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Business is pleasure in elegant ballroom

The Vinoy convention center is booked almost every day this year. It will free up the resort's two ballrooms for more social functions.

The $10.5-million Palm Court Ballroom is open for business.

The new 15,000-square-foot convention center at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort welcomed its first convention, employees of a pet food company, about a week ago, and representatives of the resort say it is booked almost every day for the rest of the year.

It will be used primarily for conferences and conventions, said resident manager Kris Doubles, freeing up the resort's two ballrooms more frequently for local social functions such as weddings and black-tie galas.

The new facility, which can accommodate 1,200 people, is full of functional gizmos for big trade shows, as well as decorative details that mimic the Vinoy's glamorous 1920s Mediterranean-Revival architecture.

Its exterior is Vinoy pink, with green metal grilles and arched window frames, as in the old building. More than 120 palms have taken their place among mature trees and tropical plants. The new entrance on Seventh Avenue NE is canopied, its surfaces embellished with filigree, etched plasterwork and faux coralstone tile.

"We didn't make it as elaborate as the original architecture," said Krista Boling, director of public relations, "because we still aren't sure how many people will use this as an entrance or will want to come in through the hotel lobby." The main entrance is at 501 Fifth Ave. NE.

The trip from the main hotel to the Palm Court Ballroom is circuitous, involving stairs, ramps and hallways, but for its main purpose, serving the convention crowd, Boling and Doubles said it has been designed to be self-contained.

"Convention groups generally don't want to leave their groups during the day, and here they don't have to," said Boling.

Soundproof panels, called air walls, fold and slide back onto themselves so the 11,340-square-foot ballroom can be broken up into nine configurations to accommodate break-out groups, large-group sessions, communal meals and audio-visual presentations simultaneously. Chandeliers can be raised or lowered for a sense of drama or intimacy. A reception space runs the length of the ballroom and opens onto a grassy courtyard _ the actual Palm Court, which can be tented for more reception area.

A full catering kitchen measuring more than 2,000 square feet is packed with new equipment, including a Hobart continuous-feed dishwasher, "the Rolls Royce of dishwashers," said Doubles, that spans about 15 feet. The overall design is for speed and efficiency. Walk-in coolers are double-sided so servers do not have to enter and disrupt the flow of the cooking staff. Electrical outlets hang from the ceiling in the center of the kitchen so appliances and portable warming ovens can be moved as needed. Unlike many kitchens, located in the dark bowels of a building, this one is flooded with natural light from windows that wrap around the storage and preparation corridors.

Besides the Palm Court Ballroom, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort added an 85-space parking garage and four new HarTru tennis courts on the garage roof.

A breezeway cuts through the former fitness center and tennis shop at ground level. On one side is an expanded cardio-exercise room and a new resort shop. Opening in four to six weeks, it will carry a full line of clothing, "so if your suitcase gets lost at the airport, you can buy anything from a tennis outfit to a cocktail dress here," Doubles said.

Above it, adjacent to the casual Alfresco restaurant, is the Tennis Lounge, where members and guests can have their racquets restrung or chat in easy chairs.

The new complex has been anticipated since March 1997, when voters approved a referendum, necessary because of a 13-year-old land swap deal with the city. Under a 1984 agreement, the city gave the Vinoy the property along Seventh Avenue NE in exchange for part of Vinoy Park. In return, the land was to remain an open space or used for recreation. Changing the land use required voter approval.

"Everyone saw, early on, the inherent need to serve a lot more functions and people," said Boling, the resort's public relations director. Local demand for the elegant ballroom often was edged out by a convention because, she said "a hotel has to put heads in beds. Our first goal is to fill our rooms."

Hoping to mitigate some conflicts, the Vinoy opened the Sunset Ballroom in 1997 after spending more than $1-million renovating the 1925 clubhouse on Snell Isle.

The completion of the Palm Court Ballroom coincides with the yearlong 75th anniversary celebration of the Vinoy, which opened with a grand party on Dec. 31, 1925. Now that the Palm Court is open, Boling said physical expansion is complete. Upgrades, both Boling and Doubles said, never end. In January, refurbishment of guest rooms begins.

"It's like a circle," said Doubles, the resident manager. "A good circle."