Ringing the Liberty Bell for Pennsylvania, a mecca for meetings
When it comes to contrasts, it’s hard to top the state of Pennsylvania. It has one of America’s 10 largest cities, one of its most dramatically transformed ones, and it is also home to some of America’s prettiest small towns.
Big cities offering first-class facilities for meeting groups include Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown, which is nestled in lovely Lehigh Valley. Many of Pennsylvania’s lesser known areas, such as Hershey, the Pocono Mountains, State College and Blair County, also present attractive and affordable options for planners. When it comes to offsite activities, Pennsylvania boasts exciting theme parks and resort casinos, as well as picturesque mountains where nature reigns supreme.
As one of the original 13 colonies, the Keystone State is steeped in history and still has lost-in-time villages where people get around by horse and buggy. It also features hip urban art-and-culture scenes that are exploring new boundaries. With contrasts like this, it’s no surprise that Pennsylvania is a longtime favorite of meeting planners.
It was no accident that our Founding Fathers chose Philadelphia as the place to sign the Declaration of Independence. Even back then it was a cultural, economic, transportation and political powerhouse. Today it’s America’s fifth-largest city, with a population approaching 1.6 million.
Philadelphia is a city of timeless images: early morning on the Schuylkill River as college crew teams practice their rowing; the statue of Rocky in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; cobblestone streets around historic spots; history that echoes loudly in Independence Hall and at the Liberty Bell; the elegant homes and shops in Rittenhouse Square; and ethnic neighborhoods and great neighborhood eateries.
“We were ranked third on The New York Times’ list of 52 Places To Go in 2015,” says Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And there are good reasons for that. We have world-class restaurants, more than 11,000 hotel rooms, great shopping and one of the country’s premier meeting facilities—Pennsylvania Convention Center. We have a rich cultural life, vibrant, colorful neighborhoods and beautiful rivers. And with daily flights from 130 cities, we’re easily accessible for meeting attendees from all over the world.”
In a city such as this, you’d expect to find some interesting offsites. Philadelphia doesn’t disappoint. Dilworth Park is a new and innovative outdoor space in the heart of Center City. Located on the west side of Philadelphia City Hall, it boasts 20,571 sq. ft. of event space and can hold up to 4,500 attendees. The Terrace, Great Lawn and interactive fountain can be tented and/or split into three sections. Moshulu is the oldest and largest square-rigged vessel in the world, and a very popular event space. Sitting on the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing, it can accommodate 1,000 attendees. Its huge deck offers breathtaking views of the city skyline.
Some of the city’s best restaurants also boast meeting space. Lacroix at the Rittenhouse is a sophisticated restaurant that combines regional flavors with international cuisine. The AAA Four Diamond-winner has a chef’s table in the middle, as well as two private rooms for small groups.
Although Philadelphians cherish their history, when it comes to meetings they are also focused on the future. An $85 million, 199-room Kimpton hotel with 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space will be built alongside picturesque Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with completion slated for 2016 or 2017. The building is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and the new hotel will incorporate its historic elements, including 37 interior murals.
The Study at University City, a 212-room hotel on the campus of Drexel University, is scheduled to open in 2016 with 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The 295-room W Philadelphia and 460-room Element Philadelphia projects are also planned for downtown, with a total of 41,000 total sq. ft. of meeting space between the two neighboring properties, and a yet to be determined opening.
Several key meeting hotels are also undergoing renovations. Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing is beginning extensive renovations of its lobby, Keating’s Bar and Grill, 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and all guest rooms. Completion is targeted for late 2017. Courtyard Philadelphia Downtown wrapped up a $17 million renovation of its 498 guest rooms in 2014, and 10,900 sq. ft. of meeting space will be getting a makeover soon.
For generations Pittsburgh was a central cog in America’s industrial engine, but as the Industrial Age became the Internet Age, it all ended. Working-class jobs became scarce or extinct as factories and mills closed. Clean, middle-class neighborhoods grew shabby and crime increased. This once-vibrant city lost population as residents sought greener grass elsewhere.
The good news is that Pittsburgh has experienced a dramatic turnaround. Once-derelict neighborhoods are now desirable places to live. A coterie of innovative chefs has opened new restaurants. Young techies, lured by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, are streaming into the area. Moribund culture is sprouting again, and the fiercely proud local spirit, once a symbol of this city, has returned full force.
Pittsburgh, with a population of about 306,000 downtown and 2.6 million in the greater metro region, is suddenly hot and consistently appears on “Best Places to Live” and “Best Places to Retire” lists. Proponents cite its culture, universities, quality health care systems, college and professional sports teams, as well as its accessibility to nearby mountains and valleys. The fact that Pittsburgh sits astride three rivers—the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela—makes it not only scenic, but also convenient for great outdoor recreation.
“Pittsburgh makes for an ideal destination for meetings and conventions,” says Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh. “For one thing, we’re within a 90-minute flight for 70 percent of North America’s population. Our compact city footprint puts visitors within easy walking distance of the convention center, hotels and restaurants, and other attractions. Pittsburgh is also one of America’s safest cities. Both Conde Nast Traveler and the Travel Channel named us among the world’s best destinations to visit.”
One measure of Pittsburgh’s new “in” status is Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton property that recently opened in a historic building downtown, with 247 guest rooms and 11,300 sq. ft. of meeting space. Another upscale property that recently opened is Hotel Indigo Pittsburgh East Liberty, which can host small meetings with 112 guest rooms and 2,240 sq. ft. of meeting space. An Embassy Suites, a Hampton Inn & Suites and a Forbes Hotel are all scheduled to open next year.
Allentown is Pennsylvania’s third-largest city, with a population of nearly 120,000. Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley are multifaceted areas filled with pleasant surprises and value propositions for meeting planners.
The Valley has a vibrant cultural life and a calendar filled with all types of fun events, including the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Noteworthy museums include No. 9 Mine and Museum, evoking the region’s coal-mining heritage, and Lehigh County Historical Society, which tells the story of an area where Bethlehem Steel was the driving force. The National Museum of Industrial History, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, will open next year.
Culture? The ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant draws people from all over the region to its theatrical, orchestral and vocal performances. The nonprofit, which stages more than 10 different arts festivals during the year, is dedicated to presenting music, arts, cultural experiences and educational programs that aid in economic development and urban revitalization.
Lehigh Valley is also home to the nationally known Kutztown Folk Festival, now in its 66th year, which features the largest collection of handmade American quilts in the country. Lehigh Valley has a number of attractive and historic main streets and quaint downtowns.
Catasauqua Main Street, Borough of Bangor and Borough of Bath all feature shops overflowing with nostalgic items. The region’s developing foodie culture is well-expressed in eateries such as Fegley’s Allentown Brew Works, a 400-seat restaurant with 8,820 sq. ft. of meeting space where customized event menus often feature locally sourced, sustainable foods.
A sister restaurant, Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works, captures the essence of Bethlehem’s steel industry in a 250-seat brew pub. Planners can host events in either The Annex, a New York-style lounge, or The Fishbowl, a glass-enclosed banquet room that accommodates up to 45 people. Another tasty event option is Blue Grillhouse, which offers stunning decor and seven private dining spaces.
“One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy, and only useful as he contributes his influences for the finer callings in life.” –Milton Hershey
Milton Hershey certainly contributed to the happiness of people in Pennsylvania—and around the world. Noting the number of quality dairy farms in the area, he chose this location to establish the world’s first modern chocolate factory in 1905. He then built an entire town around his factory so the people who worked there would have a pleasant place to raise their families. Eventually, one of America’s greatest amusement parks was built in the little town of Hershey. Today, “The Sweetest Place on Earth” has more than 14,000 residents, and it’s become one of Pennsylvania’s most popular meeting places.
Attendees will run out of time long before they run out of things to do. They can ride one of the 13 roller coasters, and 57 other rides at Hersheypark. They can visit Hershey’s Chocolate World, ZooAmerica, The Hershey Story Museum or The Hershey Trolley Works. They can improve their team-building skills with Hershey Outfitters, which offers an Odyssey Course, paintball and fly fishing excursions.
There are three major hotels in Hershey. The Hotel Hershey, with 276 guest rooms and 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, was built in the elegant style of the 1930s. The Hershey Lodge boasts 665 guest rooms and 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. For those who prefer a more rustic approach, there is Hersheypark Camping Resort with 46 cabins. Guests at any of the resorts can play the three championship golf courses at Hershey Country Club.
Mother Nature has blessed the Poconos, a 2,400-square-mile region encompassing four northeast Pennsylvania counties. Each bend in the winding roads brings a different dramatic view, including rolling mountains, beautiful waterfalls, peaceful woodlands, and 170 miles of rivers offering great rafting, boating, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. These roads will also bring you to 261 miles of hiking and biking trails, many golf courses, nine state parks and two national parks. During the winter, they lead to snowy wonderlands where groups can ski, snowboard, tube and even snowshoe on 163 pristine trails.
The Poconos is characterized by cloud-covered peaks and scenic little towns. The Columns Museum provides a glimpse of the region’s colorful roots. Go to the top of Grey Towers for a view that’s been a “must” photo stop since the 1890s. Walk the town of Milford on the banks of the Delaware River, where you’ll discover great shops and eateries. Hike the trails at Hickory Run State Park or go biking at Lehigh Gorge State Park.
The big news in the area is the July opening of Kalahari Resorts & Conventions, a full-service resort and meeting facility in the town of Pocono Manor. This resort is part of a chain of African-themed hotels. It features 457 guest rooms and 65,000 sq. ft. of world-class convention and meeting space. It boasts Pennsylvania’s largest water park, a family entertainment center with video and skill games, mini-bowling, Spa Kalahari, retail shops, a fitness center and seven eateries with different themes.
Located halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University in State College is an exciting and convenient place to gather. There are two attractive options. The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel has 300 guest rooms and suites, and two highly touted restaurants. Legends is a fun Penn State-themed pub, while The Gardens offers an American menu and has a popular Sunday brunch. It features 58,000 sq. ft. of IACC-certified meeting space for executive retreats and business events of up to 1,500 guests. The facility has video conferencing, interactive learning systems and a multistation computer lab.
The Nittany Lion Inn is a historic, AAA Four Diamond property with 223 rooms and suites that blend Georgian Colonial-style decor with modern conveniences. Its 20,000 sq. ft. of flexible event space includes a ballroom and a skylit atrium. Of particular note are its two restaurants. The Dining Room at the Inn offers fine dining at its best, while Whiskers is a more casual, pub-style eatery with a garden patio.
Altoona, Blair County
Altoona is in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains. Blair County has become a darling of event planners, who can meet in an old hotel tavern or host a Revolutionary War re-enactment at Fort Roberdau. The area has a rich railroad past. Watch the trains travel around Horseshoe Curve, a national historic landmark, or host an event in a railroad-themed museum. Blair County Convention Center has 60,953 total sq. ft. and is connected to Courtyard Altoona.
From the cities to the mountains and everywhere in between, Pennsylvania is truly a state of fascinating contrasts, and a state of great opportunities for meeting planners.
Steve Winston is an award-winning writer who has traveled extensively and writes for national and international magazines.
Discover Lehigh Valley – discoverlehighvalley.com
Discover Philadelphia – discoverphl.com
Explore Altoona – explorealtoona.com
Hershey Entertainment & Resorts – hersheymeetings.com
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions – kalahariresorts.com
Mohegan Sun Pocono – mohegansunpocono.com
Pocono Mountains – 800poconos.com
Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board – valleyforge.org
Visit Penn State – visitpennstate.org
VisitPittsburgh – visitpittsburgh.com
Are You Game?
Pennsylvania is home to two excellent gaming resorts with first-class meeting facilities. is near the site of America’s greatest Revolutionary War victory. Today, the nighttime sounds are not of muskets firing, but of live entertainment and national headliners performing. Seven dining options range from Tony Clark’s signature restaurants, Pacific Prime and Viviano, to Valley Tavern. Bars and lounges offer live piano and country-rock, complete with a mechanical bull. The resort recently extended its nightlife outdoors with the addition of the new Valley Beach Poolside Club.
Valley Forge Casino Resort has invested $1 million to upgrade its 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting and banquet space. In addition to 485 guest rooms, there’s catering, a fully equipped business center and a fitness center.
has 238 guest rooms and a 20,000-square-foot convention center. Amenities include Smart TVs with selection screens displaying in-room dining options, restaurant menus and entertainment offerings. Seven restaurants provide continental to casual dining, and various nightclubs and entertainment venues feature nationally known performers.
The Keystone Grand Ballroom in the convention center offers more than 16,000 sq. ft. of pillarless space, divisible into five rooms. Smaller groups can meet in onsite restaurants. After the meetings, in addition to the nightlife and big-name entertainment, there’s horse racing at Pocono Downs. For a more relaxing experience, visit Spa Sapphire.
Major Meeting Venues
Altoona, Blair County
124 guest rooms; 4,500-square-foot ballroom; two breakout rooms; two restaurants; cocktail lounge; indoor heated pool.
Connected to Blair County Convention Center; close to local attractions; 105 guest rooms; 425-square-foot meeting room; The Bistro restaurant, indoor saline pool; fitness center; free Wi-Fi.
Pennsylvania’s largest convention resort; five dining options; themed meeting rooms; woodsy furniture; stone fireplaces; indoor and outdoor pools; recreation/fitness complex; 665 guest rooms; 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
46 rustic cabins accommodate up to eight guests each; 55 acres of woods; country store; fire pits and picnic tables; outdoor meeting spots; two swimming pools; game rooms; privileges and meeting space at sister resorts.
Elegantly styled Forbes Four Star, AAA Four Diamond property; spa; three restaurants; boutique shopping; themed meeting spaces; 276 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Conference facility offers video conferencing and web casting technology; smoke-free property; IHG Green Engage hotel; 24-hour fitness room; outdoor pool; Samuel Adams Brewhouse; 175 guest rooms, 7,680 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Built in 1922; award-winning restaurants; free Wi-Fi; fitness center; full-service business center; near Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE); 128 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Convenient to Lehigh Valley attractions; full-service Dime restaurant; smoke-free; fitness center; free Wi-Fi; adjacent to PPL Center; walkable to 15 restaurants; 170 guest rooms, 10,290 sq. ft. of meeting space.
AAA Four Diamond casino hotel complex; largest full-service hotel in Lehigh Valley; emphasis on sustainability; three restaurants by Emeril Lagasse; outlet and event center; 302 guest rooms, 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Built in 1926; features 11-foot ceilings; indoor and outdoor pools; fitness center; Nineteen 26 serves casual American food; one block from Pennsylvania Convention Center; 498 guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Historic Georgian building near Pennsylvania Convention Center; fitness center; 24-hour business center; Amuse Restaurant French bistro; 202 guest rooms; 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Located in America’s first skyscraper; indoor pool; business center; full-service spa; Bank & Bourbon restaurant; across the street from Pennsylvania Convention Center; 581 guest rooms; 47,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Award-winning LEED Gold center was built in 1993, expanded in 2011; Grand Hall was an 1892 train shed; emphasis on sustainability; 1,000,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Connected by skywalk to Pennsylvania Convention Center; indoor pool; fitness center; 13 Restaurant specializes in contemporary American cuisine; close to Independence Hall and historical sites; 1,408 guest rooms; 92,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Short walk to museums, Pennsylvania Convention Center; indoor heated pool; fitness center; complimentary weekday social hour; stylish lobby lounge; Starbucks; 757 guest rooms; 58,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Neo-Classical building; award-winning Richel D’Ambra Spa and Salon; 24-hour room service; fitness center; 10 Arts Bistro; 299 guest rooms; 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Opened in 2003; LEED Gold, Platinum certifications; largest ballroom in Pittsburgh at 31,610 sq. ft.; 51 meeting rooms; two 250-seat lecture halls; five exhibit halls; 1.5 million sq. ft. of meeting space.
Walking distance to David L. Lawrence Convention Center; Bigelow Grille complimentary shuttle; 24-hour business and fitness centers; indoor pool; 337 guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
248 playful guest rooms; 11,300 sq. ft. of event space includes Sheffield Ballroom, with original Beaux-Arts ceiling; fitness center.
Has hosted every American president since 1916; three award-winning restaurants; 24-hour fitness center; high-speed Wi-Fi; afternoon tea; 597 guest rooms; 52,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Across the street from NHL’s Consol Energy Center; 24-hour fitness center; complimentary local shuttle; business center; Steelhead Brasserie and Wine Bar offers American fusion; Starbucks; 402 guest rooms; 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Riverfront complex completed $15 million renovation in 2014; dining; shopping; 24-hour fitness club; indoor pool; business center; 399 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Connected to David L. Lawrence Convention Center in the heart of the city; pool; sauna; aerobics; massage services; 24-hour business center; complimentary local shuttle; 616 guest rooms; 42,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Walking distance to MLB’s PNC Park and NFL’s Heinz Field; 3 Rivers Restaurant; 24-hour fitness center; indoor pool; complimentary Wi-Fi and local shuttle; 24-hour business center; 712 guest rooms; 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
New resort opened in May; conference center with advanced technology; two water parks; three dining options; pottery classes, mini golf; 453 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Opened in August; close to NASCAR racing and skiing; fitness center; 24-hour business center; fire pits; indoor pool; free hot breakfast; 109 guest rooms; 1,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Full-service meetings resort opened in July; African-themed; features Pennsylvania’s largest water park; family entertainment center; fitness center; upscale shops; seven restaurants; 457 guest rooms; 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Historic, AAA Four Diamond property; 223 guest rooms and suites that blend Georgian Colonial-style decor with modern conveniences; 20,000 sq. ft. of flexible event space includes a ballroom and a skylit atrium; The Dining Room at the Inn offers fine dining, while Whiskers is a more casual, pub-style eatery with a garden patio.
300 guest rooms and suites; 58,000 sq. ft. of IACC-certified meeting space that can accommodate up to 1,500 guests; Legends is a Penn State-themed pub, while The Gardens offers an Americana menu and a popular Sunday brunch.