There’s a story about Orlando that has not yet been told, and it’s one that every incentive planner needs to hear. It takes place far from Disney’s Main Street and the Orange County Convention Center, in a land of five-star accommodations, award-winning dining and luxe spa experiences that will excite even the most well-traveled incentive attendees.
Picture this: A progressive dining experience through the highly acclaimed restaurants at Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. From exceptional wine tastings and innovative food pairings to decadent Bar du Chocolat sweet treats, attendees will indulge their palates in an exquisite five-star setting.
Or this: A private class with none other than Deepak Chopra’s yoga teacher, Sarah Platt-Finger. Groups staying at the trend-setting Lake Nona Wave Hotel have exclusive access to the Chopra Mind-Body Spa and, through a partnership with Chopra Global, to the adjacent Lake Nona Performance Club, dedicated to mindfulness, wellness, and meditation.
In Orlando, the possibilities for incentive groups are endless.“As both the number one meetings destination and most visited destination in the country, Orlando is a prime location to host incentive trips,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO, Visit Orlando. “From new luxury resorts, Michelin-recognized dining and exclusive group experiences, our destination has everything planners need to create experiences that will greatly motivate and reward their organizations top earners.”
The newly updated MICHELIN Guide Miami, Orlando and Tampa was released in May, with inspectors announcing the addition of 13 new Orlando restaurants as well as a MICHELIN Sommelier Award for Benjamin Coutts of the One-MICHELIN-Star Soseki Modern Omakase.
MICHELIN’s recognition of 46 Orlando restaurants, including four starred venues, 11 Bib Gourmands and 31 Recommended, confirms what locals have known all along — that Orlando has an exceptional culinary community.
For incentive groups, the chance to dine or have a reception at a Michelin-recognized restaurant is a highlight of the trip.
Snagging group reservations at a Michelin-recognized restaurant requires significant lead time. Dinner reservations or buyouts may not be possible. “Lunch is a great option for groups,” advises Orlando-based food and travel writer at ronagindin.com and dining editor of Winter Park Magazine, “especially if the restaurant is generally closed during the day. You’ll get a lot of attention, and possibly a more flexible menu.”
The Orlando foodie scene has changed significantly over the past quarter century, says Gindlin. “It started in part when national celebrity chefs opened restaurants here, and then the chefs who worked under them eventually moved on to other local restaurants, bringing their more sophisticated skills with them. Meanwhile, homegrown chefs started doing great things after studying at top culinary schools. Then Orlando restaurants started getting recognition in the way of James Beard Award nominations. But no Orlando restaurant ever got to the semi-finals and the city remained invisible as a food town. Meeting and event planners may have vetoed Orlando as a destination because they had no way of knowing the area has some exceptionally good food and restaurants. Now they know.”
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
The most difficult decision for incentive attendees at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World might be whether to play a round of golf at the Tom Fazio-designed championship course or unwind with a luxurious treatment at The Spa.
Meanwhile, over at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, situated amid more than 500 lush acres of natural habitats, lakes and a working farm, the vibe is decidedly tranquil. The resort’s 18-hole championship golf course is designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. And at the adjacent JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, guests can chill out in one of the pools or lagoons, float along on its lazy river, or stake their place for the day in one of its luxury cabanas.
Each of Orlando’s incentive-level hotels is different from the other, but all are poised to offer the top-notch service and amenities that incentive guests expect.
Today’s incentive qualifiers expect an unforgettable travel experience that’s authentic to the destination, Instagrammable and comes with bragging rights.
Of course, Orlando’s theme parks are expert at group events, such as a private Disney fireworks cruise on a 25-foot chartered boat, a dessert party on a private lawn at EPCOT, or a VIP tour at Universal Studios. An even more exclusive experience is the chance to swim with a dolphin at Discovery Cove. A number of private spaces are available for groups of all sizes. There’s also a chance to shadow a trainer (limited to 9 guests)—a day that qualifiers will never forget.
No incentive trip would be complete without a shopping excursion. But there’s shopping, and then there’s...shopping! Orlando specializes in the latter of the two, with the Mall at Millenia home to the finest designer stores, including Hermès, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. Outlet shopping is also popular, and Orlando has not one, but three, outstanding open-air outlet malls: Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, Orlando International Premium Outlets and Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets.
For a shopping experience that’s uniquely local, there’s Winter Park’s Park Avenue, with more than 60 upscale retailers featuring clothing, jewelry, footwear, gifts, books and more. It’s the perfect mix of world-famous brands, such as J. McLaughlin and Lilly Pulitzer, and homegrown clothiers like Tuni and John Craig Clothier.
A true gem in the heart of Downtown Orlando is the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which is home to the Orlando Ballet, Orlando Philharmonic, Orlando Opera and a host of performances. All of its venues are available for buyouts for incentive groups, including Steinmetz Hall, which accommodates 850 for a reception, and the Walt Disney Theater, which seats 2,711 theater style—as well as other, more intimate spaces.
Many incentive programs include a corporate social responsibility activity, or even a day devoted to helping those in need in the community. Among the many local nonprofits that have worked with incentive groups are Feeding America and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central America. The best way to identify the cause and activity that are the best fit for your group is to reach out to the convention bureau, your hotel or a local destination management company.
Teasers, welcome gifts, pillow gifts—incentive planners are always looking for locally inspired gifting ideas. Not only is it a thoughtful touch to give an item that will remind the qualifier of their special trip, but shopping local has a multiplier effect: The money you spend directly benefits the local community and then it is often spent locally, too.
A great place to start is boxthecity, which has working relationships with the best local makers, community causes and material manufacturers in the area—and is skilled in working with meetings and incentives. A curated gift set might include locally items from Orlando-based businesses such as Corkcicle water bottles, Wondermade marshmallows, Yaupon Brothers Tea and more.
Other possibilities for locally inspired amenities are endless, including sweets from Peterbrooke Chocolatier in Winter Park and DAM Good Chocolate, whose products are available online; as well as Chocolate Kingdom, located in] Orlando’s International Drive district; luxurious small-batch candles from Bowes Signature Candles or vintage scents such as Manatee Grotto or Mermaid Springs from OSO Candle Company; or Wild Florida Honey or Local Bee Honey from the family-owned Winter Park Honey.
Another gifting idea would be a cookbook from a local celebrity chef, such as “Made in Spain” by José Andrés of JALEO or “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking” by Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto Asia. These can be purchased right online from Amazon.
And of course, you can’t go wrong with local wines or spirits. Florida’s largest premium winery, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, creates sparkling wines from the native Muscadine grape varieties Noble, Carlos and Welder, as well as Vinifera varieties that include Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Loggerhead Distillery in historic Sanford sells craft spirits with a Southern spin, including Key Lime Gin, Orange Blossom Sweet Tea Vodka, and their award-winning Apple Pie Moonshine. Both businesses offer group tours as well.
Orlando International Airport provides accessibility and abundant international and domestic flights in and out of Orlando, with nonstop service from approximately 150 global destinations. It’s now even easier to travel to and from Orlando with the opening of the airport’s South Terminal Complex. The new facility adds 15 gates and includes a seamless, low-touch environment with a state-of-the-art radio frequency baggage system, numerous shops, restaurants and lounge facilities.
In late summer, Central and South Florida attendees will be able to travel by rail to the Brightline Orlando Station at Orlando International Airport. The 37,350-square-foot station is located in the airport’s new 80,000-square-foot Train Station facility adjacent to Terminal C.
MICHELIN-starred Restaurants:Capa Steakhouse & Bar, Four Seasons Resort OrlandoKadence, Audubon Park Garden DistrictKnife & Spoon, Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes
Soseki Modern Omakase, Winter Park
New Recipients of the Bib Gourmand Designation:Isan Zaap, MilleniaNorigami, Winter Garden
Otto’s High Dive, Mill DistrictTaste of Chengdu, Baldwin Park
New Additions to the MICHELIN Recommended List:AVA Mediterranean, Winter Park
Doshi, Winter ParkEDOBOY, Mills 50Juju, Milk District
Kaya, Mills 50Toledo—Tapas, Steak & Seafood,Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
Twenty Pho Hour, International Drive Entertainment DistrictVictoria & Albert’s, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & SpaYH Seafood Clubhouse, International Drive Entertainment District
Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World
● Distraction-free, lakeside setting, with spectacular outdoor lawns and unique venues
● MICHELIN-starred Capa Steakhouse
● 67,000 square feet of meeting space
JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa
● Opened July 2020
● 516 guest rooms and 81 suites
● 50,000 square feet of event space, including a 22,000-square-foot ballroom
● New rooftop lounge ilume and open-air terrace to view theme park fireworks
● Spa by JW is a full-service 9,920-square-foot luxury spa offering a variety of treatments
The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes
● More than 47,000 square feet of newly renovated flexible meeting space
● 582 rooms
● MICHELIN-starred Knife and Spoon by Chef John Tesar and MICHELIN-recommended Primo by Melissa Kelly
● 40,000-square-foot spa
● Greg Norman-designed 18-hole championship golf course
JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes
● Completed a several multimillion-dollar renovation in 2023, which includes an expansive waterpark, refreshed guest rooms and suites, and a redesigned and upgraded lobby lounge
● More than 144,000 square feet of functional event space
Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
● 1,009 guest rooms
● Expansion will create an additional 103,000 square feet of new multi-functional event space, including a square-foot ballroom, 8,132-square-foot screened veranda with views of the golf course and evening Disney fireworks, 2,700-square-foot outdoor event patio, and expansive 35,185-square-foot event lawn
Waldorf Astoria Orlando
● 60,000 square feet of multi-functional meeting space, including the new 8,000-square-foot Central Park Ballroom
● Undergoing a comprehensive, multi-phase reimagination that will encompass the resort’s rooms and suites, lobby space, Waldorf Astoria spa and 18-hole golf course, scheduled to be completed by December 2023
● Shares space with Signia
Grand Bohemian Orlando
● Completed a comprehensive renovation in 2023, which included the new upscale Altira Rooftop Pool Lounge; reimagined spaces like the property’s signature restaurant, The Boheme; the Bösendorfer Lounge; and guest rooms
● 10,000 square feet of meeting space
Evermore Resort Orlando
● Stays begin February 2024
● 1,500 rooms
● Will offer an 8-acre crystal lagoon, meeting and event venues, and two Jack Nicklaus golf courses.
● Opens December 2023
● Will have 433 rooms
● 40,000 square feet of indoor meeting space
● Also will feature a spa and numerous dining options, including a signature rooftop experience
● On the Evermore complex grounds
6:00 a.m. Yoga in the Terrace Garden
7:00 – 10:30 a.m. Breakfast at Leisure, Poolside
8:00 a.m. Golfers: Pickup at the Porte Cochere
9:30 a.m. Depart for Winter Park Shopping Experience, followed by Low Country Fish Boil lunch at Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen
10:00 a.m. Spa Appointments (Book Directly with the Spa Using the Code: INCENTIVE5)
10: 00 a.m. – 5 p.m. Private Cabanas Available
Noon – 1:30 p.m. Outdoor Buffet Lunch at Leisure, Terrace Garden
1:00 p.m. Transfers Depart for Discovery Cove Dolphin Experience or CSR Activity
6:00 p.m. Depart for Lake Nona Dinearound (Boxi Park, Chroma Modern Bar + Kitchen, Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine)
10:00 p.m. Veuve Clicquot Champagne Cart and Locally-Made Truffles, Poolside