by Barbara Beckley | September 01, 2014
Natural beauty has drawn visitors to the South since Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the Kentucky wilderness in 1775. Today, the region’s penchant for green space makes for inspired gatherings amid the rolling bluegrass of Kentucky, the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee or the hot springs of Arkansas.

Moreover, planners can find venues that are both scenic and environmentally friendly. Is the grass, then, greener when it comes to meeting in these three states? With a boom in new meeting hotels and convention facilities and the promise of that legendary Southern hospitality, it might be, indeed.

Kentucky: Eco-Chic

Louisville may be synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, but it’s not the only claim to fame of this gracious Southern city. Visitors can take a breather within the nation’s largest municipal urban forest, the 6,000-acre Jefferson Memorial in the suburb of Fairdale, where more than 30 miles of hiking trails wind through a wildlife refuge within view of downtown’s skyscrapers. And when the 100-mile Louisville Loop is finished, visitors will be able to stroll from the forest all the way to the city’s Waterfront Park.

For meetings, Louisville offers three state-of-the-art convention and exhibit facilities. The Kentucky International Convention Center features 300,000 square feet of space, is adjacent to the Fourth Street Live entertainment and dining district and is connected by a skywalk to the Louisville Marriott Downtown, which has its own meeting space. Two blocks away, the KFC Yum! Center offers 700,000 square feet of event space and is connected to 2,300 hotel rooms. And closer to the international airport, the 400-acre Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center boasts more than 1 million square feet of space, including an indoor arena that can seat upward of 19,000 people.

The biggest news on the convention horizon is the new Omni Hotel, set to begin construction in 2015 next to the Kentucky International Convention Center. “The Omni is a game-changer for Louisville’s hospitality industry, increasing our convention business potential in a competitive marketplace,” said Karen Williams, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Louisville currently hosts 12.7 million visitors each year. A hotel project of this scope will help support further tourism growth.” The Omni, which will be built to silver LEED specifications, will be the city’s largest four-diamond hotel. Plans include 600 guest rooms, 70,000 square feet of meeting space, a spa, a fitness center, two restaurants and a rooftop pool. It is expected to open no later than 2017.

The city’s creative venues offer a wonderful opportunity to experience Louisville’s eclectic nature. Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby, can host events of up to 832, and its Kentucky Derby Museum has an additional 10,000 square feet of event space. The 1914 Belle of Louisville can be booked for events of up to 600, and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory can accommodate events of up to 330 guests.

The Hermitage, a historic working equine farm in nearby Goshen (15 miles northeast of downtown) offers a newly renovated antebellum mansion for small parties, or larger tented events can be arranged on the grounds. It also has six guest rooms that can accommodate up to 14 people overnight.

Boat rides on the Kentucky River welcome attendees to Frankfort, the state capital. The Frankfort Convention Center has 10,000 square feet of meeting space, a 5,000-seat arena and 17,000 square feet of exhibit space. It’s supported by the Capital Plaza Hotel & Conference Center, with additional function space and a new restaurant.

To the east, the grass is as green as it gets in Lexington, “The Horse Capital of the World.” The Kentucky Horse Park, just north of downtown, has two museums and more than a dozen facilities that can be used for events. Attendees can also enjoy guided horseback or horse-drawn trolley rides.

Downtown, top group venues include the 130,000-square-foot Lexington Convention Center; the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, home to the University of Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team; and the 840-seat, historic Lexington Opera House. The Mary Todd Lincoln House, once home to the wife of the former president, and Boone Station, a historic site established by frontiersman Daniel Boone in 1779, are worth a visit.

Lexington’s largest meeting hotel is the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa, with 28,000 square feet of space and a Rees Jones–designed golf course. Or groups can take their retreat to Harrodsburg, to the southwest, and the restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Another charming option is the Wilderness Road Guest Road Houses, home to five restored cottages in Stanford, Kentucky’s second-oldest city, 45 miles south of Lexington.

In Bowling Green, adventure enthusiasts need look no farther than downtown for natural wonders. The Lost River Cave, located within the city center, offers underground boat tours and event space for up to 350. Mammoth Cave National Park, which boasts the world’s longest-known cave system—400 miles are mapped—is just 30 miles north of the city. Another popular attraction is the National Corvette Museum, which has indoor event space for up to 600 and an outdoor amphitheater for up to 10,000. Bowling Green’s more conventional facilities include the 60,000-square-foot Sloan Convention Center; Western Kentucky University’s Knicely Conference Center, with space for up to 610; and the 80,000-square-foot Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, whose spaces include a 1,800-seat Main Hall, a 6,800-square-foot lobby and a lounge with downtown views.

Owensboro, 70 miles north of Bowling Green, jumped on the convention bandwagon earlier this year with the opening of the new Owensboro Convention Center overlooking the Ohio River. It has 45,000 square feet of exhibit space and 47,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space. The adjacent, LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites/Downtown is the city’s largest meeting hotel.

Tennessee: mindful Developments

Music is the star attraction in Nashville, but city planners have also invested in developing the green scene. Two years ago, the 6.5-acre Cumberland Park opened downtown on the Cumberland Riverfront, the first phase of the city’s Riverfront Revitalization Plan. The park includes a play area for children, bike paths and a 1,200-seat amphitheater. An event lawn, urban forest and multiple plazas are in the works, and are expected to open over the next two years.

A green space where associations can meet is the year-old, 2.1 million-square-foot Music City Center, which was awarded gold LEED–certification in April. Inside, the naturally lit spaces include a 57,500-square-foot ballroom, a 350,000-square-foot exhibit hall and more than 80 works of original art.

Across the street is the silver LEED–certified Omni/Nashville, which opened a year ago with a rooftop pool and Bongo Java, the city’s coffee-house institution featuring locally roasted coffee beans. It has already booked 395,000 room nights, comprised of 450 conventions contracted through 2024, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. The Omni is also fully integrated with the expanded Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum; at 210,000 square feet, it’s double its former size and features six new event areas including the 10,000-square-foot Event Hall, which overlooks the Nashville skyline, and the 800-seat CMA Theater. A few blocks away, the Nashville Convention Center has some 118,000 square feet of exhibit space and 25 meeting rooms.

Not to be outdone, in July, the Hilton/Nashville Downtown completed the first phase of a $28 million renovation, which included the addition of an executive lounge, a private meeting room, an expanded fitness center and upgraded guest suites. By the end of the year, the property is expected to wrap up the second phase, which will include a redesigned entrance, a new Italian restaurant and a lobby and lounge.

Of course, a meeting in Nashville isn’t complete until you hit the music scene on Lower Broadway. Another hub for country music fans is the Grand Ole Opry, which offers a live show, a behind-the-scenes tour or private event space (the venue can accommodate up to 4,400 indoors and up to 5,000 outdoors). Groups can also meet at the former home of the Grand Ole Opry—the 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium.

Organizations that have met in Nashville for events include the National Emergency Number Association, the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Association Executives and the American Bus Association.

Memphis rocks to the beat of the blues and still rides high on the legacies of local boys Elvis Presley and B.B. King. But there’s also plenty of green space to soothe the soul. A seven-mile urban trail connects downtown Memphis to the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. A $70 million expansion project at the conservancy is creating a new rustic retreat site, an event terrace, an event lawn and a lakeside stage. The project is expected to finish in 2016.

Getting around Memphis is easy, thanks to a downtown trolley line with vintage cars (albeit temporarily suspended; the cars are being repaired and recertified and are expected to return this fall). Attendees can use the trolleys to zip to venues like the 350,000-square-foot Memphis Cook Convention Center. Additional spaces include the FedExForum, which seats up to 20,000 and has another half-dozen special-event rooms, and Agricenter International, with 100,000 square feet of space including a 45,000-square-foot outdoor arena. Groups of up to 450 can meet and greet at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and up to 1,200 can gather at Elvis Presley’s Graceland, just south of downtown. Near Beale Street, where music plays into the wee hours, the Madison Hotel has event space for up to 200. Larger groups might consider the Peabody Hotel, whose famous ducks parade through the lobby twice daily.

In Chattanooga, a guided walk along the beautifully landscaped Tennessee Riverwalk was a highlight for attendees at the annual Tennessee Recreation & Parks Association meeting. Nerissa Aquino, the association’s membership services and project coordinator, said a group guide demonstrated various activities (like jump roping) that can be done to increase health and fitness. Other organizations that have recently met in the city include the Tennessee Association of Housing & Redevelopment Authorities and the North American Butterfly Association.

Environmental stewardship extends throughout the city, as visitors to the Chattanooga Convention Center quickly discover. The 185,000-square-foot facility boasts both green architecture and practices including 100,800 square feet of column-free, naturally lit space and farm-to-table catering. Free electric shuttles provide connections to the convention center, and Chattanooga’s Bicycle Transit System offers around-the-clock access to 300 bikes at 30 stations.

Six new Chattanooga hotels have opened within the past two years including the Embassy Suites/Chattanooga–Hamilton Place, which is located across from the Hamilton Place Mall. In April 2015, the new Holiday Inn & Suites/Downtown is expected to open with 2,200 square feet of meeting space. And this fall, the DoubleTree by Hilton/Chattanooga Downtown is scheduled to complete a renovation, which will increase its meeting facilities to 15,000 square feet of space.

Interesting off-site attractions include the Tennessee Aquarium, with a river otter exhibit, event space for up to 1,000 people and a cruise ship that can take up to 70 on a three-hour excursion along the Tennessee River. The Hunter Museum of American Art offers stellar views for events of up to 750 from its Riverview Terrace. And the Rock City Pavilion atop Lookout Mountain provides panoramic views of the Tennessee Valley for up to 300 people.

About 110 miles to the northeast is Knoxville, surrounded by the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Most associations head to the 500,000-square-foot, silver LEED–certified Knoxville Convention Center. Another good choice is the Knoxville Expo Center, which has 120,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 7,200-square-foot banquet facility. For a more rural setting, the Conference Center at Water’s Edge in West Knoxville has an outdoor amphitheater and conference rooms for up to 80 people.

Pigeon Forge, 30 miles southeast of Knoxville, adds entertainment to the agenda. It’s home to Dollywood, which offers event space for up to 500, and the Dixie Stampede, with function space for up to 1,000. Overall, the city has 145,000 square feet of meeting space in 20 venues, including the Smoky Mountain Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 1,200 people.

Nearby Sevierville is taking the meetings market seriously with the recent rebranding of the Sevierville Convention Center (formerly the Sevierville Events Center). “The new name better defines our 200,000 square feet of versatile facilities, including exhibit halls, ballrooms and meeting space,” explained David Bobo, director of the convention center. This versatility has been displayed throughout 2014 with events ranging from the Corvette Expo to an alpaca show, with more than 500 alpacas roaming the convention floor, he said.

Sevierville is close to the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which offers a variety of recreational activities. Groups can also enjoy the outdoors in town: The Sevierville Golf Club is home to two championship golf courses available for group tournaments and a multimillion-dollar clubhouse and an outdoor pavilion for social events. Gatlinburg, 14 miles south of Sevierville, features the 148,000-square-foot Gatlinburg Convention Center. Unique attractions include the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery, which offers tours and live bluegrass music daily.

The beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains enhances gatherings in the town of Kingsport, on the Kentucky border. One of the largest venues is the MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort & Convention Center with 88,000 square feeing of meeting space. In nearby Johnson City, the Millennium Centre offers 23,000 square feet of IACC-approved meeting space, and the Natural History Museum has a 7,000-square-foot annex for receptions and events.

Arkansas: The Natural State

Natural beauty and business pair easily in Little Rock, thanks to the celebrated Arkansas River Trail, which winds through the entire metropolitan area of Little Rock and North Little Rock. The trail connects 38 parks, six museums and 5,000 acres of federal, state and local parkland. It also features one of the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridges in America. Attendees can also hop on the River Rail Trolley, which connects the two cities’ downtown areas.

A spate of new and recently renovated hotels demonstrate the drawing power of the state’s capital. The expanded Statehouse Convention Center now offers 250,000 square feet of event space, including the new 18,362-square-foot Wally Allen Ballroom, with pre-function space overlooking the river. The Aloft/Little Rock Downtown is repurposing the historic Boyle Building into a 140-room hotel with a rooftop pool, a restaurant and 4,000 square feet of meeting space. It is scheduled to open in 2016. And associations are enjoying the new look and amenities of the Little Rock Marriott (formerly the Peabody/Little Rock) following this year’s revamp. Also undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion (to the tune of $68.6 million) is the city’s historic Robinson Center, which is expected to reopen in the fall of 2016 with additions that include a new conference center.

Meetings have also been held at the Clinton Presidential Center, with 20,000 square feet of event space, and the riverfront First Security Amphitheater, which can host up to 7,875. On the west side of town, the Wildwood Park for the Arts offers five outdoor areas and four indoor spaces for events. In North Little Rock, Dickey-Stephens Park can seat nearly 6,000 when it’s not hosting minor league baseball games, and Verizon Arena has 28,000 square feet of floor space.

Natural thermal waters have beckoned visitors to the hills 55 miles west of Little Rock since 1807, and today, Hot Springs National Park is the main attraction of the town of Hot Springs. Meetings and trade shows are welcomed at the 360,000-square-foot Hot Springs Convention Center and the landmark Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa.

In Fort Smith, memories of America’s frontier days add a can-do spirit to association gatherings. The Fort Smith National Historic Site showcases buildings dating to 1817, while the town’s modern facilities include the Fort Smith Convention Center, with 40,000 square feet of column-free event space and a 1,331-seat performing arts theater, and the newly expanded MovieLounge, with 14,000 square feet of event space.

In 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville, which can host events of up to 1,000. According to Susan Garoutte, Arkansas State Chapter president of the College & University Professional Association for Human Resources, “We chose Bentonville for our 25th anniversary meeting because Crystal Bridges is here. We wanted this gathering to be special,” said Garoutte. Her group utilized the museum’s glass-enclosed Great Hall for general sessions, the smaller Landing Suites for breakouts, and other areas for the vendors’ exhibits. “Everyone loved the site,” Garoutte said.

In addition to the art collection, attendees were impressed with the surrounding wilderness area and sculpture-dotted parks. “It was great to see families and children strolling the streets on a Thursday evening. Bentonville is doing a great job of developing in a green and friendly way,” Garoutte said.

Groups that want to stick with a museum theme might choose the year-old 21c Museum Hotel, which offers rotating art exhibits. The Clarion Hotel has closed while it undergoes renovations before being reflagged as a Sheraton Four Points.

In nearby Rogers, the John Q. Hammons Center and adjacent Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas Hotel & Spa offer a combined 125,000 square feet of event space. About 35 miles east, Eureka Springs is a small but lovely Victorian city for retreats. Notable meeting venues include the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa that offers mountain views; the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks, with 122 rooms; and The Auditorium, with 900 seats. Events can be arranged within sight of lions and other rescue animals at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.

South of Rogers, in Springdale, the Holiday Inn/Springdale–Fayetteville Area has 55,000 square feet of event space. Groups can also gather at the 6,500-seat Arvest Ballpark and the Jones Center, a recreational complex that includes a 6,631-square-foot chapel/auditorium and a conference center with eight rooms. For a fun outing, the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad offers rides on restored antique trains, which can include wine tastings, a casino night or a variety of other business mixers.

Good to be Green

As developments continue to shape the scenes in Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, association groups are more likely to find an eco-certified venue as well as a growing number of recreational options, such as an urban park or free bicycle rentals. Attendees visiting these states for the first time will likely be amazed by all the green options—and, as planners know, an event is that much more memorable when you can offer a nice surprise.