TWENTY-SIX INSURANCE/financial services meeting planners attended a familiarization trip hosted by The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and Marriott International from October 31 to November 2 at the new Grande Lakes Orlando, prior to the Insurance Conference Planners Association Annual Meeting. Attendees experienced a taste of what the $600 million property has to offer groups, from imaginative theme parties to caddie concierge services while golfing, all with the attentive level of service that Ritz-Carlton is known for.

A non-theme destination resort in Orlando sounds like an oxymoron, but the Grande Lakes Orlando pulls it off flawlessly. The property bespeaks tranquility and luxury in an upscale residential style that has no hint of the theme parks minutes away. It adds an unconventional option for planners looking for the convenience and climate of Orlando.

The Grande Lakes complex includes two separate hotels: the 1,000-room JW Marriott and the 584-room Ritz-Carlton. It's a great setup for insurance planners looking to maximize tight budgets for two-tier incentive programs. Both hotels are top-drawer, but the Ritz-Carlton has added opulence with trademark features like silk and damask upholstery, oversized marble bathrooms with separate tubs, and a private balcony in every guest room. Because both are Marriott brands, the revenue is managed as one property, allowing planners to negotiate a blended rate if using both. Depending on the season, the Ritz will accommodate groups of up to 400, and the Marriott up to 900.

The two hotels are connected by a 40,000-square-foot spa surrounded by gardens. There are 40 rooms for massages and body treatments, a 6,000-square-foot fitness center, and a 4,000-square-foot outdoor lap pool. The spa is geared to meetings, with two salespeople dedicated to group sales. Ditto for the 18-hole Greg Norman — designed golf course, which offers group amenities such as golf carts with personalized signs. Another nice bonus for planners at Grande Lakes is the on-site floral department, which not only decorates the hotel with gorgeous flower arrangements, but can help out with event needs.

Meeting space at Grande Lakes includes 72,000 square feet of indoor space and 62,000 square feet of outdoor space at the JW Marriott; and 33,5000 square feet of indoor space and 52,000 square feet of outdoor space at the Ritz-Carlton. Due to open in summer 2004 is a 27,000-square-foot exhibit hall. www.grande