Sarasota and its islands offer impressive cultural amenities and some of the best beaches in America. Downtown Sarasota overlooks the Gulf of Mexico, so it's a cinch to find waterfront venues, restaurants and group activities. Several towns and islands, called "keys," make up the greater Sarasota area, including Longboat Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key, Casey Key, Manasota Key, Venice, Englewood and North Point. Attendees can fly into the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ), which is 10 minutes from downtown and has direct flights to Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Tampa International Airport (TPA) offers additional nonstop service to domestic and international destinations and is 51 miles north of town. The largest event venue is the Sarasota Bradenton International Convention Center, which accommodates groups up to 5,000 and is connected to an eco-friendly, upscale Holiday Inn.
For many years, Sarasota was the winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and it still has a resident circus, Circus Sarasota which offers corporate entertainment packages. If you're a fan of non-chain dining, you're in luck. There are several local, independently owned restaurants, some of which have meeting, banquet, exhibit space and off-site catering. In addition to the Gulf of Mexico, there's the 58-mile-long Myakka River, along which groups can fish, canoe or kayak. And there are Amish and Mennonite communities anchored here, as well.
Your attendees needn’t be avid golfers to enjoy the Longboat Key Club, although it has been named one of Golf Digest’s “Best Places to Play.” And they don’t have to be tennis players. (But if they are, they’ll be happy to note the resort’s Tennis Gardens is a USTA award-winning facility.) The beachfront, AAA Four-Diamond resort has a lot to offer active groups, including 218 rooms and suites with private balconies, a marina, a 9,000-sq. ft. spa, a Gulf-front pool, free Internet, six on-site restaurants and a fitness center. Indoor and outdoor meeting venues accommodate groups of up to 150. Conference add-ons include team-building programs and golf tournaments. A short drive from St. Armands Circle is the 222-room Lido Beach Resort, which has a 6,000-sq. ft. conference center with complimentary Internet access. Meeting space includes a ballroom that accommodates up to 250. Next door to the Lido is the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota‘s beach club. Its Sunset Terrace is an open-air rooftop venue with panoramic views that accommodates up to 300.
There are more Zagat-rated restaurants concentrated around Sarasota than anywhere else in Florida. Best locations for dine-arounds include St. Armands Circle and downtown Sarasota. If you have a small group, investigate some of the restaurants at local marinas, which have patio dining and stunning water views. Many of the city’s finest restaurants are part of the Sarasota-Manatees Fresh Originals group, a confederation of locally owned and operated independent eateries. Michael’s on East is one of only 10 restaurants in America that’s been inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame by Nation’s Restaurant News. In addition to its sophisticated dining room, it offers a wine-tasting cellar (capacity: 50-125) and ballroom (capacity: 500 seated) that opens onto a glass-enclosed atrium. Off-site catering is available. Another lauded eatery is Libby’s Café and Bar, which has been ranked one of Zagat’s top American restaurants. Private banquet space accommodates 100.
Wish you had a garden courtyard big enough for a three-ring circus or a private bay-front marble terrace that doubled as an outdoor ballroom? John and Mable Ringling did and, after they passed, they left their estate, extensive art collection and Venetian-style mansion to the state of Florida. Now operated by Florida State University, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art complex is home to several museums and the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Meeting space includes the Museum of Art’s Italianate courtyard and loggia (capacity: 400), which gives guests access to the art galleries after hours. The exquisite Ca’ d’Zan (“House of John”) mansion, with its stately lawn and terrace, accommodates groups of up to 250, and guests are allowed to tour the first floor of the house. Its Belvedere Tower can host meetings of eight or less. The Circus Museum has indoor space for 80 and a backyard for groups of up to 150. During events, guests are allowed to clown around inside the museum, which features historic show posters, costumes, an intricate train diorama illustrating how the circus traveled from town to town and interactive exhibits that show what it’s like to cram inside a clown car and balance on the back of a horse. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall hosts touring Broadways shows, musical acts, comedians, classical musicians and dance shows. It has a 1,736-seat auditorium and a 6,000-sq. ft. grand foyer space that accommodates up to 350. Outdoor event venues also are available for groups of up to 1,500.
Kay Rosaire, an eighth-generation animal trainer, runs the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary for lions, tigers, monkeys, bears and other exotic animals. (“Napolean Dynamite” fans be warned: You will see a half-lion/half-tiger liger.) Kay and her family live on-site and can give groups educational tours as well as private “Animal Extravaganza” shows. Did you know that most of the seahorses you see at aquariums were bred at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium? In addition to aquatic exhibits, the Mote offers educational tours and unusual meeting space, including an outdoor courtyard (capacity: 500), Chikee picnic area (capacity: 60) and a conference hall with views of a dolphin lagoon and Sarasota Bay (capacity: 225). If you want attendees to feel like big kids, take them to G.WIZ, a science museum. They can use brain waves to move a ball across a table, learn about electricity and play with a variety of educational, thought-provoking exhibits. Plus, there’s an on-site “Fab Lab,” where inventors can play with robotics, 3D printers and other gadgetry.
The Ed Smith Sports Complex hosts the Baltimore Orioles during spring training, and its meeting and banquet venues are available year-round. The Home Plate suite accommodates up to 125. The indoor/outdoor Third Base Lounge (capacity: 100) has 54 stadium seats, 14 HD TVs and a climate-controlled lounge. VIP suites accommodate groups of up to 30. On game days, the Left Field Pavilion and Bullpen Perch provide casual function space overlooking the field. If you want something a little farther from civilization, John Crowley’s pioneer cabin is available for special events at the Crowley Museum and Nature Center, which covers 190 acres adjacent to the Myakka River. Other on-site venues include a Learning Center (capacity: 60) and a tented event lawn (capacity: 180). Groups can explore the grounds and visit the property’s pioneer museum. Another outdoor nature-themed venue with historic gathering space is the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Its Christy Payne Mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has indoor meeting and patio space for small groups. Other venues include an event lawn and pavilion, a great room with 60-ft. glass windows overlooking Sarasota Bay and a 40-person theater.
Not only is Siesta Key known for having the “world’s finest, whitest sand,” this top-ranked public beach offers beach-friendly wheelchairs. In fact, many Sarasota County beaches offer ADA-accessible boardwalks or special wheelchairs that can navigate through sand and float in water. Contact the Sarasota CVB for more information.
The village of Pinecraft is home to many Amish and Mennonite families as well as Troyer’s Dutch Heritage Restaurant, which serves traditional comfort-food dishes, and Yoder’s Amish Village Restaurant, which is famous for its 25 varieties of pie (especially the peanut butter cream pie). Troyers has private banquet space for up to 300. If you have something more spirited in mind, serve specialty drinks made with Siesta Key Rum, an alcohol brewed by Sarasota-based Drum Circle Distilling, which uses 100 percent, Florida-grown sugar cane. It’s sold at many local shops and bars.