Swim with the Manatees? It’s a popular package at Plantation on Crystal River, located on Florida’s Nature Coast.

BEGINNINGS AND FRESH LOOKS

Parents and business visitors to Gainesville, FL will have a new reason to yell “Go Gators” when the AC Hotel Gainesville (by Marriott) opens its doors early this year. This college town has always been known for rousing spirit and

Lobby view of AC Hotel lobby opening in February in Gainesville, FL

casual food and lodging experiences. As a former University of Florida student and the parent of a former student, I can tell you first-hand how excited I am to hear an upscale hotel, featuring 144 European-styled rooms and the city’s first rooftop fitness center, will be situated catty-corner across the street from the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, more popularly known as “The Swamp” to football fans. Managed by Concord Hospitality, AC Hotel Gainesville will be the third AC Hotel in Florida and the first outside of Miami. The property will have two meeting rooms with 1,000 sf of flexible indoor meeting space. The glass-enclosed rooftop fitness center will have all the workout equipment you’ll need for the duration and if that’s not enough to pump up your energy, the AC Bar will offer handcrafted cocktails, local craft beers and tapas-styled noshes. The property will be included in The Standard, a new 10-story multi-use complex that includes luxury student housing, shops and restaurants.

www.achotelgainesville.com; www.concordhotels.com; www.achotels.marriott.com

Original works of selected North Carolina-based artists will share in the limelight when the 18-month, $20 million renovations of the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, NC are completed. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Art Commission curated the chosen 12 pieces of artwork, including a Winston-Salem original, Art-o-mat®, one of 100 retired cigarette vending machines throughout the world that have been converted to vend original, handmade art. “Our community has been recognized for its exceptional creative influence in everything from the visual to performing arts,” said Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem. “As a focal point in our downtown, it was critical that the reinvented Benton showcase and reflect Winston-Salem’s artistic undercurrent with bold interior design elements and artworks. A full listing of artists is available at www.ReinventYourMeetings.com;  www.visitwinstonsalem.com

You have to wait for 2020 to stay at Humaniti’s eight-floor four-star hotel, which makes up part of Montréal’s first “smart vertical community.”

Montréal, Canada means business. They compete hard for convention dollars, which is one of the reasons for the blazing building boom in hotel properties to accommodate the increasing number of corporate and association groups who are booking conferences. Here are some of the hotels opening in 2018. Hyatt Regency Montréal opened 269 rooms in June 2017 but renovations are continuing well into 2018. It’s located in the heart of the city, overlooking Place des Festivals. montreal.hyatt.com. 193-rooms laid out in an h. The architectural wonder in the Quartier International, Humaniti’s eight-floor four-star hotel, which makes up part of Montréal’s first “smart vertical community,” opens in Spring 2020. humanitimontreal.com. Canada’s first AC hotel opens in February. It’s mere steps away from the Palais de congrès de Montréal Convention Centre and promises unmissable views from its 12th floor swimming area.. acmarriottmontreal.com  Shopping for jewelry will get easier with the opening of Birks in May. Located atop Montréal’s historic jeweler (since 1869) on Sainte-Catherine Street, this will be a 120-room boutique property. Hôtel Monville’s large windows will peer out over the city from 269 guest rooms and rooftop terrace when it opens in March. hotelmonville.com. Not to be overlooked, coming in December will be the $400 million Four Seasons Montréal. It will feature 163 rooms and 18 residences on the busy Sainte-Catherine Street. fourseasons.com

Vineyard Tower is a $120 million expansion to Gaylord Texas Resort & Convention Center

When the $120 million Vineyard Tower expansion is finished this summer at Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, the addition will add 303 luxury guest rooms, an outdoor terrace offering spectacular views of Lake Grapevine, and 86,000 sf of carpeted meeting space. Meeting space includes a 30,000-sf ballroom, 30,000 sf of breakout space, and 26,000 sf of pre-function space. Vineyard Tower increases Gaylord Texan’s total offerings to 1,814 rooms and nearly half a million square feet of meeting space, making it one of the top three largest non-gaming convention resorts in the United States.

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/DALGT-gaylord-texan-resort-and-convention-center

EAT, DRINK AND PARTY

I know microbreweries and wine bars have become as plentiful as fast-food restaurants in most cities, but Austin, TX shakes up the adult beverage industry with nine distilleries. Whiskey, gin, vodka and even sake: Austin adds zest to tastings. Whether you’re looking to spice up an afternoon by sampling a new brew or joining a corporate group for a tour and tasting, these nine distilleries should be on your agenda. Three specialize in whiskey. Still Austin Whiskey Co., a true grain-to-glass distillery, is the first whiskey distillery located within Austin city limits since Prohibition. Take a 30-minute tour or sip on a cocktail in the whiskey garden. Pair it with an Asian-inspired bite from Puli-Ra, Still’s permanent food truck. Ben Milam Whiskey is named after the legendary Texas freedom fighter who was born in Kentucky, birthplace of bourbon whiskey. Sample Ben Milam’s hallmark Single Barrel Bourbon, a Double Gold winner at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Garrison Brothers Distillery is the Lone Star State’s first and oldest whiskey distillery. Located on a small ranch in Hye, Garrison produces Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey made with its own organic winter wheat that’s grown and ground daily on-site. Take the one-hour Sit and Sip tour, which includes a taste of sweet mash and high-proof “white dog” right from the stills, along with samples of Garrison’s latest limited-release whiskey. Two distilleries focus on gin. Revolution Spirits is an experimental craft distillery that produces small batches of gin and liqueurs in Austin. Their signature alcohol is the contemporary, American-style Austin Reserve Gin, made with juniper, lemongrass and Texas grapefruit. Revolution Spirits also produces liqueurs that include the Cafecito, blended with cuvee coffee. Complimentary tastings and tours are held on Saturdays. Genius Gin makes their gin two ways: Standard Strength (a homage to the classic London Dry variety) and Navy Strength (a sip-worthy version inspired by the historical proof carried on British Royal Navy fleets). Tours are offered by appointment only. Vodka is another favorite to sample. Dripping Springs Vodka and Gin, found in Dripping Springs, produces its spirits in handmade copper pot stills. Brothers Gary and Kevin Kelleher produce small 50-gallon batches of Dripping Springs vodka and gin using pure Hill Country Artesian spring water. Tours are held Thursday through Saturday afternoons, and include a distillery tour, tastings and a souvenir shot glass. Also in Dripping Springs, Treaty Oak Distilling is named for the 500-year-old oak tree in Austin that was the site where Stephen F. Austin (known as the “Father of Texas”) signed a border agreement in the 1830s. Treaty Oak produces a number of spirits, including vodka (try the sweet Graham’s Texas Tea version), gin, rum and bourbon, on its 28-acre, state-of-the-art distillery/ranch. Weekends are tastings and tours, live music, yard games and grab a bite from the on-site Ghost Hill Restaurant. Deep Eddy Vodka is 30,000 sf distillery with a retro-feel tasting room. Sip specialty cocktails or sample flights. Vodka varieties are flavored with fruit that includes cranberry, peach and orange. Red’s Porch food truck is located on-site. Kids and dogs are welcome. Not to be overlooked, Texas Saké Company, uses centuries-old techniques to brew its saké in small batches. Tastings are Friday and Saturday evenings. Buy it by the glass or mixed in a cocktail at the Japanese-style bar.

Does a Manatee snorkeling tour for two, an overnight stay and breakfast the next morning at West 82 Bar & Grill sound exciting? It can be yours with the Swim with the Manatees package at the Plantation on Crystal River, located on Florida’s Nature Coast. With the package, you also receive a welcome bag with plush manatee toy, fun facts and manatee interaction guidelines, hot chocolate or coffee. Expand your package with the two-night Adventure Center promo. With this you get all the perks of the Swim with the Manatees, plus a guided tour for two to the pristine Rainbow River, an all-day kayak rental, guided sunset kayak tour or guided kayak sunrise tour. Manatee tours are offered year-round at Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop, but prime viewing season usually runs from Oct.1-Mar. 31.  Plantation on Crystal River has 12,000 sf of meeting and event space, 18-hold golf course, 9-hole executive course and an Aveda spa.

www.PlantationonCrystalRiver.com; (800) 632-6262.

Experience the historic Wine Train and explore Napa Valley wineries in style

Thank goodness not all the Napa Valley, CA wineries were not fatally harmed by the recent fires. For groups who’d like to offer an elegant teambuilding event of California wine, wineries, and gourmet cuisine aboard the vintage Napa Valley Wine Train, that news could not be happier. Buyouts can be for one car, 60 max, or for over 300 to make the experience exclusive. Any of the fantastic packages already offered can be customized to the group. There are day tours and visits to specific well-known wineries for tastings and receptions. There is also a selection of six-hour tours, such as The Legacy Tour, which includes a four-course meal and tasting stops at Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug and V. Sattui.

http://winetrain.com/quattro-vino-tours/

Kartrite indoor water park

The weather outside in Monticello, NY may be freezing and snowy, but come early 2019, a new two-acre indoor waterpark and a 324-room luxury hotel will offer a warm respite. The Kartrite Hotel & Indoor Waterpark, owned by Ken Ellis and Arthur Berry III, who also co-own Camelback Lodge & Aquatopia Indoor Waterpark in the Poconos, are building their latest project on the Resorts World Catskills campus located in the Town of Thompson. Desigg/Builder Aquatic Development Group (ADG) says inspiration comes from the architecture of indoor waterparks in Europe. The Kartrite’s unobstructed column-free construction will feature a barrel-shaped transparent Texlon roof that will bathe visitors in natural sunlight throughout the year. This will allow tropical plants to thrive inside the waterpark, allowing guests to be immersed in a vegetation-rich environment like no other indoor waterpark in the nation. The waterpark will also feature a signature mezzanine, uniquely designed with luxury cabanas. Kartrite’s namesake is the mysterious and inspiring worldly explorer character, Kartrite Van Der Berris, first introduced on the Camelback property. The new project will also have multiple innovative restaurants, a relaxing spa, a ropes course, and an arcade.

www.thekartrite.com; www.aquaticgroup.com

HOT DEALS!

You wouldn’t have to be a fan of “Downton Abbey” to enjoy staying at Bruntwood Hall, a 19th century Victorian mansion just south of Manchester, UK. As a new addition to the Design Hotels collection, the 22-room boutique property, Oddfellows On The Park, is offering up to 20% off if you book and stay by June 30, 2018. With this package you will also receive a private tour by a member of the executive management and complimentary breakfast. Located in Cheadle’s Bruntwood Park, 100 acres of mature oak trees, woodlands, ponds, and lawns, the hotel has onsite activities, such as archery, golf, and a BMX cycling track. Each room and suites, individually designed, offers views of the surrounding parkland.

www.designhotels.com

Paradisus Palma Real by Melia

Can you imagine receiving up to 45% off a romantic exotic destination? With Meliá Nassau Beach in the Bahamas you can do just that. Book a stay from June 1 through August 19 through Melia.com and you will also get $400USD to spend in the hotel, free shuttle to Baha Mar Casino, and 20% off at Black Angus restaurant. This is just one of many heavily discounted offers from Meliá. Offers and available dates vary with each property, but here are some you may want to examine for a fun getaway: Paradisus Palma Real, Meliá Caribe Tropical, INNSIDE by Meliá New York Nomad, and Jamaica’s Meliá Braco Village.

www.melia.com

Unique lighting sets off Conrad Osaka hotel in Japan.

WITH THIS LIGHTING, EVERYONE WILL WANT A CLOSE-UP

Just as the adage that “clothes can make the man,” extraordinary lighting is solidifying the reputation of The Conrad Osaka, a luxury40-story tall hotel in Osaka, Japan. Soraa, a high-end light company that works with luxury hospitality and retail companies, partnered with Japanese lighting design firm Worktecht to set an art tone to their lighting project.

www.conradhotels3.hilton.com/en/hotels/japan/conrad-osaka

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO INFO

I collect frequent flyer miles like some people collect Pokémon cards that they think are too valuable to be removed from the box. I travel on airlines because that offer the fastest, most direct route and hopefully also the best price, not because I can spend hours more in travel just to collect points. As a result, I have never had enough points on any one airline to actually use it for free travel. Typically, those points disappear by a “use-by-this-date-or-lose” expiration clause. That’s why I am so interested in what WalletHub has revealed; ie, 2018’s Best Frequent Flyer Programs. The study ranks the 10 largest domestic airlines based on 23 key metrics, ranging from the value of a point/mile to blackout dates for rewards flights. WalletHub’s report also features a custom calculator that allows users to personalize the results based on their own budgets. You can examine the entire study yourself at https://wallethub.com/edu/best-frequent-flyer-program/25943/, but here are a few of the highlights. Delta scores large, both as having the best overall frequent flyer program for the third straight year and for being one of two airlines whose miles don’t expire due to inactivity. The other is JetBlue Airways. The average airline rewards program gives frequent flyers 12% off their airline spending. Hawaiian Airlines offers the most rewards value and four of the 10 airlines studied are offering an extra 20% in rewards this year than they did in 2017. Who has the best credit card program? WalletHub states those are Frontier Airlines and Lufthansa.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2016 – 2017 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the second consecutive year. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

 

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