by Melanie Wynne | March 01, 2017

The Commonwealth of Virginia attracts association groups with a rich variety of historic venues, landscapes and cultural offerings, while West Virginia’s rugged outdoors and its pride in its heritage ensure that visiting meeting-goers enjoy an authentic experience.

From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, this region offers planners the ability to arrange active adventures, illuminating visits to Civil War sites and festive functions at wineries, breweries and more.

Richmond: A Capital Place

One of the oldest cities in America, Richmond was named Virginia’s capital in 1780, and though it continues to honor its own place in American history, these days it’s enjoying a thoroughly modern buzz for its thriving food, art, design and brewery scenes as well as hot-ticket museums and happening hotels.

One of downtown’s most renowned historic properties, The Jefferson—originally built in 1895—is showing off after a three-year renovation that wrapped up late last year. The property now offers 181 expanded guest rooms, meeting space for up to 480 people and an 8,000-square-foot New American restaurant, Lemaire. The Crowne Plaza/Richmond Downtown is set to wrap up its own renovations this spring, when it will be reflagged as a Delta Hotel by Marriott.

The year-old Quirk Hotel has quickly become a favorite thanks to unique touches that include an artist-in-residence program and a new rooftop bar that can host events of up to 140. Two other hip properties are headed to the heart of downtown. This summer is the scheduled debut of the Graduate Hotel, one of a collection of scholarly-themed properties set in U.S. university towns (Richmond is home to several schools, including the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University). And construction on a new Moxy Hotel, a Marriott brand, will begin this year. West of downtown, the Four Points by Sheraton/Richmond (formerly the Sheraton/Richmond Park South) has completed renovations of its guest rooms and meeting space, and south of the city, the Homewood Suites by Hilton/Richmond-Chester is scheduled to complete a lobby renovation this spring.

When the American Paint Horse Association held its convention in town last year, it turned to the Omni/Richmond. Theresa Brown, its director of LeaderCare, said attendees appreciated the hotel’s location within the Shockoe Slip area, which “offered great shopping, dining and sightseeing opportunities.”

Richmond is known for its Civil War landmarks and historic homes as well as institutions like the Virginia Historical Society and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which can host events of up to 488 and 1,000, respectively, and its cultural footprint is only growing. The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia reopened last year within the former Leigh Street Armory and features 12,000 square feet of interactive exhibit space as well as event space for up to 200 people. And this fall, the Institute for Contemporary Art is scheduled to open.

A renovation of Main Street Station, a National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1901, is set to finish in the coming months. The project is turning its train shed into a 47,000-square-foot area with shops, a market, a welcome center and event space for up to 2,220 people. The station’s North Plaza, an outdoor space that can accommodate a 40-by-60-foot tent, should be ready in the fall.

Virginia’s capital is home to the state’s largest conference venue, the Greater Richmond Convention Center, which offers more than 200,000 square feet of exhibit and ballroom space, 36 meeting rooms and a 258-seat lecture hall. Other large venues include the Arthur Ashe, Jr. Athletic Center, which can seat up to 6,000; the Richmond Coliseum, which has 50,000 square feet of exhibit space and can seat upwards of 13,000; and the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, which can seat up to 7,500.

Richmond also offers a slew of off-site opportunities. Groups with hiking or biking enthusiasts might want to hit the 52-mile Virginia Capital Trail, while beer fans can enjoy tastings at places like Hardywood, Legend and Steam Bell. Foodies are sure to love Carytown (and that district’s 1,300-seat Byrd Theatre can be booked for private screenings).

Fredericksburg: A History of Hospitality

Sixty miles north of Richmond, Fredericksburg is home to a 40-block historic district with more than 350 preserved buildings, many of which are available for events. For instance, the 6,200-square-foot Braehead Manor, built in 1859 on 27 acres and used as a hospital during the Civil War, is now a bed-and-breakfast inn that can accommodate events for up to 200 guests.

Gary Margheim, former special assistant to the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, credits a quick and warm initial response to his group’s interest in the city for its 2016 annual meeting to Victoria Matthews of the Fredericksburg Economic Development & Tourism. He said that Matthews negotiated his 40 attendees’ lodging, dining and sightseeing arrangements, and was always available at a moment’s notice. He also praised the rest of the staff. “They’re willing to go that extra mile to assist clients,” Margheim said.

Many large events are held at the 120,000-square-foot Fredericksburg Expo & Conference Center, which is a short drive from downtown and adjacent to three hotels offering a combined 394 guest rooms: a Hampton Inn & Suites, a Hilton Garden Inn and a Homewood Suites. Another venue is the Fredericksburg Hospitality House Hotel & Convention Center, which offers meeting space for up to 750. Jack Paxton, executive director of the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association, based his group here for its 2016 meeting and said it was “outstanding.”

Improved properties include the recently refreshed Riverside Center, which can accommodate upwards of 675 people; the Courtyard/Fredericksburg Historic District, currently undergoing a renovation targeted for completion by the year’s end; and the 87-acre Stevenson Ridge, an event facility in Spotsylvania that now offers 10 historic buildings with the addition of a two-bedroom cabin originally built in Pennsylvania in 1830.

Popular off-site options include the A. Smith Bowman Distillery, with event space for up to 500 people; the Eden Try Estate & Winery, with an events barn that can host up to 200; and the James Monroe Museum & Memorial Library, where a walled garden can seat up to 40.

From Virginia Beach to Newport News: Explore the Shores

Along this 40-mile stretch of eastern Virginia, water is the main attraction. And while many attendees will want to spend their free time exploring the shores of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, groups that cast their nets a bit wider will also find a bounty of historic and cultural attractions.

Virginia Beach attracts roughly 3 million visitors a year, with many eager to stay near its parade of oceanfront properties. This spring, the Hyatt House/Virginia Beach Oceanfront is scheduled to open with 156 guest rooms and nearly 2,000 square feet of meeting space. The hilltop Cavalier Hotel, which dates back to 1927, is finishing a $75 million renovation and expected to reopen this summer as a Marriott Autograph Collection property. Plans include 62 guest rooms, 23 suites and more than 4,500 square feet of refreshed event space.

A major hub for events is the 516,000-square-foot, gold LEED–certified Virginia Beach Convention Center. Across the street, an 18,0000-seat sports and entertainment arena is under construction. Also nearby, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art’s event venues include a 4,800-square-foot atrium, a 1,600-square-foot pavilion and acres of landscaped grounds.

Smartmouth Brewing plans to open a branch this summer, joining a thriving local beer scene. Other free-time options for members might include Virginia Beach Town Center, home to dozens of restaurants and shops as well as the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, whose events spaces include a 1,300-seat hall and an 18,000-square-foot plaza.

Associations focused on marine or coastal ecology might consider venues like the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, which has space for up to 1,200 guests, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center, which has space for up to 100.

In neighboring Norfolk, a new, 300-room Hilton hotel called The Main will debut downtown this month next to the Elizabeth River. Features include The Exchange, with 42,000 square feet of event space including an 18,382-square-foot Grand Ballroom, a rooftop beer garden and an Italian trattoria.

Additional Norfolk event venues include the waterfront, 80,000-square-foot Half Moone Cruise & Celebration Center, which has meeting space for up to 1,100 attendees and is home to the World War II Battleship Wisconsin; Harbor Park, an 11,856-seat ballpark; and the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, which can accommodate gatherings of up to 2,400.

Up the James River, in Newport News, a business and entertainment area named City Center at Oyster Point is a magnet for associations. The Newport News Marriott at City Center recently completed a renovation of its lobby and guest rooms. Also on-site is the Magnuson Hotel & Convention Center, which is being renovated and is scheduled to reopen by the end of the year as a Holiday Inn. Meanwhile, last year saw the opening of a 122-room Hilton Garden Inn with function space for up to 100 and the 120-room Courtyard/Newport News Airport, with a meeting room for up to 85. And the Residence Inn/Newport News Airport completed a full interior renovation last year.

The Mariners’ Museum & Park offers 15 meeting sites (the largest for up to 5,000). The 36-hole Newport News Golf Club at Deer Run welcomes receptions of up to 350. For something more cultural, the Virginia Living Museum has event space for up to 500 and the Ferguson Center for the Arts has various spaces including a 1,700-seat concert hall.

Newport News is raising its glass to fans of a good tipple at two new sites. Last summer the city welcomed its first craft brewery, Tradition Brewing Company, which has a 4,200-square-foot tasting room, a 1,450-square-foot mezzanine for private parties and a 620-square-foot conference room. And this spring the Ironclad Distillery is expected to open a new bourbon tasting room downtown.

Twenty miles north of Newport News, Colonial Williamsburg offers a deep immersion in early American history and six large hotels. One of its most notable is the seven-building Williamsburg Lodge, which joined Marriott’s Autograph Collection in January. The Williamsburg Inn is currently closed while undergoing extensive renovations and is expected to reopen in April.

The Blue Ridge Mountains: Reach for New Heights

The bucolic city of Charlottesville is an ideal base for groups with a passion for learning, early presidential history and wine. All three are easily experienced on the Monticello Wine Trail. But Charlottesville is also home to landmarks such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Highland and, in nearby Montpelier Station, James Madison’s Montpelier; all offer event space. A few minutes’ walk from the University of Virginia campus is the year-old Residence Inn/Charlottesville Downtown, which offers four meeting rooms. Or groups can stay adjacent to the university’s Darden School of Business at the Inn at Darden. In addition, the University of Virginia Foundation owns and runs the 573-acre Boar’s Head resort, which offers 19 meeting rooms.

About 120 miles southwest of Charlottesville, the largest Blue Ridge metropolitan area is Roanoke, known for its breathtaking mountain scenery. Jo Ann Emmons, rally coordinator for the Harley Owners Group, chose Roanoke for her two-wheeling association’s gathering last year because the winding roads are ideal for motorcycle riding, she said. But that wasn’t the only reason. “The hospitality and service offered by everyone at Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, as well as the city’s mayor, area businesses and hotels, made the entire planning process smooth,” Emmons said.

Roanoke’s hotel scene has benefited from recent changes. Following a $6.3 million renovation of its guest rooms, the 135-year-old Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center reopened in June with meeting space for up to 1,600. It is now a Curio Collection by Hilton. And in September, the Hampton Inn & Suites/Roanoke Downtown opened with 127 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 50.

Large event venues include the Berglund Center (formerly Roanoke Civic Center), with a 14,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 10,000-seat coliseum, 2,148-seat theater and 46,000-square-foot events center; and the Elmwood Park amphitheater, which can host up to 4,000. Flexible spaces at the Taubman Museum of Art include a 4,690-square-foot atrium, while downtown’s Historical Roanoke City Market Building & Charter Hall can accommodate up to 400 people.

Roanoke is the center of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Beerway, a collection of seven microbreweries including the new Twin Creeks Brewing Company and the Big Lick Brewing Company, which is gearing up to move into larger digs.

A few miles west of Roanoke, in Salem, the 40,000-square-foot Salem Civic Center is available for events of up to 6,000, and a nearby Fairfield Inn & Suites is set to open in late 2017.

Southwest of Roanoke, Blacksburg is home to Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Campus venues include the LEED-certified Moss Arts Center and the IACC-approved Inn at Virginia Tech & Skelton Conference Center.

Sixty miles farther south, in Meadows of Dan, the 12,000-acre Primland Resort offers meeting space for up to 200 people. Meadows of Dan is set near the junction of the Blue Ridge Parkway and U.S. Route 58, allowing for easy excursions to tour the Appalachian Highlands.

In far southwestern Virginia, 15 miles from the Tennessee border, Abingdon is known for its thriving artisan community, historic downtown and the 34-mile-long Virginia Creeper Trail. When the Virginia Agricultural Council held its annual meeting last August, it chose the historic Martha Washington Inn as its main venue but tours were also held around the area. “Every place we visited in Abingdon provided extraordinary service to ensure that our meeting and tours were enjoyable, successful and provided members with an in-depth look at the area and its agricultural attractions,” said Larry Harris, its executive director.

Abingdon’s largest conference venue is the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. It offers 30 meeting rooms, an auditorium and the 13,000-square-foot Grand Hall. At the Community Center of Abingdon, the 6,100-square-foot Virginia Ballroom can host up to 300 guests, while Heartwood, an arts venue and gallery, can accommodate up to 250.

West Virginia: Venturing Outside the Box

In the state capital, Charleston, a $90 million renovation and expansion of the Civic Center is scheduled to be complete later this year. In the meantime, the facility remains open and welcomes associations with the 13,500-seat Coliseum, the 3,400-seat Municipal Auditorium, more than 60,000 square feet of exhibition space and smaller meeting rooms. Two blocks away, the Charleston Marriott Town Center has its own meeting space for up to 700 people.

Head west to Huntington for a celebration of 19th-century Appalachian life at the Smithsonian-affiliated Heritage Farm Museum & Village, which can host groups of up to 200. Downtown, on the shores of the Ohio River, the 9,000-seat Big Sandy Superstore Arena is attached to a conference center with 15,000 square feet of space and is just three blocks from the Pullman Plaza Hotel, which has begun a full renovation and is scheduled to be rebranded a DoubleTree by Hilton by the year’s end.

Roughly 60 miles southeast of Charleston, in Lansing, the resort Adventures on the Gorge offers a new conference center for up to 200 people and an outdoor deck, a restaurant (currently undergoing a kitchen expansion) and recreational activities that include rock climbing and aerial adventures.

The landmark Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs is currently undergoing a year-long renovation and is set to reopen in spring 2018. In nearby Lewisburg, known for its Historic District downtown, 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 accommodate up to 250.

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.

About 80 miles east, near Davis, groups can convene at Canaan Valley Resort State Park, which offers 25,000 square feet of event space. Open year-round, the resort has a variety of activities that make the most of the outdoors.

setting the scene

The stunning scenery of Virginia and West Virginia set lovely backdrops for memorable group gatherings, but these states don’t rest on that reputation alone. Constantly improving venues, cultural growth, profound historic attractions and knowledgeable hospitality staff committed to hands-on service create a welcoming environment in which associations can develop agendas that shine.