Coastal South

Meetings In Georgia And South Carolina

Coastal South 2015

In a region where hospitality has been not just an obligation but a point of pride for centuries, association planners can't go wrong with meeting in Georgia and South Carolina. This Southern state of mind extends to all aspects of any gathering.

Whether visiting groups are enjoying a Lowcountry banquet spread or taking part in a variety of team building activities, they are sure to experience a warm welcome in the Coastal South.

Greater Atlanta: The Power of Possibility

A successful and influential epicenter of the South, Atlanta is appealing for many reasons. Groups are drawn to its affordability, its bustling business economy, its avidly supported cultural and sports scenes and a tourism sector that has in recent years seen billions poured into new hotels, attractions, event venues and transportation options.

According to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2014 was a banner year for citywide conventions and hotel occupancy rates. Atlanta hosted 21 major events-generating $750 million in direct economic impact­-and occupancy levels by the year's end were at nearly 70 percent. Smith Travel Research reported that as of November 2014, Atlanta was No. 1 for the highest occupancy growth rate in the nation's top 25 markets.

"These positive lodging numbers are evidence of Atlanta's momentum in attracting new and return business," said William Pate, the bureau's president and CEO. "Atlanta's unparalleled accessibility and $1.5 billion in new developments make the city a convenient and exciting destination for planners."

A popular downtown hub for events is the 20-acre Pemberton Place, whose campus includes the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and two year-old venues-the National Center for Civil & Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame. At the National Center for Civil & Human Rights, smaller spaces can host up to 200 people or the entire facility can be booked for events of up to 500. The College Football Hall of Fame can host up to 3,500 and offers a 45-yard indoor football field; the Quad, a wall lined with more than 768 helmets; and the ESPN College GameDay Desk. Just south of Pemberton Place is the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park and the CNN Center.

In this same area is the 3.9 million-square-foot Georgia World Congress Center, which was awarded silver-LEED certification in October. Last year it hosted the American Coatings Show & Congress, which reported a 16 percent increase in attendance compared to its 2012 show in Indianapolis. Other events that have recently been held at the venue include the 2014 International Woodworking Fair, which attracted nearly 23,500 attendees, and MODEX (an event for manufacturing and supply-chain professionals), which drew a record 23,000 attendees last year. Both are scheduled to return to the center in 2016.

Work continues on the NFL Falcon's new stadium, which began construction last year just south of the Georgia Dome. The $1.2 billion, retractable-roof stadium is scheduled to open in time for the 2017 season and will also serve as home to Atlanta United, a Major League Soccer expansion team set to debut that year. Stadium plans include 75,000 seats and a 61,000-square-foot plaza. Meanwhile, the Georgia Dome continues to welcome groups with more than a half-dozen spaces including its main field, which offers 102,000 square feet of space.

Hotel development downtown is also on the rise. A $25 million Hyatt House near the aquarium opened July 6 with 150 guest rooms and an 800-square-foot boardroom; a 128-room Home2Suites, expected to open in September, will offer meeting space, a rooftop bar and a barbershop. Also in the works are a Hotel Indigo and a Homewood Suites.

Near the international airport, south of downtown, two newer sporty settings offer team-building options: the Porsche Experience Center and the Delta Flight Museum. The 27-acre Porsche complex opened in May with meeting space for up to 150. And the Delta Flight Museum, which reopened after major renovations a year ago, features 68,000 square feet of available space. Nearby is the 400,000-square-foot Georgia International Convention Center, which features more than 35 works of commissioned art and the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway hotel on its campus.

North of downtown, in Buckhead, the AC/Buckhead, is slated to open early 2016 with 166 guest rooms and 2,500 square feet of event space. Continuing northwest in Cobb County, the 320,000-square-foot Cobb Galleria Centre recently welcomed the Best Friends National Conference and the Southeast Homeschool Expo. Under construction is SunTrust Park, the future stadium of Major League Baseball's Braves, which is scheduled to open for the 2017 season with 41,500 seats. An adjacent, $400 million, mixed-use development is expected to feature shops, restaurants and an Omni Hotel with 260 guest rooms and 12,500 square feet of meeting space.

About 30 miles north of Atlanta, in Alpharetta, event venues include the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park and the Metropolitan Club. A mixed-use development called Avalon offers nightlife and seasonal events. Across the street, a 131-room Even Hotel is scheduled to open in late 2016. In Duluth, just 10 miles east, the Gwinnett Center offers an arena for up to 13,000.

Northern Georgia: Put on Your Thinking Cap

In the northern reaches of the state, higher thinking isn't limited to college towns. Planners can pick from a variety of venues that encourage progression.

Northeast of Atlanta, Athens is a college town with several improved venues for meetings. Spaces include the Classic Center, renovated two years ago; the adjacent Hilton Garden Inn, which added 25 guest rooms; and the Holiday Inn, which renovated its seven meeting rooms and added a pool and patio.

The Georgia Technology Student Association has held its state leadership conference at the Classic Center for many years, most recently with about 2,400 attendees. The event, which included three general sessions and more than 70 educational competitions, occupied all of the facility, with the exception of the auditorium, said Steve Price, the group's executive director. The thing that makes the Classic Center a great experience is that "it is truly an integral part of the Athens community itself," Price said. "I see the Athens community wanting my conference to stay and thrive here."

The University of Georgia campus also welcomes groups with sites that include the Georgia Museum of Art and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Another option is the off-campus, 1,100-seat Georgia Theatre.

About 45 miles northwest of Atlanta is the Clarence Brown Conference Center in Cartersville. Another 30 miles west, in Rome, the Forum Civic Center is located near the Rome Area History Museum (with special-event space) and the Coosa Riverfront. There are more than 850 hotel rooms in Rome, with two properties expected to open in 2016, adding an additional 200 rooms: a Hampton Inn & Suites and a Courtyard by Marriott. The Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham/Rome, housed in an 1890 warehouse, recently completed renovations. Features include new meeting space, a bar and lounge.

In Calhoun, 20 miles to the north, venues include the Calhoun Convention Center, the GEM Theatre and the Harris Arts Center. Closer to the Tennessee border is Dalton, home to the Dalton Convention Center and Dalton State College's James E. Brown Center.

Augusta, Macon & Valdosta: Not All Business

Augusta may be known for its annual Masters Tournament, but the golf mecca is also an appealing destination for meetings. On the banks of the Savannah River, venues include the Augusta Convention Center, which is connected to the Augusta Marriott; the Augusta Entertainment complex, home to the James Brown Arena; and the Bell Auditorium. And if golf is what attracted your group, a half-dozen courses allow non-member play, most offering special-event space.

In central Georgia, there are few cities as convenient for gathering attendees as Macon, just about halfway between Atlanta and Savannah. Organizations that have recently held events in town include the Georgia State Firefighters Association and the Georgia Future Farmers of America.

The Macon Centreplex is the hub for many visiting groups, with more than 140,000 square feet of space; its venues include a convention center, the Macon Coliseum, the Macon City Auditorium and the connected Macon Marriott City Center, which has its own meeting space.

May saw the opening of the new Tubman Museum-dedicated to the history, culture and art of African Americans-which offers a small event space. Nearby is the 43,000-square-foot Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, which recently began offering event space: the remodeled, 1,500-square-foot Georgia Room and a 205-seat theater.

Just southwest of downtown, event venues include the Anderson Conference Center and Middle Georgia State College. Near the college, a 74-room Hampton Inn & Suites is scheduled to open in August. Groups can spend free time at the new Sandy Beach Water Park at Lake Tobesofkee or at one of the lake's three public parks, each with a pavilion.

About 150 miles south, Valdosta is home to the James H. Rainwater Conference Center, which has 47,000 square feet of flexible space and recently updated its interiors and improved parking. The Valdosta Wake Compound, the Wild Adventures Theme Park and the Turner Center for the Arts offer off-site entertainment for attendees.

Savannah & coastal points north: Relaxing Retreats

There's no place quite like Savannah, with its antebellum architecture, moss-draped live oaks and historic plazas. Its allure continues to appeal, with figures indicating that the city booked more than 202,700 future room nights last year-a record and an increase of nearly 20 percent from 2013. Some of the groups that have booked events include the National Beta Club, the Georgia Municipal Association and the American College of Nurse-Midwives, all scheduled to gather in town in 2018.

"Savannah's overall popularity as a premier visitor destination continues to ring true among meeting planning professionals," said Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah. "When selecting our city for their conventions and trade shows, meeting planners know that their registration and attendance will likely be higher, which benefits their organization and, in turn, benefits Savannah."

One of the enticements for incoming groups is the new "Show Us Your Badge" program. Launched by Visit Savannah in March, the program highlights participating local businesses that are offering discounts and deals to convention attendees who show their badge.

Savannah offers both modern and historic sites. Groups can meet at the 330,000-square-foot Savannah International Trade & Convention Center or, 15 miles south, the Armstrong Center offers a 6,000-square-foot ballroom.

In the Historic District, meeting venues include the Savannah Civic Center and the Coastal Georgia Center. Both are within walking distance of the new B Historic Savannah Hotel, which has 101 guest rooms and 1,000 square feet of function space. Closer to Forsyth Park, the 1882 Brockington Hall has 4,000 square feet of space. Just two miles east, the Civil War site of Old Fort Jackson can be used for gatherings. Or head over to Tybee Island, where the Island Light Station & Museum and the Tybee Pier & Pavilion both welcome special events.

Jekyll Island, 90 miles south of Savannah, is another idyllic spot. One of its newest properties is the 200-room, beachfront Westin/Jekyll Island, which offers 5,350 square feet of meeting space and is located next to the Jekyll Island Convention Center, which can host groups of up to 6,450 people.

Jekyll Island's longest-running continuous event is the Georgia Association of Assessing Officials' summer conference, held there for the last 55 years. About 375 people attended the most recent conference. "We could not be more pleased," said John Scott, the association's executive director, noting that even though the area has redeveloped, renovated hotels and impressed attendees with its "state-of-the-art" convention center, the island "retains its long-time love for historic preservation and natural beauty. Offering some of the most beautiful Atlantic oceanfront meeting space that one could hope to see, attendees are thrilled to be there."

Other nearby islands have their own event venues and resorts. On St. Simons Island, the King & Prince Beach & Golf Resort has a variety of function space for groups as large as 300, and five miles north, on Sea Island, is the Cloister at Sea Island.

Many groups also head to South Carolina's Hilton Head Island, which is just 40 miles east of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. Over the past two years, its resorts have undergone multimillion-dollar renovations and $400 million has been invested in the island.

In October, the Sea Pines Resort completed its new, two-story, 25,000-square-foot Sea Pines Beach Club, which offers floor-to-ceiling windows, a deck and a restaurant and lounge. Sea Pines' Harbour Town is home to the 10,000-square-foot Harbour Town Conference Center and the Harbour Town Clubhouse, which was completed this spring and offers a 4,600-square-foot ballroom.

The Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort recently finished a $17 million renovation and the Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa benefited from a $15 million renovation. In addition, the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa and the Sonesta Resort/Hilton Head Island completed $30 million in renovations in 2013.

From Charleston to Myrtle Beach: Coastal Favorites

As South Carolina's oldest city, Charleston continues to appeal to groups. The downtown Gaillard Center is expected to reopen this fall with a state-of-the-art performance hall, an exhibition hall and outdoor meeting space. In North Charleston, the Charleston Area Convention Center Complex is home to a 150,000-square-foot convention center and connected Embassy Suites as well as the 13,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum and a performing arts center with a 2,300-seat theater. Farther northwest, Middleton Place offers more than 7,000 square feet of space.

Just minutes from downtown Charleston, in Mount Pleasant, the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum is home to the USS Yorktown, which can accommodate groups. Forty miles north, the Hopsewee Plantation in Georgetown can accommodate groups of up to 64.

Farther north up the coast is Myrtle Beach, a classic beach town. Within its Convention & Entertainment District is the 250,000-square-foot Myrtle Beach Convention Center, connected to a Sheraton Hotel with its own event space. A newer option is the adjacent, Myrtle Beach Sports Complex, which opened in March and features 72,000 square feet of open court space as well as multipurpose rooms, a cafe and a 12-screen video wall.

Major changes are planned at the Springmaid Beach Resort, which will remain open while undergoing renovations and will then be reflagged as a DoubleTree by Hilton. Next spring, the new, $25 million Homewood Suites Oceanfront Resort & Conference Center is expected to open with 100 guest rooms and event space for up to 300. It will share amenities with an adjacent Hampton Inn. A notable property with stellar views in North Myrtle Beach is the Bridge at North Beach Plantation, with a 5,200-square-foot penthouse that's suspended between two hotel towers. Nearby attractions that welcome special events include Ripley's Aquarium and the Second Avenue Pier, and in Murrells Inlet, Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park.

Central & Northern South Carolina: Meeting Expectations

Columbia may be South Carolina's capital and largest city but it feels like "a small city with a great downtown," said Cheryl Wallen, meeting planner for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which held its 2015 meeting in town with 840 attendees. The main sessions were at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, but Wallen arranged an event at the South Carolina State Museum and a "Zoo Day" at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. Attendees loved downtown, its walkability and its great selection of restaurants and bars, she said.

Another group taken with Columbia is the Southern Gas Association, which used the convention center for its Spring Gas Conference & Expo in 2014. Jim Murdock, who is director of global accounts for ConferenceDirect and helps coordinate the group's events, noted the city's affordability, easy booking and abundance of entertainment options close to the center. "Overall, (the attendees) loved the experience, and that is why we are going back in 2016," Murdock said.

Other options include the Colonial Life Arena, the Carolina Coliseum and the South Carolina State Fairgrounds.

In Rock Hill, about 70 miles north of Columbia, is the Hood Center at York Technical College and Events at Manchester. The local Quality Inn & Suites in Rock Hill recently refreshed its interiors. It's located near Winthrop University, a popular special-event site. In June, the South Carolina College Learning Center Association held a professional development conference at Winthrop University's DiGiorgio Campus Center for 112 attendees. It utilized the center's 224-seat theater, the Richardson Ballroom and five classrooms for workshops.

A few miles north of Rock Hill, in Fort Mill, the 1946 Anne Springs Close Greenway Dairy Barn has more than 6,000 square feet for functions, and a new Hampton Inn & Suites opened in June with 102 guest rooms and 1,000 square feet of meeting space. Or just west of Rock Hill, in McConnells, groups of up to 350 can meet within Hightower Hall.

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Spartanburg has more than 400,000 square feet of meeting space and some 3,000 hotel rooms. The Carolinas Nature Photographers Association and the International Perfume Bottle Association recently met in Spartanburg, and in 2017 it will host the South Carolina Governor's Conference on Tourism & Travel.

Large downtown meeting venues include the Spartanburg Marriott, the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, the Chapman Cultural Center and the University of South Carolina/Upstate. On the west side, the Spartanburg Expo Center and the Summit Pointe Conference & Events Center welcome groups.

A new, 104-room Residence Inn at Westgate Center is scheduled to open near WestGate Mall next spring, while a 114-room AC Hotel by Marriott is expected to open downtown in 2017 with a rooftop bar and meeting space. The Courtyard/Spartanburg and the Residence Inn/Spartanburg were recently renovated.

Thirty miles west, Greenville has "big-city options with the hospitality of a quaint Southern town," said Beth Berkheimer, exposition and meetings manager for the Rubber Division of the American Chemical Society. The group held its 187th Technical Meeting in April at the recently renovated Hyatt Regency/Greenville. Berkheimer said that Greenville residents were "extremely polite and friendly." The event's 130 attendees loved being able to walk outside the hotel doors and find "any cuisine imaginable"-even Mexican and sushi in the same restaurant.

The city's main meeting venue is the TD Convention Center, which is where the National Association for Developmental Education held its 39th annual conference in February. Although 1,400 people registered, many were delayed due to inclement weather across the U.S. Hotels happily accommodated room changes for the delayed members and the transportation company modified its timing and routes to be available, said Karen Patty-Graham, the association's conference manager and former president.

"Attendees liked the town, Main Street and the variety of restaurants offered within a few blocks of the conference hotel headquarters," Patty-Graham said. "They liked the spaciousness of the TD Center and the quality of the hotels with very reasonable rates." 

Greenville has 8,500 hotel rooms, with another 850 to be added over the next three years. Also downtown is the Peace Center and the recently renovated Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Southern at Heart

Georgia and South Carolina deliver plenty of Southern charm, comfort and quintessential experiences for association planners and attendees alike. From slow-paced island settings to the high culture and excitement found in cities such as Atlanta and Charleston, destinations in these two states show off the South in a way only they know how.