by Rachel Carter | August 01, 2016

For association meeting planners and attendees, both Georgia and South Carolina extend a warm welcome that has nothing to do with the weather. It has everything to do with the friendly, helpful attitudes of locals and the supportive atmosphere that drives the convention bureaus.

In this region of the United States, decades of hospitality experience mean that groups will find all of the charm, courtesy and culture that visitors have come to expect as the Southern standard.

Greater Atlanta: The Hottest Ticket in the South

The moniker "Hotlanta" could easily apply to the fact that Atlanta is one of the hottest destinations for meetings and exhibitions, with some $2.5 billion in new hospitality developments planned over the next three years. "Atlanta is one of the most appealing and dynamic destinations for events," said William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Logistically speaking, we're unrivaled when you couple the fourth-largest convention center in the country with the world's busiest airport. Our four compact meeting districts also create attractive packages for event planners."

The LEED-certified Georgia World Congress Center encompasses 3.9 million square feet and attracts more than 1 million visitors annually. In May it hosted MomoCon, an anime and gaming convention that drew more than 28,000 people, and this month it will welcome the Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show and its more than 30,000 professionals. Both events are scheduled to return in 2017. And SkillsUSA recently announced it will bring its weeklong, annual National Leadership & Skills Conference-and the event's 20,000 attendees-to the GWCC for six years starting in June 2021.

Nearby is the 20-acre Pemberton Place, a campus that includes the World of Coca-Cola, Georgia Aquarium, National Center for Civil & Human Rights and College Football Hall of Fame. The aquarium can host group events of up to 5,000, and in March it opened a new sea lion gallery and renovated its 240-seat 4D Funbelievable Theater. The College Football Hall of Fame can host events for up to 3,500 people, while the World of Coca-Cola has gathering space for up to 800 and the National Center for Civil & Human Rights can host functions for up to 500.

Just south, the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park is set to undergo a $50 million renovation late this year and a new, dual-branded Canopy/Homewood Suites by Hilton is expected to open in 2017 on Marietta Street near the park.

Work continues on Atlanta's two new stadiums: SunTrust Park and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The $1.4 billion, retractable-roof, 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium is under construction next to the downtown Georgia Dome, which will be demolished upon the stadium's completion in 2017. It will be home to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer's Atlanta United FC and has been selected to host the Super Bowl in 2019. Then, in spring 2018, the 220-room Hard Rock Hotel/Atlanta is scheduled to open next to the stadium with more than 10,000 square feet of meeting space. In spring 2017, Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves will begin playing at SunTrust Park. The 41,500-seat stadium will be surrounded by The Battery, a $400 million entertainment complex to include the 260-room Omni/Atlanta Northwest, which is expected to offer more than 12,000 square feet of meeting space.

Downtown is always hopping, and hospitality investments continue to improve options for visiting groups. New properties include the 206-room Hotel Indigo/Downtown, which offers 17 meeting rooms, and the 128-room Home2 Suites by Hilton/Atlanta Downtown, with a 30-person boardroom. The Atlanta Marriott Marquis has just completed the final renovation as part of its 10-year, $216 million transformation. The Holiday Inn/Atlanta Downtown-Centennial Park will undergo a $20 million renovation in preparation for a rebranding as an AC Hotel. And the historic Candler Building will be transformed into a 265-room Curio Hotel by Hilton. And in Midtown, construction has begun on a 169-room Hampton Inn & Suites, and a dual-branded AC Hotel by Marriott/Moxy Hotel is expected to open in 2018. Farther north, in Buckhead, the 166-room AC Hotel/Atlanta-Buckhead at Phipps Plaza opened in July with event space for up to 126.

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, an InterContinental Hotel is scheduled to open in 2018, and the 204-room Renaissance Atlanta Airport Gateway Hotel is expected to open in spring 2017 with 6,500 square feet of meeting space and access to the airport via the ATL SkyTrain. Just east of the airport, near the Porsche Experience Center, the 214-room Solís Hotel is scheduled to open in 2017.

In Alpharetta, about 25 miles north of Atlanta, major venues are the 12,000-seat Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park and the Metropolitan Club, with space for up to 1,000 people. Avalon, an 86-acre mixed-use development, continues to open in phases, with a beer garden to open next spring and a 44,000-square-foot conference center and 330-room Hotel at Avalon, a Marriott Autograph Collection property, to follow in January 2018. Two historic venues, the DeVore House and Mansell House & Gardens, can host groups of up to 200 to 250, respectively.

Northern Georgia: Class Acts

Northeast of Atlanta, Athens is home to the University of Georgia and was the birthplace of several well-known bands, including R.E.M. The college town's fun, funky vibe appeals to many groups. The Georgia Association of Water Professionals and the Georgia Association of Gifted Children have both recently met at the downtown Classic Center, which provides numerous spaces including a 56,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a Grand Hall that can accommodate up to 6,000 people, a 2,100-seat performing arts theater, an 8,000-square-foot atrium and a covered outdoor pavilion. A connecting Hyatt Place Hotel is under construction and set to open in spring 2017 with 190 guest rooms and its own meeting space.

Groups can also convene on the University of Georgia campus and use its indoor and outdoor challenge courses for team building. The on-campus Georgia Museum of Art can host groups of 350, and the Performing Arts Center has two halls and a chapel for events. The school also operates the off-campus State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which welcomes groups of up to 300. The Georgia Theatre, unaffiliated with the college, has a rooftop that's perfect for receptions of up to 800 people.

In Cartersville, 45 miles northwest of Atlanta, the Clarence Brown Conference Center can host up to 2,000 attendees. And when in Rome, about 25 miles west, groups can meet at the Forum Civic Center, which has 34,000 square feet of function space for up to 5,000, or the Rome Area History Museum can host smaller events. A new 90-room Hampton Inn & Suites opened in March with meeting space for up to 150, and a 124-room Courtyard by Marriott is scheduled to open in spring 2017. The recently renovated Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham/Rome is housed in an 1890 warehouse with original wood floors and brick walls and is just a short walk from the 6,500-seat Barron Stadium.

Augusta, Macon & Valdosta: Central Meeting Grounds

The Masters Golf Tournament shines the spotlight on Augusta each spring, but year-round the city draws events of all kinds, in large part due to its central location and the capability of the 100,000-square-foot Augusta Convention Center. Less than a mile away, at the Augusta Entertainment Complex, the James Brown Arena offers 23,000 square feet of space and the Bell Auditorium has 10,000 square feet of space. Although the Masters is the only time the Augusta National Golf Club allows entry to non-members, groups can play at several other area courses and clubs, many with post-tournament event space.

Another convenient hub for state meetings is Macon, located between Atlanta and Savannah. The city recently hosted the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, the Georgia Municipal Clerks & Finance Officers Association and the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia. The Macon Centreplex boasts more than 140,000 square feet of space. Facilities include the 102,000-square-foot convention center, the 9,252-seat Macon Coliseum and the 2,688-seat Macon City Auditorium. The connected Macon Marriott City Center offers another 5,000 square feet of function space. Southwest of downtown, the Anderson Conference Center can accommodate groups of up to 850, or planners can turn to the 10,000-square-foot conference center at Middle Georgia State University.

Many of Macon's cultural offerings also serve as popular off-site venues. Groups of up to 225 can book the Museum of Arts & Sciences, and the Tubman Museum can also host small events. The nearby Georgia Sports Hall of Fame can also accommodate meetings and receptions. Several sites deliver historic elegance: Terminal Station, which can host up to 600; the 314-seat Douglass Theatre, which offers an additional annex for up to 250; the Greek Revival-style Cannonball House; and the 18,000-square-foot Hay House.

A new TownePlace Suites by Marriott is scheduled to open next month near Mercer University with 95 guest suites and 550 square feet of meeting space, and the Home2 Suites by Hilton/Macon-I-75 North is scheduled to open this month with 79 guest rooms. About 95 miles west, in LaGrange, the Great Wolf Lodge/Georgia is scheduled to open in 2018 with 456 guest suites, a 93,000-square-foot indoor water park and 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

Valdosta, just north of the Florida border, is home to the James H. Rainwater Conference Center, which has conference space for up to 1,050 or can accommodate up to 62 trade-show booths. It has hosted the Georgia Emergency Management Association and Georgia Agritourism Association.

Savannah to Hilton Head: Draped in History

With its antebellum architecture, European-style plazas and moss-draped live oaks, Savannah still transports visiting attendees back to another century. The National Beta Club, the Georgia Municipal Association and the American College of Nurse-Midwives are just some of the groups that have chosen Savannah for their events. Although Savannah prides itself on the past, the city offers a plethora of modern meeting venues as well. One of these is the 330,000-square-foot Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, which overlooks downtown from the banks of the Savannah River and can be accessed via water taxi.

When the National Agricultural Aviation Association organized its 49th annual convention and exposition in town in December, it held most events at the convention center. The convention drew 1,650 attendees and 154 exhibitors and also showcased aircraft, both on the trade-show floor and outside between the center and the neighboring Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, where many guests stayed. Lindsay Barber, the association's director of meetings, marketing and special projects, said that after its first successful convention in Savannah in 2010, the group asked whether the convention center could install large doors for its 2015 event so aircraft could be put on display indoors. It did, to the delight of both association and city officials: The group rebooked for 2017 and 2020, and the convention center can now exhibit boats, mobile homes, RVs and other large equipment.

The American Society for Histocompatibility & Immunogenetics brought 900 attendees to Savannah last fall for its annual meeting. Events were held at the convention center, and at night attendees "loved being able to walk around and access restaurants by walking instead of always having to take a cab," said Caitlin O'Brien, the group's senior meeting manager.

Savannah's Historic District is home to the Savannah Civic Center, which features an arena with 25,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 2,566-seat theater, or groups can meet at the Coastal Georgia Center, with multiple meeting rooms and a 370-seat auditorium. Nearby, the 252-room Hotel Indigo/Savannah Historic District opened in March in the former Guckenheimer tobacco warehouse with 6,000 square feet of meeting space. And the 160-room Homewood Suites by Hilton/Savannah Historic District-Riverfront opened in January with meeting space for up to 150 people. Near the famous fountain of Forsyth Park, the 1882 Brockington Hall has 4,000 square feet of space. And 12 miles south, the Armstrong Center at Armstrong University offers a 6,000-square-foot ballroom and a 275-seat auditorium.

There's riverboat service to the Civil War-era Old Fort Jackson, where hundreds of attendees can enjoy period reenactments and a Lowcountry boil. And 16 miles east, on the Atlantic Coast, Tybee Island's Island Light Station & Museum and the Tybee Pier & Pavilion both welcome groups and special events.

About 90 miles south of Savannah, Jekyll Island has drawn organizations such as the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, the Georgia Rural Water Association and the Institute of Continuing Legal Education. Many events are held at the 128,000-square-foot Jekyll Island Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 6,450 people.

About two miles north, the oceanfront Holiday Inn Resort has been completely remodeled. The Jekyll Island Club Hotel is also expanding its offerings: Next spring it is expected to introduce 41 Ocean Suites. Groups often hold private events at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, where attendees can participate in educational programs and walks or watch turtle rehabilitation. Other exploratory options include shrimping trips, sunset wine cruises, dinners at historic venues and a pub crawl.

Just north, St. Simons Island is home to the King & Prince Beach & Resort, which can host groups of up to 350. Five miles north, the Cloister at Sea Island on Sea Island recently debuted its new Garden Wing this spring with 63 guest rooms. Also new is the 5,000-square-foot Mizner Ballroom, which increases the resort's total meeting space to more than 33,000 square feet.

Thirty miles northeast of Savannah, just over the South Carolina border, is Hilton Head Island, a popular retreat area that boasts several resorts. Planners will find 150,000 square feet of meeting space, 3,000 hotel rooms and 6,000 villas, while attendees will enjoy 270 restaurants, 20 golf courses and pristine beaches. The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa plans to open the Grand Ocean Terrace in March with 5,000 square feet of indoor space for groups of up to 250.

In the historic city of Bluffton, the Montage/Palmetto Bluff is undergoing an expansion and renovation, scheduled to be complete in September. It will add 150 guest rooms (for a total of 200) and 7,200 square feet of meeting space (for a total of 12,700).

Charleston to Myrtle Beach: Setting the Scene

Charleston is South Carolina's oldest city and its downtown is enjoying an infusion of investment. The 155-room Dewberry Hotel opened in June in a renovated federal building with event space for up to 120 people. And last fall saw the opening of the 50-room Grand Bohemian, a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel with meeting space for up to 307 people, and the dual-branded Hyatt House/Hyatt Place, with a combined 304 guest rooms and access to the adjacent Sterling Hall, which offers 8,500 square feet of conference space. A new off-site option is the Gibbes Museum of Art, part of the Museum Mile in the Historic District; the restored Beaux Arts building now welcomes up to 500.

The largest event venue continues to be the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston. Its campus encompasses a 150,000-square-foot convention center with an attached, 255-room Embassy Suites (several other surrounding hotels provide another 800 rooms); the 13,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum; and a performing arts center with a 2,300-seat theater. Another 14 miles northwest is landmark Middleton Place, with numerous indoor and outdoor gathering spaces for groups. Adjacent, the 55-room Inn at Middleton Place has its own meeting space for up to 200.

In the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant, the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is a popular destination. There, a World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown, can accommodate up to 3,500 attendees. New meeting hotels include the Hilton Garden Inn and Wyndham Garden Hotel.

Ninety miles up the coast is the classic seaside town of Myrtle Beach. The hub for meetings is the Convention & Entertainment District, home to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, with 250,000 square feet of space, and a connected 400-room Sheraton Hotel that offers its own function space. Just down the street, the new Myrtle Beach Sports Complex provides 72,000 square feet of open-court space that can be used for events; it also has a multipurpose room and a café.

Major changes are underway at Springmaid Beach Resort, which will be reflagged as a DoubleTree Resort by Hilton when the renovations are complete next month. Virginia-based Buchanan Motels plans to build a 530-room hotel in central Myrtle Beach that is expected to open next year, and Myrtle Beach Seaside Resorts, which manages multiple properties in the area, recently refreshed the Grande Shores Ocean Resort and North Myrtle Beach's SeaSide Hotel and Avista Resort.

Central & Northern South Carolina: Convincing Destinations

As South Carolina's capital and most-populous city, visitors may worry Columbia is too big to be hospitable, but that's not the case at all. "The city of Columbia was terrific as a meeting destination" and everyone was courteous and helpful, said Venkat Lakshmi, a professor at the University of South Carolina who helped organize the 65th annual meeting of the Southeastern Section of the Geological Society of America. The event drew 700 attendees and was held in late March at the 142,000-square-foot Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Lakshmi said attendees loved the city, the venue, the proximity of the hotels and the selection of restaurants.

The $37 million Spirit Communications Park opened in April. The baseball stadium is home to the minor-league Fireflies but can host special events of up to 15,000. Other group venues include the University of South Carolina's 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena, the 12,400-seat Carolina Coliseum and the South Carolina State Fairgrounds, which has more than 138,000 square feet of space. The South Carolina State Museum and the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden also welcome receptions. In hotel news, the 108-room Aloft/Columbia Downtown is scheduled to open in January with meeting space for up to 133, and the 100-room Courtyard by Marriott is scheduled to open in winter.

Tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Spartanburg offers more than 400,000 square feet of meeting space and expects to add 300 hotel rooms next year to its existing 3,000 guest rooms. The South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance recently held a safety summit at the Spartanburg Marriott. According to Gloria Freeman, its vice-president, the group was drawn to Spartanburg because of its convenient location and the hotel's great meeting space and ample parking.

Other downtown venues include the 3,244-seat Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium; the Chapman Cultural Center, which can be used for gatherings of up to 542; the historic Indigo Hall, with 8,000 square feet of space in two event halls and additional garden space; and the Piedmont Club, which can host up to 500. On the west side of town, the Spartanburg Expo Center has 160,000 square feet of exhibit and conference space, and five miles south, the Summit Pointe Conference & Events Center has 19,000 square feet of event space for up to 600.

The state's first AC Hotel is scheduled to open in downtown Spartanburg in 2017 with 120 guest rooms and 2,000 square feet of meeting space. Near WestGate Mall, a 105-room Residence Inn by Marriott is also expected to open in 2017. The Residence Inn/Spartanburg completed a renovation last year.

Thirty miles west, Greenville is a destination that constantly surprises. Last September, when 230 delegates arrived in the city for the National Association of State Park Directors' annual conference, the word organizers heard most from attendees was "wow!" said Phil Gaines, state park director for South Carolina, who serves on the association's executive board.

"Nothing but positive, over-the-top comments about Greenville and the surrounding area," he said. "So many people were not expecting to see what they saw, from the natural and cultural resources to the level of hospitality." Conference sessions were held at the Embassy Suites Greenville Golf Resort & Conference Center, and an opening reception was organized at the Wyche Pavilion, a historic downtown building with views of the Reedy River.

The TD Convention Center remains Greenville's largest meeting facility, with 280,000 square feet of exhibit space and 60,000 square feet of meeting space. Also downtown is the Peace Center, with more than 18,000 square feet of event space, and the recently renovated, 15,000-seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Of the 8,500 hotel rooms in greater Greenville, 900 are located downtown and another 850 are expected to be added over the next few years. A 144-room Aloft Hotel opened downtown in December with five meeting spaces, and the 156-suite Embassy Suites/Downtown Greenville at RiverPlace is scheduled to open this fall with 5,500 square feet of meeting space.

Heart of the South

Georgia and South Carolina are the heart of the South, and they represent the area well with historic venues, cosmopolitan cities and a coast that beckons groups with top retreat sites. There are countless characteristics that set these two states apart, but what continues to stand out is the commitment to excellence and a pride in promoting an ambiance that only this region can provide.