Natural Selection

State parks offer affordable and green meeting sites

Group getaway: Lake Guntersville State Park is scenic and affordable. Eric Boehm thought he knew what state parks had to offer: leafy campgrounds, wooden picnic tables and, of course, plenty of outdoor activities. Then, in April of this year, as regional manager and meeting planner for Maryville, Tenn.-based Clayton Homes, he helped organize a conference for a home-mortgage company at Lake Guntersville State Park in Alabama. “Our experience was not at all what I expected,” he says. “I was really blown away.”

What Boehm found was surprisingly high-end accommodations, fully equipped meeting space and resort-style recreation -- at bargain rates to boot.

Following is a sampling of state parks that cater to planners and participants who appreciate a venue that’s offbeat -- yet right on the beaten path.

Lake Guntersville State Park
Guntersville, Ala.
(256) 571-5440, (800) 548-4553
www.guntersvillestatepark.com

“I spend half my life in hotels,” Clayton Homes’ Eric Boehm notes, “and I can definitely say that the rooms at Lake Guntersville were just as good as the Marriotts and Hiltons I’ve stayed at.”

The park offers a variety of accommodations at reasonable rates, including 20 chalets (starting at $125 per night) on a bluff overlooking a 69,000-acre reservoir, 15 lakeside cottages (also from $125), and 112 rooms and suites (from $96) at the sprawling Guntersville State Park Lodge.

In the lodge are eight meeting rooms, most featuring wireless Internet and a full complement of A/V resources, accommodating from 14 to 500 attendees.

Boehm’s group spent two days at the park. On the first day, which was devoted to meetings, “we never left the facility,” says Boehm. “We had everything we needed.” Day two was spent enjoying the park’s recreational amenities, including an 18-hole golf course, a beach complex, fishing and hiking.

Boehm was so impressed with the place that he brought his own event, a sales managers’ meeting that he plans twice a year, to the same location a few months later.

Reel life: Along with well-equipped meeting space, Hickory Knob State Park in McCormick, S.C., offers fishing and kayaking on adjacent J. Strom Thurmond ReservoirHickory Knob State Resort Park
McCormick, S.C.
(864) 391-2450, (800) 491-1764
www.southcarolinaparks.com

Louanne Ainsworth, convention planner and chairperson for this year’s National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association convention, took her group to Hickory Knob State Resort Park this past April and was pleasantly surprised by the site’s meeting facilities, accommodations and the wide range of activities offered, such as tennis, archery and biking, all with the picturesque backdrop of the 70,000-acre J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir on the Savannah River.

The event completely broke with precedent: It was first time the association had opted to meet anywhere other than at a hotel. “In the past, we’ve had our conventions at fairly upscale properties,” says Ainsworth. “But when I learned that last year’s convention budget went over by $5,000, I decided to look around for something more affordable.”

Following an enthusiastic recommendation from a colleague, Ainsworth decided to explore Hickory Knob. “I wasn’t sure how well it would go over,” she recalls, “but the meeting rooms, common areas in the lodge and guest rooms were much nicer than we anticipated.”

During free time, participants enjoyed activities in the spacious convention center area inside the lodge, which was outfitted with TVs, Wi-Fi and pool tables. Outdoors, attendees gladly spent their free time golfing, hiking or fishing on the grounds.

For Ainsworth, one of the most satisfying aspects of holding an event at the park was cost savings. “The price of the rooms was approximately $60 Ñ at least half of what we’ve paid in the past,” she reports. And while maintaining the same modest registration fee, the planning committee still managed to come in about $3,000 under budget. Some of that extra revenue was generated by advertising sales for the convention pamphlet and booths on the day of the event. “But with the money saved on the price of a room,” Ainsworth adds, “attendees could at least use that for gas.”

An added bonus: Complimentary Internet access was installed this year in the park’s four meeting rooms, which can hold from 40 to 200 people. All 70 rooms and 18 cabins are now wired as well.

Wine break: Vines near the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-LakeLodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake
Geneva, Ohio
(866) 806-8066
www.thelodgeatgeneva.com

The 109-room Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, which opened in 2004 on the premises of Geneva State Park, is the newest of the state’s park lodges. Its site is secluded, yet not so remote as to deter an urban crowd.

“We’re just 100 yards from the shores of Lake Erie, and an hour drive from downtown Cleveland,” says Ken Hlavek, the property’s director of sales and marketing. The site also is in the heart of Ohio’s wine country. “About 15 to 20 vineyards are within 20 minutes of us,” notes Hlavek.

The lodge caters to a luxe crowd by offering upscale amenities not typically found at state parks. Take, for example, its glass-enclosed indoor pool and hot tub beneath cathedral ceilings, or the presence of massage therapists on site. Wine tastings for groups of up to 16 people can take place in the intimate Vintage Room.

Accommodations range from standard doubles, which might run $89 per night during the off season, to more luxurious rooms featuring Jacuzzi bathtubs, which can go for $129 during nonpeak months. (Group rates are available for 10 or more.)

Function space includes an 8,500-square-foot conference center with free wireless Internet.

In full bloom: Amicalola Falls State Park and LodgeAmicalola Falls State Park and Lodge
Dawsonville, Ga.
(706) 265-8888, (800) 573-9656
www.amicalolafalls.com

An hour and a half north of Atlanta, in the Chattahoochee National Forest of Dawsonville, Ga., Amicalola Falls State Park offers its stunning 729-foot namesake cascade, within walking distance of a 56-room lodge and conference center.

Like the state’s other six lodging facilities on park grounds, Amicalola is geared specifically for groups, according to Vicky Slack, regional director of sales for Georgia State Park Lodges. Complete meeting packages include meals, breaks, meeting rooms, basic A/V, sleeping rooms, taxes and gratuities. Special services, such as welcome talks led by on-site naturalists, are available for a nominal charge.

Standard rooms rent for $75 to $115, depending on the time of year; in addition, 14 cottages are available, starting at $80 for a one-bedroom.

The conference center features five meeting rooms, the largest of which holds 250 for a reception. The Maple Restaurant, which offers spectacular views of the North Georgia Mountains from its glass-walled dining room, serves meals for up to 150.

The best way to experience the park and the falls is by trekking through the area that forms the southern starting point of the 2,175-mile, Maine-bound Appalachian Trail. Other activities include horseback riding, white-water rafting and a ropes course.