Animatronic alligators that wiggle their tails. Fog machines. Sound effects—frogs croaking, seagulls crying. No, it’s not the set of sci-fi flick. It’s the new Gaylord Palms, a resort and convention center located a few miles from Walt Disney World, in Kissimmee-St. Cloud, Fla. (Tip from a local: That’s KISS-immee at night, and kiss-IM-mee during the day.) Like its elder sibling, Opryland Nashville, Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center is a self-contained meeting destination under a gigantic glass dome where it’s always a balmy 72 degrees. But aside from the signature bubble, this incarnation is quite different, and not just in name. For one thing, its smaller: 1,406 guest rooms instead of 2, 883. And its housed under one atrium instead of four. Designed primarily for conventions, Gaylord hopes that 90 percent of its business will be meeting-related; current bookings are almost evenly divided between corporate and association groups.
Three years of research, including numerous focus groups with meeting planners, went into the design of Gaylord Palms. The property is divided into four themed areas, St. Augustine, Key West, Everglades, and The Emerald Bay—all suggested by focus group participants. The walkways are graced by 1200 palm trees, orange trees, and flowering vines—no animatronics there.
And for those of you who may have been, well, challenged finding your way in Nashville, leave your compass at home—Gaylord Palms is much easier to navigate. Glass-walled elevators and multisensory directional cues help guide you. If you hear the ocean, you’re in the Key West area. If you are walking on a monkey carpet, you’re in the Emerald Tower. And there are lots of other fun clues. From the walkway to the convention center, you’ll see the enormous octopus water slide in the kids’ pool. "We spared no expense so guests would know where they are," Mason said.
Meeting space is easy to navigate as well—a top priority expressed by planners in focus groups. Most of the meeting rooms are on one floor in the 400,000-square-foot convention center, including the 46,650-square-foot Osceola Ballroom, the 28,690-square-foot Sun Ballroom, and 46 of the 61 break-out rooms. The 178,000-square-foot exhibition hall is on the lower level.
Planners’ requests for technology were also factored into the property design. A fiber-optic network allows groups to create an intranet among meeting rooms, the exhibition hall, and guest rooms. A technology solutions provider, who you can understand without consulting your Geek Speak dictionary, will advise you on your tech needs. Attendees can register online, using a designated Web address and password.
Guest rooms reflect the needs of today’s business travelers who require a hotel room that is a home away from home, rather than a getaway from home, Mike Mason, vice president of sales and marketing, explained during a media briefing on opening day. Thus rooms have a residential feel with unusual touches, such as doorbells which also function as electronic "Do Not Disturb" signs. The safe also has a dual purpose—you can charge your laptop while locking it away—an idea proposed by a meeting planner. Instead of a minibar crammed with expensive drinks, guests have a refrigerator they can stock themselves, making it easier for families. Guest rooms also feature free, T1 Internet access.
With upgraded guest room amenities, exclusive group check-in, and other perks, the 326-room Emerald Tower is designed for high-end incentives and executive meetings. It has its own 3, 180 square-foot ballroom, 12 break-out rooms, and two executive board rooms.
As for amenities, Gaylord Palms boasts the 30,000 square-foot Canyon Ranch SpaClub, featuring 25 treatment rooms. If you have a hankering to escape the bubble, you can relax by the outdoor pool/Jacuzzi area. (And if you must check your email while sunbathing, there are Internet connections at the cabanas.) Golf is available nearby at the Falcon’s Fire Golf Club.
Gaylord Palms is already a successful convention property, booking one million room nights before opening day. The Joint Cancer Conference of the Florida Universities, and the American Bus Association convention were held during the opening days. Other organizations that have scheduled their meetings at Gaylord include Meeting Professionals, Insurance Conference Planners Association. Ernst and Young, Eli Lilly, the National Apartment Association, American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Direct Marketing Association. www.gaylordpalms.com —Tamar Hosansky