Small Cities, Big Experiences
From waterfront adventures to historic sites, shopping and ethnic dining, these cities offer choice, ease, and charm on a budget.
By Christine Born
It may be a global world, but small cities in this country are enjoying a revival as visitors rediscover the history, main streets, neighborhoods, and other charms of these special places. The renewed interest is attributable to changing travel patterns and preferences, and maybe some spillover from the “go local” movement. For meeting planners, these charms also include value, accessibility, security, variety, and hospitality.
Whether on the outskirts of metropolitan areas or situated amidst smaller towns in more rural areas, these cities are all within a six-hour drive of one-third of the country and served by airlines offering inexpensive flights. One savvy traveler calls them “all-American” cities, because when you visit any one of them, you encounter an individual character and an independent streak.
Each city has museums, shops, restaurants, and outdoor activities, many in walking distance of hotels and meeting facilities. You’ll find room for your events, and your attendees and their families can explore local color and history, enjoying new sights, stories, traditions, cuisines, and crafts. Conscious of the importance of religious meetings and events, these cities also offer special services and activities for your needs.
“We use the word “access” a lot,” says Gina Mintzer, director of sales for the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau in New York. “We’re accessible to most of the Northeast, Washington [D.C.], and Montreal. There are cheap flights in and out, and we’re on Amtrak’s busiest corridor.
“We also have access to media coverage while your group is here, because you’re a big fish in a little pond,” she adds. “Your guests see coverage in the local paper, or hear about your event on the radio.”
And, to continue her point, she lists access to otherservices, including a welcome to your event by a city official, the right letters for your program, volunteer help, and dine-around evenings and tours organized by the bureau.
According to Mintzer, religious groups didn’t look at the city until it landed its first Promise Keeper gathering in 2002. Attendees were so pleased, they returned again the following year, followed by a Women of Faith conference, which came back three years in a row. “The first year, they had 14,000 people and had budgeted for 9,000,” says Mintzer. Women of the Word and the female ministries of the Seventh-day Adventists brought events to Albany, too.
“The women are tougher and more demanding than men,” she says, mainly in terms of amenities and price, but they were pleased with what they found in the capital city.
Shopping is popular and plentiful, with two major malls in the area central to hotels and close to downtown. The 1.8-million-square-foot Crossgates Mall has more than 250 stores as well as the area’s first IMAX theatre. Colonie Center Mall has one of only two L.L. Bean stores in the state, along with the popular Christmas Tree Shops and The Cheesecake Factory. “Women left a Women of the Word conference early to get to the Talbots Outlet,” Mintzer says of another popular shopping mecca.
At the Albany Institute of History and Art, a special exhibition, “Hudson River Panorama: 400 Years of History, Art, and Culture,” commemorates the narratives of the Hudson River. Among the current exhibitions at the New York State Museum is “Rockwell Kent: This Is My Own,” which chronicles the artist’s life and work; it continues through May 17, 2009. The history of Albany can also be traced in much of its robust 19th- and early-20th-century architecture. The most visible example is the New York State Capitol sitting atop one of the seven hills that shaped the city’s landscape. There are other architectural treasures, including four historic homes that are featured on one tour.
The Albany Aqua Ducks are a popular attraction in season; two state-of-the-art amphibious vehicles take guests on a 90-minute guided tour to see the sites of historic Albany by land. Then the vehicles take to the Hudson River for the waterborne portion of the tour. The 42-seat Ducks also take students on educational field trips. The Albany Trolleys conduct tours all year, with group packages including entertainment venues and restaurants. The USS Slater, restored to WWII configuration, is the only destroyer escort afloat in America. “It appeals to all generations, and has been attracting bigger crowds than ever,” Mintzer says. The ship is available for group tours and overnight camping for youth groups. Fun runs on the riverfront footpaths, a walk from downtown properties, are popular add-on activities.
May is tulip time in Albany, with more than 200,000 bulbs in bloom, offering a natural theme for some meetings. Another popular draw for attendees who arrive early or stay after the conference is the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, 80 minutes away.
• Room for up to 1,500 in convention center
• Room for 5,000-14,000 in arena
• 800 hotel rooms downtown
• 5,800 committable rooms in area
Rated one of the top tourism destinations for families in the Southeast by Disney Family Travel, Chattanooga has enough attractions to rival most theme parks, but is a living, walkable, comfortable city. In fact, you’ll be surprised by the number of families strolling the streets around the Tennessee Aquarium and downtown riverfront park during the day and into the night, when there often are free outdoor concerts.
One of the best features for visitors is that, upon arriving downtown, they can park their car and walk to everything. For those too foot-weary to walk, the city has free electric shuttle buses running from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. with stops close to restaurants and shops. The Tennessee Aquarium has added a new boat to its fleet, which can host receptions. The River Gorge Explorer is a 70-passenger high-speed catamaran that cruises into “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon,” winding along 26 miles of the Tennessee River. An aquarium naturalist points out wildlife and historic points of interest along the way. Chattanooga Riverboat has added to its complex with Pier 2, a docking facility that’s actually a stationary boat offering two decks that can handle 1,200 people for events. The Southern Belle departs from the dock for sightseeing tours, dinner and moonlight cruises, and special Dixieland and Gospel Cruises.
Adding to the downtown attractions, a complex with 12 stadium theaters and shopping is being planned for a location across from the aquarium. More artists have moved into the area around the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel complex and are opening galleries beside new restaurants. In 2009, the Choo Choo celebrates its 100th anniversary, and is planning several events and offering special packages throughout the year.
The Chattanooga Convention Center, a state-of-the-art, one-level, 185,000-square-foot facility, has received its “green rating.” Other offsite function venues include the Chattanooga African-American Museum’s Bessie Smith Performance Hall, the Tivoli Theater, and the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Auditorium. Within walking distance of downtown Chattanooga, the historic Bluff View Art District has galleries, landscape arts, restaurants, and space for small meetings. The River Gallery exhibits fine art and crafts from local, regional, national, and international artists and a whimsical sculpture garden is located on a hill overlooking the river. You can watch artisans bake breads, make chocolates, or roast coffee in the shops around the square and then enjoy the results in Rembrandt’s Coffee House. Just below the hill is the Hunter Museum of American Art, built on a 90-foot limestone bluff overlooking the river. A 1904 classical revival mansion and a striking contemporary structure house a small but fine collection of American art.
If you want to venture outside the downtown district, the Buttonwillow Church Civil War Dinner Theater serves Southern cuisine based on authentic 19th-century recipes.
The Outdoor Chattanooga Visitor’s Center is a new one-stop place for groups looking for adventure. There’s whitewater rafting on the Oconee River, world-class rock climbing, mountain biking on Raccoon Mountain, biking along river paths, and kayaking from downtown river launch areas.
“Religious groups, especially those that are targeting young people, find what they are looking for here,” says Steve Genovesi, vice president of sales for the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s also an amusement park at Lake Winnepesaukah about 30 minutes away.”
In addition to the key downtown attractions, Lookout Mountain now has an upscale venue, where groups “get that retreat atmosphere,” he says.
• 185,000-square-foot convention center
• Room for 11,000 in UTC Arena
• 9,000 guestrooms in metro area
• Room for 3,500 at Camp Jordan Arena in East Ridge
This Southern city has built its reputation as America’s space capital since 1950, when Dr. Wernher von Braun and 117 German scientists arrived to develop rockets for the United States Army. History wasn’t made until 1958 when the first American satellite, Explorer I, was launched into orbit. The city, also known as Rocket City, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the launch with a new pavilion housing a 363-foot Saturn V rocket, at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, a museum and popular family attraction.
This year Huntsville was named one of the top green cities in the country by Popular Science magazine, partially for its air quality, electricity use, and transportation habits, but also in the category of “green living,” which recognizes the city’s outdoor spaces.
“One of the great things about Huntsville is that there are so many things to see and do,” says Charles Winters, vice president of marketing for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s very easy to get around—no more than 10 to 15 minutes to get from one place to another.”
Winters is referring to the diversity of attractions in the area, from the technology at the space center to the living history museum, Alabama Constitution Village, and a myriad of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, and watersports.
“Groups here enjoy progressive dine-around evenings with activities at themed restaurants,” Winters says. “They can plan a reception at one attraction, dinner at another, and close at another.”
The area’s connection to the German scientists who settled here is reflected in the German restaurants and bakeries in the downtown area, but there are also restaurants that feature Southern, Greek, and French cuisine, as well as barbecue and upscale steak and seafood places, includingThe Chophouse and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
The Von Braun Center is a multipurpose entertainment venue that houses major concerts, Broadway performances, ballets, symphonies, and sporting events. The 9,000-seat arena, 2,153-seat Concert Hall and 502-seat Playhouse Theatre also can be used as meeting areas for conferences or seminars.
The 112-acre Huntsville Botanical Garden has venues for special events. In addition to its aquatic, perennial, and annual displays, the garden features a festival for every season of the year and the largest season butterfly house in the nation.
Huntsville’s blend of cultures can be sampled in the wide range of themed tours a group can experience in the city and the surrounding region, including: “Historic Churches and Stained Glass” (1859 Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 1859 First Presbyterian Church, 1869 First United Methodist Church,
St. Mary of the Visitation Church, Mooresville Brick Church, and Mooresville Church of Christ); “White Columns & Historic Architecture” (Normal Historic District, Twickenham Historic District, Old Town Historic District,
Burritt on the Mountain, and Weeden House Museum); “African-American Heritage” (Oakwood College, Alabama A&M University, Alabama State Black Archives, Research Center and Museum, and Imhotep Art Gallery); “Adventures in Shopping” (Madison Square Mall, Parkway Place Mall, Boaz Outlet Centers, and the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which features lost treasures from around the world); “Civil War” (Historic Huntsville Depot, Twickenham Historic District, and Maple Hill Cemetery); and “A Space Odyssey” (U.S. Space and Rocket Center, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Spacedome IMAX Theatre, and Sci-Quest).
Visitors to Harmony Park, a nature preserve with free-ranging exotic and endangered animals, can drive a two-mile route to see zebras, zebus, antelope, buffalo, ostriches, pythons, and crocodiles.
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which encompasses 21 courses in eight cities in Alabama, begins in Huntsville at the 54-hole Hampton Cove Golf Course.
• 170,000 square feet in Von Braun Center
• 10,964-square-foot ballroom in new Westin Huntsville
• 6,200 guestrooms, with another 400 under construction
The Ozark Mountains destination claims only 8,000 residents, but draws eight million visitors a year to its 52 live performance theaters, three pristine lakes, 12 championship golf courses, international award-winning theme park, attractions and museums, shopping, and dining options.
Branson, Missouri, is less than a day’s drive from one-third of the United States’ population, and in 2009, the new Branson Airport, eight miles from downtown, will provide low-cost commercial flights from major U.S. cities.
“Groups choose Branson because there are so many sights, attractions, and shows that are family oriented,” says Debbie Philpot, sales and convention services manager of the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You don’t have to worry about content or offending anyone. Groups can come and truly relax.”
Religious groups are targeted with shows like Noah—The Musical, at the Sight & Sound Theatre. The Bible-based show has more than 50 live animals and 50 animatronic animals onstage, set on a four-story stage that is the Ark. “It looks as if you’re sitting in the Ark itself,” says Philpot.
Another show that is part of Branson’s “Christian Broadway” is The Promise, a look into the life of Jesus Christ. The show, held at the Mansion America Theater, places a pious spin on big-stage song and dance.
Shopping is another major activity, and Branson runs the gamut from craft shops to factory outlet malls. Historic Downtown Branson calls itself Hometown USA. You can step back in time at Dick’s Old-time 5&10 and Branson Mercantile. Jewelry and clothing boutiques, as well as quilt, glassware, collectible shops, and restaurants, line the streets, which also offer more than 20 historical sites for visitors to tour.
Two blocks away is the new outdoor mall at Branson Landing on Lake Taneycomo, with three miles of shopping and restaurants, including the Midwest’s only Bass Pro Shops, where you can live-test boats and fishing equipment on the lake. Branson Landing Cruises has daily excursions aboard a 100-foot yacht or authentic 100-foot paddlewheel riverboat. There are also concerts and a dramatic water-fountain, synchronized to light, sound, music, and fire.
The Grand Village Shops has themed restaurants and a collection of specialty stores located on “The Strip” near the Grand Palace, including Kringle’s, Missouri’s largest Christmas Store, and a Thomas Kinkade shop.
The Branson Mill Craft Village is a 60,000-square-foot shopping center and working village where visitors can watch demonstrations of glass blowing, leather carving, china painting, wood carving, and other crafts. There are 30 individually owned shops in the Engler Block, featuring Ozarks craftsmanship and artistry. Wood-carver Steve Engler, famous for his hand-carved Santas, started the tradition by carving his pieces as his customers watched. Father Time Clocks has one of the largest for-sale cuckoo clocks in the world. Silver Dollar City features the new Culinary & Craft School, with handcrafted items from the park’s master craftsmen, heirloom displays, demonstrations, hands-on activities, and classes.
Locally caught catfish and trout are featured on many menus, especially the waterfront eateries throughout Branson Landing, including The White House River Fish House. Steak, seafood, and a variety of cuisines are available at the Liberty Tavern at the Promenade Hilton, Ernie Biggs Chicago Style Dueling Piano Bar, Garfield’s Restaurant & Pub, Loredo, Waxy O’Shea’s Irish Pub, and more. All the shopping areas have numerous restaurants, including barbecue and family friendly buffets.
The Branson Convention Center, opened in September 2007, has 220,000 square feet of space in a state-of-the-art setting. A curving, exposed-timber pedestrian concourse gives visitors a view of the lakefront as they travel between the center’s facilities and the adjacent Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel. The 12-story hotel has 293 rooms, including 194 traditional rooms and suites, and 99 condotel units available for nightly rental.
“There are hotels, shows, and activities for every budget,” Philpot says. “We want to help planners be good stewards of their group’s money.”
• 220,000-square-foot convention center
• More than 200 facilities with 18,000+ guest units
• New website for planners: meetinbranson.net