March 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: The Luxe List - March 2000 Current Issue
March 2000 -->

The Luxe List

How to find first-rate venues in second-tier cities

By Carla Benini

For the corporate board member or association executive, the fluffy terry cloth robe hanging in a hotel room closet is a given, not an extra. This is the kind of traveler who is accustomed to staying in the most luxurious guest rooms, dining in restaurants frequented by the urban jet set and receiving impeccable service, from wake-up call to turndown.

In a destination like New York City or Chicago, it is easy to accommodate discriminating attendees. But when destined for a city dominated by middle-echelon chain properties and franchise restaurants, are the venues sure to disappoint? Hardly. Although many second-tier cities have not been targeted for a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons, a surprising number are home to properties that are notable grand dames. Also, a robust economy has set in motion countless renovations to properties that once lay dormant and now are sources of local pride.

Those accustomed to an evening enjoying the fine arts also can be sated. Milwaukee, for example, is home to a renowned symphony orchestra. St. Paul, Minn., has a thriving theater industry. In fact, the biggest difference between a performance in New York City and one in San Antonio might be the price of the ticket.

St. Paul, Minn.
With a sister city like Minneapolis -- home to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a cutting-edge music scene that has produced artists like Prince -- one might think St. Paul would have an inferiority complex. But with rich traditions, cultural offerings and historic buildings of its own, St. Paul is a complement, not a competitor, to its un-identical twin.

The boutique St. Paul Hotel (651-292-9292; is a likely choice for planners of small, upscale meetings. Creature comforts at the 254-room property include bottled water, a rooftop gym with Mississippi River views, daily high tea service, two phone lines in guest rooms and the St. Paul Grill, a restaurant that is considered one of the best in town. The hotel fronts Rice Park, a square block of trees, benches and wrought-iron fences. Pam Schlemmer, director of sales and marketing, says group rates in the 1910-era hotel range from $125 to $150 -- close to St. Paul's average room rate of $132, according to Rochester, Wis.-based Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm. With 11,000 square feet of meeting space, a group of 100 could monopolize the hotel's event space, says Schlemmer. The property also offers off-site catering, Internet access and teleconferencing.

The Ordway (651-224-4222;, a laboratory for new shows, puts St. Paul on the theater map. "If a production wishes to start up a major show with a sophisticated audience but without the media attention on the East and West coasts, it often turns to St. Paul," says Peter Wright, group and corporate sales manager/concierge. The 1,800-seat Ordway, built in 1985 by local benefactor Sally Ordway Irvine, hosted the world premiere of Victor Victoria and the only Lion King performance outside New York City. It also is home to the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and resident art associations.

An evening at the Ordway can be combined with a preshow dinner or late-evening cocktails at the Landmark Center (651-292-3228;, which is across the street. Built in 1902 as the Federal Court House and Post Office for the Upper Midwest, the center is an eye-catching example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture; it looks like a red brick castle, with towers and dormers that protrude from its gable roof. Inside are courtrooms with marble walls, fireplaces and a four-story atrium with a domed, stained-glass ceiling. Courtrooms rent for $100 per hour; the atrium costs $200 per hour, says Betsy Lanegran, events associate. One often-used caterer is Taste of Scandinavia (651-482-8876), known for its scandalously rich dessert buffet. The largest courtroom seats 80 and holds 125 for receptions. The atrium seats 450 for dinner and hosts 750 for receptions.

Milwaukee, Wis.
To the uninitiated, the mention of Milwaukee conjures visions of the blue-collar lifestyles of TV's Laverne and Shirley, who made their living at a local beer bottling plant. The operaphile and classical music aficionado know a different Milwaukee, one that is as steeped in performing arts history as it is in its seasonal brews. The city was an enclave for German artists and writers during the mid- to late-1800s, says James Auer, art critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It was a very European community. The brewers were major advocates of the arts."

Where to sleep? Planners can find upscale accommodations at the Pfister Hotel (800-558-8222; Built in 1893 by German immigrant Guido Pfister, the 307-room hotel is a Milwaukee icon. Architecture and interior details are reminiscent of a Victorian-era European palace, from the elaborately carved gold leaf to the painted cherubs suspended from ceilings. Group rates at the Pfister come surprisingly close to Runzheimer's average hotel rate of $127 for Milwaukee. Linda Price Topp, director of sales, says groups can expect to pay between $119 and $179, depending on length of stay, season and total revenue of the program.

For cultural events in the city, group tickets are easily accessible, says Rick d'Loia, president and CEO of Destination Wisconsin (414-271-2895), a locally based destination management company. Tickets for the Milwaukee Ballet or the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra range from $15 to $45 per person for bulk orders. D'Loia has arranged for groups to see a show and then enjoy a dessert reception with a few of the performers. When President Clinton was in town, he invited guests to the Grain Exchange Room (414-272-6230), a baroque-looking Victorian building that was the country's first trading pit. The space will accommodate 500 for seated events and receptions, but typical group size is 250. A three-hour minimum rental is required and costs $900 Sundays through Fridays. An eight-hour minimum is required on Saturdays, priced at $2,400, plus $250 for each additional hour.

San Antonio, Texas
Bolo ties are about as formal as things get in San Antonio, where restaurants selling margaritas and nachos outnumber the martini and sushi bars. But there are plenty of options for the sophisticated traveler.

For local charm, planners might want to go for an upscale-rustic hotel. At the Riverwalk Inn (800-254-4440;, nine of the 11 bedrooms have fireplaces. Built from two 1840s-era log cabin homes that were moved from Tennessee to San Antonio, the property features uniquely appointed rooms with antique dressers, four-poster beds and quilts. A 75-foot-long porch is complete with wooden rocking chairs and a view of the San Antonio River. A boardroom fits 12. Group rates are $110 to $155, depending on season and time of week.

More traditionally upscale is the boutique 27-room Havana Riverwalk Inn (210-222-2008). On the San Antonio River but a comfortable distance from the Riverwalk hubbub, the Mediterranean Revival-style property has rooms replete with Italian linens, handmade soaps and early-19th-century furniture from around the world. The Cuban-inspired hotel has a hopping restaurant, Siboney, and one of the city's first martini bars, both of which are available to groups. Corporate rates range from $110 to $450 (for the split-level penthouse loft). Two rooms in the restaurant seat 45; the entire restaurant, along with an outdoor patio, fits 100.

Off-site events can be held at the Southwest School of Art and Craft (210-224-1848). Attendees gather below high ceilings and huge stained-glass windows of this 1840s Ursuline Convent-turned-art school, or head outside to the five acres of manicured gardens, some of which sit on the banks of the San Antonio River. Seated events of 230 can be held indoors, 500 outdoors; receptions for 300 inside and 500 outside are accommodated. Buyouts cost $3,000 for 10 hours for a group of 500.

At the 800-seat Empire Theater (210-226-3333), Ron Underwood, director of sales for The RK Group, a DMC, recently set up martini, cognac and raw bars among the several food stations for a corporate group. He invited an orchestra to play Broadway tunes during dinner. The 1914 opera house often hosts jazz and blues greats.

Touring Broadway shows and the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra play at the 2,300-seat Majestic Theatre (210-226-3333). Group tickets can be arranged, says Underwood, as can a post-show dessert reception in the Starlight Club, a private dining area in the theater. Underwood has invited performers from that evening's show to share conversation and pie with attendees.

A more exclusive site is the former home of former Texas Gov. John Connally, who was wounded in President Kennedy's motorcade. Today, the 8,100-square-foot home on 316 acres is the residence of Underwood's boss, Greg Kowalsky, as well as a museum of Kennedy memorabilia. Groups of 150 are accommodated for receptions and dinners (through the RK Group; 210- 223-2680). Attendees can try skeet shooting, horseback riding or just enjoy a Lone Star beer.

Louisville, Ky.
In need of posh environs in horse country? Louisville has several options. Exclusivity has a long-standing tradition at the Seelbach Hilton (502-585-3200). In a corner of the hotel's acclaimed Oak Room restaurant is a room set with one dining table that regularly hosted a poker-playing Al Capone. The room, which now accommodates private parties of eight, was equipped with passageways leading to separate stairwells, ensuring the infamous celebrity a safe getaway, if necessary.

The 321-room downtown property finished a $10 million renovation late last year that included the refurbishment of all guest rooms and two concierge floors. Guests are treated to four-poster beds, marble bathrooms, Internet access in all rooms and reasonable group rates that range from $109 to $159.

At the Oak Room, reputed to be one of Kentucky's finest restaurants, executive chef Jim Gerhardt's specialty is "intensely regional" food, says Adam Seger, the Seelbach's director of restaurants. Fresh and farm-raised ingredients from local purveyors are signature items in dishes. (The nearby Labrot & Graham Distillery provides the main marinade ingredient for Gerhardt's Woodford Reserve Bourbon-marinated pork chop.) The restaurant also caters off-site functions.

Local Italian restaurant Vincenzo's (502-580-1350) is the exclusive caterer at one of Louisville's most coveted event spaces, the 25th floor of the ultramodern Humana Building. Commonly used by Louisville's glitterati, the space is sparse in decor, with marble columns and unobstructed views of the city and the Ohio River. It holds 250 for seated events. A four-course meal with caviar and all the fixings costs $100 per person, excluding alcohol, says Paula Fisher, vice president of operations for the restaurant. A less expensive route is a theater menu, which runs $29.95 per person for four courses.

Savannah, Ga.
This quaint, somewhat sleepy city of mossy oaks and Confederate-era mansions has become one of the South's most popular destinations for groups and tourists. Savannah still seems to be basking in the publicity six years after the debut of John Berendt's novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was set here.

The city's 21 picturesque squares are lined with historic homes, many of which have been renovated as guest houses. At the Gastonian (800-322-6603;, attendees will find rooms with French and English antiques, footed tubs, private gardens, fireplaces and king-size beds draped in canopies. The hotel originally was two separate mansions, built by two families that wanted to raise children together. Today, it has 17 guest rooms, including a suite commonly used by groups that takes up an entire floor of one mansion. Rack rates start at $225; the suite rents for $375.

Historic homes also play a prevalent role in Savannah's attractions. House tours are common and can be combined with other events. Mary Ann Smith, president of Convention Consultants (912-234-4088), a local DMC, likes to escort groups into the Green-Meldrim House, a Gothic brick building that served as Union General Sherman's headquarters during the Civil War. Today, the home is the parish house for St. John's Episcopal Church, where attendees are invited to clap, sing and sway to the gospel songs of the Savannah Community Choir. The home can be rented directly or through Convention Consultants. It accommodates groups of 150 for receptions or 14 for a seated dinner in the dining room. Rentals cost about $600 for a three-hour affair.

In Search Of...

Looking for white-glove service in an unfamiliar place? Here's how to find it.

  • Read major city newspapers, weekly entertainment papers and their Web sites to get a sense of a city's cultural happenings.
  • Research boutique hotel chains, or consult groups such as Historic Hotels of America (800-678-8946) for ideas on where to stay.
  • Visit tourist-information and restaurant Web sites, such as and
  • Call local chapters of meetings industry associations and talk to peers about their favorite haunts.
  • Ask the convention and visitors bureau about historical or architectural foundations that might have special event venues under their care.
  • During a site inspection, canvass the city for recommendations. Ask hotel concierges, local planners, destination management companies and CVB contacts. When specific restaurants come up repeatedly, try them out yourself. - C.B.

  • Back to Current Issue index
    M&C Home Page
    Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
    Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C