Unexpected Cool

Meeting Destinations That Surprise

The New New Mexico

Albuquerque, New Mexico, has long been renowned for its hot-air balloon flights, Southwestern art and Native American jewelry—and the undeniable attractions of its landscape and culture aren’t to be downplayed. But New Mexico’s capital city is not resting on its laurels as it continues to reinvent itself to attract forward-thinking events such as TechCon North America 2016.

Groups that meet in Albuquerque will likely see at least a few attendees spending their free time tracking down “Breaking Bad” filming locations or seeking out hard-to-find vinyl at Nob Hill Music. But a real attraction for executive groups is just outside of downtown at the 20-room Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. The property has a long and well-documented story (starting with the Anasazi, who lived in this area back in the 14th century), but today its mix of heritage and high-tech facilities make it a fine figurehead for 21st-century New Mexico.

Peacocks roam the rural grounds and the scent of its lavender plants wafts through the air. Event space can host up to 250 and, for those who like to explore, downtown’s just a short hop away. It’s a modern farmland fantasy for board retreats.

a Focus on Wining & Dining

Meetings with taste take place in Portland, Maine: Recent guests have included Retail Confectioners International and the International Foodservice Editorial Council. How does this mid-sized destination attract global groups whose members really know what they’re after? With a first-rate dining scene, of course. “The IFEC is an association of writers and editors for food service and hospitality magazines, so the number and quality of the restaurants (as well as agriculture and ocean harvests) were important for us,” said Carol Lally, its executive director. “In Portland, we visited lots of great spots. It’s very walkable and picturesque and has its own unique vibe.”

One of the group’s “food adventures” incorporated a well-known specialty: lobster. “Kombucha, Kelp & Lobster With a Sweet Reward” included visits to local businesses that make healthy living being a top priority, such as Urban Farm Fermentory, which produces cider, mead and kombucha; and Ready Seafood, a family-owned, state-of-the-art lobster packer and shipper. Another tour, titled “Lamb, Cheese, Greens & Booze,” had attendees visit a sheep ranch, creamery, hydroponic greenhouse and a distillery, all producers of farmstead and artisanal products indigenous to the Portland area.

One perpetual mission facing associations is attracting the next generation of members. For many organizations, drawing in millennials is necessary but can seem challenging. Picking the right destination and venue to woo this demographic to events is a good start. The cool factor is undeniably going to help your efforts. But don’t feel like you have to host your event in Los Angeles or New York City; plenty of emerging cities around the nation have group gathering spots that are hip hubs with their own unique options.

The Saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona, is not your grandfather’s meeting hotel. Its hot pink and bright orange walls, not to mention the dozens of sunshine-yellow lounge chairs flanking the pool, attract a vibrant crowd. Amid its relaxed atmosphere, some 10,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space and top-notch technology throughout make it a fun and functional place to get down to business and network.

Neighboring Phoenix also knows how to show off its regional assets to first-time and returning groups alike. At Papago Park, the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden is one of the hottest and most picturesque places for special get-togethers of up to 500, where DJs and bands can be brought in for parties among the cacti. The American Planning Association recently held an elegant dinner at the Desert Botanical Garden, and the Western Museums Association has scheduled an evening event at the garden this fall. Downtown Phoenix boasts an increasing array of social attractions, like the cocktail bar Bitter & Twisted, which has pulled off perhaps the most ironic bar location of all time: a historic building that formerly served as Arizona’s prohibition headquarters. It welcomes private group events. A more speakeasy-style spot is the new Melinda’s Alley in the basement of the Renaissance/Phoenix Downtown, which serves first-class craft cocktails; to find it, head to Central Avenue and keep your eyes peeled for the red light bulb.

This sort of fresh thinking for group gatherings is popping up all over the nation. In San Antonio, the flourishing Pearl District is the place to be and the new, 146-room Hotel Emma is the place to stay and meet. Its 19th-century building was once home to the Pearl Brewing Company, whose owner, Emma Koehler, managed to keep her entire workforce on the payroll throughout prohibition. Today the hotel offers more than 6,000 square feet of indoor event space and 1,500 square feet of outdoor space. Vintage accents give the property its style, but there’s up-to-the-minute event technology on hand as well. Brewing is no longer just a relic of the past in the Pearl District, either: Visit the new restaurant and small-batch brewery Southerleigh for decadent brunches and interesting ales.

Groups that have visited San Antonio recently include the Society for Protective Coatings, the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States and the American Football Coaches Association. “Our membership loves to attend the convention when it’s in San Antonio,” said Janet Robertson, director of conferences and events for the coaches association. “It is a great walkable city, with plenty of restaurants and shopping, and the weather is fabulous!” Kate Jurik, event manager for the Society for Protective Coatings, also likes the city for her group. “Attendees have all of the conveniences and experiences they could want within walking distance, and the rich history of San Antonio is a bonus,” she said.

Grand Rapids, Michigan’s proud “Beer City, USA,” is another great place to grab a cool drink and get millennials to mingle. There are more than 40 breweries on its Beer City Ale Trail, and planners can make an excursion of it for attendees with the help of the Beer City Runner (nicknamed the “Hoptimus Prime”), a shuttle that loops between downtown drinking dens and can seat up to 15 people. After eight brewery stamps in their Beer City Passports, attendees will receive a “Brewsader” t-shirt.

Meeting spaces are also abundant and include the 240,000-square-foot DeVos Place, set along the Grand River. The convention venue is scheduled to host the 2017 annual convention and exposition of the Association of Water Technologies and in the past has welcomed the Fraternal Order of Eagles, whose convention director, Steve Tolman, was pleasantly surprised. “This city is a hidden gem,” he said. “I was totally impressed by what I saw and experienced—so much so that I immediately scheduled a board meeting there. Grand Rapids is a fun city, with friendly people who want to do business and build lasting relationships.”

That last statement is one most groups would agree is what seals the deal when it comes to attending an association function. Fun cities and meeting spots have a way of bringing out the best in delegates of all ages—after all, millennials aren’t the only ones who want to enjoy themselves.