained and professional. Convention bureaus are active and helpful. Luxury hotels abound, and their prices are surprisingly low off-season. Last year, more than 43 million visitors made tourism in Florida a $32 billion business.

TheWest Coast and Panhandle Florida's West Coast has a well-deserved reputation for music and the arts, with symphonies, ballets, and big-name concerts in Tampa, Sarasota, and Naples. Museums such as the Salvador Dali Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Florida International Museum--all in St. Petersburg--as well as Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art draw audiences from all over the South, while local theater groups are abundant.

Three new attractions are in the works in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area. Brooker Creek Preserve's 400 acres will be developed into a major ecotourism attraction with boardwalks and a nature center. By next summer, 1,500-acre Weedon Island will be open as a Native American Cultural Center and eco-attraction to showcase the history of the Timucuan Indians. Also upcoming, a 90-acre botanical learning center and garden will open in fall 1998, connected to Heritage Village historical museum.

Also in Clearwater, the Harborview Convention Center, which opened in January 1996, added a 3,900-square-foot meeting room and 30,000 square feet of exhibit space in 1997. The new meeting space overlooks Clearwater Bay.

In Tampa, Tropicana Field (the former Florida Suncoast Dome) will hold 45,000 fans as the home of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays when it reopens in early 1998 after a $62 million face-lift. Groups of up to 750 persons will be able to watch the game in comfort from The Batter's Eye, a private viewing area. Tampa's Busch Gardens has created a new animal attraction, Edge of Africa, where visitors journey on foot through an Africa-like landscape.

Far to the north, Florida's Panhandle is known for its unspoiled Gulf Coast beaches and barrier islands. Meeting destinations on the Panhandle range from the more urban Tallahassee to the laid-back coastal resorts of Panama City Beach, Fort Walton Beach, and Destin.

Hotel News Destin * The Sandestin Beach Hilton Golf & Tennis Club is in the midst of a $45 million expansion and enhancement program, due to be completed in April. The 400-room resort will grow to 600 rooms, and an additional 60,000 square feet of meeting space will bring the total to 97,000 square feet. When complete, the space will accommodate groups of 1,000.

WEST COAST AND PANHANDLE INFORMATION For a complete guide to convention bureaus, centers, and hotels, visit Insurance Conference Planners' World Wide Web site at www.meetingsnet.com

Fort Myers * The 240-room Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa has a new in-house PictureTel Venue 2000 Group Videoconferencing System.

* The 96-unit Sanibel Inn, a South Seas Resorts Company property, has refurbished its 40-person meeting room, added a boardroom, and enhanced landscaping.

Marco Island * The Marco Island Marriott Resort & Golf Club will complete $12 million in renovations this year, including a complete redo of the Grand Ballroom, 724 guest rooms, and meeting areas.

Naples * The Registry Resort has created a Chairman's Suite and will redo two other suites next year. All 395 tower guest rooms were redone last fall. A new director of special events works with meeting executives to find the right venue for any group.

* The 191-room La Playa Beach Resort has been restored by Noble House Hotels & Resorts to offer enlarged bathrooms and private balconies, as well as a 7,000-square-foot conference center, for a total of 11,500 square feet of meeting space.

* The historic 316-room Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club has established a golf school. The entire property has undergone a major renovation, and all rooms in the 94-room Watkins Building have been upgraded with special amenities.

* The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, has remodeled its business center to add private workstations for Windows and Macintosh users, a shredder, and color printer.

St. Petersburg/Clearwater * The Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa has a new sibling, the 70-room Don CeSar Beach House, an all-suite, luxury property less than half a mile down the beach. Guests share amenities with the Don CeSar Resort.

* Under new ownership, the 292-room landmark Belleview Biltmore has completed a major restoration of guest bathrooms, public areas, meeting space air- conditioning, and decor--with particular emphasis on the 2,200-square-foot Candlelight banquet room. A new 80-seat, amphitheater has laptop hookups at each seat.

* The 360-room Renaissance Vinoy Resort is completing the new Sunset Ballroom and has plans to add a conference center to its 19,000 square feet of meeting space.

Tampa * The Hyatt Regency Tampa plans an $8 million renovation of all 518 guest rooms and public space, with completion expected by mid-1998.

* The Crown Plaza Tampa-Westshore has completed a $3.1 million renovation that upgraded all 272 guest rooms, meeting space, and public areas. All rooms now have two incoming phone lines, modem hook-up, and voice mail.

* Saddlebrook Resort and Conference Center, with 790 rooms, has opened a new million-dollar luxury European-style spa and a two-and-a-half-acre Sports Village, overlooking a lake and golf course. The Sports Village has a fitness center, three volleyball courts, a basketball court, soccer and sports fields, 14 tennis courts, a swimming pool, whirlpool, and a fitness trail.

* Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, a South Seas Resorts Company property with 170 rooms and suites, has boosted its meeting space to 27,000 square feet.

* The 324-room Sheraton Grand Hotel near Tampa International Airport has renovated guest bathrooms and redecorated the lobby and entrance. Second-floor meeting rooms were refurbished.

* The Tampa Marriott Westshore has spent $1.5 million to renovate the lobby and equip its 309 guest rooms with new soft goods. Three small executive meeting rooms were added.

* In July, the Innisbrook Hilton Resort in Tarpon Springs, FL, converted to a Westin. The property plans to spend $10 million to add nine new holes of golf; build a new reception center, health club, and pool; and update rooms, conference space, and the clubhouse.

Venue Menu Fort Myers Cocktails in the Keys? Fort Myers has finalized negotiations with Buequebus to provide high-speed ferry service to Key West. The 220-foot ferry can carrying 450 passengers and 58 cars. Service begins in January.

Naples Naples offers seven miles of pristine beaches, upscale shopping, fine dining, and cultural attractions. Scenic tours through town are available on Naples Trolley. Popular spots: the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Naples Dinner Theater, and Seminole Gaming Place.

There are many public and private preserves on which to explore the backwoods and backwaters, such as Briggs Nature Center in the Ten Thousand Islands, National Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Babcock Wilderness.

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Besides 234 miles of shoreline, the highlights of St. Petersburg include the Bayfront Center Arena and Mahaffey Theater, the vintage Coliseum Ballroom, and The Pier. St. Pete is also home to the American Stage Theater Company and the Florida Orchestra.

Tampa Some of the area's most popular attractions are Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, and Cypress Gardens, but a less well known off-site option is Ybor City, a century-old cigar-making area. Attendees can shop, visit museums and bistros, or tour the Tampa Rico Cigar Company; they can enjoy a beer at the Ybor City Brewing Company; or find a spot for a good cup of Cuban coffee and a hand-rolled cigar.

Halfway between Tampa and Orlando in Polk City is Fantasy of Flight, an aviation-themed indoor space with the world's largest private collection of vintage aircraft. Special events are welcome.

Getting There Fort Myers' Southwest Florida International Airport (SFIA) is served by 17 carriers. The drive from SFIA to Naples takes less than half an hour, and from SFIA to Marco Island, about 55 minutes.

Naples Municipal Airport is served by three airlines Comair, US Airways, and American Eagle, while St. Petersburg/ Clearwater's airport has service to five cities: Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and New York City through JFK. Taxi fare downtown runs to $25; The Limo is $11.95.

Tampa International Airport has been ranked number one by the Airline Passengers Association for four years in a row. It is served by 27 national and three regional airlines, with some 500 flights daily. Average taxi fare to downtown Tampa is $16.

How's the Weather? In the summer, temperatures and humidity rise into the 90s. Late summer and early fall is hurricane season; most days are marked by thunderclouds and bursts of rain, interspersed with sunny skies. June, July, and August are the rainiest months; January, March, and October through December, the least rainy.

Tax and Money Matters The state sales tax is six percent. The hotel tax is three percent in Fort Myers and Naples, four percent in St. Petersburg/Clearwater, and five percent in Tampa.

County Tourist Development

(Destin, Fort Walton Beach)

Darrel Jones, executive director

(904) 651-7131, (800) 322-3319

Fax: (904) 651-7149

www.destin-fwb.com

Fort Myers Conference

and Convention Council

Joan Jenkins, director of sales

and marketing

(941) 332-7600; Fax: (941) 332-2242

www.fmharborside.com

Lee Island Coast Visitor

and Convention Bureau

Diane Short, sales director

(941) 338-3500, (800) 237-6444

Fax: (941) 334-1106

www.leeislandcoast.com

Visit Naples, Inc.

Tammy Matthews, managing director

(941) 403-2015; Fax: (941) 403-2015

www.bestof.netnaples

Panama City Beach CVB

Marcia Bush, marketing director

(904) 233-6503, (800) PC-BEACH

Fax: (904) 233-5072

www.travelfile.com/get?pcbeach

Pensacola Convention

& Visitor Information Center

Sheila Bowman, executive director

(904) 434-1234, (800) 874-1234

Fax: (904) 432-8211

www.chamber.pensacola.fl.us

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB

Andy Bergeron, director sales,

meetings and conventions

(813) 464-7200; Fax: (813) 464-7222

www.stpete-clearwater.com

Sarasota CVB

John Evans, marketing manager

(941) 955-0991, (800) 522-9799

Fax: (941) 951-2956

www.sarasota-online.com

Tallahassee Area CVB

Ann Lingswiler, sr. conv. sales manager

(904) 413-9200, (800) 628-2866

Fax: (904) 487-4621

www.co.leon.fl.us/cvb/homepage.htm

Tampa/Hillsborough Convention

and Visitors Association, Inc.

Jim Wood, VP-convention marketing

(813) 223-1111, ext. 61

Fax: (813) 229-6616

www.theva.com

Craig Moore, senior vice president of marketing for State Life Insurance Company, Indianapolis, took 12 incentive winners, plus spouses and home office executives, to The Registry Resort in Naples in April. "We barely left the wonderful grounds," he reports. Almost everyone played golf or sat beside the pool during the five-day, four-night program. The 45-minute trip from the airport in Fort Myers was "no problem," Moore says, and there was no extra cost for it, as he had negotiated it into his room rate.

Hard to believe that only seven years ago, when George Aguel arrived at Walt Disney World, there was just 25,000 square feet of meeting space among its hotels. There is now more than 300,000 square feet spread among five Disney properties, much of which is located at Coronado Springs Resort & Convention Center, Disney's newest--and most affordable--convention hotel.

Aguel, vice president, resort/park sales and services, Walt Disney Attractions, Inc., was recruited by Disney because of his sales and marketing experience with another well-known resort convention destination: Opryland Hotel Convention Center in Nashville.

"It's hard to describe us," says Aguel about Disney. "We're not really an independent and we're not really a chain. I guess you could say we are the world's largest independent."

Aguel, who has helped quintuple Disney's meetings and group business in the last five to six years, says a vision was in place when he joined Disney in 1990 for the theme park/resort to become a major player in the meetings market, "but not to the degree that it eventually evolved to."

When he first came on board, Disney's plans were focused on adding meeting space at the existing Contemporary Resort and at the Grand Floridian and expanding space at the then-planned Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. "We started there and decided to build the infrastructure within the company that would support this business. Disney already had great resources in place, an extremely strong group of individuals with creative backgrounds and culinary, entertainment, and technical skills," says Aguel.

"When you bring that altogether, it's a total building of a business within a business. We are also a product of a great brand. It made sense to bring this business into our theme parks. Therefore, themed events and parties became a big part of our initiative."

The Boardwalk Inn, a more upscale property, which serves the high-end incentive groups, opened in 1996. Right afterwards, "we recognized the opportunity with the Disney Institute," says Aguel, which was a new twist on the Disney University theme. And at about the same time, Disney set its sites on the larger convention and tradeshow market, as well. "We've had success in building moderately priced hotels for the family market, so we reengineered that concept for the group market." Thus, the Coronado Springs was born (see sidebar, page 118). Even incentive and corporate planners are eyeing the Coronado Springs. "We've built a better mousetrap, combined it with a great price, and during a great economy, and we've got a home run."

What might Disney's convention plans for the future be? Any more convention hotels in Mickey's crystal ball? "We're always thinking about the future," is all Aguel will say, with a twinkle in his eye.

Under a shower of confetti spilling from a sun-shaped pinata, Coronado Springs Resort Convention Center officially opened at Walt Disney World on August 22. Disney's first affordable convention property, the Spanish-themed resort hotel offers a venue where all events can take place under one roof, at room rates ranging from $100 to $135 a night.

Disney kept costs down at Coronado by not building a huge lobby, spas, a business center, and multiple restaurants or nightclubs and by keeping the guest rooms smaller with fewer amenities. "In this era of downsizing, many corporations are looking at us because we are such a good value," says George Aguel, vice president, resort/park sales and services, Walt Disney Attractions, Inc.

Nothing has been spared, however, when it comes to the convention center, says Aguel. The resort's 95,000 square feet of meeting space includes two ballrooms. The 60,214-square-foot Coronado Ballroom is now the nation's largest.

The property itself is voluminous: The 1,967 guest rooms are spread among three village clusters: casitas, or typical guest rooms; cabanas, two-story villas; and ranchos, two- and three-story villas. The resort has five pools, several of which are located at the Dig Site, a take-off on a Mayan archeological dig.

Planners booking programs at Disney hotels have some unique opportunities: one convention services contact is assigned to work with a planner; Disney's Event Production and Business Production companies can do as much or as little as a planner needs; all of the theme parks are available for private themed events, and Disney characters can be invited; five Disney golf courses are available for tee times; free transportation is offered to all the theme parks; park discounts are available; attendees can use one Disney credit card throughout Walt Disney World; and the Disney Institute, which specializes in professional development, might prove ideal for executive conferences in need of innovative content ideas.