No other meeting location in the U.S. can match the singular allure of Washington, DC. It is the world’s premier “power” destination. Although the nation’s capital does attract corporate meetings, it is much more frequently utilized for government and association meetings, as well as events and conferences staged by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and foreign governments and organizations.
That means that corporate planners looking for rates, dates and space on a typical budget often have to look outside the city’s limits to find accommodations. Fortunately, northern Virginia and southern Maryland fill that need very well.
Located just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, Alexandria, Virginia combines a unique history that dates back to before the American Revolution with modern flourishes that have made it a stylish and sophisticated destination.
Steve Powell, president of Greensboro, North Carolina-based Solum Consulting, which plans educational and leadership conferences in the agricultural industry, has been using Alexandria for one or two meetings a year for the last decade.
“There are two key reasons why we are so loyal to Alexandria,” Powell says. “The first is its proximity to Washington, DC. As part of our meeting agendas, we often go into the city for meetings on Capitol Hill with members of Congress or with staff at various federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Alexandria is very convenient. It’s very easy to get from any hotel in Alexandria to any place you want to go in Washington in about 20 minutes.”
The second factor that keeps bringing his events back to Alexandria is cost savings. “We also save money in Alexandria, which is a much more budget-friendly environment than Washington,” Powell says. “We’ve done detailed cost research in comparing Alexandria to Washington, and for a meeting we hosted last November, we saved 20 percent on room rates. For food and beverage, we also saved 25 percent by staying in Alexandria. In addition, based on our F&B minimum, we got our meeting space at no cost. No hotel in Washington would offer that. And that saved us even more money.”
Such savings are particularly important to Powell because the budgets for his meetings are underwritten by Sygenta Corporation, a major crop science company that pays the cost of his events.
For last November’s meeting, a four-day, three-night event for 22 agricultural industry executives, Powell chose the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa in Old Town Alexandria as his hotel.
“We found the hotel thanks to the efforts of Visit Alexandria, the local CVB,” he says. “I give all the credit to them. They made my job very easy. I contacted them very early on and told them what we were doing and what we needed, and they did a fantastic job of helping us find the perfect hotel. They helped us put together our RFP and then they put it out to all of the hotels that they felt would meet our needs. Then we selected several finalists and finally narrowed it down to our choice of the Kimpton Lorien.”
Based on his experience and the feedback he got from attendees, Powell gives the Kimpton Lorien high marks. “The room product is excellent,” he says. “The bedding, the bathrooms and the lighting are all very good. The F&B is also excellent. The hotel also offers an intimate environment, which was perfect for such a small meeting. The staff was also excellent. They gave us tremendous and very personalized service. And that is very important to us, because in addition to wanting attendees to remember the content we present, we also want them to remember the experience they had. And the Kimpton Lorien and the other hotels we’ve used in the past in Old Town Alexandria have all delivered on that count.”
The Kimpton Lorien is currently completing a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Powell returned to Alexandria in February for a 35-attendee meeting at The Westin Alexandria, also located in Old Town. “I always use an Old Town hotel because the area has a great history, but also has a modern ‘cool factor,’ ” Powell says. “It’s a unique and sophisticated place. And there are nice dining options right down on the Potomac River, in historic old buildings that have been renovated. And places like that make the meeting memorable.”
Last May, Alexandria’s first waterfront hotel, the Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria, made its debut.
Given its singular history, Alexandria and its northern Virginia surroundings also offer a number of exceptional offsite venues. Among them are Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, where George Washington celebrated his birthday and Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other famous early Americans dined and danced. George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate is also available for corporate events. More modern popular venues include the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a former 1900s munitions factory that is now a working art studio for local artists, and Port City Brewery.
Yet another popular activity for groups is Potomac Riverboat Company aboard The Cherry Blossom or the Parisian-themed Nina’s Dandy.
An hour north of Washington, DC, Baltimore is another historic city that has undergone a modern transformation and gentrification that has turned it into a popular meeting destination.
Last August, Mark Fried, CEO and president of New York-based Vendome Group, a media company that produces major conferences, used Baltimore for a National Conference for Addiction Disorders, which drew 1,000 attendees from entities such as addiction treatment centers and drug testing companies.
Why Baltimore? “The evolution of Baltimore over the last few years, with things like the development of the Inner Harbor, and the gentrification of the destination in general, were major factors in our decision to go there,” Fried says. “And Baltimore today is also much more than just the Inner Harbor. There is a lot going on there. It’s just a destination that offers a lot of flexibility in terms of options, so it works very well for meetings in our markets. It’s a destination that has curb appeal for many of the markets we represent. The meeting infrastructure in Baltimore is also very good.”
Another factor in Baltimore’s favor was its airlift. “We had people that used all three of the area airports — Baltimore/Washington, Dulles and Washington National,” Fried says. “And multiple airport options meant both convenience and cost-effective fares from around the country.”
As his headquarters hotel, Fried chose the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards. He used the same hotel, located adjacent to the stadium where the Baltimore Orioles play at Camden Yards, several years ago when he hosted his first-ever conference in Baltimore.
“The quality and configuration of a hotel’s meeting space is always a major consideration for us in selecting a hotel,” Fried says. “We need a large ballroom for general sessions. We also need a fairly large exhibit hall. And we do breakout sessions. And I happen to like ‘stacked’ space, so the Marriott Inner Harbor was a natural choice for us. And it’s an excellent property. Both the room product and the food and beverage were excellent. We were very pleased with the property.”
The local dining scene, especially in the Inner Harbor area, earned rave reviews from his attendees, Fried says. “There’s a wide range of dining options, including within easy walking distance of the Marriott hotel,” he says. One common denominator when it came to food: Maryland’s world-famous crabs. “Whenever you talk about Baltimore and food, you’re going to talk about crabs,” Fried says. “There are crab restaurants that range from casual to fine dining. Almost every single person I spoke to at the meeting was either going to have crabs at the hotel or was planning to go out for crabs somewhere well-known.”
The overall attractions of the Inner Harbor area also generated a lot of positive feedback from attendees, Fried says. “They really enjoyed the Inner Harbor scene, including the restaurants and entertainment options. They also enjoyed the fact that there is the walkway around the harbor, which makes exploring easy and fun.”
Among the top attractions are the Maryland Science Center, which features an IMAX Theater; the National Aquarium; the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine; and the historic battleships now housed in the harbor, including the USS Constellation, USS Torsk and USCGC Taney.
For meeting planners considering Baltimore as a destination, Fried also highly recommends working with local CVB Visit Baltimore. “I rate them very highly,” he says. “Too often, we as meeting planners find that CVBs are either very passive or not reactive at all. And Visit Baltimore was great. They helped us with our collateral materials and other practical aspects of the meeting. It was a pleasure to work with them.”
Because of his success in Baltimore last year — the conference was the second most well-attended in Vendome’s history — Fried is going back next year. “Baltimore is just a destination that leads to a successful meeting,” he says.
Another meeting planner who has discovered the appeal of Baltimore is Justin Haggart, event marketing manager at Somerset, New Jersey-based Guest Supply, a Sysco company.
For the last two years, Haggart has used Baltimore as the destination for Guest Supply’s annual July five-day, four-night sales conference, which draws 500 attendees. The company will return this July for the third consecutive year.
“The reason we keep returning is simple,” Haggart says. “Baltimore is a very good meeting destination. There are a lot of things for attendees to do in their spare time.”
Like Fried, Haggart and his attendees like the fact that Baltimore also offers three major airports as logistical options.
Guest Supply’s hotel is the Hilton Baltimore, located in Inner Harbor, across the street from Camden Yards and connected to the Baltimore Convention Center. Why such loyalty to a single hotel?
“The ballroom space at the Hilton is a very good fit for us,” Haggart says. “We take over the entire Key Ballroom, which is about 25,000 sf, and also the entire Holiday Ballroom, which is 15,000 sf. We use the Key Ballroom for exhibit space and the Holiday Ballroom for general sessions and dinners. We also use a lot of breakdown rooms. So the space at the Hilton is just perfectly suited to us. The F&B is also great. The team that we work with at the hotel is excellent. They have been wonderful partners. The hotel also has enough rooms so that as our meeting grows, they can still accommodate us. There are also lots of convenient opportunities outside the hotel, including offsite venues.”
Haggart has especially appreciated the hotel’s creative F&B options. “Two years ago, they brought in local oystermen who harvest famous Chesapeake Bay oysters and we did a Maryland crab feast,” he says. “Last year, we did a barbecue outside that included burgers and sausages. They really work with us to change up the menus and do fun things.”
Last year’s meeting also featured a baseball game-style tailgate event. Afterward, the group went across the street and attended an Orioles game.
Haggart encourages meeting planners who have not experienced Baltimore to investigate it. “Baltimore is very convenient, especially in terms of its three airports, for people coming in from the East Coast,” he says. “It also offers a lot of opportunities to get away from the hotel. For example, when I was there recently, I toured Sagamore Distillery as the possible venue for a dinner event this year. And new options like that mean you can keep going back to Baltimore, but also have enough options for doing something different from last year so that you can keep your event fresh.”
Two major meeting properties located in southern Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, are two of the country’s most acclaimed meeting properties: the MGM National Harbor and Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.
MGM National Harbor, located just minutes from the heart of Washington, DC, on the banks of the Potomac River is a sprawling gaming resort complex that includes a state-of-the-art theater that hosts big-name entertainers and is also a meeting and conference venue. Among its critically acclaimed restaurants are Fish by José Andrés, and Voltaggio Brothers Steak House. Tap Sports Bar is also popular with groups. The resort’s meeting facilities, which total 50,000 sf, include ballrooms, VIP suites and boardrooms, as well as the theater for general sessions.
Marriott’s Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, also located in National Harbor, Maryland, is just 10 miles from the U.S. Capitol. Noted for its dramatic 19-story atrium, the resort’s flagship restaurant is the Old Hickory Steakhouse. The complex also offers a popular and casual sports bar. Gaylord National offers 546,000 sf of meeting and event space, including 89 meeting rooms and the 24,000-sf RiverView Ballroom. Amenities include an indoor pool, fitness center, spa and salon.
Live! Casino Hotel Maryland, located in the Washington, DC, Baltimore corridor, boasts one of the country’s largest casinos, as well as world-class dining and entertainment. Opening in May is Live! Hotel, a 17-story tower adjacent to the casino with 310 guest rooms, including 52 suites. Live! Hotel will offer more than 20,000 sf of customizable event space, including a large ballroom with six breakout rooms, expansive prefunction space and an executive boardroom. Live! Hotel also will house a grand event center; 1,500-seat concert venue; built-in performance stage; and banquet seating for up to 800 people. C&IT