“Meetings are just meetings unless you can make them remarkable,” says Falon Veit Scott, CMM, CEO of Evolution Event Solutions in Nashville. “One way to do this is to capitalize on the local atmosphere to fuel networking, creativity, experience and an overall improved ROI. Local flavor improves the overall ROI in that there are more dynamic results including stronger relationships forged, deeper creativity reached and greater attendee happiness.”
Every town has something about it that visitors can’t find anywhere else. Here are 10 destinations that understand how to capitalize on what they have.
What’s the best way to give attendees a deep dive into the historic yet ever-changing culture of New York City? Greg Bynes, CIS, regional sales manager at PRA New York, worked on the 2018 incentive program of a national insurance firm to do exactly that.
“New York City has developed a lot and so has this company in terms of its vision, methodology and strategies. It was important for us to align our forward-thinking city to this group, without taking away the historical aspects that are also true identifiers,” Bynes says.
His team proposed a program that combined experiences that were historical with strong local ties but also showcased a city that is moving forward with new and innovative offerings.
“It’s important, he notes, “for planners to challenge destination partners to come up with creative solutions. For example, because we couldn’t arrange fair-priced ‘Hamilton’ tickets on Broadway, we brought in a ‘Hamilton’ tribute band to one of the evening receptions. This was a huge surprise to this group, and they were stunned to see a tribute band at their reception. It brought in the local flavor of what’s new in NYC without breaking the bank!”
Among the restaurants they chose was River Café in Brooklyn, which has wowed diners for decades yet still provides a memorable experience — especially with arrival by boat. “That gave attendees a real understanding of the landscape of our city, while also breaking away from Manhattan to explore a different neighborhood,” Bynes says. “While 10 years ago, Brooklyn may have only been suited for a quick tour, Brooklyn neighborhoods have really come alive for product launches, activation stations and larger meeting compatibility.”
“Local flavor improves the overall ROI in that there are more dynamic results including stronger relationships forged, deeper creativity reached and greater attendee happiness.” — Falon Veit Scott, CMM
Another culinary highlight was a customized “nosh tour” through the Lower East Side that included multiple stops and ended at Katz’s Deli. “The Lower East Side is a hub of historical and unique eateries, as this neighborhood was where the teeming masses landed after passing through Ellis Island,” Bynes says. “Filled with sights and sounds and, most importantly, the smells of ethnic cooking, this customized nosh tour featured all types of native cuisines.”
The tour was a huge hit with attendees, as was another that Bynes says, “brings to life the three pillars of the Americas: economy, politics and religion. And, it took only a few hours!
“Lower Manhattan has come alive since 9/11, and the rebirth of businesses, nonprofits and tech hubs truly portrays the innovation there,” he adds. “This, along with the staples of Wall Street, Trinity Church, the New York Stock Exchange and the memorials of September 11th provided a well-rounded overview of our resilient city. For an insurance company that specializes in retirement, this tour and the program in general gave life and inspiration to a group that will remember this trip for years.”
Vanessa Figueroa, destination support services director with Discover Puerto Rico, believes it’s easy to find authentic experiences on the island. She points to walking tours through Old San Juan, visits to the city’s forts and mixology classes at Casa Bacardi.
In addition, she notes, there’s also walking the trails of El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system, and the chance to taste interesting local dishes such as mofongo. The cobblestone streets of Old San Juan provide insight into hundreds of years of island history and Spanish, African and Taino Indian influences. There are only five bioluminescent bays in the entire world and three of them are in Puerto Rico, giving planners a chance to offer attendees a nighttime nature experience that dazzles the senses.
It all starts with the people, Figueroa says. “We are genuinely friendly, heartfelt and service-oriented. Our services team is here to anticipate needs and assure that the attendee experience is a memorable one.”
Paul Upchurch, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, sees authenticity across multiple venues and genres. “Our services team strives to give every meeting planner and convention attendee an authentic Milwaukee experience based on their individual needs. It can be hosting gatherings in a century’s-old brewery, exclusive tours of several distinct neighborhoods, a yacht party on the Milwaukee River or VIP access to our world’s largest music festival. We work with the unique needs of every convention to create a successful and fun event.”
Upchurch refers to his city as “a wonderfully random destination” with no shortage of genuine experiences. “VISIT Milwaukee’s convention staff pay homage to the city’s brewing history with a beer bar at conventions, create custom printing press souvenirs in partnership with a local printer and serve the city’s signature stacked Bloody Marys,” he says. “VISIT Milwaukee also likes to send MKE love across the world by offering Milwaukee-themed postcards for attendees to fill out to be mailed by the DMO.”
One-of-a-kind venues also abound, including the only Harley-Davidson Museum in the world, a “flying” art museum with wings that open and flap, historic brewery caves at Miller Brewing Company and beer baron Frederick Pabst’s mansion. The city’s waterside setting also creates tour opportunities, he says, “from group kayaking on the Milwaukee River to sailing on Lake Michigan in a 19th-century Great Lakes schooner.” For golfers, Upchurch says there’s the possibility of playing the course that will host the 2020 Ryder Cup.
One great cultural experience for groups is Milwaukee Food & City Tours. Caitlin Weitzel, private events and logistics manager, points to the artisans, vendors and venues that make these tours an “only in Milwaukee” adventure.
“Our tours highlight locally owned and family businesses,” she says. “For example, we did our progressive ethnic meal through Milwaukee for a financial client. It starts on Old World Third Street with cheese and sausage, where our guide talks about Milwaukee’s German heritage. Many in the group were shocked to learn this was the original downtown. From there, it’s into the Third Ward and stories about the original Irish and Italian families that lived there. We visit Milwaukee Public Market, a must-do, then head to Polonez, the last authentic Polish restaurant in Milwaukee. Alexandra and George are the couple that own it, and often, she welcomes the group in her thick Polish accent. That’s the epitome, in my opinion, of why we do what we do. We bring commerce into businesses that have stories and people who have made our community what it is.”
The tour finishes at the lakefront with dessert at Peter Sciortino’s Bakery on Brady Street, a time-honored establishment from the Italian era. “I truly believe authenticity is a product of love, passion and history,” Weitzel says. “From our knowledgeable tour guides and drivers to the restaurant partners we work with, we simply want to share our love of Milwaukee’s story and tastes with our guests.”
Private tours can vary from two-and-a-half to five hours and can accommodate 15 to more than 300 guests. There are around 20 tours available, including a Beers, Brats & Bikes Tour and one that focuses on the history of pizza in the city; all include local history, architecture, culture and multiple restaurants and vendors.
Even a city that seems defined more by its plethora of upscale resorts and shops than an authentic core culture can surprise visitors. Renee Radabaugh, CMP, president and CEO of Paragon Events, points to a recent event for a Fortune 500 accounting firm during its annual convention.
“Discover The Palm Beaches helped us organize a historic Palm Beach pedal tour, which took participants via bikes from PGA National Resort & Spa to seven miles around the Old Palm Beach area,” she says.
The group made stops at the Mediterranean Revival palaces, Whitehall Estate and Flagler Museum, all providing insight into the island’s deep and rich past. “Everyone was mesmerized by the history and the beauty of the trail,” she says, “and people truly gained a sense of this remarkable city.”
It just goes to show that a satisfying and revealing cultural experience can come with something as simple as a well-planned bike ride.
It’s hard not to feel a potent sense of place in Tucson, where the Sonoran Desert impacts every aspect of life — but it’s not the only authentic element. History and art can be found in the 18th-century Mission San Xavier del Bac, still in use today, and colorful downtown murals reflecting the city’s heritage. Rich culinary history resulted in UNESCO giving Tucson the first City of Gastronomy designation in the country. Still, an excellent place to start for a local experience is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The 98-acre facility is a zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum and art gallery and can host groups from five to 300. Happenings include animal encounters and demonstrations — including falcon flights — art classes and more. One program to consider is the Sonoran Supermarket Experience, during which guests step back 500 years and learn how the desert once provided everything for its human inhabitants.
Earlier in the year, a financial group tried it out. “This program explores local resources that native peoples of the Sonoran Desert — Tohono O’odham, Yaqui and Seri — have traditionally used for food, medicines and fibers. Guests experiment with ethnobotanical materials to make their own cordage and discover foods and tools they might find in their own backyards,” says Anthony Pena, events and marketing specialist with the museum.
There’s a tasting portion where attendees try some of the native food sources found, such as palm seeds, acorns and nopales (cactus). The program lasts about an hour, and it’s available for up to 50 guests.
Like much of Wyoming, Cheyenne offers a quintessential western experience. “From bison train rides and team rope-tying to chuck wagon dinners and full rodeo experiences, groups can have a one-of-a-kind event in Cheyenne’s Wild West,” says Darren Rudloff, CEO of Visit Cheyenne. “With the town’s deeply rooted train culture, genuine cowboy charm and easily accessible outdoor adventures, Cheyenne is full of unforgettable experiences for groups of all sizes.”
Bison train rides? That’s a train ride out to see bison at Terry Bison Ranch — and the only place where attendees are likely to combine “bison” and “trains” in one sentence or experience. The ranch also offers horseback rides, ATV tours, fishing and more.
Palm Springs is known for many things, including its enviable examples of mid-century modern architecture and a film festival where Hollywood insiders and A-list celebrities want to see and be seen. But perhaps nothing says Palm Springs like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, known simply as Coachella, an event at the Empire Polo Club since 1999 and currently drawing some 250,000 attendees. Not every group can attend the actual festival, and that’s where PRA Palm Springs comes in.
Beth Daniel, CIS, DMCP, senior national sales manager, works with her team to create the “Fauxchella” experience, including for a large financial group last year. It can be staged at the polo club or onsite at a local resort, though Daniel “strongly encourages” planners to choose the polo club.
“Empire Polo Club can accommodate as few as 25 but also several thousand guests,” Daniel says. “The 16,000- to 48,000-square-foot covered spaces allow for weather backup, not generally included when booking an outdoor venue.”
She says a Ferris wheel is an impactful element to add, along with hand-squeezed lemonade, craft cocktails and customized bandana stations, as well as mixed seating and a variety of options for chilling and relaxing. The valley’s other local experiences relate to a strong Native American heritage and the fact that Palm Springs produces 85 percent of the dates in North America (trying a date shake is a must).
The 750-mile-long San Andreas Fault also runs nearby, and groups can take tours to walk on the famed fault line and learn about the dramatic shifting reality of the California desert. Palm Springs, Daniel says, is no longer just about golf, tennis and spas.
Tupelo, Mississippi, is celebrated as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The King may be gone, but his presence is inescapable here, and groups can have an experience that showcases the history of the town and its legitimate place as “the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Elvis spent the first 13 years of his life here, says Neal McCoy, executive director, Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Tupelo is a must-stop for music lovers of all ages to visit his birthplace and see the humble beginnings that gave rise to the greatest entertainer the world has ever known,” he says. “Guests can also visit Tupelo Hardware, where Gladys Presley bought her son his first guitar. Visitors to Tupelo gain an authentic experience into what life was like for young Elvis and can fully appreciate the icon once they understand Elvis’ Tupelo.”
Located in the foothills of northeast Mississippi, McCoy calls Tupelo “the epicenter of America’s music where, in 1935, Elvis was born in a two-room shotgun shack. The gospel tunes he sang in his boyhood church, the soulful blues that he heard coming from the juke joints in the Shake Rag District, and the country music that he listened to on the radio from his front porch enabled Elvis Presley to blend the sounds and deliver what we all know as rock ‘n’ roll to the masses.” A few options:
Can providing authentic, local experiences lead to growth and expansion for a city? Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, believes so.
“Nashville is known for offering authentic, unique experiences, and I believe it has played a part in the growth we’ve seen over the last eight years. Convention attendees want an authentic destination, and we believe Nashville delivers,” he says. “One of those ‘only in Nashville’ experiences is the chance to interact with Nashville’s world-renowned songwriting community. Whether it’s songwriters in the round performing their songs and telling the stories behind their hits, or a group writing a song with a songwriter, it’s something no other city can offer and attendees never forget.”
But as Scott points out, Nashville isn’t just about music. “The friendly culture, ethnic food scene, transformational history and the firm grasp on the future are all reasons to include local flair in your Nashville-based meeting,” she says.
Although many southern cities point to their food, music, history and multicultural roots as defining, New Orleans is in a class by itself. One thing it’s known for is how to throw a party bringing in all of those elements, and that’s what Cindy Hayes, CMP, DMCP, director of sales, PRA New Orleans, drew on to create an authentic New Orleans party, tailgate-style for 1,200 attendees from a major insurance company in May.
“The celebration honored the company’s ‘winners,’ who attended with significant others, spouses and kids. We wanted to be sure everyone had a taste of NOLA, experiencing how we celebrate life — and filled with delicious food and fabulous music in a venue that’s special to residents of New Orleans,” she says.
It all started with to-go cups in hand in the hotel lobby. The drum roll of the high-school marching band kicked in gear, police stopped traffic and guests, escorted by stilt walkers and revelers, followed behind the band to the event location, Champion’s Square, known as tailgate central for New Orleans Saints’ home games.
“Fireworks went off as everyone arrived at the party, and signaling this event was special,” Hayes says. “Flowtribe, a headliner at Jazz Fest the previous evening, kicked things off. The New Orleans classic cuisine included cochon de lait (roasted pig), crawfish and beignets. In addition to the band, there were caricature artists, alligator handlers, inflatable bounce houses for the kids and games. The evening ended with a fireworks show over the skyline and Superdome that made everyone in downtown New Orleans turn and say to themselves, ‘It must be a special occasion to have fireworks on a weeknight.’”
Regardless of where you meet, going local is important. “Include it — always,” advises Scott. “The way we meet is changing every day, and one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to make your meeting remarkable — and well-attended — is to use what’s in front of you.” I&FMM