ontainebleau in Miami Beach
ontainebleau in Miami Beach (Google Earth)

After several years of scaled-back partner retreats and legal conventions, South Florida’s luxury resorts are again playing host to big-spending attorneys.

But those lawyers have different needs today. Resort owners and event planners say the two biggest shifts are in technology and catering.

“Even during presentations, attorneys want to be plugged in,” said Lori Rabinowitz, an independent event planner and consultant from Boca Raton who focuses on legal conferences. Paul Singerman of Berger Singerman hired her to plan the gala event at next year’s National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. “These folks work 24/7 and they expect to be able to do that, even when they’re at conventions,” Singerman said.

The conference is expected to draw 1,000 attendees, she said.

Scott Flexman, vice president of sales and marketing at the Fontainebleau, said the resort has recently invested in upgrading its bandwidth to accommodate large legal conferences.

“It used to be, if we had an event with 1,000 people in a room, we would assume we needed enough bandwidth for 1,000 devices,” he said. “Now that room has to accommodate 3,000 devices because everyone has more than one device, and they want them all connected.”

Miami criminal defense attorney Brian Tannebaum said that not having Wi-Fi in meeting rooms has become a serious problem at some of the half dozen conferences he attends each year.

“The lawyers are like ‘I can’t sit in this room from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and have no contact with my office unless I step outside to check,” he said. “I think the associations need to recognize that it’s just more comfortable to be able to stay connected.”

Flexman said that unlike most professionals, the Fontainebleau has found that lawyers actually use the 24-hour business center that conference planners insist on.

“The one we had recently had 50 stations set up,” he said. “These are people who are used to working 20 hours a day. Typically, when we set those up, they don’t get used, but with law firms, we’ll have 15 to 25 lawyers in there working from midnight to six in the morning.”

He declined to name any firms that have held partnership retreats at the Fontainebleau.

“We’ve recently had some of the top 15 law firms, but they’re pretty secretive,” he said. “A lot of them will even come under assumed names.”

As the economy has improved, Flexman has seen conferences expand.

“They used to be two days, but now we’re seeing them come in for three and four days,” he said.

And just a few years ago, the large international firms would hold separate meetings for their European, Latin American and U.S. divisions, but many have recently started meeting all together. That gives attorneys from the different regions an opportunity to get to know colleagues they might work with in the future.

“When we have a large international firm, we’ll set up the cabanas so they can network,” he said. “For many of these lawyers, referrals are a big part of their business. So we can set up say, the French cabana and the German cabana. That way, instead of walking through a ballroom looking at the name tags of 1,200 people trying to find someone to thank them for a referral or meet someone they might refer business to, they can just go to the cabana.”

Flexman said catering demands have gotten more complicated in recent years.

“We’ve had our chef working to prepare 14 different kinds of cuisines in a buffet to accommodate different ethnic groups and nationalities,” he said. “Now it’s not just vegetarian or vegan. Now we’re getting requests for Indian or Moroccan. You have people who want no oil and, of course, we have to be aware of peanut allergies. People are just more conscious of their food.”

Flexman said the planners for a recent legal conference went so far as to send a native of India to taste the Fontainebleau’s Indian food to make sure it was authentic.

Tannebaum said he’s noticed that the catering for the breaks in between conference sessions has gotten more lavish.

“It used to be, during a break, you would go outside and there would be sodas and coffee,” he said. “Now, there’s often all kinds of variety, almost a buffet of snacks. It may be a way to keep people from leaving. Break time, especially in the afternoon, is often a time for people to decide whether to leave, but if you go outside and you see all this candy and pretzels, maybe you stick around for a bit, then you realize there’s only an hour left and think why not stay.”

Mike Kovensky, director of sales and marketing at the Intercontinental Miami, said the catering staff there has also expanded its offerings.

“We used to get requests for Kosher or vegetarian, but now we get requests for gluten-free or vegan,” he said. “We really deal with more specialty diets than we ever used to.”

The Intercontinental recently hosted the International Council for Commercial Arbitration’s annual conference, which drew more than 1,000 attendees from around the world. Kovensky said that was one of the hotel’s largest legal conferences. He said the Intercontinental usually hosts half a dozen legal conferences a year.

“Miami is a destination in demand right now,” he said. “Groups are booking farther and farther in advance.”

For example, the National Association of Legal Professionals has already booked the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood for its annual conference in 2018.

Kovensky said he is also seeing larger and more lavish legal conferences.

“Some of those strings are loosening a bit and some people are spending more,” he said. “They’re also planning a lot more evening functions, whether they stay on site or go off site.”

Coral Gables attorney Eduardo Palmer, who helped bring the ICCA event to Miami, said this year’s conference was the largest the organization has ever held.

“We had far more people than any previous conference,” he said. “That’s no small thing. This is a venerable organization and they come here, and hold their most well-attended event ever. Miami was a really big draw.”

Palmer said the organization chose Miami this year in part to reward the city and the state for creating a favorable climate for commercial arbitration, but also because commercial arbitration is growing in Latin America and the event planners expected more arbitrators from that region would come to Miami than if it was held anywhere else.

“This was seen as the perfect place to showcase Latin America,” he said.

The ICCA conference booked the entire hotel.

“They were looking for complete control of the hotel, in terms of guest rooms and meeting rooms,” Kovensky said. But the conference drew more attendees than even the entire Intercontinental could accommodate and hotel staff had to help find rooms in other nearby hotels.

“That’s one of the advantages we have in downtown Miami,” Kovensky said. “We have a lot of nearby hotels. The big hotels work with each other. We’re close to the Epic, the Viceroy, the Hilton and Hyatt.”

Carlton Fields Jorden Burt decided not to hold its traditional shareholders’ retreat this year in favor of an all-attorney conference at the Biltmore in Coral Gables after the merger of Carlton Fields with Jorden Burt.

“Because of that merger, we felt it was important to have an all-attorney meeting this year,” said firm spokeswoman Kate Barth. More than 375 attorneys and government consultants from the firm’s 10 offices converged on South Florida in February.

The Biltmore is one of a number of smaller South Florida venues that occasionally hosts legal conferences that don’t draw the kinds of crowds needed to fill the Intercontinental or the Fontainebleau, or farther north, The Breakers in Palm Beach, which is hosting the American Employment Law Council’s annual conference in October.

For large legal conferences, the Boca Raton Resort and Club is also a popular destination and hosted the International Association of Defense Counsel last year. The Eden Roc, which hosted this year’s annual American Bar Association White Collar Crime Conference, and the Lowes, which is hosting the National Trial Lawyers Summit next January, round out the list of large properties that regularly draw the largest legal conferences to South Florida.

Issues that have nothing to do with the technology a venue might offer or the fancy Indian food it serves sometimes drive how South Florida law firms decide where to hold their retreats and conferences.

Holland & Knight does a large, all-lawyer retreat every couple of years, gathering attorneys from around the country and the globe in Florida. The firm expects the latest in technology and excellent catering, according to firm spokeswoman Olivia Hoch. But the law firm has other considerations.

“We have a large hospitality practice, so we like to partner with our clients whenever we can,” Hoch said, noting their all-attorney retreats draw more than 1,000 lawyers. “We do most of our large retreats in Orlando. We have an all-lawyer meeting every two years. When we do that, we go to Orlando because of the cost and the space.”

So even though South Florida is a big draw, it still has competition.