by Barbara Beckley | July 01, 2016

With attractions spanning years of U.S. history, from the Liberty Bell to the Underground Railroad to Pop Art, and with geographic contrasts ranging from the Amish farmlands to the Atlantic shore, the diversity of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware often surprises first-time visitors.

In fact, there’s so much to experience that planners need not design the same agenda twice, even in preferred locations. New and expanding convention facilities, hotels and free-time activities in all three states continue to grow their options, but it can be said that the famous destinations have little problem attracting interest. When Susan Smith, educational services executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry, booked a leading TV personality to speak at a recent event, she said, “I’m sure one of the reasons he accepted was because the meeting was in Hershey, Pennsylvania.”

Coastal New Jersey: Bigger & Better

Atlantic City continues to reinvent itself. A 200-foot-high observation wheel with climate-controlled gondolas is set to open on Steel Pier later this year, and an expansion of the Historic Gardner’s Basin will add more restaurants, shops and entertainment venues to the bayside hot spot as well as see the reconstruction and extension of the Boardwalk to that area.

The Atlantic City Convention Center and the nearby Boardwalk Hall have benefited from upgraded wireless technology, a new digital marquee and LED boards, and new staging, sound and lighting. The center features nearly 500,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and more than 100,000 of meeting space. Boardwalk Hall has a 14,770-seat main arena as well as a 23,100-square-foot ballroom.

In hotel news, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa is now under the ownership of MGM Resorts International and recently unveiled its new Premier Nightclub. The historic Claridge Hotel, home of the Atlantic City Ballet and the Holtzman Gallery (which can host gatherings of up to 400), is expecting to open a 15,000-square-foot conference center and a rooftop bar later this summer. Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City opened a new, $125.8 million waterfront conference center in September 2015, making it the largest convention center-hotel complex between Baltimore and Boston. The 100,000-square-foot facility includes two divisible ballrooms. The Resorts Casino Hotel also debuted a new conference center last year; its facility offers 12,000 square feet of space. And the Tropicana/Atlantic City recently announced a $25 million renovation, which will include the enhancement of its Havana Tower guest rooms.

About 80 miles north, in Asbury Park, the Asbury Hotel is the first new hotel to open in the community in 50 years. The 110-room property, converted from a Salvation Army building, made its debut in May and features 30,000 square feet of event space, including two rooftop spaces—one with a movie screen on one wall—a pool and a beer garden with a ping-pong table.

Northern & Central New Jersey: Celebrated Favorites

Groups across the Eastern Seaboard flock to East Rutherford and the Meadowlands Complex. Its MetLife Stadium, site of the 2014 Super Bowl, features spaces that range from the 10,700-square-foot Commissioners Club to the 82,500-seat field, and the Meadowlands Racetrack can host up to 40,000. In Secaucus, the Meadowlands Exposition Center can host up to 5,000 people.

An hour south, in Princeton, the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village can accommodate conventions of up to 1,100, and another 14 miles south, the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton can be configured to host up to 10,000 people. Thirty miles southwest, in Camden, gatherings for up to 3,000 can be arranged aboard the Battleship New Jersey. The ship also offers overnight accommodations for up to 290 people.

Pittsburgh & Western Pennsylvania: The “LEEDing” Edge

For groups seeking eco-friendly venues, Pittsburgh is the ultimate choice. Its 1.5 million-square-foot David L. Lawrence Convention Center is platinum–LEED certified, and another 30 certified green sites around town can also host events. Examples include the Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Garden, whose 12,000-square-foot Tropical Forest Conservatory has been lauded for its innovative glasshouse design and can host receptions of up to 100; the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, available for up to 1,000 attendees; the Pittsburgh Glass Center, which can arrange demonstrations and can host up to 300; and the 20,000-seat Consol Energy Center, home to the NHL’s Penguins.

Sporting venues include the 68,400-seat Heinz Field, home to the NFL Steelers, and the 38,362-seat PNC Park, home to Major League Baseball’s Pirates. Both offer special-event spaces. For an academic vibe, Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh has a 2,225-seat arena, an outdoor plaza and smaller meeting rooms. And when it comes to cultured settings, nothing beats Carnegie Music Hall; the famed performance venue is flanked by the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, all of which are available for functions. The Frick Art & Historical Center, home to a notable mansion, art collection and expanded Car & Carriage Museum, is another good choice for events; it can accommodate up to 250 people.

A growing number of new downtown hotels offer space for small meetings. The 197-room Hilton Garden Inn in Market Square offers 2,000 square feet of function space, the new 225-suite Embassy Suites by Hilton has more than 6,600 square feet of meeting space, and the 150-suite Homewood Suites in the Strip District has 630 square feet of event space. In the works is the Forbes Hotel, which is scheduled to open in the historic downtown Granite Building.

For larger gatherings, Monroeville, 13 miles to the east, is home to the 100,000-square-foot Monroeville Convention Center and is supported by nearly 1,300 guest rooms. In recent months it has hosted the events of the Family Festivals Association, the Western Pennsylvania Kennel Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists.

Erie, developed on the picturesque shores of Lake Erie, makes an ideal choice when delegates want to tack on a few days of pleasure. For business, the Bayfront Convention Center offers 120,000 square feet of function space and is located next to a Sheraton and a new Courtyard/Erie Bayfront, which offers its own 21,410 square feet of meeting space. A mile away, the Avalon Hotel & Conference Center offers some 35,000 square feet of function space including a 7,000-square-foot lobby that is great for vendor displays. Another local event hub is the Ambassador Banquet & Conference Center, which features 21,000 square feet of space and is served by a Courtyard by Marriott and a Hilton Garden Inn.

When it comes to fun, Erie’s brimming with options. A new trampoline and adventure park is expected to open this fall with zip lines, giant trampolines, laser tag and other active team-building choices. The Waldameer Park & Water World has added more slides and spray features for young children and families. The Experience Children’s Museum has a bevy of new exhibits. And in September, Tall Ships America will bring its fleet to Erie for a four-day festival led by the city’s own tall ship, the Niagara. For bigger kids, the Lake Erie Ale Trail has grown to 11 local craft breweries. And the Presque Isle Touring Company has added fat-tire bikes to its repertoire of Segways, canoes and kayaks, just some of the ways attendees can enjoy the beaches and waters of Presque Isle State Park.

greater Philadelphia: Prime Pickings

Pope Francis isn’t the only one who thinks Philadelphia is a perfect meeting site. According to the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, positive feedback from planners, attendees and exhibitors who used the 1 million-square-foot Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2015 contributed to the highest year of bookings ever, with 856,663 room nights secured for future years; of these, 69 percent are returning groups. In 2017, the center will welcome Lightfair International, the world’s largest annual architectural and commercial lighting trade show and conference, and the National Medical Association’s annual convention and scientific assembly. And this month it will bask in the spotlight as host of the Democratic National Convention. The convention center’s flexibility is certainly one of its strong suits, something that was exemplified during last year’s World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal Visit, when it was transformed into a 12,000-seat church complete with a soaring stained glass entrance, an artifact-rich Museum of the Bible and a replica of Michelangelo’s “Pietà.”

Speaking of replicas, attendees might not know that the Ritz-Carlton/Philadelphia is housed in a building constructed in 1908 to replicate the Pantheon in Rome. This spring the hotel introduced 26,000 square feet of new conference space as part of a property-wide, $24 million refresh. A bank vault-turned-function room is sure to be one of its most popular event venues. Another venerable downtown locale is Hyatt at the Bellevue on the Avenue of the Arts, also newly refreshed with a contemporary take on 18th-century furnishings; however, in the Grand Ballroom, the original lighting designed by Thomas Edison remains unchanged. Highly anticipated is the new SLS Lux/Philadelphia, which is expected to open in 2017 with 150 guest rooms. And Near Philadelphia International, the Aloft/Philadelphia Airport is newly renovated.

Plenty of creative venues worthy of this historic city are available for group events. The National Constitution Center, which overlooks Independence Mall, has event and exhibit spaces for private gatherings of up to 650. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum both welcome special events. And for larger gatherings, downtown Dilworth Park can accommodate up to 4,500 people.

Thirty minutes to the northwest, Oaks is home to the 240,000-square-foot Greater Philadelphia Expo Center and the Hilton Garden Inn/Valley Forge–Oaks, which is within walking distance and offers its own 6,767 square feet of event space. In Malvern, 15 miles south, the Desmond Hotel is gaining fame for its dynamic culinary events, which make for excellent team-building activities. Nearby, the Penn State Great Valley Conference Center has a 350-seat auditorium and 30 meeting rooms. Another 18 miles south, in Kennett Square, Longwood Gardens is a major attraction and offers event space among the fountains and flowers, as well as classes and tours.

Lancaster & Reading: Standout Features

Janine Owen, chief education officer at the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians (PAFP), likes many things about meeting in Lancaster, a destination set amid the rolling farmlands of south-central Pennsylvania’s Amish country. “Lancaster is a great city, with much to do outside of meetings. The people are very friendly, and this includes sales and convention personnel as well as residents,” she said. She also noted the area’s “great and plentiful accommodations, easy access, availability of attractions and reasonable prices.”

Susan Smith of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry said what impressed her attendees most was the area’s natural beauty. “One delegate from Atlanta just couldn’t get over how beautiful the landscape was. He was in awe every day,” she said. “Meeting in Lancaster is an experience delegates like a lot—the relaxing country atmosphere but with up-to-date technology. It’s a great change from the city.”

In the past, the PAFP has used two hotels: the Best Western Premier Eden Resort & Suites and the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, which adjoins the Lancaster County Convention Center to offer a combined 90,000 square feet of function space. “It’s an exceptional property,” Owen said of the Best Western. “Parking is free, and that’s a huge benefit.” She also complimented the Marriott, noting its “great space” and ideal location in the heart of the city with attractions within walking distance.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry has met at the Eden Resort for 10 years. “It’s used heavily by leisure and business guests, and I like the fact that they upgrade it constantly,” said Smith. The most recent renovations included a revitalization of its 51-room “West End” (nearest to the meeting facilities), which features new adults-only guest rooms with state-of-the-art electronics, a new elevator and a pretty and practical porte-cochere. Smith is also impressed by the longevity of the staff. “I’ve worked with the same sales director for eight of the 10 years we’ve been meeting here,” she said.

Favorite attractions include the country’s oldest farmers’ market building (it dates back to the 1730s) and the Ware Center, a performing arts venue with eight spaces; both are located downtown. A new event space called the Excelsior opened this year in a landmark 1853 building with 11,800 square feet of social space. Features include original vaulted catacombs, hardwood floors and a sunken-garden courtyard. Team-building options include Ascent Adventure for guided rock climbing and Nookside Stables in Manheim for horseback experiences. In all, Lancaster has some 250,000 square feet of modern meeting space and 7,700 guest rooms.

Reading, 35 miles northwest of Lancaster in Pennsylvania Dutch country, is another picturesque destination. Covered bridges, folksy barn art, the Appalachian Trail and Reading’s landmark pagoda atop Mount Penn (just the place for panoramic views) are just a few items to put on the must-see list. Events of up to 50 can be held at the pagoda. Other unique meeting venues in the area include the Reading Public Museum & Neag Planetarium, with space for up to 400; the historic Daniel Boone Homestead in Birdsporo, with space for up to 200; and the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles in Boyertown. Attendees can also bike or hike on the more than 125 miles of trails that make up the Greater Reading Trails System, which is connected to restaurants, pubs and exploration points.

The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel/Reading is one of the largest meeting hotels with 27,000 square feet of event space, including an amphitheater. Across the street is the 8,800-seat Santander Arena and within walking distance is the Santander Performing Arts Center. Closer to the Schuylkill River is the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, a repurposed factory with glass-blowing classes and meeting space. About 25 miles northeast, the Bear Creek Mountain Resort & Conference Center has newly renovated ballrooms and meeting spaces.

The Packard Club National Meet was held in Reading in July 2015, an event viewed as a success by the automobile organization’s organizers, who later commended the Greater Reading Convention & Visitors Bureau for its “outstanding service” and “attention to details.” Those attributes helped boost attendance, according to Bob Teller of Packard Automobile Classics.

The Poconos & Allentown: Anticipated Getaways

“Hands down, the Poconos drew an audience from throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey because of its diverse and striking natural beauty,” said Patrick McKinney of the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators about a recent conference at the Inn at Pocono Manor in Pocono Manor. Organizers chose the property because of its historical significance (it’s more than a century old), its ties to nature and its easy-to-find location off Interstate 80, he said, adding that attendees were not disappointed. Staff members were “wonderful and amazing. They rolled out the red carpet, were extremely hospitable and wowed our board members with their can-do attitude,” he said. Also pleasing was the fact that the group didn’t need to head off-site for its business needs. “We were able to place exhibits, workshops, dining and speakers in a conveniently located spot within the inn,” he explained.

Mari Killian, vice-president of communications for the Middle Pennsylvania Chapter of Meeting Professionals International, is another fan of this region of the state. “People think of northeast Pennsylvania as just rolling farmland, but there are great resorts and conference centers,” Killian said. The MPI chapter used the year-old Kalahari Resort & Convention in Tobyhanna Township, which features 65,000 square feet of meeting space and a 100,000-square-foot indoor water park (and a 200,000-square-foot outdoor water park is in the works). It has already rebooked for 2018. The Kalahari “has amazing conference space, with all the latest technology built in, and great banquet services and food,” Killian said, adding that the water park and numerous activities inspired many delegates to bring their families.

The year-old Camelback Lodge & Aquatopia Indoor Waterpark in Tannersville is another family-friendly conference resort, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space, a ski mountain for the winter months (and a large snowtubing area) and a year-round, 125,000-square-foot, multi-level water park. The newly renovated Split Rock Resort in Lake Harmony is still another option, offering 88,504 square feet of flexible function space for up to 1,500 people or as many as 250 booths, an indoor water park, a movie theater and an eight-lane bowling alley.

In spite of all the resorts’ on-site options, there is plenty to do off-property as well. Attendees might enjoy a hike to Bushkill Falls, nicknamed “Niagara of Pennsylvania” for its unique series of eight waterfalls. In Skytop, challenging team-building activities are part of the package at the Adventure Center at Skytop Lodge, which offers paintball, zip lines, rock climbing, an 18-hole golf course, a spa and 17 meeting rooms. Or take the gang for a day of whitewater rafting, rail-trail mountain biking and paintball at Pocono Whitewater/Skirmish near Jim Thorpe.

For a city vibe, look to Allentown. The year-old Renaissance/Allentown has 17,932 square feet of event space and is conveniently located adjacent to the PPL Center, a sports and concert venue that can seat upwards of 10,000 people. An additional 40,000 square feet of event space is available at the William T. Harris Agricultural Hall at the Allentown Fairgrounds.

The Buick Club of America will celebrate its 50th anniversary in Allentown this month. Its program includes an opening-night gala at the Holiday Inn/Center–Lehigh Valley and a closing banquet at the Agri-Plex at the Allentown Fairgrounds. The Allentown Convention & Visitors Bureau created a self-driving tour of the area’s 12 covered bridges for attendees, and they have also been invited to tour the Celebration of the American Motorcar Complex.

Just east, in Bethlehem, the 65,000-square-foot ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, a former steel plant, is a unique event setting, and the newly renovated Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem offers 12,000 square feet of meeting space. Nearby Nazareth is home to the Martin Guitar Museum & Visitor Center (attendees who play can test out some of the brand’s high-end models). And in Easton, planners can organize an event at the Crayola Experience (though the crayon factory is off limits), or delegates can spend time exploring the year-round Easton Farmers’ Market, the nation’s longest-running outdoor farmers’ market.

Central Pennsylvania: Crowd Pleasers

In Harrisburg, the state capital, the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center is one of the area’s largest venues, offering nearly 1 million square feet of indoor event space.

Associations have a sweet spot for Hershey, 14 miles east. “Delegates love it on so many levels,” said Smith of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry. “There’s just so much to do.” Hersheypark, for example, has more than 70 rides and is adjacent to the ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park. Hershey Resorts, where visitors are handed chocolate at check-in, runs two major hotels: Hotel Hershey and Hershey Lodge, with 25,000 square feet and 100,000 square feet of meeting space, respectively. The Hershey Country Club also welcomes groups with more than 10,500 square feet of special-event space. Nearby are 15 vineyards that offer tastings.

Not far from the historic fields of Gettysburg, the Liberty Mountain Resort & Conference Center in Carroll Valley recently expanded its meeting facilities to 32,000 square feet. Thirty miles east of Gettysburg, in York, the ExpoCenter has a 114,000-square-foot arena, three large halls and acres of outdoor exhibit space.

Delaware: Beyond the Beach

For business-focused gatherings, Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington and the adjacent, LEED-certified Westin/Wilmington offer a combined 92,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space. Other local sites include the Goodstay Center and Arsht Hall, both run by the University of Delaware and available for events of up to 125 and 300, respectively. Newark, 15 miles southwest, is home to the University of Delaware; on-campus choices include the 5,000-seat Bob Carpenter Center and Clayton Hall, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people and is served by an adjacent Courtyard by Marriott Hotel.

The Dover Downs Hotel & Casino in the capital city of Dover has 35,000 square feet of event space. And in Harrington, 17 miles south, the Delaware State Fairgrounds has more than a half-dozen sites that can be used for events including the 4,357-seat M&T Bank Grandstand, the 80,500-square-foot Quillen Arena and a 10,000-square-foot exhibit hall.

Delaware’s southern coast is popular with attendees who have vacation in mind, too. The area offers 26 miles of beaches and a large and varied selection of hotels and meeting venues for groups of up to 500. The year-old Bethany Beach Ocean Suites, the state’s first full-service waterfront hotel, is set on the boardwalk in Bethany Beach and features a 10-person boardroom, a 40-person conference room and a 3,400-square-foot ballroom. Amenities include an oceanfront, fine dining restaurant with a boat-shaped bar, a spa and a pool.

Team-building and group outings are things that Southern Delaware does really, really well, according to Visit Southern Delaware. Planners can incorporate cooking classes, live theater performances, cruises and brewery, winery and distillery tours. More active options include guided kayak trips, historic walks, fishing excursions and golf on seven signature courses including the Jack Nicklaus–designed Bayside Resort Golf Course in Selbyville.

Cape Water Tours & Taxi, which cruises the area’s waterways, recently added a 49-passenger pontoon vessel that is climate-controlled and equipped with audiovisual equipment, table seating and food and bar service; the company operates from docks in Dewey Beach and Lewes. In Lewes, the new Painting With a Twist gallery offers painting classes with the added enjoyment of wine and beer. Also in town, the Nassau Valley Vineyards has six venues for groups of up to 450 and the Virden Center can accommodate events of up to 132. Seven miles west, in Milton, the Brimming Horn Meadery is scheduled to open this fall with a unique, Scandinavian-style mead hall. In Rehoboth Beach, a novel team-building activity can be enjoyed at Escape Rehoboth, in which members must work together using clues to get out of a “locked” room within an hour.

A Trending Trio

Association planners agree: Easy access by road and air, proximity to major East Coast population centers, and an abundance of high-quality convention facilities in picturesque settings make New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware trendsetters for enjoyable and productive meetings. Attendees that haven’t already experienced the best these states have to offer are in for a pleasant discovery.