Commencement at Boston University (Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University)
Cities with universities have built-in bonusesSouthern New England is high on higher education as a complement to conventions. In several cities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, there’s a rich diversity of guest-speaker and offsite options connected to higher education. Historic and cultural facilities also enhance the depth and quality of learning, making the meeting more memorable for attendees. “The colleges and universities drive so much group business here, and we have partnered with them more actively in recent years to help incoming events connect with them,” says Patrick Moscaritolo, president and CEO of Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. Connecticut River Valley, between Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, is known as the “Knowledge Corridor.” Colleges in the area include Amherst College, Smith College, Springfield College, Western New England University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Hartford and University of Connecticut. Meeting groups are frequently drawn to cities with major universities because of the added value that local scholars, and historical and cultural attractions provide. You could say it’s a smart choice.
Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, Springfield, MassachusettsIn addition to Harvard University, which celebrates its 380th anniversary this year, Greater Boston boasts many other colleges and universities that deserve their share of the academic spotlight. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is world-renowned for its engineering and mathematical achievements and Tufts University has a magnificent school of medicine. The technology sector and medical meetings are booming in Boston now, according to Moscaritolo. Boston University has an outstanding school of communication and Babson College has an entrepreneurs’ curriculum that lures Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd., to speak there every year. Other institutions in the metro area include Boston College, Northeastern University, Wellesley College and Berklee College of Music. The expansion of Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) and the construction of a new headquarters hotel are on hold as the recently elected state governor re-examines plan details. Moscaritolo remains optimistic that the BCEC project will come to fruition. “Five years from now I see the BCEC large enough to allow us to hold multiple large events there at one time,” Moscaritolo says. “It will give loyal event customers, such as the 26,000-attendee Seafood Expo North America, an opportunity to stay in town every year even as it grows, and give us opportunities to land new citywide business, too.” In the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center has recently undergone significant upgrades to its technology infrastructure as well as its food-service facilities, according to Moscaritolo. Adjacent to Hynes, the Prudential Center, a retail and entertainment complex, will house just the third Eataly in the country by late 2016. It’s a 45,000-square-foot marketplace and restaurant created by chef Mario Batali to educate, entertain and nourish people in authentic Italian style. Recent museum openings and expansions add to Boston’s meeting allure, helping planners deliver a broad learning experience for attendees. Projects of note include Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, the Harvard Art Museums, Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation, and the massive Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Less than 50 miles west of Boston, Worcester can host meetings that leverage the brainpower of Beantown’s colleges and universities. What’s more, the city has several higher-education institutions of its own, including Assumption College, Becker College, Clark University, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester State University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. DCU Center is Worcester’s key entertainment and meeting complex, with a 12,144-square-foot ballroom, 100,310 sq. ft. of exhibit space and an 14,805-seat arena. Springfield, 90 miles west of Boston and less than a 30-minute drive from Hartford’s Bradley International Airport (BDL), features stellar cultural education, with five adjacent museums: two art museums, a science museum, a local history museum and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. (Theodor Seuss Geisel was a Springfield native.) Sports fans will enjoy visiting Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, named after James Naismith, a Springfield native and father of the sport. Large meetings can use MassMutual Center, with its 15,000-square-foot ballroom, 8,500 sq. ft. of breakout space, 40,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and 8,000-seat arena.
Brown University, Providence, Rhode IslandMartha Sheridan, president and CEO of Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, says her region has experienced a solid run the past few years with medical, scientific and engineering groups, partly because of the area’s several institutes of higher education. Brown University, Providence College and University of Rhode Island are frequently contacted by groups looking for speakers who will grab the attention of attendees. Local industries also help draw certain types of meetings. For instance, Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers held its World Maritime Conference at Providence’s Rhode Island Convention Center in November. Providence is home to several related companies and college programs, and is on the shores of huge Narragansett Bay. The Northeast Retail Lumber Association came through in February, with 3,000 attendees and exhibitors, plus lots of large machinery to display. Rhode Island Convention Center offers 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. Omni Providence Hotel is one of the top meeting hotels since it’s connected to the convention center, Dunkin’ Donuts Center and Providence Place Mall. It offers 564 guest rooms and 22,877 sq. ft. of event space. There are 1,700 guest rooms within walking distance of the convention center, making Providence well-suited for industrial niches, Sheridan says. One other meetings niche on the rise is the food-science sector. Johnson & Wales University helps make this a natural fit for Providence, given its world-renowned culinary program. “We had the American Cereal Chemists here in 2015, followed by the American Cheese Society, which consists of the dairy-farm owners, processors and major buyers,” Sheridan says. “And later this year we’ll host the Pangborn Society, which is a food-sensory group. Our name is getting out in the world of food.” Sheridan means that in more ways than one. Providence’s restaurant scene has become so hot that USA Today recently featured several varieties of local cuisine.
Lobster bake, Newport, Rhode Island (photo courtesy of Discover Newport)“It’s become a big differentiator for us among event planners,” she says. “We promote the big-city amenities that go along with our authentic New England charm, and that can be seen most clearly in our culinary establishments.” Providence is within a day’s drive of about one-quarter of the U.S. population. T.F. Green Airport also has advantages. Service was helped tremendously by the American-US Airways merger. With Southwest also a big player, prices are very competitive versus other large cities in the region. A runway expansion is set to open in 2017; at present, Providence is connected to Europe via direct flights through Frankfurt, Germany. Besides its renowned mansion-studded coastline, Newport has plenty of guest room inventory and spaces for small to midsized meetings. Salve Regina University is a key learning center. Tim Walsh, vice president of sales for Discover Newport, notes that corporate meetings with up to 150 attendees often come during the peak summer season, but shoulder seasons and winter are when most associations meet and military reunions tend to occur. The 320-room Newport Marriott just completed a makeover of the entire property. The 208-room Hotel Viking completed a new lobby and restaurant in late March. “We have really bolstered our boutique property offerings that are meetings friendly, with group buyouts happening,” Walsh says. Even during shoulder seasons, planners can use water-based activities to educate and entertain attendees. There are several sailing schools as well as vessels that operate sunset cruises in Newport Harbor, with unique views of opulent mansions. Mansion tours and receptions are popular among groups year-round. The International Tennis Hall of Fame just finished a major refurbishment of various exhibit spaces, as well the public areas around its many courts. Receptions can include a team-building croquet session. A resident pro will teach attendees before some friendly competition. The new Audrain Automobile Museum is next door, boasting a rotating collection of rare, expensive cars from throughout the 20th century. The museum can accommodate 50 people for receptions. One themed event that can’t be missed is a New England lobster bake. “We have so many locations where they do it right by using a wood base with rocks above that,” Walsh says. “They light the wood to heat the rocks, set the food over the rocks and then put a tarp over all of it to cook.” The 257-room Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel & Spa and the 33-unit Castle Hill Inn have such pits, as does historic Fort Adams, which is America’s largest coastal fortress.
Connecticut Science Center, Hartford (photo courtesy of Connecticut Science Center)In Hartford, meeting groups can take advantage of University of Hartford and University of Connecticut for speakers. The city also is a center for financial and insurance companies that are headquartered in Hartford. According to Jeff Musumano, director of sales for Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau, the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities recently committed to the Connecticut Convention Center for 2017 “because the medical community is very strong here, too.” The 10-year-old convention center offers 140,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and 25,000 sq. ft. of dedicated meeting space. Its 110-foot-high glass atrium makes for memorable prefunction space, while long outdoor patios facing the Connecticut River allow attendees to take a scenic break between sessions. Musumano says his value seasons are November and February; December and January are popular with sports groups such as New England Regional Volleyball Association, which takes over the convention center. Attached to the center is the 409-room Hartford Marriott Downtown, with 13,500 sq. ft. of meeting space. There are 1,400 more guest rooms within 1 mile of the center, including the 393-room Hilton Hartford and 350-room Radisson Hotel Hartford. Just west of the convention center is Adriaen’s Landing entertainment district. Its biggest venue is Infinity Bistro and Music Hall, which serves highly rated cuisine and has a performance venue for up to 500 people. Among the outstanding restaurants in this area is Ted’s Montana Grill, owned by Ted Turner. And just a half-mile north is The Society Room of Hartford, a restored bank that evokes the Great Gatsby era. This architectural gem can host receptions for 500 people and gala dinners for 250. For special events with an educational bent, Connecticut Science Center is a popular venue. Just a few blocks north of the convention center, it has river views along with more than 150 exhibits, a 3-D digital theater and a rooftop garden. The entire building or just individual galleries can be rented, so the facility works for groups of any size.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut (photo by Allen Phillips)The castle-like Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which dates to 1844, is the oldest continuously operated public art museum in America. The Wadsworth has strong collections of European Baroque art, French and American Impressionist paintings, Hudson River School landscapes and modernist masterpieces, plus collections of early American furniture and decorative arts. Bradley International Airport (BDL) has recently added direct flights from Los Angeles; Houston; Tampa, Florida; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Washington DC, while Aer Lingus will soon offer direct flights from Ireland. The two largest meeting properties in the Norwich area are Foxwoods Casino Resort (150,000 sq. ft. of event space) and Mohegan Sun (100,000 sq. ft. of event space). These Native American-owned properties offer unique educational experiences for attendees. (See sidebar for info on Mohegan Sun.) The 308,000-square-foot Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center at Foxwoods Casino Resort promotes the understanding of indigenous cultures and societies across the United States and Canada. It has reception spaces for up to 800 attendees and expert speakers are available. The location of these two properties is also ideal for leveraging local brainpower. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is in nearby New London, while University of Connecticut is 35 miles away and University of Hartford is 50 miles away. The 100-room Spa at Norwich Inn is great for smaller meetings, but still gives attendees access to entertainment at the nearby casinos. It has 6,500 sq. ft. of event space. For an offsite learning experience, Mystic is a quaint town on the shores of Long Island Sound just 30 minutes from both casino properties. The area’s whaling and shipbuilding history is captured at the Mystic Seaport complex and Mystic Aquarium.
High-Class DestinationsSouthern New England features a charm that is enhanced by its major universities and college towns. Attendees will be inspired by guest lecturers associated with these famous bastions for higher education as well as by the region’s historic settings. The convenience of getting around Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut benefits business and meetings. It’s where book smarts and smart meetings come together.
Rob Carey is a business journalist and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight, a content marketing firm for the group-business market.