A horse drawn carriage ride in historic Charleston
Historic flair and outdoor adventure abound in South Carolina
Between its reputation of having laid-back Southern charm and the fact that its two largest cities, Columbia and Charleston, each have a population of only 130,000, some might think that South Carolina would be a bit, well, sleepy.
But the truth is exactly the opposite. The Palmetto State has great visitor appeal, from stunning natural beauty and sprawling resorts to famous historic sites and more than 300 annual festivals and events.
Being the state capital as well as a funky college town, Columbia has an indie spirit with a colorful arts scene and hopping entertainment district. It is home to a slew of state associations, as well as a strong corporate base anchored by insurance companies and their tech-focused suppliers.
Charleston has such a diverse mix of history and vibrant emerging culture that “attendance figures often go up when meetings come here,” says Suzanne Wallace, director of sales for Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
And don’t forget upstate Greenville—just 100 miles from Charlotte and 145 miles from Atlanta, it’s nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The city has a corporate presence that includes Michelin, BMW, GE and Synnex, while boasting one of the largest exhibit halls in the country.
Even in South Carolina’s major beachfront destinations—Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach—there’s a high level of meeting compatibility thanks to sophisticated hotel and resort offerings and year-round mild weather. Overall, centrally located South Carolina can make a strong case for playing host to just about any meeting or incentive program.
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, Charleston
Boosting its Historical Pedigree
Even in a 350-year-old city with a history and culture that emanates a unique personality, new developments are happening that will result in even more options for meeting groups. For instance, Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, just across the Cooper River, will debut a stand-alone facility for Congressional Medal of Honor Museum in 2018.
The museum is presently located within the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, which can host receptions for more than 1,000 people on its massive flight deck. The new building will have its own indoor and outdoor reception space, with exhibits focused on those who have received the nation’s highest award for military valor.
Historic King Street is a jumping-off point, not only for interesting shops and restaurants, but also for walking tours showcasing antebellum homes and gardens downtown.
In the spring and fall, Preservation Society offers tours of homes that aren’t otherwise open to the public. “We have a wide variety of tour themes,” Wallace says. “They can focus on history, architecture or cuisine to tell the city’s story.” Horse-drawn carriage rides are an old-fashioned attraction that can be used for tours, or as transportation to receptions. “We have five different companies that do it, so it works even for larger groups,” Wallace says.
Alternately, groups can wander the three-block Charleston City Market, where seagrass basket makers work in full view and other artisans sell regionally focused items.
Downtown rooftop spaces, such as Pavilion Bar atop Market Pavilion Hotel and The Watch Rooftop Kitchen and Spirits above Restoration Hotel, can be rented for private events.
A premier special-event venue situated along the riverfront is Lowndes Grove, a 14-acre plantation and live oak grove with a 1786 manor house designated as a National Historic Landmark. American Society of Travel Agents held a reception at this 300-person venue during its 2015 conference.
A less formal event setting is Striped Pig Distillery, which can accommodate 250 guests for beer and wine tastings, plus hors d’oeuvres.
South Carolina Aquarium is an entertaining option for groups of up to 400. Showcasing marine life, from mountain streams to Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, the aquarium has more than 70 tanks and exhibits, plus a huge outdoor deck with panoramic harbor views of Ravenel Bridge and USS Yorktown.
Next to the aquarium is Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square, which features exhibits and artifacts. There is also a ferry terminal. A sunset cruise on the 84-foot schooner Pride sails past USS Yorktown to Castle Pinckney, where the walled city was first established.
The 1,800-seat Gaillard Center is the newest performance venue in town and is available for buyouts. Razed and rebuilt from the ground up, this acoustically perfect performing arts center began hosting symphony, opera and dramatic performances early last year.
Columbia Museum of Art
State Capital & University Town
Between government-related occurrences, state-association business and corporate events, there is lots of activity in Columbia’s hotel and meeting spaces. Being home to University of South Carolina brings a dynamic element to the city.
“Meeting groups who have an alternate-year rotation with us always find new experiences to choose from when they come back,” says Andrea Minsink, director of communication for Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Across the street from Columbia Convention Center, USC Alumni Center opened last year, providing a new meeting facility, as well as an event space that eliminates the need for transportation. The center is run by the alumni association and is open to all groups. It has 60,000 sq. ft. of usable space, including a 10,000-square-foot divisible ballroom that can host 550-person dinners and 900-person receptions. Groups can use USC Alumni Center as a primary meeting space or as overflow space for events at Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, which has 142,500 sq. ft., or at the 222-room Hilton Columbia next door.
USC Alumni Center, the convention center and 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena border the bustling Vista District. It offers dozens of retail shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars set in restored brick buildings.
One venue in the district that is popular with meeting groups is Music Farm Columbia. The two-year-old facility can host 1,200 people for musical acts or corporate events. “We’ve also seen business presentations use the stage, conduct a few breakouts there and end with a lunch or reception,” Minsink says.
Just beyond the Vista District is South Carolina State Museum, a former 19th-century textile mill overlooking a canal into the Congaree River. The largest museum in the Southeast, its exhibits span art, science, technology, natural and cultural history, and it has a planetarium and 4-D theater. Groups can enjoy receptions in an enormous glass atrium with exposed beams that extend from the original brick structure.
Columbia Museum of Art on historic Main Street is another cultural venue that can host up to 1,000 for events. There are chic open spaces of various sizes set between galleries, and custom decor can be easily accommodated.
Just 10 minutes from downtown is the newly renovated Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. The zoo holds 2,000 animals and can host up to 5,000 people for a catered event.
Columbia has dozens of daily flights from major hubs, and shuttle services are available to Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), 93 miles away.
Large Meetings Properties, Abundant Outdoor Fun
Long known as a beach, golf and family destination, Myrtle Beach is gaining notoriety on the meetings front.
“We’re trending lately with meetings from financial and banking firms, hotel-management companies, food companies and supermarket chains. The groups are both regional and national,” says Kim DaRoja, director of sales for Visit Myrtle Beach.
Making it easier for meetings is the fact that Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR) now connects nonstop to 30 cities, and flights are plentiful during shoulder seasons.
Ten minutes from the airport and five blocks from the ocean lies Myrtle Beach Convention Center and the adjacent Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel.
The convention center offers 100,000 sq. ft. of divisible exhibit space to complement the Sheraton’s 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, which includes a ballroom, breakout areas and prefunction space. The indoor walk from the hotel’s elevators to the convention center’s exhibit hall takes under five minutes, DaRoja notes.
Less than 2 miles away is Broadway at the Beach, a 350-acre entertainment, shopping and dining complex with walkways meandering around a lake. It includes 17 restaurants and a live-music theater. Roving receptions and dine-arounds are popular here for meeting groups.
Barefoot Landing dining and entertainment complex is located in North Myrtle Beach on the Intracoastal Waterway and has a House of Blues as its anchor tenant. There’s also Greg Norman Australian Grille, Joe’s Crab Shack, a wine-tasting venue and more than a dozen other restaurants and bars.
“We often have groups buy out the House of Blues for a reception, and then attendees can stroll the boardwalk around the 27-acre lake to the other bars and shops,” DaRoja says.
The most recent development in the area is the opening of Horry Georgetown Culinary Institute, which allows meeting groups to enjoy farm-to-table meals at its 30,000-square-foot facility while learning from master chefs about Lowcountry’s farm and seafood products.
Another major development is the transformation of the former Springmaid Beach Resort into a 385-room Doubletree Resort by Hilton Myrtle Beach Oceanfront with 35,000 sq. ft. of oceanfront meeting space. It is slated for a mid-2017 debut.
Even with many land- and water-based team-building activities available in Myrtle Beach, groups are increasingly interested in community-focused events.
“It gives attendees a better understanding of the destination they visit and makes the conference more memorable,” DaRoja says. “We send planners a list of options and then set things up with the organization they choose to work with.”
Hilton Head Island & Bluffton
The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa
Maintaining an Upscale Profile
The past three years have brought sweeping changes to hotels and meeting space in Bluffton and Hilton Head Island. The Westin Hilton Head Resort with 416 rooms and 340-room Sonesta Resort Hilton Head both underwent $30 million renovations less than three years ago.
The 323-room Omni Hilton Head Resort completed a $17 million update and the 513-room Hilton Head Marriott Resort unveiled a $14 million makeover in early 2015. All four properties are nestled along a beachfront expanse.
On the other side of the island, Sea Pines Resort overlooks the protected waters of Calibogue Sound. Visitors can tour its iconic lighthouse perched on the marina or take a swing on world-famous Harbour Town golf course, overlooking the sound.
According to Jack Reed, director of sales for Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau, Sea Pines spent nearly $100 million last year on building a beach club facility and two large, luxurious clubhouses.
Harbour Town Clubhouse has 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 4,600-square-foot ballroom. Plantation Clubhouse offers more than 23,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, plus a 4,500-square-foot elevated porch with wide views of Heron Point and Ocean golf courses.
Sea Pines Beach Club has nearly 2,000 sq. ft. of event space with 40-foot-high windows, in addition to outdoor decks and covered verandas. Sea Pines Resort offers more than 500 villas and homes and a 60-room luxury inn near Harbour Town Clubhouse.
Naturally, beach and golf activities abound in this year-round warm-weather destination. But there are plenty of other recreational opportunities for groups to enjoy. The island has miles of paved bike trails through nature areas, and several outfitters rent bikes, kayaks and canoes.
Dolphin cruises with boats that accommodate up to 200 passengers are popular among groups. “The smaller boats get up close while the captain explains the island’s rich ecosystem,” Reed says. Nightly sunset cruises with abundant wildlife viewing opportunities tour the tranquil sound.
Hilton Head’s shoulder season—April to May, and September to November—is prime meetings season. Rates are generally more affordable. Winter also offers mild weather and good value for planners.
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) is less than one hour away, and American Airlines offers three daily flights from Charlotte directly to Hilton Head Airport (HHH).
Located on a 20,000-acre plantation, AAA Five Diamond Montage Palmetto Bluff has opened 76 new two-story guest accommodations. In September, it will debut 74 more rooms in a brand-new inn, along with a 13,000-square-foot spa, lobby and lounge with water views. The property has 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, eight dining options and a golf course.
BMW Performance Driving Center, Greenville
Burgeoning Business Hub
Besides its in-town corporate base, Greenville is also near many manufacturing plants and trucking-distribution centers, so corporate-group business is brisk at properties in town.
Its location in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains also gives Greenville natural beauty that complements its convenience and hotel inventory. The result is that the small city is popular among sports associations, religious groups and other regional events and conferences.
“We’re hosting national association events as well as two international conferences this year, some with 600 attendees each,” says Michelle Stoudemire, convention services manager for VisitGreenvilleSC.
With more than 1,000 hotel rooms downtown, plus 400 more scheduled to open over the next year, shuttle buses can get attendees from those hotels to TD Convention Center in less than 10 minutes.
Three miles from downtown, this facility has 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space plus 280,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. There’s also the 15,000-seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena located in the heart of downtown.
Adding to Greenville’s hotel inventory, the 156-unit Embassy Suites Greenville Downtown RiverPlace will open this September. It will overlook the Reedy River with a rooftop bar perfect for receptions of up to 100 people.
Just a few blocks away from Main Street, Peace Center is one of the best downtown event venues. With a 2,100-seat concert hall, a 400-seat theater, an amphitheater, a patrons’ lounge and several indoor and outdoor event spaces, it’s the center of cultural life in upstate South Carolina. Groups can attend musical and theatrical performances, or hold a private event.
More than a dozen new restaurants are opening in Greenville this year, including four new taprooms and three breweries (Fireforge, Birds Fly South and Loose Reed Brewing Company), to add to the growing craft beer scene.
Some engaging team-building activities in the area are: BMW Performance Driving Center, indoor go-kart racing, segway tours and hiking/biking trails with fabulous mountain views.
Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) is 14 miles from downtown and serves 15 major cities, with nearly 100 daily flights. It’s one of many travel hubs in the state that make South Carolina a convenient destination.
Major Meeting Venues
Belmond Charleston Place
Downtown luxury property; just completed a $30 million renovation; rooftop pool; 435 guest rooms and suites; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Charleston Area Convention Center Complex
Includes 77,000-square-foot exhibit hall; 25,000-square-foot ballroom; 7,000-square-foot prefunction foyer; 14,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum; North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
Along the Ashley River, just blocks from downtown; 348 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of event space, with 9,700-square-foot ballroom; rooftop lounge.
Francis Marion Hotel
Historic property, opened in 1924; 233 guest rooms; 19,000 sq. ft. of event space includes three ballrooms with crystal chandeliers.
Kiawah Island Golf Resort
On Atlantic Ocean, 23 miles from Charleston; 255-room luxury hotel plus 448 villas; 35,000 sq. ft. of event space; five golf courses; two pools; spa.
Mills House Wyndham Grand Hotel
Restored 19th-century building; steps from King Street restaurants and shops; 216 guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft. of event space.
Columbia Convention Center
142,000 sq. ft. of meeting, exhibit and prefunction space; across the street from USC Alumni Center, with 60,000 sq. ft. of additional meeting space.
Close to convention center; 300 guest rooms; 28,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 120-room Sheraton Columbia Downtown hotel is adjacent.
DoubleTree by Hilton, Columbia
One of the largest venues in the state capital; 23,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 10,400-square-foot ballroom; 237 guest rooms.
AAA Four Diamond property next to convention center; near restaurant/nightlife district; 222 guest rooms; 6,000 sq. ft. of event space.
Embassy Suites Greenville Golf Resort & Conference Center
10 minutes from downtown; all 268 suites include sofa beds; 23,000 sq. ft. of event space; indoor and outdoor pools; four lighted tennis courts; golf course.
Two miles from downtown and convention center; 256 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of event space.
Hyatt Regency Greenville
AAA Four Diamond property on Main Street downtown; 327 guest rooms; 35,000 sq. ft. of event space; Noma Square features outdoor plaza with waterfalls and permanent stage.
TD Convention Center
Among the country’s largest exhibit halls; 280,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space; 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 30,000-square-foot ballroom; free wireless Internet.
The Westin Poinsett, Greenville
AAA Four Diamond property; restored 1925 building; 200 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft. of event space.
Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa
$14 million makeover finished early 2015; new spa opened in 2014; 513 guest rooms with private balconies; 45,000 sq. ft. of event space includes 17,600-square-foot ballroom; three golf courses.
Omni Hilton Head Resort
Completed $17 million renovation in 2013; 323 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of indoor event space; 10,000 sq. ft. of event space at open-air Shore House; full-service spa.
Sonesta Resort Hilton Head
Completed $30 million renovation in 2013; AAA Four Diamond property; 340 guest rooms; 23,000 sq. ft. of event space.
The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa
$30 million renovation completed in 2014; 412 guest rooms; 30,500 sq. ft. of event space includes 13,200-square-foot ballroom; covered beach pavilion and deck for special events.
Embassy Suites Kingston Plantation
255 rooms in oceanfront tower, plus 500 villas and condos; 70,000 sq. ft. of event space; refurbished in 2013.
Hilton Myrtle Beach Kingston Plantation
Beachfront resort with 385 guest rooms, plus 500 villas and condos; 33,000 sq. ft. of event space; refurbished in 2013.
Marina Inn at Grande Dunes
Set on Intracoastal Waterway; AAA Four Diamond property; 230 rooms and villas; 5,100-square-foot ballroom; 10,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space.
Marriott Resort & Spa at Grande Dunes
On oceanfront at north end of town; golf and tennis facilities; 405 guest rooms; 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, recarpeted in 2016.
Myrtle Beach Convention Center
250,000 sq. ft. of event space; 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall; 17,000-square-foot ballroom can accommodate 1,000 for seated banquet.
Sheraton Myrtle Beach Convention Center Hotel
Connected to Myrtle Beach Convention Center; AAA Four Diamond property; 402 guest rooms; entertainment and seaside activities nearby.