Emerging destinations aren’t necessarily undiscovered places — perhaps a more fitting description would be newly discovered. Sometimes called second-tier cities, there is nothing “second” about them, except that they have less traffic, are less expensive and have less attitude than their more famous big sister cities.
Listed below (in alpha order) are our choices for domestic cities that are benefiting from a newfound popularity among U.S. and international corporate meeting planners. It may have started with a new convention hotel or new and better airlift or a noted chef who has returned home to open an award-winning farm-to-fork restaurant.
What these destinations all have in common are vibrant, business-friendly downtowns, efficient and affordable deluxe accommodations and meeting spaces, and CVBs that are more than ready to assist planners with organizing large or small conferences, meetings, events and offsite experiences.
The 513-room Omni Grove Park Inn unveiled its new Seely Pavilion this year. The arts-and-crafts-inspired venue offers more than 3,200 sf of function space and overlooks the property’s golf course and Blue Ridge Mountains. The pavilion features exposed trusses, reclaimed wood and a stacked hearth around a large fireplace, polished concrete flooring and floor-to-ceiling doors and windows. Other amenities include a subterranean spa, a Donald Ross-designed golf course, four locally sourced restaurants, an outdoor pool and indoor and outdoor tennis courts. The property offers 86,852 sf of meeting and event space, including 31 meeting rooms, two ballrooms, outdoor terraces and patios, and an 18,000-sf grand ballroom for up to 1,800 guests.
Biltmore, America’s largest private home, is a 250-room mansion built by George W. Vanderbilt in 1895. There are extensive gardens and winery on the 8,000-acre estate. There are many group experiences available; from the Land Rover Driving Experience to fly-fishing to team cook-offs and customized tours. Opening this fall, the Amherst Ballroom will be Biltmore’s largest event venue with 11,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space.
Newly opened properties downtown include the AC Hotel, with 132 rooms, a 325-space parking garage and 2,000 sf of meeting space. The rooftop restaurant and bar “Capella on 9” offers views of downtown and the surrounding mountains. The Cambria Downtown Asheville has 136 rooms, and 7,440 sf of meeting and event space.
“The combination of…(Hotel Marina del Rey’s)location, excellent food and a remarkable staff are perfect for creating an intimate and nurturing environment.”
— Barbara Englis, LCSW
The Asheville Foundry Inn, part of Hilton’s upscale Curio Collection, is set to open later this year with 3,000 sf of functional meeting and event space on The Block, a progressive and multicultural hub, as well as the historic heart and soul of the African-American community.
“We organize an annual employee appreciation event for a corporate client that runs a chain of convenience stores,” says Kelly Dickinson, meeting and event manager for the Michigan-based Special D Events. “The two-day annual event draws about 300 attendees; the most recent took place in July of this year. We are working on contracting with the same property, Crowne Plaza Asheville, for 2019 and 2020.
“The client is headquartered in Pennsylvania, and this event started out being held at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort in that state,” says Dickinson. “But after 40 years the company had grown so much that they needed to add a Southern location. Asheville was the perfect fit for the group because it offered a similar vibe, a family-style mountain destination, with golf and lots of other activity options, so there is always a Northern (Pennsylvania) and a Southern event (North Carolina).”
Dickinson says that group activities included a Biltmore tour, a New Belgium Brewery tour, bingo, arts and crafts, zip-lining, chair massages and other events. They also did cocktail receptions, entertainment (usually a comedian), fireworks and an after-party. “There’s just so much to do in Asheville, and the western North Carolina mountain hospitality can’t be beat,” she says.
The city has a number of exciting annual events including their own Mardi Gras, culinary and music events and Louisiana State University (LSU) football. New venues include White Star Market, opened May 2018, a contemporary urban gourmet food hall located in the Mid-City neighborhood, showcasing some of the most unique food and drink offerings in the city. With 10 noted local vendors, and more to come, the new venue is on the ground floor of Square 46, Baton Rouge’s newest and most exciting mixed-use development.
The big attraction for planners considering Baton Rouge is the completion of the 299-room Baton Rouge Marriott’s $28 million renovation, which finished this spring. The renovations involved expanding guest rooms and bathrooms, in addition to the remodeling of the hotel lobby, restaurant and meeting areas. Expanded meeting space, now 29,979 sf, includes 25 event rooms (largest capacity 1,000) and 19 breakout rooms. The 20th floor of the 22-story Marriott includes an expanded concierge lounge for gold and platinum members. Stinky’s Fish Camp, which already has a popular Florida location in Santa Rosa Beach, opened on the ground floor of the hotel, specializing in fresh fish and seafood.
The city’s downtown 290-room Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center is adjacent to the Shaw Center and the River Center Convention Center, less than five minutes to the Louisiana State Capitol and three miles from LSU. It offers 20,000 sf of flexible meeting and banquet space, and specializes in large scale corporate and catering events.
Boulder is enriched with natural beauty, hip urban culture and vibrant outdoor adventures. TripAdvisor recently named it one of the “Top 25 Destinations in the U.S.” and one of the “Top 100 Destinations in the World.” It is located at the base of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, has only 103,000 residents, and a compact, business-friendly downtown.
“I think Boulder has a phenomenal growth strategy, we’re surrounded by 45,000 acres of wide open spaces, land that we call Open Space,” says Kim Farin, director of marketing for the Boulder CVB. “Land that the citizens own and can’t ever be developed. Developments in Boulder can’t sprawl because of the Open Space plan, and they can’t grow up because of the height restrictions. This is what makes Boulder a great town for corporate groups: because it’s condensed, everything is right here.”
Columbia’s CVB, known as Experience Columbia, is getting a stream of queries from corporate planners who love what they are hearing about the city’s growing reputation as more than a pleasant and friendly college town. As the state capital of South Carolina, it’s a business-friendly city that offers affordable meeting venues and great Southern charm.
The 221-room Hilton Columbia Center property is next to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center (CMCC). The Hilton offers 5,956 sf of flexible function space, while the Sheraton Columbia and the Columbia Marriott are both within walking distance of the CMCC. Built in 2004, the downtown CMCC is a modern and architecturally significant 142,500-sf facility that includes a 17,135-sf ballroom, 15,145 sf of meeting space and a 24,700-sf exhibit hall.
Lexington’s first-class facilities and unique attractions make it an appealing destination for meetings and incentive groups. Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport is just 10 minutes from downtown, and the city offers close proximity to more than 7,900 affordable hotel rooms.
The Lexington Center offers 66,000 sf of exhibition space, 40,000 sf of meeting rooms and an additional 25,000 sf of prefunc tion spaces. In the heart of downtown, the Lexington Center complex includes the famous 23,000-seat Rupp Arena.
Meetings utilizing the convention center, plus the adjoining Hyatt and Hilton hotels, have 169,000 total sf of flexible meeting and exhibit space under one roof, with more than 100 restaurants and bars within walking distance.
Located in the heart of the Los Angeles coastline and only four miles from LAX, Marina del Rey offers more than 100,000 sf of waterfront meeting space and 1,100 hotel guest rooms.
Long known as an eclectic beach destination, all five of the city’s main hotels have undergone renovations in the past few years, and the number of corporate meetings and events has grown tremendously in that time.
The 370-room Marina del Rey Marriott has recently renovated all meeting and public spaces, including the California Ballroom, the hotel’s largest space at 6,072 sf, and the 4,264-sf penthouse-level Bayview Ballroom, in which floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic coastline views.
The 134-room Hilton Garden Inn Marina del Rey offers easy access to the area’s amenities, as well as 7,245 sf of flexible meeting space. The Ritz-Carlton has updated its ballroom at 8,190 sf, and additional event spaces add 6,500 sf on the hotel’s marina level.
Yacht rentals are popular for meetings and business programs, and the local CVB maintains a list of numerous skippered vessels available for charter. Hornblower Cruises & Events has been updating its five local ships, including the Entertainer, with 6,600 sf of event space on three decks, accommodating up to 550 passengers. Two new Marina del Rey hotels, Courtyard Marriott and Residence Inn, broke ground in 2018, while the Pier 44 redevelopment project with new restaurants has an estimated 2019 completion.
“For our group of about 62 attendees we chose the Marina del Rey Hotel this past April for its location, on a lovely marina and close to LAX, its food, meaning the popular Salt restaurant responsible for the catering, and service,” says Barbara Englis, LCSW, program manager for Paras and Associates, a provider of technology systems that enable immediate access to language interpreting via video and telephone. “The purpose of the meeting was to facilitate a productive exchange of information among managers from the Health Care Interpreter Network. We have organized this meeting of network members several times over the past decade at lovely, small hotels and at the Hotel Marina del Rey for the last three meetings. The combination of the hotel’s location, excellent food and a remarkable staff are perfect for creating an intimate and nurturing environment.
“The meeting rooms at the property are exceptional,” Englis continues. “We use one meeting room for the whole group; it has a lovely Marina view, fresh air and wonderful light, all amenities that make an event in Marina del Rey successful. There is a second, smaller room next to it that is perfect for shared meals. An early evening reception allows you to take full advantage of sunset over the marina.”
This year more than 40,000 shareholders attended Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting at Omaha’s CenturyLink Convention Center and other venues in the city. The average occupancy rate of greater Omaha’s 15,000+ hotel rooms during the annual May event is 95 percent. Sure, most of the attendees are coming to hear, see and hopefully meet with CEO Warren Buffett, but also because they want to spend several days in Omaha, one of the most intriguing emerging destinations in the Midwest.
With more new hotels and dining venues opening each year, the city’s Downtown Convention District is emerging as a very convenient and affordable destination for corporate meeting and event planners. The heart of the Convention District is located just 4.7 miles from Omaha’s airport, and within walking distance of boutiques, galleries, restaurants and offsite venues.
The newest addition to the Downtown Convention District is the 333-room Capitol District Marriott, opened in 2017. The hotel includes 17,000 sf of flexible meeting space and is located directly across from the CenturyLink Convention Center, providing additional convenience for meeting groups. The Marriott is the first phase of a new $205 million entertainment district that is quickly taking shape downtown. When complete, the Capitol District will include apartments, retailers, restaurants and an outdoor entertainment venue. The new property is within walking distance of TD Ameritrade Park and Omaha’s Old Market Entertainment District.
CenturyLink Center Omaha is a hybrid facility that offers more than 346,000 sf of convention center space with an 18,300-seat attached arena. The convention center consists of 194,000 sf of contiguous exhibition space, more than 63,000 sf of meeting space including 16 meeting rooms, a 30,996-sf ballroom and an extra 79,400 sf of prefunction space. A glass-enclosed skywalk links the convention center to the 600-room AAA Four Diamond Hilton Omaha with an additional 15 meeting rooms.
“In April of this year we organized our annual Home Instead Senior Care network meeting in Omaha,” says Rob Helling, vice president of creative development for Omaha-based Sonburst Communication, a firm which does meeting planning, production and marketing for a number of clients. “We brought 1,500 franchise owners from Home Instead to the city for three nights of business and social events, using the CenturyLink Convention Center for our larger meetings and Hilton Omaha as our host hotel, where we booked every meeting room and guest room in the property.”
Helling’s group also used the new Capitol District Marriott, the Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn as additional accommodations, and she believes that Omaha is emerging as one of the best destinations in the country for corporate meetings and events. “Even if we were not based in Omaha, I sincerely feel that the city offers great quality and value, and some of the best F&B in the nation,” Helling says. “Most of our corporate meetings are cost-driven, and I would put Omaha up against any convention city in the country regarding affordability. CenturyLink is efficient and high quality, as are the hotel meeting facilities in the city. We have international groups that want to come to Omaha every year because of the ease of getting around the city, the great steak restaurants we have, and the friendly service they get everywhere they go. They enjoy it because Omaha is a cosmopolitan city, but not in a threatening way.”
In the past two years there have been a number of new hotel properties which have given meeting planners additional accommodations and space options, in various price categories, solidifying the city’s new attractiveness as a meetings destination. The 204-room AC Hotel Portland Downtown opened in 2017, and its five event rooms, totaling 1,675 sf, are suitable for smaller executive meetings.
Marriott’s Hi-Lo Hotel Portland, part of its Autograph Collection, is a 120-room boutique property that occupies the historic Oregon Pioneer Building downtown, retaining Huber’s Café, the city’s oldest restaurant, within its modern interior. The Hi-Lo offers four eclectic meeting rooms, perfect for client presentations, board meetings, conferences and social events. The event spaces include brass light fixtures, marble countertops and artwork.
The 299-room Porter Hotel, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, opened in April 2018, offering more than 5,000 sf of event space. The Porter has large, outdoor covered terraces overlooking downtown Portland. Canopy by Hilton Portland Pearl District opened this summer, with 153 rooms, local craft beer and artisanal breakfasts. The property features 1,095 sf of collaborative meeting space, and is a short walk to the Oregon Convention Center.
Portland will become even more attractive to meeting planners when the new $244 million Hyatt Regency Portland opens in December 2019. Located next door to the Oregon Convention Center, the 600-room hotel will feature 32,710 sf of meeting and event space, including a 12,655-sf ballroom.
New offsite activities for corporate groups and incentives include The Nightwood Society (opened 2017), a collaborative of women who are farmers, butchers and creatives working together to produce extraordinary experiences around food and wine. Revolution Hall’s Roof Deck is a restored red brick-walled Washington High School that has been transformed into one of the city’s top destinations for live entertainment. The Roof Deck offers 360-degree views of the city.
Downtown’s Director Park is an intimate venue with an urban vibe and an artistic ambience, making it ideal for a variety of mid-size and smaller events. Located in the heart of downtown Portland, it is designed in the style of a European piazza with movable café tables and chairs. With a banquet capacity of 700; and reception of 1,200.
The Portland Art Museum includes the modernist Belluschi Building, outdoor sculpture courts and the transformed Mark Building, featuring the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art. The historic ballrooms at the core of the Mark Building are fully restored with updated lighting, air conditioning and state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment. More than 40,000 sf of event space includes 20,736 sf of meeting rooms, banquet capacity of 560, and a reception capacity of 1,000.
The Greater Richmond Convention Center maintains 180,000 sf of exhibition space in the heart of the city’s downtown. Due to a number of new offsite meeting venues and new restaurants and hotels, the city is rapidly increasing its corporate meetings business.
Housed in an iconic new building designed by the renowned Steven Holl Architects, the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art opened in April 2018, and presents the work of contemporary artists through exhibitions, performances, installations and interdisciplinary programs, while offering plenty of meeting space. The Dewey Gottwald Center at the Science Museum of Virginia is the museum’s newest addition, opened in April 2017 and can seat 500 attendees.
“Our last sales conference occurred in February 2018 with about 1,000 participants,” says Anna Taylor, event marketing manager at CoStar Group, Inc. CoStar conducts expansive, ongoing research to produce and maintain the largest and most comprehensive database of commercial real estate information. Headquartered in Washington, DC, CoStar maintains offices throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe with a staff of more than 4,100 people worldwide, including the industry’s largest professional research organization. “We chose Richmond because CoStar Group opened a large research office in Richmond and wanted to bring the company together to celebrate the success of the local office,” Taylor explains.
“Six local hotels were utilized for the sleeping rooms, and a welcome reception was held at The Jefferson, where we displayed local, Southern flair,” she says. “The newly renovated Main Street Station was used for a large seated dinner followed by a concert with local clients. The last night was an awards ceremony held at the Altria Theatre.”
After major renovations, the Crowne Plaza is now rebranded as Delta Hotels by Marriott Richmond Downtown, which is Marriott’s newest upscale, full-service brand. The renovations included adding 2,000 sf of meeting space, updating the guest rooms, adding a restaurant and remodeling the ballroom. This is the brand’s seventh location in the United States.
Richmond’s Main Street Station project completed a $92 million renovation in 2017. The project initially began in 1991, and the restoration of the 100,000-sf train shed was the third phase in this project. The station currently has four Amtrak trains running daily serving routes bound for Newport News and Washington, DC. The station has several event spaces, including The Main Street Station Train Shed, 47,000 sf of event space (capacity: 2,220+) and second-floor space with breathtaking views of Richmond.
The clock-towered Main Street Station offers 10,000 sf of event space (capacity: 395 for seated dinner, 740 for cocktails) spanning two floors, and includes a logia, balcony and grand hall. This space is a National Historic Landmark.
Once planners and attendees give these second-thought meetings destinations a chance, they’ll soon understand why they’ll never be rated second best. C&IT