by Rachel Juarez-Carr | September 01, 2015

From superlative sporting scenes to unparalleled musical heritage sites, there are hundreds of winning ways to welcome attendees to Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. The legacies of these states can be translated into group events that go above and beyond the expected.

Drawing upon the importance of collaboration, talent and drive, meetings in these three Southern states have the power to motivate attendees even before they arrive and leave everyone with a sense of accomplishment by event's end.

Kentucky: First-rate Meetings

Louisville is a city of winners, from Kentucky Derby title holders to hometown boxing giant Muhammad Ali to visiting association groups who will benefit from the more than $1 billion being invested in convention infrastructure. Groups that have recently chosen Louisville as the place to impress and inspire attendees include the American Football Coaches Association, the Association of Professional Chaplains and the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association.

The Kentucky International Convention Center is gearing up for a $180 million expansion scheduled to begin next summer that will add more than 200,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 40,000-square-foot ballroom by 2018. Though it plans to close for the project to expedite construction efforts, the center currently remains open and fully functional with 300,000 square feet of meeting space and 190,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Other downtown options include the historic Henry Clay, a dedicated event venue that has 20,000 square feet of space and is connected to a new 162-room Hilton Garden Inn. (The hotel has a rooftop restaurant and bar or attendees can head to the Fourth Street Live entertainment district, just steps away.) Also new and nearby is the 304-room Embassy Suites/Louisville Downtown, with 15,000 square feet of meeting space. Two blocks from the convention center, the KFC Yum! Center offers 700,000 square feet of event space and is connected to some 2,300 hotel rooms. Also popular is the Muhammad Ali Center, which has more than a half-dozen spaces for functions, and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, which can host up to 330 attendees.

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 more than 19,000 people. Less than three miles away is Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby each May. The race track can host group events of up to 832 people, while the Kentucky Derby Museum can accommodate groups of up to 1,000 people.

New hotel construction continues apace. The city's first Starwood property-a 175-room Aloft Hotel-is expected to open downtown in November with more than 2,100 square feet of meeting space, while a second location in the city's East End is under construction with plans to open in July 2016 with 126 guest rooms and event space. In the NuLu neighborhood east of downtown, a $34 million property (tentatively expected to be a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel) is scheduled to open in 2016 with more than 150 guest rooms. And in spring 2018, a 600-room Omni is scheduled to make its debut near Fourth Street Live with 70,000 square feet of function space, a spa and two full-service restaurants.

While Louisville might be the state's biggest city, it's Frankfort that's the seat of power. The state capital caters to visiting groups with the Frankfort Convention Center, featuring 10,000 square feet of meeting space, a 5,000-seat arena and some 17,000 square feet of exhibit space. It's supported by the Capital Plaza Hotel (recently revamped for an episode of the Travel Channel's "Hotel Impossible"), with additional function space for up to 450 people.

As the "Horse Capital of the World," Lexington is home to more than just incredible equine athletes-it also hosts groups in winning venues such as the 130,000-square-foot Lexington Convention Center, the historic, 840-seat Lexington Opera House and the University of Kentucky's 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, which will undergo a multiphase, $15 million technology upgrade and roof renovation beginning this fall.

Lexington's largest meeting hotel is the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa, with 28,000 square feet of function space and a Rees Jones-designed golf course. Or 30 miles to the southwest, in Harrodsburg, group retreats can be held at the restored Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, which features more than 70 guest rooms located within 19th-century buildings, a dining room and 5,000 square feet of event space.

The city of Bowling Green, as far as anyone knows, has never actually had a bowling green. It does have a variety of interesting attractions that attendees can choose from, like the Lost River Cave, where visiting groups of up to 350 can hold events underground and enjoy boat tours. Or for an exciting excursion, adventures can be had just north of town at the epic Mammoth Cave National Park, with various tours and walks (above and below ground) for adults and children.

The National Corvette Museum is another place that appeals to all ages. It welcomes groups with indoor space for up to 600 people and an outdoor amphitheater for up to 10,000 people. Other large dedicated spaces in town include the 60,000-square-foot Sloan Convention Center; Western Kentucky University's Knicely Conference Center, which can accommodate up to 610 attendees; and the 80,000-square-foot Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, whose venues include a 1,800-seat Main Hall.

In Owensboro, 70 miles north, the Owensboro Convention Center has enjoyed considerable success since opening 20 months ago. It has hosted more than 300 events and 173,000 guests and has generated more than $1 million in economic impact. The facility offers 45,000 square feet of exhibit space and 47,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space and is home to the adjacent Pier event venue, which opened in July with a stage that hosts live Friday-night concerts.

Tennessee: Off-the-Chart Events

The nation-in fact, the world-knows Nashville for its country-western music scene, its honky tonks and as the place that launched the career of one of the music industry's most powerful stars today, Taylor Swift. The city may be built on music but it pays huge attention to the meetings industry, as is attested by the gold LEED-certified Music City Center, which opened two years ago with 2.1 million square feet of space and has since hosted 620 events and 1.1 million attendees. Last year alone it generated an economic impact of more than $392 million.

Planners and attendees alike are attracted to various Music City Center features: a four-acre green roof that is home to more than 100,000 bees, a rainwater harvest system and other eco-friendly practices, a 57,500-square-foot ballroom, a 350,000-square-foot exhibit hall and more than 80 works of original art. Just across the street is the LEED-certified Omni/Nashville, which offers more than 80,000 square feet of its own meeting space and 49,000 square feet of pre-function space.

Several other major venues and attractions are within walking distance: the expanded Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, which has several event facilities including the 10,000-square-foot Event Hall and 800-seat CMA Theater; the 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena, with an additional 6,000 square feet of meeting space and 13,500-square-foot rehearsal hall; the Nashville Convention Center, home to 118,000 square feet of exhibit space and 25 meeting rooms; the 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium, which wrapped up a $14 million renovation and expansion early this summer and now offers a new restaurant and a new 100-seat theater; and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which can host functions of up to 1,860 people. And of course there's the Grand Ole Opry, one of the most famous names in country music, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Located about 10 miles northeast of downtown, the iconic venue welcomes group get-togethers with as many as 4,400.

At the Hilton/Nashville Downtown, the final phase of a $32 million renovation was completed in March with the debut of a new dining spot, Trattoria Il Mulino. Last year, the property transformed all of its 330 guest suites, meeting spaces, lobby and gym. An exciting new property on the horizon is the nation's second Virgin Hotel (the brand's first property is in Chicago). It is expected to open in 2016 on Music Row with 240 guest rooms, some 14,000 square feet of event space and a world-class recording studio.

Perhaps the closest thing to a royal meeting place in the continental United States is Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis. Located just south of downtown, the late star's former mansion and grounds can host events of up to 1,200 people. The Guest House at Graceland is scheduled to open later this fall with 450 guest rooms, two restaurants, expansive meeting space and a 464-seat theater. Larger groups will find plenty of gathering space at several downtown venues including the 350,000-square-foot Memphis Cook Convention Center; the FedExForum, which seats up to 20,000 people 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. Organizations that have recently held conventions in Memphis include the General Federation of Women's Clubs, Lambda Theta Alpha, the National Cotton Council and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development.

Event planners who are visiting Chattanooga will find plenty to sing about, including the 24-acre Chattanooga Choo Choo complex, which includes a music venue with space for up to 500 people, two new restaurants, a formal rose garden and the 106-year-old Terminal Station, which has since been converted into a historic hotel. The complex is less than a mile from the 185,000-square-foot, eco-friendly Chattanooga Convention Center, ready to host meetings and trade shows with 100,800 square feet of column-free, naturally lit space and farm-to-table catering.

A new attraction opened earlier this year that will be of particular interest to visitors from outside the region-the Tennessee Aquarium's Alligator Bayou, where a dozen of the mighty beasts silently patrol the waters. Groups can make a day of it as the aquarium has indoor and outdoor event space for up to 1,000 people and runs naturalist-guided cruises on the Tennessee River for up to 70 people. Other fun local sites include the Hunter Museum of American Art, with six event spaces including an 8,000-square-foot terrace with river views, and atop Lookout Mountain, the Rock City Pavilion can accommodate up to 300 people and overlooks the colorful Tennessee Valley.

New hotels in Chattanooga include the La Quinta Inn & Suites/Lookout Mountain and a Holiday Inn & Suites scheduled to open in December. Also in the works is a 90-room downtown boutique hotel, expected to open next year with rooftop event space. Properties that have recently been renovated are the MainStay Suites, the Red Roof Plus & Suites/Chattanooga Downtown and the Comfort Inn/East Ridge.

On the eastern side of the state, Knoxville pleases meeting planners with more than 8,100 guest rooms and the 500,000-square-foot, silver LEED-certified Knoxville Convention Center. Another venue in town is the Knoxville Expo Center, which features 120,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 7,200-square-foot banquet facility. For planners looking for a more rural setting, the Conference Center at Water's Edge in West Knoxville has an outdoor amphitheater under the trees and conference rooms for up to 80 people overlooking a private lake and lush grounds.

Several entertaining attractions await in Pigeon Forge, just to the southeast of Knoxville. The best known is Dollywood, where the new DreamMore Resort opened in July with 307 guest rooms and 13,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor meeting space, a spa and two pools. Another new face in town is the Margaritaville Island Hotel, which opened in October with 137 guest rooms, indoor meeting space for up to 350 and an outdoor terrace. The hotel is part of a growing retail and entertainment complex called The Island, which is home to a new ropes course. Both properties are just minutes from the Smoky Mountain Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 1,200 attendees. Other options are the Dixie Stampede, with function space for up to 1,000, and the LeConte Center, which can accommodate upwards of 12,000 people for assemblies.

Just north, in Sevierville, the Sevierville Convention Center has 200,000 square feet of versatile event space. Attendees who have brought along their clubs can head from the board meeting to the Sevierville Golf Club, home to two championship golf courses available for group tournaments, a multimillion-dollar clubhouse and an outdoor pavilion for social events. Or groups can base themselves just south of Pigeon Forge in Gatlinburg, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and meet at the 148,000-square-foot Gatlinburg Convention Center.

Groups drawing attendees from Tennessee, southern Kentucky and western North Carolina might choose a destination convenient for all-Kingsport or nearby Johnson City. In Kingsport, the MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort & Convention Center offers 88,000 square feet of meeting space, and in Johnson City, the Millennium Centre has 23,000 square feet of IACC-approved meeting space. Additionally, in Gray, the Natural History Museum has a 7,000-square-foot annex that can be used for receptions and events.

Arkansas: Diamond Class, Naturally

Arkansas is nicknamed the Natural State for good reason-its rich resources and natural delights have long been some of its most successful attractions and exports. Its human resources have been a resounding success, too: from country music icon Johnny Cash, who was born in the eastern Arkansas town of Dyess, to former President Bill Clinton, born in Hope. (Visitors can tour the restored childhood homes of both).

The biggest sites for meetings in the state are located in the capital city of Little Rock, starting with the Statehouse Convention Center and its 250,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space. A block away, the DoubleTree/Downtown is benefiting from a $5 million renovation, which includes the renovation of all guest rooms and meeting spaces. The Clinton Presidential Center has 20,000 square feet of event space and a restaurant that offers cooking classes, the First Security Amphitheater can accommodate up to 7,875 people, and the historic Robinson Center is undergoing a $70 million dollar makeover and is scheduled to reopen in November 2016 with completely renovated performing arts space and a brand new conference center. All of these venues are pleasingly laid out along the Arkansas River.

On the west side of town, the Wildwood Park for the Arts offers five outdoor areas and four indoor spaces for special events. Also in the area is the Best Western Premier Burgundy Hotel (formerly the Governors Suites). In North Little Rock, Dickey-Stephens Park can seat nearly 6,000 people when it's not hosting minor league baseball games, or groups can take their event to Verizon Arena, which features 28,000 square feet of floor space and in-house catering. About 25 miles west, in Benton, the 29,000-square-foot Benton Event Center is adjacent to the year-old Fairfield Inn & Suites.

A grand natural attraction of which of Arkansas is rightfully proud is Hot Springs National Park, which has been drawing visitors for more than 200 years and remains the hot ticket in the town of Hot Springs. For events, the 360,000-square-foot Hot Springs Convention Center awaits, as does the landmark Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa with its 45,000 square feet of function space.

In northwestern Arkansas, Bentonville is a burgeoning destination. Its biggest attraction remains the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which can accommodate special events of up to 1,000 people and is just a short walk from the 21c Museum Hotel, which has 12,000 square feet of its own event space. Attendees traveling with their families in tow for a Southern staycation should note the new Scott Family Amazeum, which opened in July with a host of interactive exhibits to entertain and delight children. The 50,000-square-foot venue also welcomes group events. Finally, there's a new place to stay in town: the 105-room Four Points by Sheraton/Bentonville, which has 11,500 square feet of event space. In nearby Rogers, the John Q. Hammons Center and adjacent Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas Hotel & Spa work together to offer a combined 125,000 square feet of event space.

About 35 miles east, Eureka Springs is a small but lovely Victorian town for retreats. Notable meeting venues in the area include the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, with 10,000 square feet of meeting space; the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks, with 18,000 square feet of function space; and the Eureka Springs City Auditorium, with 900 seats.

Springdale, located to the south of Rogers, played host to the National Railway Historical Society Convention last summer (previous host cities have included Scranton, Pennsylvania; Tacoma, Washington; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa). "The event in Arkansas had approximately 400 participants coming from more than 40 states and six foreign countries," said Barton Jennings, the group's convention chair.

In addition to business and membership meetings, various educational sessions and a banquet, the convention included four days of chartered passenger train rides on the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad as well as heritage tours of area attractions, Jennings said.

Springdale proved to be an ideal base for the event. "The first requirement is access to railroads willing to participate and the required equipment, and the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad was willing to host the event using its own passenger cars," Jennings said. "The Ozark Mountains and the related scenery was also an attraction."

Meeting venues in town include the Holiday Inn/Springdale-Fayetteville Area, which offers 55,000 square feet of exhibit and gathering space; the 6,500-seat Arvest Ballpark; and the Jones Center, a recreational complex that includes a 6,631-square-foot auditorium and a conference center with eight rooms. And in nearby Fayetteville, a new Hilton Garden Inn has event spaces for up to 900 people.

Sixty miles farther south, in Fort Smith, top venues for meetings include the 115,000-square-foot Phoenix Expo Trade & Event Center and the Fort Smith Convention Center, with 40,000 square feet of column-free event space and a 1,331-seat performing arts theater. And history buffs must visit the Fort Smith National Historic Site, where buildings date back to 1817.

Head all the way down past the Ouachita National Forest to Murfreesboro, about 130 miles southeast of Fort Smith, for a unique attraction: the world's only public diamond mine. At Crater of Diamonds State Park, attendees who feel lucky can pay the minimal entrance fee and keep whatever they find. (An 8.5-carat diamond was found by a visitor who popped in on a whim this summer-not a bad souvenir.)

Championing Greatness

Behind every success story is a lot of hard work-so it goes with singing sensations, thoroughbred horse races and convivial annual conventions. However, in these three Southern states, all the planning that goes on behind the scenes is facilitated by two elements that make everything easier: experience and a winning attitude. Backed by both, any event is destined for greatness.