By Leah Sekula
With a distinct culture and history, smooth musical styles and delicious Southern cuisine, there is much to adore about the cluster of states that make up the Mid-South and Southeast regions of the country. From the swanky and trendy to the historic and charming, each locale provides a distinct vibe. Whether it’s a bustling city like Charlotte or a more laidback one like Macon, the area offers traditional meeting spaces and some unconventional ones, too (Think: horse racing venues and sustainable farms). Chances are, you’ll find the South just as sweet as a tall glass of tea.
When it comes to meeting venues in the “Queen City,” the Charlotte Convention Center is often the first to be considered. This impressive space offers up more than 90,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, a 35,000-sq.-ft. ballroom and a full-service, award-winning catering staff.
And when planning an event at the Charlotte Convention Center, or another location, the Visit Charlotte staff is an excellent resource. From the initial inquiry to lodging assistance to site visits, the knowledgeable team will ensure that your event is a success from start to finish. Visit Charlotte has access to a vast network of partners, comprised of vendors, hotels, restaurants, attractions and more, and is always on hand to provide any services you may need.
From housing enabled by Passkey software (a dynamic software allowing meeting attendees to make reservations quickly and efficiently via a link on the association’s website) to promotional material that generates attendee excitement to media relations assistance, Visit Charlotte offers a wide array of services to support any event.
Take it from Keith Burden, executive secretary for the National Association of Free Will Baptists, who greatly appreciates such a dedicated staff. The association’s recent convention at the Charlotte Convention Center, he says, was one of the best to date due to the attentive Visit Charlotte staff members. “Meeting planning by its very nature can be a very stressful occupation. I can honestly, and happily, say our stress level was greatly reduced because we always knew the Visit Charlotte staff was there for us.” Just outside the convention center is a thriving city, alive with world-class museums, cultural offerings, contemporary entertainment and outstanding dining and nightlife spots. It also offers year-round spectator sports including the NFL, NBA and NASCAR. In other words, this city packs a whole lot of punch. To top it off, Visit Charlotte provides exceptional support for planning an event here.
Needless to say, there is a lot to explore in this vibrant city beyond the major meeting facilities. Consider a themed tour hitting the high notes of Charlotte’s foodie scene, NASCAR roots, artistic expressions or haunted history. Whether you choose a walking tour, zipping around on a Segway, or cruising in a horse-drawn carriage, Charlotte offers a plethora of activities. The city even has a free “Charlotte’s Got a Lot” app, which identifies your location then points out nearby restaurants, attractions and more.
Set in the heart of the state, South Carolina’s largest city offers all the excitement of a thriving metropolis without any of the gridlock of a big city. Its famously sunny weather means an abundance of year-round attractions to explore.
For starters, there’s a wildlife tour of the world at the Riverbanks Zoo, which is home to more than 3,000 animals. The Congaree National Park is located nearby, too. Or experience the local theatrical scene at the South Carolina Shakespeare Company. Altogether, Columbia boasts 537,449 square feet of meeting space with numerous conventional and unconventional venues for meeting planners to choose from. They range from upscale and elegant venues to charming historic homes and gardens. One of the cities most popular unconventional spaces is City Roots, an in-town sustainable farm. The beautiful property is comprised of a contemporary barn hall featuring high ceilings, exposed studs, poured concrete floors and ground-level windows, a front porch with ceiling fans and back porch outfitted with a porch swing.
Guests also have access to the surrounding 2.8 acres of farm grounds, outdoor fire circle and a portion of the greenhouse with an indoor tilapia pond (note: you can actually catch a fish and the chefs will prepare it come dinnertime). Best of all, treat the meeting goers to a guided farm tour, which exposes the benefits of locally grown food, composting and other environmentally friendly farming practices. Tracie Broom, partner at Flock and Rally, an event planning and communication company, says she likes City Roots because there “you can have a Lowcountry shrimp boil, a bluegrass band and a burn-barrel fire with a sky full of stars, or you can host an organic luncheon and educational seminar on aquaculture and vermicomposting. By design, City Roots affords planners the casual rusticity of a Southern family farm mixed with cutting edge sustainable technologies and green architecture, reflecting Columbia’s growing progressive scene.”
And it doesn’t end there, Columbia also offers top-notch facilities and natural settings for sporting events. The lakes and rivers are calm and warm year-round, there are ample green spaces perfect for mountain biking, cycling and running and the city has several state-of-the-art arenas and stadiums. It’s no surprise that it is quickly becoming one of the hottest locations for amateur sports marketing.
Identified as one of Forbes’ top 20 leading metros for business, the “Rocket City” remains the center of rocket-propulsion research with many aerospace and defense contractors’ facilities located in the area. Beyond the innovative high-tech ventures, though, Huntsville offers Southern hospitality, a historical downtown area, a picturesque mountain-view setting and thriving social scene.
One of Huntsville’s most popular meetings facilities is the Jackson Center located in the heart of Cummings Research Park, the second largest technology center in the United States. This 22,400-sq.-ft. facility provides five meeting areas, all equipped with the latest audiovisual technology as well as complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the building. Dedicated to providing a distraction-free space for professional meetings, each meeting room houses comfortable ergonomic chairs, wide glare-free tables and windows featuring light-filtering and room-darkening shades.
No meeting itinerary is complete without a budget-friendly, yet delicious catering menu. The Jackson Center offers a wide range of catering options to fit any budget, and all menus are created with super-fresh ingredients. After the meeting, visit one of the nearby popular gathering spots like The Space and Rocket Center or the Bridge Street Town Centre featuring 70 upscale shops and restaurants, a movie theater and nightlife venues.
For breakfast meetings, company cookouts or an elaborate private reception, consider the Huntsville Museum of Art, North Alabama’s leading visual arts center. It has five exquisite areas to rent and is an ideal location to mix culture and business. Or rent a space at the historic Alabama Constitution Village, the gathering place of the 44 delegates of the constitutional convention who assembled on July 5, 1819, to organize Alabama as the 22nd state.
Did you know that one-third of the world’s bourbon comes from Louisville? It is also known for the nation’s largest urban forest, produces the official bat of Major League Baseball, has more than 120 parks, produces 90 percent of the world’s disco balls and is home to the largest Victorian neighborhood in the U.S. It’s a foodie’s haven, too, with more than 2,500 restaurants, a history buff’s dream come true with the Muhammad Ali Center, and the ultimate shopping destination for those who like to splurge. Very impressive, indeed.
Home to the Kentucky State Fair, the National Farm Machinery Show and the North American International Livestock Exposition, The Kentucky Exposition Center is the seventh largest facility of its kind in the nation. It houses more than 1.2 million square feet of indoor space, meeting rooms and public areas including Freedom Hall, a 19,000-seat indoor arena. Recent events include the 2011 United Pentecostal Church International General Conference with nearly 12,000 attendees and approximately 5,000 participants for the Pentecostal Fire Youth Conference.
The ample space available at the Kentucky Exposition Center is what keeps The Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, the largest Christian music tour in the country, coming back each year. “The event is highly anticipated, and this year was no exception,” says Shannon Habas, the show’s media relations director. “Freedom Hall was filled with more than 15,000 in attendance to see the unbelievable rock show and the message of Christ leading nearly 3,000 people to make a decision for the Lord. This is not just any concert; it is an experience.”
The area also plays host to The Kentucky International Convention Center, located in downtown Louisville, which has 300,000 square feet of space, a 30,000-sq.-ft. ballroom and 52 meeting rooms. This location is supported by a dedicated and professional full-time staff, in-house catering and technical production specialists. For large events numbered in the thousands, these two facilities can accommodate.
For a more intimate setting, opt for the Holiday Inn, a 271-room full-service upscale hotel. The property features 20,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, teleconferencing and audio/visual equipment. Or choose the Ramada Plaza Louisville East with more than 300 guest rooms and 44,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. Both options have incredible staff ready to help with the planning of every detail to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Known as the “Song and the Soul of the South,” Macon has a wealth of history, culture and heritage. Founded in 1823, the city of Macon grew largely due to the railroad and cotton industry, which flooded the city with wealth. Many neighborhoods still display the grandiose Gone-with-the-Wind-style homes and brick commerce buildings, which were established during that period. Possibly most famous for its musical past, Macon is home to some of the greatest musicians of all time including Little Richard, Lena Horne, soul legend Otis Redding, R.E.M. founding members Bill Barry and Mike Mills, rapper Young Jeezy and CMT Artist of the Year Jason Aldean. The modern-day Macon has rolled all of these influences into a city rich with activities and culture.
The Macon City Auditorium sits within the historic district of downtown Macon and is listed as a historic landmark in the National Register of Historic Places. It sports a unique copper dome and a Doric-style limestone colonnade, which surrounds three sides of the building. On the inside, the Great Hall seats approximately 2,600. Its main attraction: a centerpiece mural over the stage by Don Carlos Dubois and Wilbur Kurtz depicting DeSoto’s visit to the area in 1540. This stage has seen the likes of headlining entertainers, local events and keynote speakers.
The Georgia Bridal Show has returned to Macon every February since 1996 for its annual show. The Macon City Auditorium is the perfect central location to assist middle Georgia brides-to-be, says Tommy Vaughan, the show’s producer. “We bring together 50 vendors from the Macon area to provide a one-stop resource when planning a wedding. With almost 10,000 attendees each year, the Georgia Bridal Show is the South’s most attended bridal show.” Not surprisingly, the city hosts a range of events every year, including the International Cherry Blossom Festival, a citywide festival with 10 days of events, concerts and exhibits against a backdrop of more than 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees, the most in the world. Each March the crowds enjoy activities such as authors’ luncheons, a street party and parade, a bed race, Cherry Blossom Gala and even an alligator show, just to name a few. Also, the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration is held in September and the Macon Film Festival in February.
“Attracting an average of 300,000 participants each year, this festival will feature over 500 events,” says Stacy Campbell, director of sales and marketing for the Cherry Blossom Festival. “With so much to offer, including plenty of Southern hospitality, the entire town hums with excitement.”
Sometimes, bad things can create good opportunities for a city. Consider New Orleans, which has always been a popular destination for meetings and events because of its culture and diversity. But in 2005, disaster in the name of Hurricane Katrina struck, more or less crippling the city. But since the hurricane, New Orleans has undergone massive revitalization efforts with more than $500 million invested in hotel renovations, and that’s one reason why even after Katrina, tourism is still a $5 billion-plus industry for the Louisiana coastal city.
Another good to come from Katrina: ramped-up voluntourism efforts, which many churches and faith-based groups become involved with while meeting in the city. Attendees help rebuild homes and schools, donate and hand out canned goods to hungry families, and volunteer at local children’s organizations. A few of the resources planners can connect with for voluntourism opportunities include Habitat for Humanity, HandsOn New Orleans, Hike for KaTREEna and Rebuilding Together New Orleans.
The convention and visitors bureau estimates that about 75,000 attendees for faith-based events will travel to New Orleans this year, having a $76 million economic impact. From 2008 through the end of this year, almost 190,000 participants in faith-based events will have traveled to New Orleans. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Youth Gathering alone will bring 35,000 young people to the city in July. With more than 38,000 hotel rooms and a convention center with 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space, the city has the space to accommodate that group and any size group, really.
Downtown New Orleans has more than 22,000 overnight rooms within a two-mile radius of one another. A mile south of the French Quarter riverfront, the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is the country’s sixth largest convention center. Built the year after the 1984 World’s Fair and renovated in 2006, the convention center has 3.1 million square feet of total space. More than 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space is complemented by two ballrooms, a 4,000-seat theater and 140 key-card-access rooms. In January next year, The Great Hall, a 60,000-sq.-ft. ballroom, opens at the center. Also downtown, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (formerly the Louisiana Superdome) provides ample space for large-scale faith-based events.
The Hilton New Orleans Riverside, adjacent to the convention center, has 1,622 rooms and 122,000 square feet of function space. After a $275 million redesign and overall hotel upgrade in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans reopened recently. The hotel doubled its meeting space, now totaling more than 200,000 square feet. The 1,193-room property also has a new food and beverage program.
The Hyatt is now the largest meeting and convention hotel in the city with 80,000 square feet of exhibit space. It has five Meeting Planner Suites, which have oversized work areas with access to a printer, fax machine and copy machine. When in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” or “Let the good times roll,” by scheduling receptions and other events at some of the city’s more distinctive venues, such as Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, where colorful floats are created for the annual Mardi Gras parade. The facility also rents out Grand Oaks Mansion, a replica of an antebellum mansion. Attendees can spend free time dining at a jazz brunch, cruising the Mississippi River on a paddle wheeler or just wandering the French Quarter.
Libby Hoppe contributed to this article.