By Senior Editor Marcia Bradford
Even with Hurricane Irma spinning toward south Florida, the waters along the state’s northwest coast were calm and clear when I arrived at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Sept. 7. From my guest room balcony on the 7th floor of the hotel’s Emerald Tower, the view was stunning: an open expanse of turquoise and indigo water against a large beach of bright white sand, dotted by rows of bright yellow beach chairs and umbrellas.
While touring the property with Digital Marketing Manager Maggie McCall, I learned that these beach set-ups can be arranged in a U-shape for groups so they have their own area of the beach for casual networking and other social activities.
The largest full-service beachfront resort hotel on northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Hilton Sandestin has 602 guest rooms in two separate towers, the Emerald Tower and the Spa Tower. Connected by a spacious lobby, they overlook the beach and a series of pool decks. Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill sits at the center of the pool deck area and is an excellent place to enjoy lunch or watch the sunset while sipping a signature cocktail. McCall pointed out that various parts of the deck can be reserved for private parties and during my three-night stay there were several special events in this area, including a dinner for the Alabama Academy of General Dentistry, which was holding the 44th Annual Review of Dentistry at the resort. Additionally, the decks were used for three weddings, which took place over the weekend. In order to protect the local sea turtle population, all the lights on the beach side of the property are “turtle-friendly,” McCall pointed out.
Food, Fabulous Food
There are several dining options at the resort and on my first evening I enjoyed dinner at Sandcastles Restaurant. Located just off the lobby, the restaurant in spacious and airy, featuring the pastel shades of the sea and sand. It currently specializes in Coastal Creole entrees and I especially enjoyed the Grouper & Crab Gratin while my travel companion (my husband) loved the Mango Habanero Glazed Pork Shanks. This restaurant also serves lunch and an excellent breakfast brunch buffet. During a meeting with Executive Chef Dan Vargo, I learned that there are plans to change the restaurant’s concept to that of a Florida fish house, specializing in local and regional products, beginning in early 2018. Additionally, an upcoming expansion to the Hadashi Sushi Bar, located adjacent to Sandcastles, will add a raw oyster bar to the already extensive selection of fresh seafood options.
Vargo, who oversees all of the resort’s food and beverage operations, pointed out that meeting groups as well as leisure guests generally prefer to have dishes that are from the area they are visiting and that are “more story-oriented.” This means using local foods as much as possible and being able to tell how they are produced.
Jon Lovett, director of events at the Hilton Sandestin, joined our conversation to discuss the revamping of the banquet services that will be taking place for group functions. The banquet services are changing from endless lines of food served cafeteria style to separate and interactive food stations, where meeting participants can see the food being prepared and engage in conversation while dining.
This concept is being implemented gradually but will eventually effect most, if not all of the resort’s food functions, according to Vargo and Lovett.
Anyone visiting the property should not miss out on a dinner at Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood. This elegant AAA Four-Diamond restaurant features locally grown organic beef, gulf seafood, local greens and a wine list with more than 600 labels. This is a place where you want to spend some time, not only dining on the excellent food, but enjoying the ambience and the piano music. From the lobster beignets and champagne toast that started our meal to the steak and seafood entrees to the decadent chocolate dessert, the food was amazing and the service was excellent.
Another great dining option, the Hadashi Sushi Bar offers a variety of sashimi and sushi rolls made upon order. For meals on-the-go and cuisine suitable to children, Picnix Poolside Market had salads, sandwiches, pizza and ice cream.
Upgrades Are Ongoing
I enjoyed meeting with Director of Sales and Marketing Lisa Jones, who explained that the property is continually upgrading and renewing its facilities and services. “The owners have been wonderful about reinvesting in this resort every year,” Jones emphasized. “We are upgrading on an annual basis.”
She added, however, that significant improvements were completed in 2015, following an extensive three-year $30 million renovation project which refocused the lobby so that visitors can see the gulf as they check in and redesigned the hotel’s 200 Spa Tower guest rooms. Sandcastles restaurant was expanded and the Sandcastle lounge and Hadashi Sushi Bar were reconfigured as part of the project, the Serenity by the sea spa was also expanded and revamped. Of most interest to event planners, a new 7,500-square-foot ballroom was built, bringing the total indoor and outdoor event space to 60,000 square feet.
Beginning in October, upgrades will be made to the 400 guest rooms in the Emerald Tower and there will be a make-over to the lower-level meeting spaces, which are typically used for breakouts and smaller meetings. “We will freshen it and lighten up the colors and make the spaces more efficient and innovative for planners,” Jones explained, adding that the meeting area will still be available for use while the changes are made.
Included in the 40,000 square feet of indoor meeting space are three ballrooms and several smaller meeting spaces located on two levels. The largest space is, the Emerald Ballroom, which can accommodate 1,200 and has a foyer that can hold 840. Other larger spaces are the Coral Ballroom and the Coastal Ballroom, as well as the Sandpiper Room.
Additionally, the property offers several special event spaces for smaller gatherings. The Santa Rosa Room in Sandcastles is often used for private dining events, and the Lounge can be reserved as well. Events Director Lovett said that the United Steel Workers had recently used the space for a gathering and enjoyed the large-screens that show sports along with the craft beer flights available from the bar. There’s also a stately board room can also be used for receptions and presidential suites for smaller events. VIP Pool Cabanas can also be rented for group pool parties.
Some of the most fun spaces make use of the beautiful beach. Director of Recreation Tiffany Howell said that Beach Olympics are the most popular team-building events for groups, with activities ranging from an Army Crawl to a Mullet Toss to Scavenger Hunts. Beach Volleyball, Beach Bowling (with fruit) and Amazing Races are other favorites.
During the fall and winter months, groups often enjoy bonfires on the beach, which have to be arranged by the staff in advance. On rare occasions when the weather forces groups indoors, game shows, such as a form of Jeopardy which incorporates information pertinent to the group, have received rave reviews, Howell said. The resort offers a range of beach and recreational equipment, from bounce houses and inflatable waterslides to water balloons and hula hoops, she added.
Two large pools, one heated and one not, along with an indoor pool and hot tub, all offer views of the beach. And, for those who want to explore the Gulf of Mexico beyond the beach, the resort rents kayaks and paddle boards. But when it’s time to relax there’s no better place than the Serenity Spa. Along with 16 treatment rooms, a steam room and sauna and there’s a full-service salon and a lounge that offers a spa menu. Nearby is a 24-hour fitness center with all the latest equipment and a yoga room. For meeting attendees who want to bring the kids, the Kids Krew program can arrange for jungle safaris, secret agent afternoons, crab hunting, pajama parties and movie nights.
Throughout my stay, I heard stories about groups which have been meeting at the Hilton Sandestin for many years – some have come back every year since the property opened more than 30 years ago. “They become like family for us,” said Jones. “We have people who came here as kids with their parents and now they are bringing their own kids with them to meetings they attend here. We have many people on staff who have been here for many years and our guests get to know them on a first-name basis and look forward to seeing them year after year. For many of our groups, it’s like a reunion every time they gather here.”