by Linda Hayes | March 01, 2017

The Gulf States of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have a long-standing history of welcoming visiting groups with unique cultural offerings, lively entertainment and a regional cuisine that immediately conjures a unique sense of place.

The hospitable Southern experience can be found in everything from a breadth of accommodations and event venues to the professionalism put forth by convention bureaus. But what stands out time and again is the innate generosity of spirit from locals and their emphasis on hosting convivial gatherings all year long.

Louisiana: Spirited Meetings

One of the country's most vivacious cities, New Orleans displays its spirit on many fronts, especially musical and gastronomical ones. Attendees can revel in the strains of gospel, jazz and blues; introduce or reacquaint their palates to the city's famous Creole cooking; and bask in the creativity of local artists, whose work is displayed on "Gallery Row" (Julia Street) or in courtyards and within various cultural centers.

Beyond the popular French Quarter, a corridor of the city affectionately known as the "New CBD" (Central Business District) has recently experienced a resurgence with new hotels, restaurants, boutiques and entertainment venues popping up just about everywhere. Deeper insight into history is easily accomplished via a variety of tours, including those centered around cocktails, haunted mansions and cemeteries. Not to mention, an impressive list of more than 130 annual festivals held around the city nearly guarantees that something hip is happening when groups are in town.

In 2018, New Orleans will celebrate its 300th anniversary and the city is preparing to welcome the masses. "As New Orleans approaches its tricentennial in 2018, the city is buzzing with innovation and progress-from a groundbreaking vision of the riverfront surrounding the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to renovated hotels and boutique properties coming onto the scene," said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. "New Orleans continues to be one of the world's most fascinating cities to visit and home to a melting pot of traditions that provides the perfect backdrop for gatherings of any size."

At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, a $950 million capital improvement program is underway that will add a 30-gate North Terminal (scheduled to open in October 2018), a 2,000-car parking garage, a central utility plant and a ground transportation staging area. The airport has also added a variety of new nonstop flights.

The technologically advanced Ernest N. Morial Convention Center boasts more than 1.1 million square feet of contiguous exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms and a 4,000-seat auditorium. Its recently renovated Great Hall, a column-free ballroom, contains four divisible spaces and 25,000 square feet of pre-function space, and its entrance overlooks a high-definition, customizable video display board.

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, another major venue, can seat upwards of 73,000 and the field can be configured to offer more than 160,000 square feet of space. In addition, there are several rooms and lounges that serve smaller groups. Just outside is the 90,000-square-foot Champions Square, home to Club XLIV and the connected lounge Encore, which offer a combined 18,000 square feet of space for up to 1,000 people.

A mile to the east, in the Warehouse District, the National World War II Museum is nearing completion of a $370 million capital expansion project that will quadruple its size. In January it debuted Founders Plaza and future plans include a Hall of Democracy, the Liberation Pavilion and a $65 million, 234-room hotel with 22,000 square feet of conference space. The museum currently offers 12 event spaces.

Another popular attraction is Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, whose event venue can accommodate groups as large as 30,000. Meanwhile, the Sazerac Company has announced plans to develop the Sazerac House, a downtown visitor attraction and museum devoted to the city's official cocktail as well as the unique role New Orleans has played in the bourbon and rum industries. It is tentatively scheduled to open in late 2018.

In January, the National Automobile Dealers Association celebrated its 100-year anniversary in New Orleans. Its four-day convention and expo welcomed around 23,000 attendees.

Later this year, the city will host the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world, which is regularly attended by some 25,000 scientists and other participants. New Orleans topped the list of only a dozen U.S. cities that could accommodate the needs of this premier industry event; organizers made the decision based on ample venue space, hotel and transportation options, walkability and proximity of restaurants and entertainment to meeting sites.

Other groups that have met in the city recently include the Water Environment Federation; the National Black MBA Association, which held its 38th annual conference and exposition there in October; and SouthComm Business Media, which organized the EMS World Expo in October.

"We were especially impressed by the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, which helped us plan and market our conference," said Jesse Tyron, president and CEO of the National Black MBA Association. "In New Orleans, southern hospitality is personified!"

There are more than 38,000 hotel rooms available in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area. Recent additions include the 184-room Troubadour, the first Joie de Vivre Hotel in the South. Located in the Central Business District, the Troubadour offers 836 square feet of meeting space, video conferencing and audiovisual equipment and catering. This spring, the 207-room Homewood Suites/New Orleans French Quarter is scheduled to open near Louis Armstrong Park with event space for up to 100. In the CBD, the 217-room NOPSI Hotel also has plans to open this spring with 14,000 square feet of event space.

For recreational and entertainment options, groups might consider two public green spaces: the $9.1 million Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail that opened recently and connects Armstrong Park to the Tremé neighborhood and Mid-City, and the 1.4-acre Crescent Park, which runs along the Mississippi River in the Bywater neighborhood and features an open-air event space, lawn and wharf that can be used for special functions. Also in the Tremé neighborhood is the Carver Theater.

In southwest Louisiana, Lake Charles is popular with attendees who enjoy time outdoors. Recreational options include everything from educational marshland tours to golfing to cruising on the Lady of the Lake yacht. Organizations that have met in the area of late include the Louisiana Rural Water Association, the Police Jury Association of Louisiana and the Louisiana Forestry Association.

In hotel news, the Golden Nugget Lake Charles is adding a 300-room tower, expected to open this spring, and is increasing its total number of guest rooms to 1,040. And 30 miles west, in Vinton, the Delta Downs Racetrack Casino Hotel recently completed a $45 million expansion project, the centerpiece of which is a new hotel tower with 167 rooms. The hotel's existing 203 guest rooms were also updated.

Up north, the city of Shreveport regularly attracts associations from around Louisiana as well as neighboring Texas and Arkansas. It offers nearly 11,000 hotel rooms and several notable meeting venues including the 350,000-square-foot Shreveport Convention Center. Now serving the center is iShuttle, which offers new opportunities to move attendees between the convention center, regional airport and hotels, restaurants and attractions. South of downtown, the Wyndham Garden/Shreveport was renovated last year. It offers 15 updated meeting spaces and a new executive-club level and lounge.

Mississippi: Land of Plenty

With scenic coastal beaches, flavorful regional food, more than three dozen national historic landmarks and unique meeting venues with friendly, knowledgeable staff members, the bounty of the Magnolia State of Mississippi tempts groups of all interests.

Biloxi is particularly adept at combining business and pleasure. Its event sites include the expanded and updated Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, which offers 400,000 square feet of meeting space; the IP Casino Resort Spa, which hosted the 2017 International Inboard Travel Association Summit in February; the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum, which both welcomed the 2015 Southeast Regional IDeA Meeting; and the Point Cadet Pavilion and Biloxi Yacht Club, used to host events in conjunction with the 2015 annual convention of National AMBUCS Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating mobility and independence for people with disabilities.

Last summer the 373-room Margaritaville Resort/Biloxi opened with a 55,000-square-foot entertainment complex called Escape as well as a 450-foot lazy river, a lounge pool and three small meeting rooms. Other recent additions include the Hyatt Place/Biloxi, with 114 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 200 attendees, and Hotel Whiskey in Pass Christian, which has 11 guest rooms including a 1,000-square-foot master suite for executive gatherings.

In nearby Gulfport, the Island View Casino Resort plans to build a second casino just south of U.S. Highway 90. Returning groups might be interested in Gulfport's new Fishbone Alley, a pedestrian walkway showcasing local and regional artwork, or the Biloxi Brewing Company's new downtown taproom.

The capital city of Jackson, touted as the "City With Soul," pairs small-town sensibilities and an upbeat attitude with true southern hospitality and some 4,800 hotel rooms. Large venues dedicated to group events include the Jackson Convention Complex, with 330,000 square feet of meeting space, a 382-seat theater, and the Mississippi Trade Mart, with 67,140 square feet of space. Several cultural options that also welcome special events include the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum.

Alabama: On the A-list for Meetings

The high-tech city of Huntsville, in Alabama's northern foothills, is well known for its ties to the space industries. The local "We've Got Space" tagline is both a literal reference and a playful way to allude to available meeting and conference capabilities-more than 6,000 hotel rooms are available county-wide.

A top meeting venue is the Von Braun Center, with more than 80,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space, a 9,000-seat arena and a 1,955-seat concert hall. In May, the center will host TBEX/North America 2017, the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, writers and industry professionals. According to Patti Hosking, the organization's vice-president, one of the reasons Huntsville was chosen was the diversity of stories that travel bloggers will find there. She also cited the area's space connection, vibrant arts and entertainment district, European cultural heritage and spectacular outdoor adventure opportunities. "TBEX North America 2017 attendees will find lots to enjoy and share with their readers and followers," Hosking said.

Other groups that have met in the area of late include the Alabama Association of Realtors, the North Alabama Chapter of the Information Systems Security Association, the Goldwing Road Riders Association and Free the Hops.

Just a mile from the Von Braun Center, a new, 13-acre mixed-use development called Campus No. 805 is home to a pair of breweries, a restaurant, an arcade, and event space for up to 1,200 people. Other venues that offer interesting experiences include the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the EarlyWorks Museum Complex, the Huntsville Museum of Art, A.M. Booth's Lumberyard and the expanding Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment with some 10,000 square feet of indoor event space as well as lawn space.

West of downtown, the Huntsville Botanical Garden has five event venues and is scheduled to open a new Guest Welcome Center this spring with a café and three additional gathering spaces. Another four miles west, Jackson Center has 13,000 square feet of conference space. East of downtown, the Burritt on the Mountain also offers meeting space.

Hotels new to the area are the 120-suite TownePlace Suites/Huntsville West-Redstone Gateway, with a 10-person boardroom and the 150-room Element/Huntsville, which is scheduled to open April 4 on the upper floors of the existing Westin/Huntsville (the two properties will share meeting space). The Homewood Suites/Huntsville-Village of Providence was refreshed last year, and under construction is an AC Hotel by Marriott, scheduled to open in 2018.

One hundred miles to the south, Birmingham has been enjoying the accolades bestowed upon it by a number of national publications and websites. John Oros, president of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the "appreciable buzz" has been good for tourism and business. "Voices of travel around the country are taking notice of new developments here," he said. "We're enjoying our own hometown more than ever before, and we're eager to introduce visitors to the city people are talking about."

Organizations that have enjoyed all Birmingham has to offer of late include the U.S. Department of Energy and the FBI National Citizens Academy Alumni Association, both of which held events last year at the Sheraton/Birmingham.

The Sheraton is connected to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which boasts 222,000 square feet of exhibition space, more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space and an 18,000-seat arena. Newer spaces include the year-old, 270-seat Forum Theater.

Two local performance spaces now welcome private events. After an $11 million renovation, the historic Lyric Theatre reopened last year with seating for up to 750. And Saturn, a new entertainment venue in the trendy Avondale neighborhood, can host up to 500.

A Topgolf venue is expected to open in downtown Birmingham in December; plans include 102 climate-controlled hitting bays, a rooftop terrace, a restaurant and private meeting spaces.

In downtown, the Empire Hotel, now part of the Marriott Autograph Collection, is completing a $45 million renovation and is scheduled to open in April with 117 guest rooms and 5,000 square feet of event space. Near the University of Alabama, newly opened is the 105-room Homewood Suites by Hilton/Birmingham Downtown with 1,958 square feet of event space.

To the south, Hoover is home to the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, the 10,800-seat Regions Park (formerly known as Metropolitan Stadium) and the adjacent, $80 million, 120-acre Alabama Sports & Event Center ("The BAM"), which plans to open its 155,000-square-foot indoor event center in May and athletic fields in February 2018. Another site for groups is Noah's Event Center, scheduled to open this summer with a handful of spaces, the largest of which can host up to 300.

The coastal Alabama destinations of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach beckon groups with sugar-white beaches, deep-sea fishing and team-building opportunities. Associations that have recently held events in the area include the Alabama Community College Association, the National Electrical Contractors Association, the Associated General Contractors' Mississippi Valley Branch, the Alabama Propane Gas Association and the Mississippi Cemetery Association.

In Gulf Shores, the Erie Meyer Civic Center has 5,400 square feet of space, or four miles east is the Orange Beach Event Center with 18,000 square feet of space.

New hotels with meeting space include the 98-room Hampton Inn/Gulf Shores, which has a meeting room for up to 20, and the 132-suite Springhill Suites/Orange Beach at the Wharf, which is adjacent to the Orange Beach Event Center and has its own meeting space for up to 204. The Island House Hotel has closed to undergo renovations and is scheduled to reopen in June as the DoubleTree by Hilton/Orange Beach Beachfront. And in 2018, the Lodge at Gulf State Park is scheduled to open with 350 guest rooms, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and significant outdoor space.

The Gulf Adventure Center plans to relocate from Gulf State Park to the Wharf at Orange Beach this spring. Also this spring, the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach is set to open a new gallery building and gift shop, which will showcase and sell artwork from more than 120 local artists.

Inland, in Foley, a family-friendly entertainment destination called OWA is scheduled to open this summer with a 90,000-square-foot events center, a 150-room Marriott TownePlace Suites, an amusement park, shops and restaurants and a 300-seat, lakefront amphitheater. Future plans call for a waterpark, additional hotels, a condominium complex and an RV park. When complete, total investment in the development will top $500 million.

Along Mobile Bay, in Point Clear, the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa-which opened a new golf practice facility last year-has begun a major renovation that is expected to wrap up in spring 2018, when it will join Marriott's Autograph Collection. Plans include the redesign of guest rooms and conference space.

Surging Forward

The Gulf Coast states are awash in a new wave of options designed to enhance meetings and events. Updated hotels, new venues and improved attractions are just part of the package, while lively entertainment, great food and the region's remarkable hospitality remain the hallmarks of a proud and professional meetings culture that continues to move forward.