by Barbara Beckley | March 01, 2016

Ask planners what impresses them most about meeting in the Virginias and the answer is always the same: the hospitality, the service and the facilities. Having all the necessary resources readily available makes it easy to plan a successful event.

“It’s rare to have found a location where I can truly focus on the content of our agenda and know the facility needs and details will be taken care of to my high expectations,” said Kendall Tyree, executive director of the Virginia Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts.

The states’ rich history and natural beauty are additional reasons to hold gatherings here, said Teresa Craig, who has been planning events across the region since 2006 for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Virginia. Colonial and Civil War sites still have the ability to captivate visitors, and active excursions can take them to the Appalachian hills or the Atlantic oceanfront.

Greater Richmond & Fredericksburg: Improving on History

As the storied capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond has long been a hub of hospitality, but its flourishing art and culinary scenes and new recreational options have given new life to a city familiar to many regional groups. Making its debut last September was the Virginia Capital Trail, a 52-mile paved pedestrian and bicycle trail connecting downtown to the former capital of Jamestown; the trail runs parallel to Route 5, a designated scenic byway. And attendees can also take advantage of the new Richmond Regional Ride Center, with more than 70 miles of trails.

These developments, coupled with the 700,000-square-foot Greater Richmond Convention Center, make Richmond a desirable venue. Bill Loshbough, who organized the National Association for Pupil Transportation 2015 Summit, described the convention center as “modern, affordable and easily accessible” and expressed appreciation for the “very helpful and professional CVB and cooperative business partners’ staff, which worked hard to meet our needs.” He also said that the Richmond Marriott’s proximity to the convention center made it an ideal host facility. Dozens of other association meetings were held in Richmond last year, including those of the Children’s Literature Association and the Virginia Library Association.

Richmond has plenty of sizable venues. The 72,000-square-foot Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center can seat up to 6,000, the Richmond Coliseum can seat up to 13,000 and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center offers 43,000 square feet of space. Creative venues are also plentiful, such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The new, art-focused, 75-room Quirk Hotel opened downtown last year in a landmark 1916 department store. The building’s original arches, vault ceiling and ornamental ironwork staircase blend with hip new touches, including Richmond’s highest rooftop terrace and an artist-in-residence program. Other new properties include the Homewood Suites and Hampton Inn & Suites, which opened earlier this year with 100 and 144 guest rooms, respectively, and a shared 7,000 square feet of meeting space and a restaurant; and the 250-room Hilton/Richmond Downtown (formerly a Hilton Garden Inn), which was renovated and expanded and now offers meeting space for groups of up to 350.

Sixty miles north is Fredericksburg, whose place in U.S. history is significant. The city’s National Historic District is home to more than 350 well-preserved buildings that date back to the 18th and 19th century and many are available for private events. Planners can incorporate local Revolutionary and Civil War history into the agenda at sites such as George Washington’s mother’s house, able to host up to 100 people in its gardens, or the Inn at the Old Silk Mill, which has antique-filled guest rooms. And Braehead Manor, built in 1859, can host up to 200 guests in new tented areas.

The 110,000-square-foot Fredericksburg Expo & Conference Center is the city’s major venue. It is served by three nearby hotels—a Hampton Inn & Suites, the newly renovated Hilton Garden Inn and a Homewood Suites—offering a total of 394 guest rooms. The Wingate by Wyndham can host up to 140 people.

Other popular sites include the A. Smith Bowman Distillery, with space for up to 500; the Eden Try Estate & Manor House, whose Vineyard Barn can host up to 200; and the James Monroe Museum & Memorial Library, with an 1,800-square-foot garden that welcomes small events. On the University of Mary Washington campus, the 24,000-square-foot Jepson Alumni Executive Center has a half-dozen spaces for events. Twenty miles north, in Stafford, the Potomac Point Winery can host up to 200.

Columbia Gas of Virginia is one of several groups that has enjoyed meeting in Fredericksburg. According to Gina Slaunwhite, the organization’s manager of government policy and customer efficiency programs, delegates deemed the historic city “a hidden gem” and many said they would like to return. “Columbia Gas of Virginia has served Fredericksburg since the 1850s, so I thought this was a great opportunity to share the city with delegates from across Virginia,” she said. She wasn’t disappointed. “The Fredericksburg tourism and conventions teams were terrific in helping to arrange meetings and offering suggestions for venues and restaurants.”

Fredericksburg’s central location and group activities appealed to Business Opportunities for the Blind as a meeting destination in 2015. Margeaux Egorova, the group’s education coordinator, was also impressed with the Fredericksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The tourism folks helped us with everything at the drop of a hat,” she said. Her group used the renovated Hospitality House Hotel and held an off-site gathering at the Bavarian Chef restaurant, located within a historic train station. Members also enjoyed a “Battlefields-to-Business” tour, which draws parallels between past battles and modern-day decision-making. Spouses visited an apothecary museum and went antiquing.

The Greater Federation of Women’s Clubs of Virginia celebrated its 125th anniversary meeting in the city, an especially memorable experience thanks to special attention by the CVB and the Hospitality House Hotel. “They really rolled out the red carpet. They even made sheet cakes of our logo—without being asked,” Craig said. “As a seasoned meeting planner, I’ve only experienced this level of service in one other destination. The people I worked with at the Fredericksburg CVB were outstanding.”

Virginia Beach to Newport News: Captivated by the Coast

When the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), the Green Schools National Network and the Virginia Department of General Services met in Virginia Beach last year, each turned to the gold LEED–certified Virginia Beach Convention Center for their events. The 516,000-square-foot venue includes 150,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 35,000-square-foot ballroom. Margo Carlock, executive director of the NAI, said she appreciated the well-regulated temperature and the fact that the CVB covered the cost of shuttle service between the center and her group’s three hotels.

In fact, the “excellent convention facilities” and “wonderful” CVB staff are two reasons the NAI continues to hold events in the city. “We’d met in Virginia Beach before, and we felt it was an excellent location for our membership,” Carlock explained. “The CVB staff are very helpful, very friendly and anxious for you to have a good experience. They will go the extra mile to ensure you do.”

NAI members made the most of their time in the area with visits to Colonial Williamsburg, the Great Dismal Swamp, First Landing State Park, Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Casemate Museum.

David Nims, director of business services for the Virginia Department of General Services, also had positive things to say about his organization’s visit to Virginia Beach. “Virginia Beach met or exceeded the required qualifications at a favorable price and included additional amenities, such as shuttle transportation and centralized hotel-registration services,” he said. As a result, the department has contracted to meet in Virginia Beach for five years.

Nims liked the plethora of oceanfront hotels—something attendees also appreciated, he said—and the large number of eateries and entertainment venues nearby. “Shuttles ran between the hotels and Town Center in a continuous loop so delegates could focus on having a nice time instead of being concerned about driving and parking,” Nims said.

Town Center is also home to the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, which offers more than a half-dozen spaces for events. Other city attractions that can serve as special-event venues include the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center, with space for up to 100.

New developments in town include a multimillion-dollar renovation of the Cavalier Hotel as the property comes under the umbrella of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. A Hyatt House and a Hyatt Place are also in the works. All three are expected to open in 2017. And a $200 million arena across from the convention center was approved in December. The sports and entertainment venue is expected to include 18,000 seats as well as lounges and restaurants. It is scheduled to be ready by fall 2018.

In neighboring Norfolk, waterfront options are also popular with planners. Examples include the Half Moone Cruise & Celebration Center, the updated Sheraton/Norfolk Waterside, the Norfolk Waterside Marriott and Harbor Park, a ballpark with event space for up to 350.

Just up the James River, Newport News is a hub of association activity. In 2015, the city welcomed the First Fighter Association, the Virginia Mortgage Lenders Association, the Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Physical Therapy Association, each of which held events at the Newport News Marriott at City Center. City Center at Oyster Point is an entertainment area that recently added three new restaurants and is home to the year-old, 12-screen Paragon Theaters, available as an off-site venue.

Both the Mariners’ Museum & Park and the adjacent Peninsula Fine Arts Center offer function space. Other cultural sites that welcome events include the Virginia Living Museum, for groups of up to 500, and the Ferguson Center for the Arts, whose spaces include a 1,700-seat concert hall, a 500-seat theater, a 257-seat theater and a lobby whose reception capacity is 500. The 6,000-square-foot pavilion at the Newport News Golf Club at Deer Run can be reserved for banquets of up to 300 or receptions of up to 350.

The Blue Ridge Mountains: Scenic Sensations

When the Virginia State Reading Association last held a conference in Roanoke, the largest metropolitan area in the Blue Ridge Mountains, past-president Kim Lancaster remembered the enthusiastic responses afterwards. On the evaluation forms, she said, attendees wrote comments like “Roanoke is the best conference location” and “Hold the conference in Roanoke every year.” As a result, the association intends to return with its annual conference in 2017.

Lancaster initially chose Roanoke because it was convenient for members in the group’s western region and its regional airport could be used to fly in speakers from around the country. She also felt the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center was equally pleasing for planners and members. She was able to organize 18 concurrent breakout sessions and utilized its ballroom as both an exhibitors’ area and as the site for a general session for her 1,000 attendees. Members praised the food as “creative and delicious,” but those who wanted to try the off-site options could easily walk to nearly a dozen different places. Lancaster said members also remarked on the property’s friendly and helpful staff and the “amazing” guest rooms.

The area’s mountain scenery and outdoor activities were another big enticement. Lancaster incorporated hiking into the conference theme with the title “Climbing New Heights to Literacy.” Several of the conference’s speakers told Lancaster that Roanoke was one of their favorite destinations.

The Virginia Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts is also a fan of the city. “Our membership truly appreciates the hospitality, service and facilities,” said executive director Tyree. “There is no question—we return every other year for our conference and training.”

Collectively, the Roanoke Valley region offers more than 683,000 square feet of meeting space and can handle groups of up to 11,000. The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center is currently renovating its guest rooms, a project expected to finish this summer, and the Hampton Inn & Suites/Roanoke Downtown is set to open in June with 127 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 50. Large venues include the Berglund Center, the Elmwood Park amphitheater and the new Pinball Museum, with event space for several hundred. CoLab, which offers three small meeting spaces, has expanded to a second location in downtown Roanoke with one meeting space.

Short excursions out of town offer other excellent options. Going 12 miles west, to Salem, the Hampton Inn (formerly the Holiday Inn) is newly renovated, and the 40,000-square-foot Salem Civic Center is available for events of up to 6,000. Virginia Mountain Vineyards in Fincastle, 30 miles north of Roanoke, welcomes private events. And 25 miles southeast of Roanoke, on the shores of Smith Mountain Lake, the Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center in Wirtz includes accommodations for up to 439 and more than 23,000 square feet of event space. Twenty miles east of Wirtz and also on the lake, Virginia Dare Cruises & Marina near Moneta offers chartered boat service for up to 100.

Another 60 miles southeast, the 12,000-acre, LEED-certified Primland resort in Meadows of Dan has added accommodations and now offers 51 guest rooms. Primland revels in its mountain heritage and one of its more unique offerings is moonshine tasting at the Old Homestead Place, an outdoor event space with a restored still. The property also has more traditional meeting rooms for groups of up to 200.

Few destinations say “executive retreat” like Charlottesville, 120 miles northeast of Roanoke. The city is home to two former presidential residences—Jefferson’s Monticello and Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland—and nearby Orange is the location of Madison’s Montpelier. All host private events year-round.

A handful of new hotel properties have expanded Charlottesville’s guest- and meeting-room inventory. They include the Graduate Hotel, with a ballroom for up to 170 and a forthcoming rooftop bar and restaurant; the Residence Inn/Charlottesville Downtown, scheduled to open this month with 124 guest rooms and four meeting spaces; and the year-old Homewood Suites by Hilton and the year-old Oakhurst Inn at the University of Virginia. Recently renovated hotels include the Comfort Inn/Monticello, the Hampton Inn/Charlottesville and the Boar’s Head Inn. Several area wineries also have event space: Trump Winery in Charlottesville, Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards in North Garden and King Family Vineyards in Crozet.

In far western Virginia, Abingdon has welcomed groups for centuries. The Martha Washington Inn & Spa has been updated to include bike packages for the Virginia Creeper Trail and golf packages with the Virginian Golf Club, an off-site venue in Bristol with event space for up to 200. Also in Bristol is the new Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which can be booked in its entirety or offers a theater and an atrium for smaller uses.

West Virginia: Timeless Choices

The landmark Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs enjoys an international reputation as one of the nation’s top grounds for gatherings. Opened in 1778, the grand dame also offers impressive recreation options.

In nearby Lewisburg, venues include the 40,000-square-foot State Fair Event Center and the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center, with facilities for up to 300. Near the Greenbrier Valley Airport, the Quality Inn can host events of up to 250.

Change is coming to Charleston, the state capital. A $90 million renovation project has begun on the 131,000-square-foot Civic Center complex that will expand conference and lobby spaces and add a terrace that extends to the Elk River. The project is expected to be complete in 2017 and the facility will remain open in the interim. The complex also houses the 13,500-seat Coliseum and 3,400-seat Municipal Auditorium. Two blocks away, the Charleston Marriott Town Center has its own meeting space.

In Clarksburg, the commercial hub of north-central West Virginia, Jackson Square is a popular choice for open-air dinners and receptions of up to 500. For larger functions, the Village Square Conference Center can seat up to 800.

Beauty and the Best

There’s no denying that attendees appreciate a destination that’s easy on the eyes. But as planners who have met in Virginia and West Virginia can attest, these states aren’t riding just on their good looks. With new and improved conference facilities, helpful hospitality professionals and historic attractions, hosting an event in this region can be pretty and near-perfect, too.