Let history inspire your group
Sponsored by: The Queen Mary
There are countless ballrooms and boardrooms to meet in, and many provide both functionality and panache. But a meeting confined to these spaces, with their monotone walls and neatly lined chairs, is a meeting that lacks the quality planners covet most: inspiration.
Instead, why not consider a reception on a pier overlooking the ship that marked the launch of World War II or a tour of brewpubs dating back to the 1790s or a ride on a mountain-climbing rail line built over a century ago? Why not take your chance at encountering a hotel spirit or walk through a town where reenactors bring colonial times to life?
In historic venues like these, inspiration comes easy. The spaces themselves captivate with their classic beauty, but it’s the stories they impart that truly deepen the experience. Planners and attendees can also feel good knowing their meeting is contributing to critical preservation and education.
So forget the staid boardroom. Check out these unique historic venues from across North America, each offering enriching meeting possibilities, and let inspiration strike.
Living History Museums
Imagine living in a colonial city on the brink of revolution. What would you ask the rebels? What would it be like to walk through the grounds of a plantation maintained by slaves, or to sit in on a government meeting where the seeds of revolt were planted?
In Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living history museum in the country, Revolutionary City invites guests to immerse themselves in a time that changed the course of American history. Some buildings have been in Williamsburg since the 18th century and others reconstructed on the grounds of an original site, but all provide an authentic byway into another era. There are government buildings where public debates over going to war were waged, an armory where weapons that played a crucial role in battle were built, and a historic complex of markets, taverns and churches. Throughout, costumed interpreters tell their stories, giving voice to the times.
Outside Revolutionary City, attendees can explore Historic Jamestowne, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, or peruse exhibits about early mental illness treatments at a public hospital dating back to 1773 (an intriguing option for attendees of a medical meeting). They can also stay over at a variety of onsite historic inns, lodges and houses and meet in spaces that range from a boardroom to a terrace, with a total capacity for up to 1,500 attendees.
At Fort Edmonton Park in Alberta, Canada, local history is brought to life in four areas representing distinct eras. The first, a fur trading fort, is pegged to the year 1846, when locals would trade European goods with native tribes for beaver pelts used in fashionable hats of the time. The grounds include the fort itself, a fur press and a collection of heavy-wood York boats used to transports goods between Europe and Edmonton. The city as it existed in 1885 is revealed on a street that includes blacksmiths, a jewelry store and three hotels. On 1905 Street, there’s a Masonic hall, penny arcade and greenhouse. And 1920 Street attractions encompass a confectionery, airplane hangar and midway. Groups can enjoy exclusive use of one of the areas or all of them for an educational stroll through time. Onsite function space includes the air hangar, which can accommodate up to 600, and the new Capitol Theatre, suitable for up to 250.
Other living history museums to meet at: Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts; Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, Sacramento, Calif.; Genesee Country Village & Museum, Mumford, N.Y.; Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, Fishers, Ind.
The Sagamore Resort, Bolton Landing, New York
Stay in room No. 3327 at the Hotel del Coronado, across the bay from downtown San Diego, and you may feel a chilling breeze when a window isn’t open or see a shadowy figure appear in a long black dress—then disappear as quickly as she came. These occurrences can be attributed to Kate Morgan, a woman who checked into the historic hotel under mysterious circumstances in 1892 and, for reasons never known, took her life while there. Kate’s spirit is just one fascinating vestige of the hotel’s long history, which dates back to 1888.
At the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., the tinkling of piano keys in the ballroom can sometimes be heard when no one is there. Employees believe it’s a performance by the deceased wife of Freelan O. Stanley, co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer and founder of the hotel, as she was a noted pianist. It is one of many strange happenings that are routine at the hotel, which famously inspired Stephen King to pen The Shining after a stay there. The white Georgian-style property, which dates back to 1909, can house meetings in more than 16,000 sq. ft. Of space, and an on-staff paranormal investigator leads group tours through haunted areas. (Interesting fact: The spirits here are often attributed to the property being built over a quarry with a high concentration of limestone, which some believe traps paranormal activity.)
In the heart of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, overlooking Lake George, The Sagamore Resort is a stately landmark that opened in 1883. On its golf course, players have reported the spirit of a young boy playing pranks on them; the apparition is believed to be of a boy who was hit by a car in the 1950s during a stay at the hotel. Groups may also encounter a spook in the property’s 46,000 sq. ft. Of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
Other haunted hotels to meet in: La Fonda on the Plaza, Santa Fe, N.M. (1922); Hotel Chelsea, New York City (1884); Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, California (1927)
USS Missouri, Oahu
One of the nation’s most glamorous ocean liners was built in the throes of the Great Depression, signaling posterity and endurance during a time of national suffering. She transported some of the finest dignitaries and celebrities of the time, from Queen Elizabeth II and King George VI to Errol Flynn and Fred Astaire. When World War II gripped the nation, she became a troopship, transporting thousands of soldiers into battle. Today, she is a docked hotel in Long Beach, Calif. And she, The Queen Mary, is a popular meetings venue, featuring 314 guest rooms And more than 80,000 sq. ft. Of event space in 14 Art Deco salons, as well as the 75,000-square-foot Queen Mary Dome, an adjacent function space.
Another maritime meeting option is the USS Missouri, now in Peal Harbor, Hawaii, on whose deck the Japanese surrendered to end World War II. “To stand in awe of a ship the size of the Missouri with her huge guns is something to behold,” says Tyler K.T. Kruse, spokesperson for the ship.
Attendees are sure to feel moved while listening to a guide recount the vessel’s storied naval past. They can also meet on a 3,000-capacity pier that juts out into the sea and faces the USS Arizona Memorial, built over the sunken hull of the battleship whose bombing on Pearl Harbor prompted the start of the war.
Harking back even further in time—to 1797— Boston’s USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides,” remains a symbol of American wartime victory. Her most stunning victory came during the War of 1812—a defeat of four English warships. Decommissioned in 1855, she continues to host visitors and groups. Combine a tour with a foray to the nearby USS Constitution Museum, where exhibits explore the ship’s history and meeting space includes an outdoor patio for up to 80. Customized private talks, presentations or guided tours can be arranged.
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Other historic ships to meet on: USS Constellation, Baltimore (1797); Intrepid at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, New York (1943)
Before it became the hipster beer-du-jour, Pabst Blue Ribbon was a blue-collar drink of choice and the pride of Milwaukee. The original brewery opened there in 1844 and is certified on the National Register of Historic Places. Although it stopped serving as the production facility for PBR in 1996, it has since been converted into a popular function site, Best Place, featuring indoor and outdoor courtyards and halls that can accommodate up to 300. Historic tours, including a viewing of retro beer commercials, are offered for groups.
Better yet, why not go fully immersive and barhop through history? The Historic Columbus Taverns tour in Ohio allows attendees to do just that; Taylor Ray, spokesperson for Experience Columbus, notes, “The tour gives visitors a chance to see the first taverns of Columbus that date back to the 1790s, exploring historic public houses from The frontier era through Prohibition.”
Other historic breweries to tour or meet at: Schell’s Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minn. (1860); Black Creek Historic Brewery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (re-creation of brewery from the 1800s)
Trains & Train Depots
Exterior of Sunset Station, San Antonio
The Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century poised Alaska for a mining boom—but to make that boom happen, a railway needed to be built. So in 1898, construction began on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, linking Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon. The narrow-gauge 110-mile rail line, which winds its way through two tunnels and along several bridges and trestles, was taken out of service in 1982 due to a flagging mining industry, but has since opened as a tourist attraction. Groups can charter the train and follow a trail between Skagway and Carcross in the Yukon, then roll down for a final stop at a restored 1903 station at Lake Bennett in British Columbia, Canada.
Another way to relive locomotive history is by booking an off-site at a restored train depot.
Showcasing stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings, Sunset Station in San Antonio is an impressive relic from a rail line built in 1902 to connect San Francisco and New Orleans. There are more than 10 indoor and outdoor event spaces available to meet in, with a capacity for up to 2,000 when combined with the surrounding historic district of St. Paul Square.
You can also combine a hotel stay with a historic train experience at Nashville’s Union Station Hotel, a Romanesque-style railway station from 1900 that has been brilliantly converted into a hotel. The station’s atrium-style setting remains, and preserved design details include a giant train schedule behind the front desk. The atrium lobby is among 12,000 sq. ft. Of available event space, and there are 125 guest rooms and 12 deluxe suites.
White Pass & Yukok Route Railroad, Alaska
Other trains and depots for your meeting: Grand Canyon Railway (1908); Lake Louise Railway Station & Restaurant, Alberta, Canada (1910)
Outside staid white-walled meeting rooms, historic venues beckon. Bring your group to one, and dynamic interaction is all but guaranteed.
Online Exclusive: "Historic Zoos and Civic Centers"
Editor Picks: Historic Towns
Four meeting-friendly historic towns Smart Meetings editors recommend:
Lahaina, Maui: This former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and one-time whaling center offers historic ambience in paradise. Its enormous banyan tree is justly beloved; also recommended is a visit to Lahaina Old Prison, built in the 1830s, where you can see a tiny jail cell and peruse a list of criminal offenses from the time, including “seduction” and “violating the Sabbath.” The prison is rimmed by a gorgeous courtyard available for functions.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Experience Olde England without crossing the pond by meeting in this lovely harbor town, which began as a British settlement in 1841 and was named after Queen Victoria. There are narrow cobblestone streets, old-fashioned tea shops and pristine gardens. Don’t miss high tea at The Fairmont Empress, a tradition since 1908.
Fredericksburg, Texas: Developed by German immigrants, Fredericksburg offers a distinct cultural experience in the heart of Texas, about 70 miles outside San Antonio. Facilities include the Admiral Nimitz Museum, devoted to the life of German-Texan and Fredericksburg native Chester W. Nimitz, who served as a five-star fleet admiral during World War II. Here, up to 125 can meet in the Ruff Haus. Fredericksburg also boasts streets lined with German mom-and-pops, a wild seed farm, an herb farm and vineyards.
Hampton, Virginia: Dating back to 1610, this inviting waterfront town is dense with historic attractions, including two significant forts—Fort Wool, whose construction was directed by Robert E. Lee in 1819, and Fort Monroe, completed in 1834 and recognized as the largest stone fort ever built in the U.S.
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Since 1949, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has worked to restore and maintain historic sites. Smart Meetings spoke with Katherine Malone-France, director of outreach, education and support for the trust’s Historic Sites Department, to learn how these preserved venues can be used at events. For more information, go to preservationnation.org.
How does the National Trust for Historic Preservation work to preserve historic sites?
We have a network of 27 historic sites of our own and work actively to preserve them. More broadly, the trust takes direct action to save historic places beyond those sites through general outreach and education programs and attention paid to threatened structures.
What are some of the National Trust Historic Sites that can be used for group functions?
Almost all of our sites have the capability to host meetings and special events, and all of them are beautiful and inspiring places. One thing that makes the trust special is the range of compelling places and incredible experiences you can have—everything from a Gothic Revival mansion overlooking the Hudson River (Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, N.Y.) to one of the oldest residences in Washington, DC (Decatur House on Lafayette Square) to a commercial building on the Erie Canal in Illinois (The Gaylord Building) to a residence in San Antonio filled with an amazing collection of fantastic works of art that cover many countries and centuries and all kinds of stories (Villa Finale).
What value is there in holding a function at a preserved historic site?
You’re contributing to the conservation of a really special place. It can also be a unique shared experience for your team or group in a new environment that can prompt inspiration. Our historic sites are dynamic places that tell a diverse range of stories, and there are all sorts of ways in which those stories could be tied into the theme of your meeting, whether it’s entrepreneurship, overcoming obstacles, breaking barriers, artistry or new thinking in design.
Oldest of the Old
These meeting-friendly venues and sites count themselves among the oldest of their kind on U.S. soil:
–Oldest Restaurant: Union Oyster House, Boston, 1826; up to 300
–Oldest Church Structure: Chapel of San Miguel, Santa Fe, N.M., 1610; can tour as group
–Oldest Museum: The Charleston Museum, South Carolina, 1773; offers group tours
–Oldest (and Only) Palace: Iolani Palace, Honolulu, 1882; up to 4,000