By nature, the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are genuinely inviting. Attendees are greeted by historic cities, serene waterfront event sites and a soundtrack that provides just the right tone for gatherings.
Visiting associations who meet in this region enjoy an effusive spirit that captivates and remains with groups long after they return home.
Louisiana: Nice & Easy
New Orleans, also known as “The Big Easy,” welcomes visitors with a colorful history and culture. Year-round, the city calendar is filled with an array of events, and some of the biggest sports championships, trade shows and conventions continue to choose the city.
“New Orleans has entered a new era of growth and prominence, with more than $1.6 billion worth of improvements completed in the last year,” said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. He cited updates to the city’s hotel infrastructure, a “dramatic increase” in restaurant inventory, and the reopening of the downtown Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, which is home to more than 70 stores and eateries.
Perry said the city is also preparing for its tricentennial celebration in 2018. Plans include the expansion of streetcar lines through the city and a complete redesign of the international airport.
Also making news is the new Convention Center District Development Project, which is expected to revitalize 47 acres of riverfront owned by the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the city’s largest meeting venue. The project calls for construction of a new headquarters hotel, a linear park along Convention Center Boulevard and retail venues. The convention center offers 1.1 million square feet of space, including the $52 million Grand Hall, which opened in 2013 with 60,000 square feet of column-free space. One of the events held at the center last year was the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo, which attracted more than 23,000 attendees and 600 exhibitors. Over the last four years, an ongoing relationship with Greenbuild has inspired the convention center to undergo a full-scale program of sustainability improvements and energy-saving measures.
Another group that recently convened in the city was the International Facility Management Association, whose World Workplace Conference & Expo drew some 4,000 attendees. Ann Loayza and Taylor Clark, the association’s conferences manager and events coordinator, respectively, said that New Orleans was a great choice, citing walkability, built-in entertainment and competitive hotel rates among the factors that contributed to the group’s success.
Another major event site is the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which can host groups as small as 70 or as large as 73,000. Since 2006, the facility has completed $336 million in improvements. Steps away from the Superdome is Champions Square, a 90,000-square-foot outdoor entertainment venue. Within the square is XLIV & Encore, adjacent indoor spaces that can host groups of up to 1,000. A few blocks away, the LEED-certified New Orleans BioInnovation Center offers 66,000 square feet space.
New Orleans is eager to accommodate, with more than 22,000 hotel rooms, all located within a two-mile radius. The Hyatt Regency/New Orleans, located near the Superdome, is one of the biggest meeting hotels. Newer properties include the Aloft/New Orleans Downtown, scheduled to open March 5 in the Central Business District with 188 guest rooms and 2,500 square feet of meeting space; the AC/New Orleans-Bourbon-French Quarter, which opened late last year with 220 guest rooms and 2,200 square feet of event space; and Le Meridien/New Orleans (formerly a W Hotel), which made its debut in December after a $29 million renovation. The Sheraton/New Orleans is undergoing a $5 million renovation, which comes on the tails of last year’s $55 million update. And after an $8 million renovation, the former Wyndham/Riverfront New Orleans is now the Omni/Riverfront.
A major attraction that can double as an event venue for up to 1,200 is the National World War II Museum, which is undergoing a $325 million capital expansion campaign that is expected to quadruple its existing size upon completion in 2017. Notable museum spaces include the 14,000-square-foot John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion and the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. There are also three private dining spaces including one at the 1940s-style restaurant, American Sector.
At Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, attendees can tour the warehouses where more than 80 percent of the famous Carnival floats and sculptures are designed. The venue features several event spaces, including a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and two outdoor plazas. The IFMA held its welcome reception at Mardi Gras World, where attendees tasted local cuisine and enjoyed live entertainment.
Outside of downtown, a number of venues are at the ready to host association groups. To the west, in Avondale, the NOLA Motorsports Park has an event center that can host up to 1,459. On the northern shores of Lake Pontchartrain, communities with conference sites include the 45,000-square-foot Northshore Harbor Center in Slidell, which can accommodate up to 2,500; the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum in Madisonville, which can host groups of up to 350 with its 3,600 square feet of space and wrap-around porch; and the Clarion Inn & Suites Conference Center in Covington. Farther north, in Folsom, the 900-acre Global Wildlife Center welcomes special events at its pavilion or tree house spaces.
Eighty miles west of New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi River, the capital of Baton Rouge is rich in heritage and culture. Many groups utilize the 200,000-square-foot River Center, which has 70,000 square feet of exhibit space, an 8,900-seat arena and a theater that can seat up to 1,999. The Shaw Center for the Arts is another option, with space for up to 400 people. Two historic options are the Old Governor’s Mansion, with 6,690 square feet of space, or the castle-like Old State Capitol, which can host up to 200. And at Louisiana State University, the Rural Life Museum has 20,000 square feet of meeting space. In hotel news, the Hilton/Baton Rouge Capitol Center and the Embassy Suites/Baton Rouge were recently renovated.
About 20 miles south, in White Castle, Nottoway Plantation boasts of being the South’s largest antebellum mansion. It’s now a resort with event space and modern amenities such as Wi-Fi service.
Fifty miles west of Baton Rouge, in Lafayette, the Vermilionville Living History Museum & Folklife Park has space for upwards of 350 and the Acadian Village offers a pavilion for up to 250. The downtown Acadiana Center for the Arts has spaces that include a 500-seat theater. There are more than 7,000 hotel rooms in the city, and the three full-service meeting hotels—the Hilton, Hotel Acadiana and the Ramada Conference Center—are undergoing major renovations which are expected to wrap up this summer.
In southwest Louisiana, scenic Lake Charles is popular with state groups; the Louisiana Society of Association Executives, the Police Jury Association of Louisiana and the Louisiana Rural Water Association have all held events in town. The Lakefront Promenade and revitalized downtown are picturesque points, and Lady of the Lake, a three-deck yacht, can host up to 150 for functions. The recently refreshed Lake Charles Civic Center has more than 17,800 square feet of exhibit space, a coliseum that can host as many as 7,500 and a 2,000-seat theater. Or planners can organize events at the Cash & Carry Building, a former warehouse with 9,600 square feet of space.
In December, the Golden Nugget/Lake Charles opened with several restaurants and a casino. An 18-hole championship golf course and country club are scheduled to open in April. Adjacent is the L’Auberge Casino Resort Lake Charles, which completed a $20 million renovation in 2013. The Isle of Capri Casino Hotel also underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2013.
The area surrounding Lake Charles is perfect for those who enjoy the great outdoors. To the southeast, in Bell City, the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge highlights Cajun culture. In Westlake, the National Golf Club of Louisiana is home to a par-72 course, and the nearby Sam Houston Jones State Park provides 12 guest cabins and an amphitheater for meetings. And west of Lake Charles, in Sulphur, the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point is scheduled to open this spring. In town, the new West-Cal Events Center has 45,000 square feet of space and the connected West-Cal Arena has 135,000 square feet of space.
Farther north, in Leesville, the Downtown Event Center has 3,000 square feet of meeting space, and the nearby Booker-Lewis Boutique Hotel & Restaurant can be used for retreats with space for up to 200. South Toledo Bend State Park and Hodges Gardens State Park, both within 25 miles of Leesville, offer additional event facilities and overnight lodging.
In the heart of Louisiana, Alexandria is a convenient location for state and regional gatherings. Venues include the 35,000-square-foot Alexandria Riverfront Center and the Baymont Inn & Suites & Sai Convention Center with 33,500 square feet of space. About 16 miles south, in Cheneyville, the Loyd Hall Plantation has space for up to 300.
In the northwestern corner of the state (aka “Louisiana’s Other Side”), Shreveport is home to the state’s second-largest convention center. The Shreveport Convention Center offers more than 350,000 square feet of meeting space and is connected to the Hilton Hotel. Other options for events include the Robinson Film Center, which has two theaters and a 2,326-square-foot conference space; the historic 1,536-seat Strand Theatre; and two blocks away, Shreveport Municipal Auditorium, which has undergone renovations. Also downtown is Artspace, a gallery that can host up to 600; the 92,000-square-foot Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center, with an IMAX theater and 10 additional meeting spaces; and the Silver Lake Ballroom, with 6,000 square feet of space. At the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, the Hirsch Memorial Coliseum can seat up to 10,300 and has 28,000 square feet of arena floor space. In hotel news, the new Wyndham Garden Shreveport (formerly a Clarion) is completing an extensive renovation.
In neighboring Bossier City, attendees can test their luck at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, which offers special-event packages for groups. And it’s hard to miss the Louisiana Boardwalk, an 850,000-square-foot outdoor shopping and entertainment center. Groups can also meet at the Villaggio, a 64-acre development with a dedicated banquet and conference venue called the Lakehouse. A few miles north of the city, the new Cash Point has indoor space for up to 200 and outdoor space for up to 300. One of the larger meeting-hotel options is the dual-branded Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton.
About 100 miles east are Monroe and West Monroe, which can serve as a base for regional meetings. Venues include the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum, which has a 50-seat theater and a conference room for up to 80; the renovated Comfort Suites/Monroe, with meeting space for up to 60; and the updated Hilton Garden Inn/West Monroe, with event space for up to 70. The latter is located across the street from the Ike Hamilton Expo Center, whose facilities include a 2,900-seat arena.
Mississippi: Movers & Shakers
Each June, the northern city of Tupelo pays tribute to hometown star Elvis Presley at the Tupelo Elvis Festival, entering its 17th year. Groups visiting other times of the year can head to the Elvis Presley Birthplace Park, which has an event center with 2,500 square feet of space.
Tupelo welcomes a variety of group events each year including the Tupelo Furniture Market, attended by some 30,000 people annually, and the Outlook Symposium, which was held at the BancorpSouth Conference Center, a venue that can host up to 8,000.
Popular attractions include the 120,000-square-foot Tupelo Automobile Museum and the Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo, which both welcome group functions. Twenty miles north, near Baldwyn, the Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield is one of the nation’s best-preserved Civil War sites.
Sixty miles northwest of Tupelo, charming Holly Springs offers meeting facilities, including Rust College’s Beckley Conference Center (which recently welcomed events of the National Association of Social Workers) and the Kirkwood National Golf Club & Cottages, with event space for up to 150. A unique site is Fitch Farms, which has six restored Civil War cabins that can serve as overnight accommodations or meeting areas.
Tunica, in the state’s northwest corner, features more than 6,000 hotel rooms, numerous casinos, golf courses and entertainment options. The Mid-South Convention Center offers more than 45,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 13,000-square-foot ballroom. The Tunica Riverpark & Museum has event space for up to 600, or staff can arrange functions aboard the 400-passenger Tunica Queen riverboat.
Columbus, heralded as the “Center of the South,” served as a muse for the writers Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty. Meeting facilities include the recently renovated Trotter Convention Center, which can host up to 1,600 for meetings or up to 500 for banquets. The 190-acre Plymouth Bluff Center offers 24 guest rooms, an 11,700-square-foot conference building and a lakeside amphitheater for up to 100. A historic alternative is Rosewood Manor, which can host garden receptions.
Jackson, the state capital, offers nearly 5,000 hotel rooms and several large event venues. The Jackson Convention Complex features 330,000 square feet of meeting space and an 82-seat theater. Smaller choices include the Mississippi Trade Mart, with 67,140 square feet of space; the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, with a 200-seat theater; the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame & Museum, with a 2,235-square-foot conference center and a smaller mezzanine space; the Mississippi Museum of Art, with event space for up to 600; and the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum, which can host up to 400. The renovated Old Capitol Museum offers three event rooms, the largest of which can seat up to 156. Groups who have held meetings in Jackson recently include the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, the Mississippi Firefighters Association and the Mississippi Minority Business Alliance.
Directly west of Jackson is Vicksburg, situated along the banks of the Mississippi River. The Vicksburg Convention Center and the Vicksburg Auditorium offer space for up to 2,400 and 1,350, respectively. The Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation oversees historic spaces downtown that can be used for events, and the Old Court House Museum welcomes group events of 10 or more.
East of Jackson, in Meridian, the Mississippi State University Riley Center has 30,000 square feet of space, a fully restored theater that can seat up to 950 and a 200-seat studio theater. A few blocks away, the Soulé Steam Feed Works can host groups of up to 400.
To the south, Hattiesburg is home to the University of Southern Mississippi, where the 53,000-square-foot Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development & Entrepreneurship is available for events. Another popular choice is the Lake Terrace Convention Center, which has 68,550 square feet of space. Two historic sites also welcome groups: the Hattiesburg Depot, with 14,000 square feet of event space, and the 997-seat Saenger Theater.
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Biloxi is a standout destination with its white-sand beaches and professional meeting spaces. The Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center has 400,000 square feet of renovated exhibit and meeting space. Other options include the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, which offers 10 restaurants and a spa; Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home & Presidential Library, with indoor event space for up to 200 and outdoor space for up to 500; and the Biloxi Visitors Center, which has a 67-seat theater.
Fifteen miles east, in Gautier, construction has begun on the Gautier Town Center, a $90 million commercial development that is expected to be transformed into an open-air mall.
Fifty miles west, near the state border, the Infinity Science Center at the NASA Stennis Space Center features 30,000 square feet of gallery space that can be used for special events.
Alabama: Successful Sites in the Heart of the South
In the state’s northern foothills, many groups involved with telecommunications, biotech and software head to Huntsville. For large conventions, the Von Braun Center has more than 170,000 square feet of continuous space, 82,000 square feet of exhibit space and an arena that can seat up to 10,000. The Jackson Center, on the west side of town within Cummings Research Park, offers 13,000 square feet of meeting space.
One of Huntsville’s must-see attractions (and a fantastic venue for events of up to 4,000) is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Other worthy sites include the Huntsville Museum of Art, with function space for up to 350; the Huntsville Botanical Garden, with space for up to 200; and the EarlyWorks Museum Complex, with a half-dozen event spaces, the largest of which can host receptions of up to 1,000. Additionally, the 167-acre Burritt on the Mountain can host up to 250 for a banquet or up to 400 for a reception.
In Tuscaloosa, groups can take advantage of the wide variety of meeting venues at the University of Alabama. On campus, options include the 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, whose two zone lounge areas offer 15,500 and 12,600 square feet of event space; the Coleman Coliseum, which seats up to 15,000; the Bryant Conference Center, which can host up to 1,000; and the 3,800-seat Foster Auditorium. Off-campus choices include downtown’s 7,470-seat Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, the 1,064-seat Bama Theatre and the Historic L & N Station, which welcomes groups of up to 300.
About 60 miles to the northeast is Birmingham, which for years has touted itself as the “Most Affordable City in the South.” In 2014, Forbes ranked it No. 12 on its list of most affordable U.S. cities. Many improvements are setting the city apart. Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is sporting a new modern look and offering free Wi-Fi service. The $70 million Uptown District has become the hub for visiting groups with its proximity to the renamed 18,000-seat Legacy Arena. The convention complex itself—commonly referred to as BJCC—has more than 220,000 square feet of exhibit space, 100,000 square feet of meeting space, a 2,800-seat concert hall and two connected hotels—a LEED-certified Westin and a Sheraton.
Larry Vinson, whose company, Group Management Services, manages several associations, likes what the city can offer visiting groups. “Birmingham is centrally located with so many venues available,” he said. “The new Uptown area gives the BJCC complex the added advantage of having lively nightlife just steps away.” Vinson also likes the Hyatt Regency/Birmingham–the Wynfrey Hotel for its “great service” and its connection to the Riverchase Galleria; and the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Resort for its “stunning” golf course. To the southeast, the Birmingham Marriott, the Cahaba Grand Conference Center and the Hilton/Birmingham-Peremeter Park are within close proximity to the upscale Summit shopping and entertainment center.
Attendees may be interested in visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights District. Its major sites include Kelly Ingram Park and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which has four rooms for events, the largest of which can host up to 300. Also nearby is the Birmingham Museum of Art, which can host events of up to 1,000; the Harbert Center, with space for up to 500; and the 60,000-square-foot McWane Science Center.
The downtown music venue Iron City offers 22,000 square feet of event space, and the WorkPlay has four spaces, the largest of which can host up to 600. A few blocks away is the 19-acre Railroad Park for events of up to 500, and the B&A Warehouse, which can welcome groups as large as 1,500.
On the west side of town, the 750,000-square-foot Birmingham CrossPlex offers classrooms, a 4,000-seat track area and a 5,000-square-foot meeting hall. Just northeast of the city’s international airport, Gabrella Manor has space for up to 300. South of town, in Mountain Brook, the Grand Bohemian Hotel is scheduled to open this summer within the $120 million Lane Parke development; plans include 100 guest rooms and 12,600 square feet of event space. And in Bessemer, Alabama Splash Adventure offers discounted group rates.
About 45 miles southeast of Birmingham, in Sylacauga, Pursell Farms is a meetings destination in itself. The 3,500-acre resort offers accommodations for up to 80 and meeting space for up to 300.
In Montgomery, the state capital, groups can tour the Capitol or the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. Event sites include the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center; the Multiplex at Cramton Bowl, which has more than 90,000 square feet of space; the 7,000-seat Riverwalk Stadium; and the Riverwalk Amphitheater, which can host up to 6,000. Planners can organize an excursion aboard the Harriott II or host an event at Alley Station, which has a rooftop terrace and a ballroom for up to 350. And a few blocks away is the renovated DoubleTree by Hilton/Montgomery Downtown.
In Alabama’s southeast corner, Dothan is known as the “Peanut Capital of the World” and is home to the National Peanut Festival each fall. Golfers know it as the site of Highland Oaks, one of the top golf courses on the Robert Trent Jones Trail. For meetings, the 20,000-square-foot Dothan Convention Center can host groups of up to 400, while the Dothan Opera House has a 590-seat theater and a conference room.
On the Gulf, Mobile is a singular Southern experience for groups. The Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center features 317,000 square feet of space and is connected to the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel Another option is the Mobile Civic Center, which has an arena that can be seat up to of 10,000 and an additional 15 meeting rooms.
Several historic landmarks and attractions can be used as event sites. The battleship USS Alabama offers planners its fantail for functions up to 500 or its War Room for up to 150, and the surrounding Battleship Park welcomes events of up to 1,200. Also in downtown is the Mobile Carnival Museum, which has indoor meeting space for up to 200, and the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, with space for up to 1,500. Southwest of town, in Theodore, the 65-acre Bellingrath Gardens & Home is a historic site for meetings of up to 100. To the east, just across Chacaloochee Bay, groups can convene at the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort. The recreational area offers a 90-seat theater and two event halls, for up to 230 and 150, respectively.
Some 45 miles south is the Orange Beach/Gulf Shores area. Associations gather here year-round to take advantage of white-sand beaches, world-class golf on 10 courses and a scenic national byway. In Gulf Shores, the Erie Meyer Civic Center has 5,400 square feet of space. In Orange Beach, the Orange Beach Event Center at the Wharf offers more than 18,000 square feet of space and is located near a 10,000-seat amphitheater. Nearby, Phoenix West II is a new condominium complex with approximately 10,000 square feet of event space. Another local option is the Kaiser Conference & Business Center, which offers 2,000 square feet of event space. Relaxing retreats can be had at the Perdido Beach Resort, which features renovated guest rooms, or at the Island House Hotel, which can host events of up to 250 people.
Association groups who gather in any of the Gulf Coast states will experience a connection with Southern history. It’s not unusual for attendees to return from Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama with an appreciation of the region’s unique culture within the American fabric.