by Rachel Carter | September 01, 2016

The Southern states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas not only provide excellent venues for association meeting planners but also offer attendees unparalleled experiences that celebrate the region’s heritage and traditions.

In Kentucky, delegates can get a taste of victory by standing in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, where a garland of roses has been draped on the winning thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby for more than a century. In Tennessee, delegates can take the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and step into a 6-foot circle of wood that was brought over from the Opry’s original home at the Ryman Auditorium and is the same spot where Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash all performed. As for the Man in Black himself, attendees can visit Johnny Cash’s restored boyhood home in Arkansas.

Kentucky: Winners All Around

Louisville is no stranger to hosting events, both large and small. The Kentucky Derby drew more than 167,000 spectators this May—the second-highest attendance in the race’s 142-year history—and the city has a growing hospitality infrastructure to handle it with nearly 20,000 hotel rooms.

Downtown, the Kentucky International Convention Center closed in August for a two-year, $180 million renovation and expansion that is scheduled to wrap up in the summer of 2018, when it will feature more than 200,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space and a 40,000-square-foot ballroom. Construction is also underway on an adjacent, 612-room Omni Hotel that is also expected to open in 2018 and offer 70,000 square feet of its own flexible event space.

In the meantime, several other downtown venues are filling the convention center’s shoes. These include the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center; the Galt House Hotel, which has more than 130,000 square feet of event space; the historic Henry Clay, an event venue with 20,000 square feet of space that is connected to a Hilton Garden Inn and just steps away from the Fourth Street Live entertainment district; and the Kentucky Derby Museum, with more than 10,000 square feet of available space.

The Kentucky Exposition Center will also play an expanded role in the city’s meetings market over the next two years. Located a few miles south of downtown (and just north of the Louisville International Airport), the center features 1.2 million square feet of indoor exhibition space, including the 19,000-seat Freedom Hall arena. It already serves as the permanent home of several large-scale events such as the Kentucky State Fair, the National Farm Machinery Show and the North American International Livestock Exposition. The venue is also a popular choice for educational conventions such as the VEX Robotics World Championship and Skills USA’s 52nd annual National Leadership & Skills Conference, which was held at the center in June.

In January, the American Bus Association held its Marketplace 2016 in town with 3,400 attendees. The event used the convention center for its meetings and exhibits, while other events were held at the Muhammad Ali Center and at Churchill Downs and a closing-night function was held at the Galt House. Attendees also enjoyed a dine-around one night that showcased area restaurants.

The ABA chose Louisville because the city is “group-friendly,” said Lynn Brewer, the association’s senior vice-president of meetings, education and member services. “Louisville put together a great bid package for us and over-delivered on their promise to show our attendees a great time,” Brewer said. She also added that most attendees had never been to Louisville and were impressed with its downtown, restaurants, tour options and overall friendliness.

To tap into Louisville’s rich distilling heritage, groups can pay a visit to the Copper & Kings American Brandy Company; the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, located on “Whiskey Row” downtown; the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse; and the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. This fall, the Angel’s Envy Distillery is scheduled to open in a restored historic building and another two distilleries are under construction.

New hotels include the 175-room Aloft/Louisville Downtown, with meeting space for up to 185 people, and the 145-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Downtown, with function space for groups of up to 75. The Hyatt Regency recently completed a $16 million renovation of its guest rooms and indoor pool area.

About 100 miles northeast of Louisville, the city of Covington’s 204,000-square-foot Northern Kentucky Convention Center is just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. The center recently benefited from a $2 million renovation and is supported by more than 1,000 hotel guest rooms, with another 300 planned. Renovation projects are either underway or have been recently completed at the Marriott Cincinnati RiverCenter, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Cincinnati RiverCenter, the Holiday Inn/Riverfront and the Radisson/Cincinnati Riverfront. The 114-room Hotel Covington is in its final stages of construction and is scheduled to open in late summer in a renovated, century-old building downtown. The hotel will offer 4,700 square feet of meeting and event space, including the Eva G. Farris ballroom and a private dining room for intimate culinary gatherings. In nearby Newport, the 144-room Aloft on the Levee is scheduled to open spring 2017.

The National Association for Campus Activities has held its Mid America Regional Conference in the area every other year since 2010 but has scheduled conferences in Covington in 2016 and 2017. The event usually draws about 1,000 attendees and uses the convention center, Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels. According to Kerrie Sneed, the group’s meeting and event manager, NACA attendees and officials love returning to Northern Kentucky.

“They can feel the cohesiveness of the city to ensure our event is a success,” she said. “And to say that professionals in Northern Kentucky are an event manager’s ‘dream team’ is an understatement.”

As Kentucky’s capital, Frankfort attracts its fair share of events. The Frankfort Convention Center welcomes groups with 17,000 square feet of exhibit space, 10,000 square feet of meeting space and a 5,000-seat arena. Another notable venue is the revamped Capital Plaza Hotel next door, offering its own 9,000 square feet of meeting space for up to 450 people. Unique off-site venues include the Buffalo Trace Distillery, which can accommodate special events of up to 350 people, and the historic Berry Hill Mansion, with both indoor and outdoor space for up to 200 people.

Groups headed to Lexington, the “Horse Capital of the World,” may be interested in touring one of the area’s more famous racehorse farms, which include Calumet Farm, WinStar Farm and Three Chimneys. For meeting venues, the 130,000-square-foot Lexington Convention Center, the 840-seat Lexington Opera House and the University of Kentucky’s 23,000-seat Rupp Arena are all popular options.

In February, the 21c Museum Hotel opened downtown in the historic Fayette National Bank Building. Features of the hotel include 88 guest rooms, a 7,000-square-foot art gallery that doubles as a meeting space for up to 250 people and two smaller event rooms. The largest meeting hotel in town is the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa, which offers more than 34,000 square feet of function space for up to 1,200 people. The resort is just a few miles from the Kentucky Horse Park, which can host events amid 1,200 acres of bluegrass, a 5,512-seat arena, a stadium that can be configured to seat up to 30,000 people and several other sizable venues.

In Harrodsburg, about 30 miles southwest of Lexington, groups can meet, dine or stay at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a historic Shaker settlement where 72 guest rooms are housed in 13 restored Shaker buildings. Several 19th-century buildings feature 5,000 square feet of event space, and groups can also use the grounds, gardens, an open-air tobacco barn and the village’s 115-passenger riverboat.

The city of Bowling Green made national headlines in 2014 when a sinkhole opened up beneath a showroom at the National Corvette Museum and swallowed eight valuable Corvettes. Today, the showroom is restored, the museum has opened a new sinkhole exhibit and the venue offers indoor conference space for up to 675 people and an outdoor amphitheater area that can accommodate up to 10,000 people.

Two other local natural attractions worthy of a visit are the Lost River Cave, with underground event rooms and cave boat cruises, and Mammoth Cave National Park, located 23 miles northeast of town and home to the world’s longest-known cave system.

Bowling Green is also home to Western Kentucky University, and groups of up to 1,200 people can convene at its Knicely Conference Center. Other dedicated event venues in town are the 60,000-square-foot Sloan Convention Center and the 80,000-square-foot Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, which includes a 1,800-seat main hall.

About 70 miles northeast, the city of Owensboro has been enjoying the success of the 92,000-square-foot Owensboro Convention Center, which opened in 2014. The full-service downtown venue overlooks the Ohio River and offers a 44,000-square-foot exhibition hall, more than 48,000 square feet of ballroom and function space and the newly remodeled Artisan Café, which reopened its doors last November.

Paducah, a city of about 25,000 people in western Kentucky, is a designated UNESCO Creative City, a nod to its heritage of quilt-making. Paducah is, in fact, headquarters of the American Quilter’s Society and home to the National Quilt Museum, which offers guided tours and hands-on group experiences. Three blocks away is the 1857 Hotel, which opened in June; a renovated, red-brick antebellum building houses its 10 guest rooms while the hotel bar and event space is located in an adjoining turn-of-the-century tractor repair shop.

Tennessee: Always a Hit

Nashville has long been known as the place where country-music stars are made, but after the New York Times crowned the Music City an “it” destination in early 2013, Nashville began booming in new ways and drawing new crowds, including a number of convention groups.

In January, the city announced that it had reached a milestone: a record-breaking 60 straight months of year-over-year growth, based on the number of hotel rooms sold and hotel taxes collected. Since the Music City Center first opened in May 2013, the downtown venue has hosted 961 events, drawn more than 1.9 million attendees and generated more than $1 billion in direct economic impact for the city. Gold LEED–certified, the 2.1 million-square-foot facility includes a 57,500-square-foot ballroom and 350,000 square feet of exhibit space.

“This is a true testament to what is happening here in Nashville and all the work that has gone into making this city a great destination for meetings and conventions,” said Charles Starks, president and CEO of the Music City Center. “Our vision from the beginning was for the Music City Center to have a positive economic impact on the city of Nashville, and watching that vision come to fruition in the first three years of opening is incredibly gratifying.”

This month, the Westin/Nashville is scheduled to open next to Music City Center with 454 guest rooms, 20,000 square feet of flexible meeting and event space, a spa, a restaurant and a rooftop bar and lounge. Across the street from the convention complex, the LEED-certified Omni/Nashville offers more than 80,000 square feet of function space and 49,000 square feet of pre-function space. The hotel is connected to the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, which offers more than a dozen gathering spaces, including the 10,000-square-foot Event Hall and 800-seat CMA Theater. The museum also houses one of four Hatch Show Print locations in town; the iconic maker of letterpress concert posters welcomes groups for tours of its gallery and production shop.

Plenty of other downtown venues are within walking distance of Music City Center, including the 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena, which offers an additional 6,000 square feet of meeting space and a 13,500-square-foot event hall; the Nashville Convention Center, with 25 meeting rooms and 118,000 square feet of exhibit space; the recently renovated, 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium, which has a new 100-seat theater; and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which has 10 event spaces, the largest of which is a 1,860-seat concert hall. About 10 miles northeast of downtown, the iconic Grand Ole Opry welcomes groups of up to 4,400.

Whereas Nashville is a hub for country music, Memphis is firmly rooted in the blues, with such clubs lining downtown Beale Street, an area served by trolleys and convenient to meeting venues. Two of the city’s largest group spaces are the Memphis Cook Convention Center, which boasts 350,000 square feet of space, and FedExForum, which can seat about 20,000 and offers several special-event rooms. No trip to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s famed estate, which can host events for up to 1,200 people. Just steps away is the Guest House at Graceland, a new 450-room luxury resort scheduled to open in October with more than 17,000 square feet of function space.

Located in the Memphis Pyramid, Big Cypress Lodge opened in April 2015 with 103 guest rooms; 169,290 square feet of meeting space for groups of up to 160 people; and 10 aquariums with 600,000 gallons of water holding more than 1,800 fish. About 15 miles east of downtown, Agricenter International offers 100,000 square feet of space, including an expo center, event barn, woodland amphitheater and outdoor arena.

Many conferences and conventions that chug into Chattanooga use the 185,000-square-foot downtown Chattanooga Convention Center or the 12,000-seat McKenzie Arena at the University of Tennessee/Chattanooga. The city’s free electric shuttle runs from the Tennessee River across town to the 24-acre Chattanooga Choo Choo complex, which features a music venue for up to 500 people, two restaurants and the 106-year-old Terminal Station, converted into a historic hotel. The Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel welcomes groups with a variety of event spaces and accommodations such as Pullman Train Car guest rooms. Alternately, Chattanooga’s bicycle transit system is an active way to explore town. The 24/7 Bike Chattanooga system features about 300 bikes at more than 33 stations, including one near the convention center. The Tennessee Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River, can host events of up to 2,000 people and runs guided nature cruises for up to 70 people. Groups can also enjoy river views from the 8,000-square-root terrace at the Hunter Museum of American Art, which has six event spaces.

On the eastern side of Tennessee, in Knoxville, two notable event venues are the 500,000-square-foot, silver LEED–certified Knoxville Convention Center and the Knoxville Expo Center, which has 80,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 12,900-square-foot banquet facility. In West Knoxville, the Conference Center at Water’s Edge can accommodate groups of 80 people at its outdoor amphitheater and has conference rooms overlooking a private lake and forested grounds.

To the southeast, in Sevierville, the Sevierville Convention Center has 200,000 square feet of flexible event space, or planners can take their group another seven miles down the road to the town of Pigeon Forge, where the 232,000-square-foot LeConte Event Center can accommodate groups as large as 12,000. In nearby Gatlinburg, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Gatlinburg Convention Center has more than 148,000 square feet of event space.

Arkansas: A Gem Among States

Arkansas claims three of the largest diamonds ever found in America. And attendees who feel lucky can head to Crater of the Diamonds State Park just south of Murfreesboro, now a state park, to dig for the gems. (Just last year a visitor unearthed an 8.5-carat diamond there.)

Aside from mining for precious stones, the state has other claims to fame as well: Visitors can tour the restored childhood homes of former President Bill Clinton, born in Hope, and country music icon Johnny Cash, who was born in the town of Dyess.

The capital city of Little Rock is a favorite destination among many groups as it offers some of the state’s largest venues, many of which line the banks of the Arkansas River. Among these are the Statehouse Convention Center, which offers 220,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space; the Clinton Presidential Center, with more than 10,000 square feet of function space and a restaurant that offers cooking classes; and the First Security Amphitheater, which can accommodate groups of up to 7,875 people. The historic Robinson Center is wrapping up a $70 million makeover and is scheduled to reopen in November; new features include a conference center with a 5,800-square-foot outdoor terrace that affords river views. Also making its debut in the city is the Four Points by Sheraton/Little Rock–Midtown, scheduled to open September 13 with 263 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 400 people.

In North Little Rock, Dickey-Stephens Park is home to a minor league baseball team and can accommodate up to 10,000 people for special events. Planners can also utilize the 18,000-seat Verizon Arena, which offers 28,000 square feet of floor space and in-house catering for events. About 25 miles to the southwest, in Benton, the 29,000-square-foot Benton Event Center can seat up to 1,800 attendees and is supported by the neighboring Fairfield/Little Rock-Benton.

Right up there with its diamonds, Arkansas delivers another sparkling attraction: hot springs. Hot Springs National Park, in the town of Hot Springs, has been drawing visitors for more than two centuries. For matters of business, the 360,000-square-foot Hot Springs Convention Center offers various meeting spaces, including the 6,300-seat Bank of the Ozarks Arena, and the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa has a conference center for up to 1,000 people as well as smaller rooms for gatherings.

In scenic northwestern Arkansas, Bentonville is the headquarters of the mega-retailer Walmart and is also an arts destination with plenty of cultural cache. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is nestled on 120 acres on the edge of downtown, a sparkling white-and-glass building that stands out from the surrounding dense Ozark forestlands. The museum can accommodate special events of up to 1,000, offers group tours for up to 60 people and boasts 3.5 miles of outdoor walking trails dotted with sculptures.

Just a short walk from the museum, the downtown 21c Museum Hotel has 12,000 square feet of function space for events of up to 330 people. And about a mile from the hotel, the 50,000-square-foot Scott Family Amazeum welcomes private events, and groups can enjoy the center’s hands-on exhibits. Closer to the Bentonville Municipal Airport is the 105-room Four Points by Sheraton/Bentonville, which opened last year with event space for up to 550 people.

In nearby Rogers, the Fairfield Inn & Suites wrapped up a renovation project in July that included new furniture, carpet and wall treatments. The Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas Hotel & Spa and the attached John Q. Hammons Center offer 125,000 square feet of event space.

In Eureka Springs, situated on the east side of Beaver Lake, the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa has 10,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space for up to 350 people, and the restored Grand Central Hotel offers the underground, stone-walled Grand Hall for functions of up to 100. Larger options include the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks, which has conference space for up to 1,000 attendees, and the 984-seat Eureka Springs City Auditorium.

Meeting venues in Springdale, 20 miles south of Bentonville, include the Northwest Arkansas Convention Center, which offers 44,000 square feet of space and is located adjacent to the Holiday Inn/Springdale-Fayetteville Area; the 6,500-seat Arvest Ballpark; and the Jones Center, a recreational complex with a conference center for up to 350 people and a 330-seat auditorium. The city also offers 1,500 guest rooms. In neighboring Fayetteville, the Walton Arts Center is undergoing major renovations, including expansions to the lobby and Starr Theater and a new glass-walled façade. It is scheduled to reopen in November.

Sixty miles farther south, in Fort Smith, area hotels are being renovated and rebranded. The former Executive Hotel at City Center was scheduled to reopen as a DoubleTree by Hilton in August after undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation. The hotel has 19,000 square feet of function space and is connected to the Fort Smith Convention Center, which offers 40,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space, eight meeting rooms and houses the 1,331-seat ArcBest Performing Arts Center. The Courtyard/Fort Smith Downtown and the Best Western Aspen were both renovated this year, the Hampton Inn/Fort Smith is renovating its guest rooms, and the new 90-room Home2 Suites by Hilton opened early this year near the regional airport with a small boardroom.

The 53,000-square-foot, historic Masonic Temple has undergone a significant transformation and is expected to reopen in November as Temple Live with an auditorium for up to 1,200 people and, in the basement, a private Sphinx Club that serves food and cocktails. Other popular event venues include Starlight Events by MovieLounge, with 18,124 square feet of event space, including two ballrooms and two screening rooms; and Kay Rodgers Park, which offers a 24,000-square-foot Expo Center, a stadium that can seat up to 14,000 people and a 27,300-square-foot covered arena.

Options Prized by Planners

Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas have all sorts of unique enticements for groups. Be it an outing to watch thoroughbred horses galloping around one of the nation’s most famous racetracks, sitting spellbound for a performance at a legendary country-music venue or an excursion to dig for diamonds, these three states offer incomparable options. Bolstered by all the support behind the scenes, events in these Southern states are destined to win over the crowd.