There is an area of Florida that is markedly different than the rest.
Florida is a popular place. Tens of millions of people visit its top destinations: Orlando, Miami, Key West and the many cities that dot the east and west coasts of the Sunshine State. But in the Panhandle area in the northwest corner of the state, Panama City Beach offers a distinctive experience for groups. This third-tier city of 13,000 residents has 27 miles of beautiful white-sand beaches and is less crowded and more affordable without a step-down in quality.
“The Old Florida vibe is still here in the Panhandle, which means it’s family oriented and less congested,” said Renee Wuerdeman, vice president of sales for Visit Panama City Beach, the local convention and visitors bureau. The Panhandle enjoys an average of 320 days of sunshine every year, and its pace of life stands out for many visitors. “It’s a different Florida experience,” said Wuerdeman.
She loves church groups and will host the Going On Faith Conference September 13-15, 2022. This meeting of top religious travel planners from all over America will take place at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort, a AAA Four-Diamond property.
“We have always had a lot of religious-based business here,” said Wuerdeman, “whether it is church group members evangelizing on the beach or youth groups coming in to do service work. We have always been an attractive site for these organizations.”
Getting the most bang for their buck is important to many budget-minded religious groups that invest precious resources to bring their members to Florida.
“We tell our groups that we offer a lot of value for the money,” said Wuerdeman. “You will get all the amenities of a first-tier city without all the higher cost. That includes hotel rooms, meeting spaces and food-and-beverage service. We have long beaches that are wide and safe, and groups can congregate on them.”
Panama City Beach and surrounding Bay County together offer more than 18,000 lodging units. They are wide-ranging and include hotels, motels, resorts, villas, townhomes, condos and bed-and-breakfasts. There is rarely trouble finding the right type of accommodation in Panama City Beach.
This section of the Florida Panhandle was struck hard by Hurricane Michael in the fall of 2018. Panama City Beach has bounced right back, better than ever, in Wuerdeman’s opinion.
“We can’t wait to get the Going On Faith Conference group travel planners here,” she said, “because many of them have not been here since all of the improvements have been made to our hotels, attractions and infrastructure.”
Visitors to the area often fly into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, just 18 miles away in Panama City. Atlanta, with its myriad connections to cities nationwide, is just a 45-minute flight away. Other visitors will drive into town from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and more northern states via U.S. routes 98 and 231.
Resorts are an important part of the destination experience in Panama City Beach. The Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort will host the Going On Faith Conference. The property has 200 rooms and 120 villas and features Sheraton signature beds and bedding. There is an upscale full-service spa, a 24-hour state-of-the-art gym, a private beach, heated pools and a large bayside pool deck. In addition, the property has the only Nicklaus Design golf course in northwest Florida.
Another quality resort in Panama City Beach is the gulf-front Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort with 370 rooms and units. It features one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom suites, as well as golf villas. The full-service property has an array of meeting space options available to the planner, who can expect all the necessary amenities as well as full-service catering. The site is flexible for small or large meeting groups. Plans call for a renovation of the nearby boardwalk.
Many smaller hotels in the area have meeting spaces that cater to 40 to 60 people. Often these smaller properties are right on the beach.
“Panama City Beach is just a great place to hold religious-based meetings,” said Wuerdeman. “The beach and the vibe of the area lends itself nicely to what religious groups want to do when they come here. I think they will be pleasantly surprised.”
Sun and Fun
Having the beautiful Gulf of Mexico at its doorstep is a real plus for Panama City Beach. Water-related activities and sports are abundant. Sailing, snorkeling, Jet Skiing, wreck diving and boating are just some of the ways people enjoy the gulf. Local providers offer beach chair and umbrella rentals, as well as specialty equipment for activities like paddleboarding and surfing.
“Everything we do here in Panama City Beach revolves around the water,” said the CVB’s Wuerdeman. “We’re laid-back. You’re going to get a very serene experience while you’re here, unless you also like a very lively experience; then we have that too.”
That busy, faster pace may include a trip to the lifestyle center called Pier Park, a 1 million-square-foot, open-air complex with 124 retail stores, restaurants, a sky wheel and an Imax theater, all in one place. There are live music events and festivals throughout the year. Santa is there during Christmastime, and on New Year’s Eve, there’s the annual Beach Ball Drop.
Family entertainment includes favorites like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Wonderworks, Quest Laser Tag, Zoo World Zoological and Botanical Park, Gulf World, Shipwreck Island Waterpark, Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, Marine Park, Museum of Man in the Sea and enough amusement rides to keep folks dizzy and laughing.
Many visitors prefer a slower pace, and that often includes fishing. The area is the setting for a popular Discovery Channel TV show called “Chasin’ the Sun.” The hosts take guests aboard their small boat and go where the fish are — inshore, offshore, under bridges, up creeks, next to a pier or 50 miles out to sea.
Those catches may end up sizzling in a pan in a local restaurant. You can bring your catch to certain restaurants in the area and have them prepare lunch or dinner for you in their kitchens. That’s one reason why the area is called the Seafood Capital of the South.
Parks and Nature
Visitors love to hike, picnic or camp at natural preserves like St. Andrews State Park, which has 1,200 gorgeous acres, 2.5 miles of beaches and two piers for sightseeing and fishing. Water sports are available there.
Camp Helen is another state park with ecology at its heart. It is surrounded on three sides by water and contains an unusual dune lake. The park is designated a historic site.
Conservation Park is another choice, with 24 miles of trails and a lush environment under awnings of cypress trees. It’s fantastic for viewing wildlife, birds and the wetlands from easy-to-access boardwalks.
Frank Brown Park is the scene of the popular Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam, a country music extravaganza that features 30 artists who perform over three days. Not to be outdone, Aaron Bessant Park is the site of the Seabreeze Jazz Festival, which features lots of smooth jazz, with 10 acres of grass, where music lovers can spread out.