North Carolina: A State of Contrasts

The Omni Grove Park Inn, Asheville

Nothing compares to these unforgettable meeting destinations

When you think of North Carolina, do you think of the sun slowly burning off the early-morning blue fog of the Great Smokies? The exciting technological advances of the Triangle? Or the rolling hills of Piedmont? Do you think of multifaceted cities with growing cultural and foodie scenes? Or historic small towns with “boiled peanuts” and “homemade quilts” signs on front porches? Do you think of the New South or traditional down-home Southern comfort? If you’re a planner, there’s good news. North Carolina is all of the above. Four of the state’s key meeting cities—Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Asheville—have such diverse characteristics that it’s very difficult to confine North Carolina’s meetings and events niche. It’s a state of contrasts, and those differences seemingly fuel thriving destinations, which in turn inspire attendees during conventions, executive retreats and everything in between. Such variety is not lost on the film industry. North Carolina has been ranked among the top 10 U.S. location destinations for film, television and commercial productions for nearly three decades. According to Loren Gold, executive vice president of Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau, meeting planners can take advantage of the state’s rich academic and technology sectors for speakers, sponsors and attendance builders. The state’s marketing phrase proclaims “nothing compares,” and it’s hard to argue, considering its diverse resources.

Charlotte Goes Big Time

us-national-whitewater-center-unforgettable-meetingsU.S. National Whitewater Center, Charlotte

Charlotte is in the major leagues, both literally and figuratively. In addition to the Panthers being NFC champions for the 2015 NFL season, Charlotte also has professional sports franchises in basketball and hockey. With a metropolitan area pushing 2.5 million people, it’s one of the 25 largest in America. It’s a leader in commerce and technology, has booming cultural and foodie scenes, and is a major transportation hub. With a striking glass skyline and a diverse range of venues and options under the sky, it’s also become a favorite of meeting planners. In Uptown Charlotte, which is actually downtown Charlotte, there are 1,700 new hotel rooms either planned or already under construction. The 250-room Embassy Suites Charlotte Uptown will open at the end of this year, with 7,000 sq. ft. of event space and a restaurant. Other 2016 projects include the new 195-room SpringHill Suites Charlotte Uptown with 4,092 sq. ft. An AC Hotel and a Residence Inn are scheduled to be completed at the end of next year. Also on the drawing board is Tryon Place, a 27-story office, retail, hotel and dining development. Holiday Inn Charlotte Airport recently completed a $7 million upgrade of its guest rooms, public spaces and meeting spaces. The 300-room Crowne Plaza Charlotte Executive Park completed a $10 million renovation in 2014.

lynx-light-rail-charlotteLYNX Light Rail, Charlotte

Charlotte’s growth is accompanied by futuristic new ways to get around. The CityLYNX Gold Line Streetcar opened its first 1.5-mile link last summer, and will open its next phase (2.5 miles) in 2019. The LYNX Light Rail Blue Line will reach nearly 19 miles when its expansion project north of Uptown is completed next year. In the headquarters city of NASCAR, you have access to one of the most interesting offsites and team-building opportunities in America. NASCAR Hall of Fame is connected to Charlotte Convention Center via an overhead walkway. There, attendees can wander among interactive exhibits, colorful memorabilia and historic stock cars in a one-of-a-kind backdrop for an event. There’s 40,000 sq. ft. available inside and another 32,000 sq. ft. of event space outside. U.S. National Whitewater Center has the world’s largest man-made recirculating river and serves as an Olympic training facility. The 1,100-acre center is dedicated to promoting wellness through outdoor activities. Groups can enjoy activities including whitewater rafting, ziplines, adventure races and wilderness survival instruction. The conference center can hold 200 people, with outdoor spaces for up to 450. The AllSport Pass is very popular for all-day, multisports access. Liz Bittner, president and CEO of Travel South USA, a marketing alliance of 12 Southern states, brought 425 attendees to Charlotte last November for her organization’s annual showcase. “It’s easily accessible and there’s so much to do once you get there,” Bittner says. “There are world-class attractions like NASCAR, the Levine Museum of the New South and the Mint Museum of Craft and Design. Our attendees felt Charlotte was clean, modern and exciting. And they loved the fact that it’s very walkable.”

Raleigh: Heart of the Triangle

NC-Museum-of-Art-Woman-Sitting-InsideNorth Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Everything’s up to date in Raleigh. In fact, everything’s well ahead of date in Raleigh, as this booming city is the heart of the Research Triangle. With thousands of brilliant minds pushing technological boundaries at North Carolina State University, Duke University and University of North Carolina, Raleigh is a melting pot for ideas. The city also boasts an exciting new wave of young culinary, brewery and spirits artisans. It has an active music scene, with emerging local bands making bigger names for themselves. There are unique shops and boutiques, too, with many offering one-of-a-kind items crafted by local artists. In Raleigh, the locals like to say, science, innovation and education grow from the ground up. Raleigh’s Convention Center Campus, located downtown, is made up of the 500,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, LEED Silver certified Raleigh Convention Center, which opened in 2008; Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, which can accommodate 2,300 in its theater and 4,770 for events; and Red Hat Amphitheater, holding 5,990. Downtown conventions are supported by the 390-room Raleigh Marriott City Center and the 353-room Sheraton Raleigh Hotel. Raleigh is continuing to build toward the future, with a number of projects that will be available for meetings. North Carolina Museum of Art broke ground on its Museum Park expansion project in November. It will be completed this summer and will include bike and walking paths, and native and sensory gardens. The museum has eight event spaces, indoors and out, which can accommodate up to 270. Gregg Museum of Art & Design, coming summer 2017, will be situated in the Chancellor of North Carolina State University’s current residence, built in 1927. There will be spaces available for event rental. The Umstead Hotel and Spa, located in Cary, is the area’s only Forbes Five Star hotel. It completed a $3 million renovation of its 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in September, including advanced A/V equipment and new carpeting. Most rooms boast great views of the three-acre lake and beautiful grounds. The 12-story Holiday Inn Crabtree Valley is completing an $8 million renovation of its 176 guest rooms and exterior. The property has 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. “Raleigh is the perfect destination for planners looking for the best of both worlds,” Gold says. “We have the facilities to host a first-class event, and the energy of a bustling metropolitan destination. The convention center campus offers the newest technology and is surrounded by chef-driven restaurants, live music venues and world-class museums. And we’re affordable and accessible.” Next year, Raleigh will have a brand-new transportation hub. The $80 million Union Station will make getting to the city by train much easier and much more comfortable.

Greensboro: A Big Small Town

greensboro-coliseumGreensboro Coliseum

What, exactly, is a big small town, you ask? Very simple: It’s a town large enough to have the dining, shopping, cultural and meeting amenities of a larger city, but still small enough that it retains a definite hometown charm, along with a big dollop of hospitality. Meeting planners are discovering that Greensboro is such a place, where Southern hospitality isn’t just a cliche, it’s evident everywhere. Kim Parrott, executive assistant at the North Carolina Library Association, is one of those planners. She brought 875 people to Greensboro in October for the association’s Make It Matter meeting. “They absolutely loved the city,” Parrott says. “We met at the Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons, and it was great having the convention center and the hotel under one roof. There’s plenty to do…interesting museums like the civil rights museum [International Civil Rights Center and Museum] and good restaurants. And Greensboro has great offsites, too. We had an endowment dinner at the Blandwood Mansion and a reception at the history museum [Greensboro Historical Museum]. “We had very positive feedback from our attendees,” Parrott says. “And we’ll definitely be back!” Smack-dab in the center of the East Coast, Greensboro is accessible. It boasts the largest hotel/convention center complex between Atlanta and Washington, DC. It offers a pleasant climate, whatever the season. There’s an outstanding collection of golf courses, shopping venues, gourmet restaurants and eclectic eateries, active nightlife, museums, galleries and festivals. Among the amenities for meeting attendees are more than 500 restaurants, 90 miles of walking trails and 40 art galleries. The more than 130 attractions include Haw River State Park, authentic Civil War reenactments, scenic tours of the city and Guilford College Art Gallery. Just because it displays old-fashioned hospitality doesn’t mean Greensboro’s not moving toward the future. Opening this spring is the city’s newest amenity, LeBauer City Park, which will feature fun attractions, live performances, outdoor reading rooms, beautiful gardens and more. Interesting offsites are abundant. One of them is Greensboro Coliseum Complex, with 210,000 sq. ft. for meetings and a 22,000-seat arena. At Greensboro Museum & Edible Schoolyard, children can learn inside and grow food outside, and meeting planners can utilize 37,000 sq. ft. for meetings. There is also an onsite restaurant and lounge, and a half-acre outdoor garden. Greensboro’s now starting to attract somewhat avant-garde meetings that even the most knowledgeable planners might not associate with the city. For example, Greensboro will be hosting the 67th Annual Southeastern Theatre Conference this month, drawing more than 4,000 attendees for the nation’s largest regional theater convention. One of the most popular public events is the annual National Folk Festival. The 76th edition will take place Sept. 9–11 in downtown. Last year, the festival drew more than 102,000.

Asheville: Capital of the Smokies

Asheville is the funky, artsy, offbeat mountain capital of North Carolina. With a population of 90,000, it boasts cultural and culinary amenities of much bigger cities. Unlike those bigger cities, however, it also features the towering blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, fading into distant horizons seemingly without end. Especially during the spring and summer months, festivals and cultural events are going on virtually nonstop. “In the last five years, Asheville has garnered a number of national accolades for its hotels, craft beer, food and natural beauty,” says Dianna Pierce, vice president of sales for Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We were recently named one of the World’s Best Cities by readers of Travel + Leisure. And we do meetings as well as anyone.” According to Pierce, Asheville has more than 7,000 hotel rooms. “Whether you’re planning a rooftop reception with a new local craft beer or a mountaintop-to-mountaintop zipline adventure, attendees will experience a thriving arts community, outdoor adventures in magnificent settings, and an exciting craft-beer and culinary boom,” she says. Downtown Asheville comes alive at night, with artists’ studios, galleries, funky restaurants and bars, and the most micro-breweries per capita in America. The Asheville Tourists, a minor-league baseball team, provide summertime entertainment. In a place that honors the eclectic, it’s no surprise to find interesting offsites. Biltmore Estate, for example, offers 8,000 acres of opportunities, from America’s largest home and its most-visited winery to beautifully restored historic buildings and secluded spots. Highland Brewing Company, Asheville’s oldest brewery, has expanded its industrial-chic event space to hold up more than 400 people, and the views from the rooftop are memorable. U.S. Cellular Center in downtown has a 7,200-seat arena, an auditorium that holds 2,431 and a banquet hall accommodating 500. In addition to classic old hotels, Asheville boasts Hyatt Place Asheville Downtown, which just opened in February with 140 guest rooms and 2,000 sq. ft. of naturally lit meeting space. Later this year, the city will welcome the AC Hotel, projected to have 132 guest rooms and 2,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Asheville is a very walkable city that is full of surprises. You never know when you might come upon a new studio with a working artist or a funky new wine or craft-beer bar. The city is surrounded by the highest peaks east of the Mississippi and convenient to the Blue Ridge Parkway, considered by many to be America’s most scenic roadway. With mountains that stretch 6,000 feet high, Asheville knows how to elevate meeting and event experiences, just like its larger sister cities throughout the state.

Happy Birthday, Winston-Salem

manor-house-winston-salem Just west of Greensboro, at a key junction of Interstate 40 and 74, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has gone by its hyphenated name since 1913. Here are other facts about this city, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year. Winston-Salem is nicknamed the City of Arts and Innovation. The city created the first arts council in the United States, which served as a model for other cities. Graylyn International Conference Center (pictured) dates to the 1920s, when the estate was built by the former president of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. There are 86 guest rooms and 15 meetings rooms, with space for up to 200. Benton Convention Center features 46,008 sq. ft. of exhibition space and a 19,190-square-foot hall. Among the companies that started in Winston-Salem are Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Piedmont Airlines (which is now US Airways). There are six universities and colleges in town: Salem College, founded in 1772, is the longest continuously running women’s college in the country; Wake Forest University, founded in 1834, is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference; and Winston-Salem State University, founded in 1892, is a historically black college. St. Phillips African Moravian Church, built in 1861, is the oldest standing African-American church in the state. Old Salem Museums & Gardens is a favorite historical attraction. It features the Historic Town of Salem, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) and Gardens at Old Salem, which help visitors to experience what it was like to live and work in the early South. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is unveiling its first North Carolina hotel this year, when The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel opens in May. The 174-room property will take over six floors in the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. It will offer 6,300 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Major Meeting Venues

Asheville

Crowne Plaza Resort Asheville crowne-plaza-asheville One mile from downtown; walking trails; bike trail; two outdoor pools, one indoor; executive golf course; 20 tennis courts; fitness center; zipline; 272 guest rooms; 34,000 sq. ft. of event space. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Asheville–Biltmore Modern hotel close to attractions; fitness center; catering; sundries shop; restaurant; 197 guest rooms; 13 meeting spaces together offer 12,000 sq. ft. of event space. Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville Located in the charming, historic Biltmore Village; boutique hotel with Old World charm; art gallery; 104 guest rooms; 7,269 sq. ft. of event space. Inn on Biltmore Estate The look and feel of a “Golden Age” Tudor-style hotel; beautiful grounds; outdoor pool; The Dining Room specializes in regional cuisine; full-service spa; 210 guest rooms; 4,530 sq. ft. of event space. Renaissance Asheville Hotel Member of Green Hotels Association; restaurant and lounge; fitness center; indoor pool; Top of the Plaza has fantastic views; 273 guest rooms; 22,849 sq. ft. of event space. The Omni Grove Park Inn A longtime Smokey Mountain landmark; seven restaurants; 50,000-square-foot sports complex; championship golf course designed by Donald Ross; underground spa; 513 guest rooms; 55,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Charlotte

Charlotte Convention Center Connected to NASCAR Hall of Fame; has incorporated a multifaceted “green” program; award-winning catering team; center partners with Smart City, leading provider of event technology; 850,000 sq. ft. of event space. NASCAR Hall of Fame Dining and meeting options available, surrounded by NASCAR memorabilia and stock cars; connected to Charlotte Convention Center; can accommodate groups up to 2,400; 72,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space. Sheraton Charlotte Hotel sheraton-charlotte Uptown location; close to dining, shopping and entertainment; full-service restaurant; outdoor and indoor pools; fitness center; hot tub; largest hotel meeting space in Charlotte, with more than 55,000 sq. ft.; 305 guest rooms. The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge Forbes Four Star, AAA Four Diamond rated; beautiful country setting; PGA golf course and golf school; upscale cuisine at Gallery Restaurant; spa; fitness center; tennis; pools; 199 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of event space. The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte LEED Gold certified; world-class spa and wellness center; BLT Steak restaurant; Urban Garden is for special events; 140 guest rooms; 22,514 sq. ft. of event space. The Westin Charlotte A stunning building in the Uptown area; across the street from Charlotte Convention Center; practices sustainability; 700 guest rooms; 40,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Greensboro

Embassy Suites by Hilton Greensboro Airport Every room is a suite; free manager’s cocktail reception; free breakfast; fitness center; pool; 219 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of event space, with conference center and meeting rooms. Grandover Resort & Conference Center Full-service resort in the Allegheny foothills; two golf courses; outdoor and indoor pools; spa; fitness center; three restaurants; 1,500 acres of lush grounds used for meetings; 247 guest rooms; 45,000 sq. ft. of event space. Greensboro-High Point Marriott Airport Modern hotel near airport; Brush Creek Lounge & Grille; fitness center; pool; outdoor meeting space with covered deck; 299 guest rooms; 11,048 sq. ft. of indoors meeting space. Greensboro Marriott Downtown Close to sports venues, attractions and historic sites; fitness center; heated indoor pool; Bistro 40 serves classic American cuisine; business center; 273 guest rooms; 28,517 sq. ft. of event space. Joseph S. Koury Convention Center Located in the Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons; 250,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and exhibit space; connected to Sheraton, with access to all hotel amenities, including six restaurants and lounges, indoor and outdoor pools, golf; 985 guest rooms.

Raleigh

Embassy Suites by Hilton Raleigh Durham Research Triangle Complimentary full breakfast and evening cocktail reception; indoor pool; basketball and tennis courts; Bistro in the Park features contemporary American cuisine; 273 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of event space. Raleigh Convention Center raleigh-convention-center-fireworks Modern glass structure; LEED Silver certification; surrounded by cultural landmarks; state-of-the-art lighting, technology, sound and telecommunications; wide variety of exhibit and meeting spaces; 500,000 sq. ft. of event space. Raleigh Marriott City Center Connected to Raleigh Convention Center; close to Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts; Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen; fitness center; indoor pool; 390 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of event space. Sheraton Raleigh Hotel Steps from Raleigh Convention Center; Jimmy V’s Osteria and Bar; indoor pool and hot tub; dry-cleaning service; catering; 353 guest rooms; more than 18,000 sq. ft. of event space.
Steve Winston is an award-winning travel writer and writes for national and international magazines.