Tennessee: Natural Wonders, Cultural Gems

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tennessee delivers a great mix for meeting groups

Tennessee is known for the stunning, purple-peaked beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, little hollers (small valleys) with smoke coming from chimneys, and waterfalls filling the land with a thunderous roar and the air with a cooling spray.

The state also has magnificent rivers, from the mighty Mississippi to the downtown charm of the Chattanooga, to the swirling rapids that rafters and kayakers challenge. Southern charm has never gone out of fashion in Tennessee.

It also boasts plenty of natural diversity, from the fog-shrouded peaks of the Smokies in the east to the rolling plains overlooking the Mississippi in the west.

Yet, amid all this natural beauty, Tennessee has a surprising cultural infrastructure…and not just in music.

We tend to associate Nashville with country and western music, Memphis with jazz and blues, and Chattanooga with progressive Southern rock. But there’s so much more to these places.

For example, Nashville has a full-size replica of The Parthenon, originally constructed by the Greeks thousands of years ago. Memphis’ Overton Park Entertainment District features unique retail shops, live theater and creative culinary options. Chattanooga boasts a vibrant, emerging art scene with galleries in repurposed old buildings.

These natural wonders and cultural gems are just some of the many attractions that are luring meeting groups to the state.

chattanooga-kayakersTennessee River, Chattanooga (Chattanooga photos by Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Chattanooga: Natural Beauty & Innovation

Chattanooga is booming with creative young entrepreneurs and new businesses. Its cultural life and culinary scene are flowering.

The city also boasts innovative urban concepts such as a free electric shuttle and a bike share system…along with, locals say, the fastest internet speed in the world.

While these entrepreneurial and cultural gems are new, Chattanooga has always been blessed with natural beauty. The city sits on the Tennessee River, a natural highway for kayakers, canoeists, rafters, runners, bikers and walkers. Spanning the river is the restored old Walnut Street Bridge, now for pedestrians only. Chattanooga is surrounded by mountains, rivers, waterfalls and caves.

Beautifully restored old buildings offer the chance to hold your meetings on historic sites. One of them is the 95-year-old, 1,762-seat Tivoli Theatre, which opened in the silent-movie era and now features a variety of live entertainment. Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, which opened in 1924, provides 3,866 seats. It also includes Walker Theatre, with 801 seats.

chatanooga-convention-centerChattanooga Convention Center

Hunter Museum of American Art showcases a century of great art, along with 14,810 sq. ft. of meeting space in galleries and the Grand Lobby, and on terraces overlooking the river and Walnut Street Bridge.

A new cultural gem is coming in December: Songbirds Guitars, which will have more than 1,700 guitars from all eras. It will host live performances at night, and planners can utilize suites holding up to 25.

Bluff View Art District is a historic neighborhood filled with restaurants and coffeehouses, an art gallery, and leafy plazas and courtyards. The district sits atop stone cliffs dropping precipitously into the Tennessee River, with spectacular views of the city, river and Walnut Street Bridge. The area also features unique meeting spaces.

Chattanooga’s natural gems include the top of Lookout Mountain, where Rock City Gardens has waterfalls that can be accessed via elevator to an underground cavern. Rock City also has 400 species of plants and flowers, stunning views from Lover’s Leap cliff and 3,200 sq. ft. for events.

The nearby Tennessee River Gorge encompasses 27 miles of river and 27,000 acres in the Cumberland Mountains. This is the site of Raccoon Mountain Caverns, among the top cave systems in America, with 6 miles of mapped passageways and more being discovered all the time.

Back in town, new hotels are coming. The Gold Building, a much-loved downtown landmark, will turn into The Westin Chattanooga next August, with 261 guest rooms, 6,800 sq. ft. of meeting space, a sky bar and a high-end Shula’s Steak House. Opening next spring, The Edwin Hotel will be a Southern boutique property in an 1891 building, with 90 guest rooms and 1,650 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Ashley Cates, vice president of communications for Association Partners, an association management company, brought 400 attendees from the Tennessee chapter of the American Institute of Architects to the Chattanooga Convention Center for its state convention Aug. 24–26.

“Chattanooga is a reborn city that’s now a real destination for meeting planners,” Cates says. “We stayed at the Chattanooga Marriott Downtown, and we loved that it’s connected to the convention center. And when the meetings were over, our people really enjoyed the architecture, restaurants, art galleries, riverfront and the fact that great recreational options are right outside your door.”

peabody-memphisThe Peabody Memphis

Memphis: Blues, Barbecues & the Mighty Mississippi

For many years, if you wanted to play or sing the blues, there was only one place you went—Memphis. That’s why Beale Street is one of the most famous streets in America (although you can now also find a hundred other musical styles around the city). For decades, barbecue lovers also have been finding their way to “The Bluff City” overlooking the mighty Mississippi.

Memphis is a unique mix of Southern charm and many other cultures that have passed along its watery highway. It became a city in 1819, and grew into a greenhouse for original music, with iconic places such as Graceland, Sun Studios, Royal Studio, Stax Records and Ardent. From Booker T. & the M.G.’s to Jerry Lee Lewis, Memphis has always danced to its own catchy beat.

Memphis ran into some hard times after the music studios closed in the ’70s and ’80s, but the good times are now rollin’ again. The city is a cultural hot spot and a magnet for entrepreneurs, boasting an extensive network of bike lanes, many streets featuring vivid murals and Shelby Farms, the largest city park in America.


Happily for planners, many of the city’s cultural landmarks have meeting space. Cannon Center for the Performing Arts has 2,100 seats along with smaller meeting rooms, and is attached to the 350,000-square-foot Memphis Cook Convention Center. The new Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education has seating for 361 in the auditorium and some classroom space, and hosts famous performers in the evening. With its stunning glass exterior, it also adds a dash of class to the Memphis architectural scene.

Another Memphis cultural gem is Germantown Performing Arts Center, with seating for 824 and additional spaces such as Black Box for receptions and Delores Kinsolving Patron Lounge for smaller functions. A bonus—when the moon comes out, so do great musical acts here.

Natural beauty abounds in Memphis. Heart of the Park is an innovative re-imagining of the largest lake in Shelby Farms Park and perhaps the greenest place in town. FedEx (a Memphis company) Event Center has 7,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Memphis’ natural side is also on display at Overton Park, with 342 lush-green acres of event space, a zoo, wildlife, a nine-hole golf course, an art museum and Old Forest State Natural Area.

The big news in this city’s convention scene is the upcoming renovation of Memphis Cook Convention Center, which offers 190,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. An extensive interior upgrade will start next April and be completed in December 2018.

The International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials & Treasurers held its annual conference at The Peabody Memphis June 24−July 1, drawing 340 attendees and 55 exhibitors.

“All I heard were very positive remarks about the hotel and the city,” says Brenda Bell, associate planning director. “There are so many cultural attractions in Memphis, so many historic sites and so many great restaurants. And the CVB is extremely professional.”

schermerhorn-symphonySchermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville

Nashville: Music City, USA

When you walk past the honky-tonks along Broadway at night, you’ll hear why Nashville is called “Music City.”

Music was in Nashville’s soul as early as the 1700s, when fiddle tunes greeted new arrivals on the shores of the Cumberland River. In fact, Nashville’s first “celebrity,” frontiersman and congressman Davy Crockett, was known far and wide for his colorful stories and fiddle playing.

In the 1800s, Nashville became nationally prominent for music publishing. It became internationally known shortly after, with the first world tour by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University. In fact, after seeing the Fisk singers perform in 1873, Queen Victoria of England was the first to bestow the title of Music City upon Nashville.

In 1925, a new radio station named WSM launched its broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, and the rest is history. The Opry is still staged live every week. At 91 years old, it’s America’s longest-running radio show, and it’s ignited the careers of hundreds of stars.

Today, Nashville is home to the largest songwriting community in the world, and it’s a hub for pop, rock, bluegrass, Americana, jazz, classical, contemporary Christian, blues and soul music.


Planners can hold their events at one of its cultural shrines, Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, with a main theater seating 776 and a stage seating 60, along with Fort Theater and a boardroom. You can actually book the entire facility, allowing your group to immerse itself in a uniquely American musical tradition.

You can also meet at Grand Ole Opry, with a 4,400-seat main hall, and a stage available for dinners and receptions. If you stay for a performance, you may even have a chance to go backstage and meet the artists.

The city’s most prominent contemporary cultural shrine is Schermerhorn Symphony Center, with a classical exterior and a state-of-the-art interior. It hosts performers ranging from opera performers to Boyz ll Men, is home to the Nashville Symphony and hosts events in venues including the 1,844-seat Concert Hall and the courtyard.

Music City also boasts meeting venues blessed by nature. Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art has a lush natural landscape outside and diverse collections of painting, sculpture and visual art inside, as well as spaces for up to 500.

Nashville offers the opportunity to transport your attendees to the Old South. At Belle Meade Plantation, you can host 300 attendees on an 1853 plantation with an old thoroughbred stud farm, barns, stables, gardens and quiet greenery everywhere you look.

If you’re looking for something a bit more energetic, AdventureWorks Nashville West focuses on outdoor team building, with offerings such as a zipline tour in an old-growth forest and a trekking obstacle course in the trees.


Nashville’s hotels are evolving along with the city. The Westin Nashville opened last month downtown, with a full-service spa, rooftop bar, 453 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. Also downtown, JW Marriott Nashville is scheduled for a July 2018 opening, with 533 guest rooms and 52,294 sq. ft. of meeting space.


Existing hotels are also shining up their offerings. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Nashville Downtown just finished a $12 million upgrade of all guest rooms and public areas.

Michelle W. Jones, CMP, is director of meeting services for the Alexandria, Virginia-based International Parking Institute, a worldwide trade association for the parking industry. In May, she brought 3,000 attendees and 260 exhibitors to Nashville for the IPI 2016 Annual Conference & Expo. The event took place at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Conference Center.

“It’s an extraordinary place, with meeting facilities, canals with boat rides, beautiful gardens and 20 restaurants and nightclubs,” Jones says. “And our people really enjoyed Nashville. We had some great offsite activities, including a baseball game, a golf tournament, the Grand Ole Opry and the Wild Horse Saloon. And the CVB is very professional.”

Great Smoky Mountains: a Natural Playground


The Great Smoky Mountains are shrouded in dense white fog in the early morning and give off a purple haze as the sun begins to rise. By mid-morning, they’re usually bathed in golden light and become one of America’s great natural playgrounds.

The Smokies are home to a 250-year-old mountain culture and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the United States.

It won’t take you long, in this region, to hear the name “Dolly.” Dolly Parton is not only a cultural icon here, but also a savvy businesswoman.

She was the moving force, of course, behind Dollywood. Located in the town of Pigeon Forge, it’s one of America’s unique theme parks, with not only rides and restaurants, but also a look at life in the early Smokies settlements, and a place where nature and wildlife are lovingly preserved. Live music is everywhere, often serving as a springboard for those hoping to carve out a career in Nashville.

Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort offers 299 guest rooms and 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Nearby is Dolly’s Dixie Stampede, a colorful evening show featuring cowboys and cowgirls on horseback and great barbecue.

The city of Gatlinburg (left), a European-style mountain village, has a variety of great meeting hotels, along with fascinating attractions. The Lodge at Buckberry Creek has stunning mountain views, 44 luxuriously furnished guest rooms and meeting rooms holding up to 100.

Gatlinburg also boasts Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, often called the top aquarium in America. Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park provides great team-building opportunities, with rowing, ziplining and the longest swinging bridge in the United States.

Just outside of town is Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, an eight-mile loop with 120 artists’ studios featuring authentic mountain crafts.

Steve Winston is an award-winning writer who has traveled extensively and writes for national and international magazines.

Major Meeting Venues


Chattanooga Choo-Choo

Formerly Terminal Station, built in 1908; a local institution; five restaurants and bars; beautiful Gardens Restaurant; three nightclubs; 251 guest rooms (including 48 Pullman train cars); 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Chattanooga Convention Center

21 meeting rooms; 19,000 sq. ft. of divisible ballroom space; free electric shuttle bus; 185,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Chattanooga Marriott Downtown

Close to the riverfront; connected to Chattanooga Convention Center; fitness center; indoor and outdoor pools; three restaurants and bars; 343 guest rooms; 9,862 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Chattanoogan


The only IACC-certified meeting hotel in Chattanooga; close to museums and galleries, Tennessee Aquarium; three eateries; 197 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Read House Historic Inn & Suites

Opened in 1872; listed on National Register of Historic Places; red-brick exterior, stately interior; award-winning Porter’s Steakhouse; 235 guest rooms; 13,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Great Smoky Mountains

Dollywood’s DreamMoore Resort

Luxury property in Pigeon Fork, near Gatlinburg; 299 guest rooms; theme park features 40 rides, 15 shows; water park; 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Lodge at Buckberry Creek

Rustic, elegant property in Gatlinburg; 44 guest rooms; restaurant provides fine dining using freshest local and seasonal ingredients; meeting space accommodates up to 100 people.


Crowne Plaza Memphis Downtown

Close to convention center and Beale Street; the 230 guest rooms have great skyline views; free Wi-Fi; fitness center; outdoor pool; gift shop; restaurant and lounge; 8,686 sq. ft. of meeting space.

DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Memphis Downtown

Central location, close to attractions and convention center; T.G.I. Friday’s; complimentary Wi-Fi; fitness center; outdoor pool; 280 guest rooms; 8,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hilton Memphis

Striking circular, glass hotel; complimentary shuttle to and from airport; 24-hour business center; fitness center; pool; Rook’s Corner Restaurant, lobby bar; meeting staff; 405 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Memphis Cook Convention Center

Will be starting $60 million renovation in April that will include upgrades to all interior areas, walls, ceilings; due for completion December 2018; 350,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel

Connected by skybridge to Memphis Cook Convention Center; great views of Mississippi River and skyline; Crossroads Tavern and Grille; indoor heated pool; 600 guest rooms; 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Peabody Memphis

A Memphis landmark since 1869; Forbes Four Star, AAA Four Diamond property; six restaurants and bars; afternoon tea; twice-daily parade of ducks; 464 guest rooms; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Westin Memphis Beale Street


Steps from FedEx Forum, Gibson Museum, historic Beale Street; 24-hour business center; in-room spa treatments; fitness studio; Bleu Restaurant & Lounge is local favorite; 203 guest rooms; 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.


Gaylord Opryland Resort & Conference Center


An attraction unto itself; 17 restaurants; nightclubs; acres of lush foliage under a roof; three pools; jogging track; fitness center; 2,882 guest rooms; 757,478 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hilton Nashville Downtown

Next door to Bridgestone Arena, home to the NHL Nashville Predators; four restaurants include The Palm Steakhouse; fitness center; business center; car rental desk; 330 guest rooms; 17,800 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Music City Center

Spectacular convention center; opened in May 2013; flowing, all-glass outside, state-of-the-art technology inside; next to Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; close to hotels, restaurants, live music; 2.1 million sq. ft. of meeting space.

Omni Nashville Hotel

Across from Music City Center; Kitchen Notes restaurant serves Southern cuisine; Mokara Spa; LEED Silver certified; rooftop urban pool deck; 800 guest rooms; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Renaissance Nashville Hotel

Located in downtown business district; convenient to attractions, museums, music venues; 24-hour fitness center; four restaurants and bars, including Starbuck’s; pool; business center; 673 guest rooms; 61,552 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel

Walking distance to Bridgestone Arena and famous honky-tonks; restaurant and lounge; indoor pool; fitness center; modern meeting spaces; 482 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Westin Nashville

Nashville’s newest hotel; opened last month; full-service spa; indoor and outdoor pools; rooftop bar; live entertainment; 24-hour fitness center; three upscale restaurants; 453 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.