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From the street The Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater, Florida looks lovely, but it’s really once I stepped through her doors that I got a true sense of what’s in store. Being greeted by warm smiles and a friendly “hello” sets a welcoming tone, but it’s the allure of the pool, palms, and ocean that draw me in. Now I’ve been to Florida countless times before, but the stately elegance, understated seashell decor, and cool air were balms to my soul on my arrival on the very humid August day we arrived. I was with a group of event planners from Strategic Incentive Solutions on a site inspection, and since this was my first foray into this arena, I was excited to see St. Pete’s/Clearwater from a whole new angle.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed with our host venue. The Sandpearl is a luxury five-star hotel, and after a day packed with visits to several other venues and destinations, dinner at The Sandpearl that evening was a special affair in the private wine room. Our waiter, Chris, kept us all laughing by regaling us with information and hilarious stories throughout the spectacular meal. Afterward, we wandered outside, drinks in hand, to take in the cooler breezes, many tiny lights strung everywhere, and groups of guests clustered around the pool and beachfront fire pits. The night was crystal clear, the moon hanging large and low in the sky. I couldn’t wait to walk the beach and dip my toes into what we’d been assured was bathwater temperature water, but that would have to wait till morning.

At first light, I made a quick cup of complimentary coffee in my room in the coffee maker set out for guest’s use, padded out to the balcony, and settled in to watch the hotel wake up. At first there was little light, other than those around the pool area directly below me. Stretching as far as my eyes could see was the Gulf of Mexico. I was at peace in the half-light, sipping my coffee alone. As the sun rose in the sky, signs of life became apparent, as workers came out and headed to the beach to rake and clean up for the day’s activities. On impulse, I decided to hurry up and headed out to walk the beach before gearing up for a day packed with activities with the group.

True to the staff’s promise, the water was as warm as a bath, and since I’ve always visited Florida in the March/April time frame before, it was a new experience for me. What followed was a whirlwind day of many personal firsts; exquisite meals and tours of two additional luxury area hotels, and an afternoon on a chartered catamaran, where we watched dolphins play and swim alongside our boat while we were treated to cool, refreshing drinks, snacks, and incredible waterside views of the marinas, resorts, and beaches strung out along the coastline. I quickly came to the realization that the St. Pete’s/Clearwater area I thought I knew had grown up. I must admit to being impressed with the vibrancy, elegance, and luxury offered in a place I’d always thought of as sleepy and perhaps a bit “old-fogey”. Let me tell you, there’s nothing sleepy or old about it! From upscale venues and restaurants, to wide expanses of sand and sea, we experienced some of the very best the travel and tourism trade in Florida have to offer.

That’s not all though. We were there to check out the venues as potential destinations for events, and were pleased to discover that this aspect of each venue exceeded any needs our clients might have. Even more impressive is The Sandpearl’s commitment to what they call, “green meetings”, where biodegradable products, energy efficient lighting, and resort-wide recycling is in full effect in an effort to help protect the Gulf Coast’s unique natural resources. For today’s travelers and event planners, that’s important, since more people are aware of the negative effects humans can and do have on nature.

For me, as it is with most travelers, whether for business, pleasure, or a combination of both, it’s always about the experiences and memories I take away with me. Whether engaging in exciting team building adventures, a sunset dinner cruise, or a must-visit to the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium and introduction to Winter, the dolphin (see my previous post, “It’s All About The Dolphin”), I came away with a tremendous appreciation for this incredible destination, venues, and the community’s commitment to conservation. For anyone seeking an exciting luxury Florida destination along the Gulf of Mexico, I’d highly recommend St. Pete’s/Clearwater and The Sandpearl.

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A few years ago I went on a company site inspection with S.I.S (Strategic Incentive Solutions) to St. Pete’s/Clearwater, Florida. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) hosted a top-notch site inspection for the entire S.I.S. staff for two nights, three days, that featured four fabulous luxury hotels and several exciting points of interest.

Having visited Florida many, many times over the years I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion that this particular area was primarily geared to geriatrics and snow-birders. As a child, my family and I used to frequent the area just to the south of St. Pete’s/Clearwater in our motor home, but I wasn’t as familiar with the town itself as I thought.

St. Pete’s/Clearwater is a bustling, upscale destination boasting some of the travel industry’s top luxury hotels. Facing pristine wide beaches are some of the most beautiful hotels I’ve had the pleasure to visit. With soft white sands underfoot, shore birds, and pelicans wheeling overhead, and the warm gulf coast surf lapping at my cold Canadian toes, I was enchanted.

On arrival we were met by Suzanne and Tina, our two escorts from the local CVB, who drove us to our host hotel, The Sandpearl. From the moment we exited the rental cars, our group was warmly welcomed by the sales manager, Wendy. After a quick change and freshen up, we were back in the car for a short 15 minute drive to meet Winter, the dolphin, at the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter and her friends became the heroes of a much loved, family-friendly film, Dolphin Tale, a movie I’ve enjoyed watching since my return home.

Winter the dolphin

For the next few hours we were given a personal tour by guide, John, who filled us in on all the small details we would have missed otherwise, and told us the heart-breaking story of Winter the dolphin. Winter was rescued from Mosquito Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral. At only two months old, she became wrapped up in a crab trap line, where her tail flukes lost circulation due to the lines. Overcoming extreme odds against survival, and after many trials of outfitting her with a new prosthetic tail, Winter made a tremendous recovery, proving she could overcome anything, and thrive. Once word got out about Winter’s prosthetic tail, people with varying degrees of their own disabilities began showing up at the Aquarium to see this miracle dolphin for themselves, and came away inspired to tackle their own personal challenges with renewed hope.

John told us many stories of marine wildlife in desperate need of the aquarium’s unique services, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the passion, vision, and goals of this small facility and those who worked there. We were constantly reminded that, while open to the public, this is no tourist “show”. This is a working rescue, rehab, and release facility that helps the area’s marine life survive the sometimes brutal encounters with humans and other catastrophes. After the success of A Dolphin Tale, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium saw a tremendous influx of visitors, and much needed revenue. Although I haven’t been back since the new aquarium opened in 2011, I definitely want to return to see how they’re doing and the changes they’ve been able to make!

My personal take-aways from that trip were reminders not to prejudge an area. The hidden gems and less-known are often the very best experiences of an entire trip. Even though I know Florida fairly well, and I’m sure much has changed again since I last visited the area several years ago, I have a much deeper appreciation for the people who call this beautiful destination, home. They care about the land, beaches, and animals that share the waters and beaches we visitors take for granted. From the hotel staff who do their utmost to make a visitor’s stay memorable, to the guides who feel a real connection to the causes they believe in, it’s all about sharing a little of what they have with others. For those of us fortunate enough to visit and listen, sometimes the valuable take-away is the education we receive about the real threats humans pose to the environment and animals of this planet. It’s these kinds of experiences that stay with me for years after I’ve returned home, and remind me to pay attention to where I put trash, to respect the beauty of the places I visit, but also be mindful of the damage I might unconsciously do just by being there. Animals like Winter remind me that life is to be lived, and when we co-operate, great things can happen.

Travel. Even the word sends excitement coursing through the veins of those who, like me and my husband, Wayne, enjoy the prospect of embarking on a new journey. Experiencing new places, meeting new people, and discovering exciting new things to do is one of the things that makes us tick. Personally, I love learning the why behind travel; why do we travel, why do we seek new vistas, adventures, and connections, and so many other questions.

The new trend of “experiential travel” is becoming a hot topic in the hospitality, incentive, and travel industry, but some aren’t sure what experiential travel is. Through my work with a full-service rewards and incentive travel company that caters to their many top-tier clients, my understanding is that it is any travel that incorporates adventure, personal growth and wellness, and experiences outside the norm of daily living. Think zip lining, swimming with dolphins (or sharks), hot air balloon rides, culinary or artistic instruction classes, team building exercises, midnight horseback rides on a ranch, attending a world-class sporting event with VIP positioning, standing on the edge of a continent and looking across the ocean to an incredible vastness of water – in effect, anything that makes the heart skip a beat, or enriches the life experience of the traveler.

Experiential travel is also something that travel, venue, and destination hosts acknowledge as being on the top list of needs and wants for today’s traveler. Although many people just want a quiet beach or pool and fruity alcoholic beverage, along with complete relaxation, even more people are seeking to do something new and exciting. They want to get out and connect with the locals, try something new, contribute and/or learn about the local culture in some special way. In fact, many travelers are seeking to connect to that part of themselves that recognizes that this planet we share is a magical and special place. Whether they seek to get back to nature, or source adventures from the safety of their luxury resort, it’s all about experiencing as much as we can about what life has to offer. It’s about opening up and tapping into potentially new awareness. It’s about the take-aways that last a life time.

I know for us, when we get away from home and travel, while we certainly enjoy, and need, the relaxing days by a pool or beach, after a few days, we’re anxious to do and see something new. Neither of us wants to leave this world thinking, I should have… I know we can’t see and do everything we’d like to. We have neither the financial resources or physical ability to do so, but if we can get to experience a few things outside our everyday life, I think we’ll count ourselves blessed.

I’m excited to begin delving into the places both near and far that offer unique opportunities, and I know my husband, Wayne, is too. As part of the process, I’ll be interviewing the providers, event planners, and hosts to learn as much as I can about this growing travel trend, while Wayne will take many of the photographs we’ll use in this blog and social media sites to enhance and showcase what we uncover. I’m not a kid anymore, and neither is Wayne, and we’re definitely not as agile as we used to be, but we can share the information we learn along the way about the who, what, where, when, and perhaps, even some of the why of what’s available in experiential travel.

We welcome comments on adventures and experiences readers have had that they’d like to share, but be prepared to tell us where, and why you went. We also welcome other travel writers, venues, DMCs, experiential providers and hosts, etc. to comment or contact me directly via email at mcclure.d@hotmail.com to arrange an interview and site visit, or to share your stories with our readers here and on my social media posts. For us, it’s all about spreading the word with others.

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