Whether coordinating an in-person, virtual or hybrid meeting, planners know that one survey item can make or break the success of an event: F&B. With that in mind, savvy conference organizers look toward favorite foodie destinations as an easy and enlivening way to attract more attendees to events.
Here, then, are a few food-forward destinations eager to help planners and attendees explore their most cherished local culinary traditions, innovations and notable dining experiences.
Beyond “Charm City’s” delectable Maryland blue crabs and Natty Boh — National Bohemian Beer — a host of epicurean delights and craft concoctions have garnered the praise of publications from Bon Appétit and Esquire magazines to rave reviews by Yelp and Thrillist. “Creativity and innovation are at the heart of everything we do in Baltimore,” says Visit Baltimore president and CEO Al Hutchinson, “and that includes our diverse culinary scene. Our chefs and restaurateurs are continuously pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, with fresh and immersive concepts and dishes, elevating even the simplest ingredients and putting a new spin on the traditional.”
Wander historic sites, such as the Lexington and Broadway public markets, enjoy a craft drink inspired by a literary theme at The Bluebird cocktail room, or opt for a Roaring ’20s state of mind in a setting with panoramic views at The Bygone atop the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore. For local Chesapeake food traditions, head to Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where chef John Shields serves up platters of Chincoteague Single-Fry Oysters and Salmon Alla Bella with lemon caper butter, mashed potatoes and garlic-sesame spinach. And when it comes to only-in-Baltimore treats, look for lemon sticks, which are peppermint candy sticks plunged into the center of half a lemon; snowballs, finely shaved ice covered with flavored syrup; Berger Cookies, cake-like creations filled with velvety chocolate frosting; and Otterbein’s cookies, crisp, wafer-thin cookies that come in a variety of flavors, such as chocolate chip or ginger.
While the city offers a number of meeting sites, the Baltimore Convention Center (BCC) provides one of the most popular venues, with more than 300,000 sf of exhibition space, 50 spacious meeting rooms and a 36,672-sf ballroom. In addition, the 20-story, 757-room Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor connects to the BCC, providing more than 62,000 sf of meeting space and underground parking.
Charleston’s foodscape starts with a strong sense of history in its traditional cuisine, Gullah Geechee, which is steeped in West and Central African cooking. While recipes vary, typical ingredients include a combination of red rice, seafood, such as the region’s coastal blue crab, beans and vegetables, such as okra. Additional authentic flavors include Lowcountry boil, corn bread, shrimp and grits, and pimento cheese. From seafood to Southern, and casual to fine dining, the Charleston culinary scene has you covered.
For meeting venues, the Charleston Area Convention Center (CACC) is conveniently located within the city’s core, and only 2 miles from Charleston International Airport (CHS). The CACC campus complex includes the North Charleston Coliseum and the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, and offers more than 150,000 sf of flexible meeting and exhibit space. Located in the city’s famed historic district, the Charleston Gaillard Center showcases an 1,800-seat theater and 16,000-sf exhibition hall. Attendees can hop aboard a vessel featuring capacity ranging up to 300 people with Charleston Harbor Tours & Events to host an event on a unique venue. Additional available venues include 3,700-sf Cypress Hall, set on an 8-acre grassy meadow at North Charleston Wannamaker County Park; an open, airy private events space at Halls Signature Events at 5 Faber St. with accommodations for up to 225 people in downtown Charleston; and the Gibbs Museum of Art, which features eight meeting rooms and five breakout rooms.
Rose Horcher, vice president of client services with Choose Chicago, maintains that “Having such a great food scene [as Chicago’s] is an absolute selling point.” Horcher references the Windy City’s numerous James Beard nominees and award-winning chefs and restaurants, “as well as multiple Michelin Star awardees,” as evidence of Chicago’s designation as a top-tier food destination. “Exhibitors and attendees have thousands of restaurants with delicious foods to choose from, local celebrity chefs willing to participate in special events at their convention, and a food ecosystem to draw from if they are in food manufacturing, packaging, food technology, nutrition or anything else related to food,” Horcher says.
Christie Tarantino-Dean, FSAE, CAE, CEO of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and a downtown Chicago resident, shares that “Chicago is a great place to do business, but it’s also a great place to spend extra time and explore, particularly if you’re a foodie.” Historically, the organization’s choice of Chicago as a meeting destination “goes back several decades,” says Tarantino-Dean, and “Currently, IFT is committed to meeting annually in Chicago through 2030.” She credits the organization’s partnership with Choose Chicago, McCormick Place and the hotel community as pivotal to their attendee experience. She says it is a good experience “because we work together to ensure that from the moment our attendees step off their plane, get into a taxi or walk into a hotel, they feel welcomed,” adding, “Additionally, this partnership leads to connections to businesses or attractions that are of interest to our attendees.”
Recent excursions have included the Imbibe Technical Tour to learn how beverages are created by “a leading innovator in the beverage industry,” and the Barry Callebaut Technical Tour to learn about”cocoa cultivation and harvesting,” capped by a chocolate tasting “to understand the flavor components and how they affect the eating experience,” Tarantino-Dean says. Because of the size of her group, IFT uses a variety of hotels across the city. “Our event attendance is significantly higher when we meet in Chicago for a number of factors,” says Tarantino-Dean, adding, “If there wasn’t strong satisfaction with the location, we wouldn’t have committed to hold our meeting here for 10 consecutive years.”
“While Nashville is well known for its creative music and songwriting roots,” says Adrienne Siemers, senior vice president of sales for Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., “that creativity also spills into other aspects of the city, like our established and innovative food scene.” As if the legendary Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Johnny Cash Museum weren’t enough of a draw, the city’s delectable Southern cuisine is bound to entice visitors to linger longer in “Music City.” “Nashville’s breadth of options is extremely wide, from our famous hot chicken and down-home meat-and-three meals — a meat and three side dishes — to chef-driven, award-winning dining experiences that transcend a typical night out,” Siemers says. “Nashville has restaurants that have been operated by single families for years, serving up family secrets that are just as successful as newer restaurants run by James Beard Award-winning and classically trained chefs,” such as iconic Arnold’s Country Kitchen alongside top chef Sean Bock, of The Continental, Audrey and Joyland eateries. “It’s a culinary city that truly offers something for any group size or preference,” Siemers says.
Event organizers have a variety of meeting venues in Music City as well. Built in 2013, the Music City Center is a 2.1 million sf facility in downtown Nashville adjacent to four — soon to be five — major hotel properties: Omni Nashville Hotel, JW Marriott Nashville, The Westin Nashville, Hilton Nashville Downtown and Embassy Suites by Hilton Nashville Downtown Convention Center, expected to open in 2022. “Located only 20 minutes away in Music Valley,” Siemers says, “Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, next to the famous Grand Ole Opry, offers roughly 2,800 rooms under one roof and multiple dining outlets for convenience.” For local excursions, Nashville Hidden Gems highlights Nolensville Pike, a stretch of road with dozens of restaurants colloquially called “Nashville’s mecca for cultural dining,” while Nashville Food Tours offers neighborhood walking tours, and newly welcomed Music City Brew Hop stops at local breweries on a looped trolley tour.New Orleans, LA
If your meeting vision includes a destination with “mouthwatering dishes in James Beard Award-winning restaurants, as well as mom-and-pop diners with classic dishes and innovative twists on traditional favorites,” New Orleans is a top choice, says Stephanie Turner, SVP of convention sales & strategies with New Orleans & Company. World-renowned for its “wide variety of cuisine with influences that span the globe, including European, African, Caribbean and Asian, it’s one of the reasons we live here and why you come to visit,” she says. Add to that the fact that many of the more than 1,000 unique restaurants are located downtown within a 2-mile radius, and it “makes it easy for meeting attendees to make the most of their time in the city,” Turner says.
“Stuffed, slathered and smothered” define many New Orleans food classics. Turner describes dishes like Po-boys, a sandwich “stuffed and slathered with sauce and served between two slices of french bread,” and crawfish étoffée (“eh-too-fey”) “from the French word ‘to smother.’” Also on the local food list: gumbo, “a thick stew served over rice and made with a roux and variety of ingredients, including celery, okra, chicken, sausage and/or seafood;” jambalaya, “comprised of a mix of chicken, seafood, sausage — or all three — plus peppers, onions, other vegetables, spices and rice combined in a variety of ways;” beignets, a “French-style, doughnut-type of food served liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar;” and bananas Foster, “bananas sautéed in butter, and sugar and cinnamon, and then bathed in rum, which is set aflame in a fiery burst. The fire burns off the alcohol in the rum, leaving just a smoky taste and rum flavor,” Turner says.
Iconic attractions include Jackson Square, the Riverwalk and Canal Street, which are just steps away from four major hotel properties: Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel and New Orleans Marriott, providing “nearly half a million square feet of event space and more than 3,900 sleeping rooms combined,” Turner says. Newer properties include the Four Seasons Hotel + Residences, featuring 11 indoor meeting spaces with 29,000 sf of meetings and events space, and the newly opened Virgin Hotels New Orleans, with more than 200 chambers, multiple dining and drinking outlets, and nine dedicated meetings and events spaces.
From Tex-Mex to “Tex-Next,” the city of San Antonio blends the best of both traditional and innovative cuisines. Recognized as the second UNESCO “Creative City of Gastronomy,” San Antonio’s 4,000 restaurants include both iconic favorites and hidden gems, says Marc Anderson, president and CEO of Visit Antonio. For Todd Voorhees, vice-president, exposition & events for the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), “San Antonio is an essential and vibrant part of our Texas culture and cuisine,” he says. “San Antonio balances the traditional expectations of Texas barbecue, Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, with many bold and creative dining concepts.” Voorhees continues, “As a food destination, San Antonio is a culinary destination for authentic and creative experiences across a spectrum of dining options.”
Yet, the food scene alone is not the only attraction that makes the difference for Voorhees’ group in choosing a meeting site location. Apart from the city’s unique culinary flavor profiles, TRA attendees are drawn to the warmth of the local residents, “San Antonio has an unparalleled culture of hospitality and tourism that comes across in every interaction,” Voorhees says. In addition, “The beauty and entertainment of the River Walk, the variety and convenience of the hotel community, and the hospitality that you feel in all your experiences, are a hallmark of this city.”
The association relies on dozens of restaurants and meeting venues to host their members, like the 4,000+ who attended TRA’s trade show at the Henry B. González Convention Center in mid summer this year. Briscoe Western Art Museum, TopGolf and Mi Terra Café also hosted member events, as well as a “very special” hosted TRA event at The Fairmount Hotel for VIP guests “that was one of the highlights of our visit,” Voorhees says. In addition, “[Grand Hyatt San Antonio River Walk] and the Hilton Palacio Del Rio were excellent partners in accommodating our smaller group meetings. The support and hospitality with these partners was exceptional.”
Voorhees concludes: “I know I’m like a broken record, but it’s the hospitality. Really and truly, San Antonio has a remarkable culture of appreciation for their guests. You will absolutely fall in love with the food, the natural beauty and the convenience of working here, but what you will always remember and take away with you is the people.”
Lauded as one of the “Best New Foodie Cities in America” by Thrillist Travel and one of “America’s Best Cities for Foodies” by Travel & Leisure magazine, San Diego offers “a vibrant mix of locally inspired flavors, from delightfully simple to sophisticated and artful,” says Julie Coker, president & CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority. “As the largest bi-national, mega region in the country, San Diego’s local cuisine and culture reflects its proximity to the Mexico border. From fish tacos to groundbreaking Cali-Baja fine dining, San Diego’s gastronomic scene sits at the intersection of two culinary styles,” she says, adding that “California cuisine, distinguished for its devotion to fresh local ingredients and farm-to-table roots, and Mexico’s Baja Med cuisine, is a food revolution that combines traditional Mexican ingredients with those of the Mediterranean.” Coker also notes: “And you can’t talk about San Diego without talking about craft beer. With more than 150 craft brewers, San Diego is considered the craft beer capital of the country.”
Fish mongers, bread bakers and cheese makers abound at popular food markets in the Hillcrest, Little Italy and LaJolla neighborhoods. “Another must-visit place is Liberty Public Market in Liberty Station. It has a wide range of culinary delights under one roof, and great outdoor seating options,” Coker says, while “Bite San Diego offers tours in a variety of neighborhoods, including North Park and Downtown.”
Planners have a range of options for meeting venues, including the waterfront San Diego Convention Center (SDCC) with 2.6 million total sf of space. The exhibit area can be separated into seven separate halls, while two 40,000-sf ballrooms and 72 meeting rooms provide a variety of space configurations to host any type of meeting. Top hotels include the $90 million, newly renovated Town and Country Resort, the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego and the Hotel del Coronado, among several other popular hotel sites.
Beyond its iconic sightseeing attractions, such as The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and cable cars, the “City by the Bay” has long been recognized as a leader in the slow-food movement, thanks to chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Waters, who, in 1992, was the first woman to win the James Beard Award, advocates cuisine rich in locally sourced, seasonal, organic ingredients. Today, notes Nicole Rogers, executive vice president & chief sales officer of the San Francisco Travel Association, “San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other city, and the Bay Area boasts 50 establishments with at least one Michelin star.” The area was heralded as “A Destination for Foodies at All Price Points.Recently, Michelin awarded its Big Gourmand designation to 64 Bay Area restaurants where customers “can order a three-course meal for around $40 or less — excluding tax and gratuity.” Located close to vineyards in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, the region is renowned for its award-winning wines, craft beers and cocktails.
In 2019, the George R. Moscone Convention Center completed a $551 million expansion project that provides an additional 157,000 sf of usable space, for a total of 504,000 sf of contiguous meeting space. Moscone North and South now offer 82 meeting rooms, bringing the total for all three Moscone Center buildings — North, South and West — to 114 flexible meeting rooms,” Rogers says. “In total, Moscone Center has 1,139,775 sf of usable space, including lobbies, terraces, exposition and meeting space. The Moscone Center has the highest LEED Platinum score of any new-build convention center in the world.” Global cuisine takes center stage at nearby restaurants, such as Mourad, offering Moroccan cuisine with a California twist; Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse; Pazzia Ristorante Italiano and Tropisueño Mexican Kitchen.
Expect to find traditional and innovative interpretations of favorite seafoods and Southern fare in historic Savannah. “From ‘fin to fork,’ we offer fresh local Georgia shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, flounder and grouper,” says Jeff Hewitt, senior vice president of Visit Savannah. And if there’s one food that defines the Savannah food scene, “Shrimp and grits may be at the top of the list,” Hewitt says. “There are endless variations to this Southern staple. The Georgia shrimp are the constant, with grits running the gambit from creamy cheese grits to grit croutons and cakes. The gravy or sauce also runs the spectrum, from a bacon or sausage gravy to one that includes barbecue sauce.” He adds, “You can get this pairing in most restaurants in Savannah that offer their signature twist on this coastal favorite. Our location on the coast allows fresh seafood to be popular in our city. It is also common to see different variations of fried chicken, biscuits and fried green tomatoes in Savannah.” For beverages, try the Chatham Artillery Punch, originating in Savannah, making it a must-sample, together with local craft beers and distilled spirits. Plus, “Don’t forget that Savannah is open container, so you can enjoy your drink while walking through our 22 historic squares,” Hewitt says.
The Savannah Convention Center (SCC) expansion project is set to wrap up in 2023. The project will enter its major construction phase beginning with a 900-space parking garage in early winter this year. In addition to the garage, by project completion, the SCC will feature 200,000 sf of exhibit hall space, a 58-foot-wide hangar door, a new, 40,000-sf ballroom, 32 customizable breakout rooms, additional outdoor space and a new facility entrance with an all-glass façade. | AC&F |