Cities Rising

Meeting Planning

Determining what qualifies a destination as “emerging” requires mastering a science. First, there are the tangibles: economic growth percentages, meeting and tourism infrastructure investments, and the buzz factor—what journalists and the public are raving about in surveys, Top 10 lists and fawning magazine articles. Harder to peg down is the intangible feeling you get when visiting a destination that’s on the move. There are certain places that just feel up-and-coming, their music, food, arts and other scenes humming with activity.

In drafting our list of the top five (in no particular order) emerging destinations across the U.S., we tried to pinpoint the sweet spot where stats, buzz, meeting-scene growth and a sense of excitement intersected. Any number of other destinations could have easily made the cut, but these rising locales stood out.

Raleigh, N.C.

The buzz: Last year, Raleigh was named America’s best all-around city by Bloomberg Businessweek, while Forbes put it at No. 2 on its list of the biggest U.S. boomtowns of the next decade and No. 2 on its list of the top 10 fastest-growing cities in terms of economic and employment growth (its population swelled an incredible 42% between 2000 and 2010). It was also recently named one of the 10 best cities to live in by RelocateAmerica, while its CVB earned a Platinum Choice Award from Smart Meetings.

Tourism and meetings on the move: More than $3 billion has been invested in development projects over the last few years, including the new North Carolina Museum of Art, downtown City Plaza and LEED Silver-certified Raleigh Convention Center; this month, the city will unveil the Nature Research Center, a meeting-friendly, 80,000-square-foot wing addition to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Since 2007, Raleigh has also added 2,010 new hotel rooms to the market. Still to come are a 135-room Hampton Inn & Suites opening in 2013; 126-room Hampton Inn in South Glenwood opening later this year or early 2013; and a 137-suite, LEED-certified Hyatt House Hotel opening in spring 2013. Additionally, a City of Raleigh economic development RFP has been submitted to build a hotel with about 200 rooms on a plot of land adjacent to the Raleigh Convention Center.

Why it rocks: Ryan Smith, director of communications for the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the area has long had “superb infrastructure” in place thanks to the presence of nine colleges and universities in both the city and surrounding Wake County, as well as an array of research and development companies in Research Triangle Park. Yet it’s only in the last few years that the destination has really focused on the meetings market. Notes Smith: “We never had the rooms or large-scale technologically advanced meeting spaces to accommodate groups. With the renaissance of the area, we are becoming a sought-after meeting destination.” Other draws include affordability (there are 40 free attractions in the city) and a burgeoning music and culinary scene, much of which has been influenced by the city’s progressive university communities.

Austin, Texas

   Guest room at The Westin Austin at the Domain, Texas.

The buzz: Forbes has been showing major love to this hip Texas city; not only was it No. 1 on the magazine’s 2011 list of the fastest-growing cities, thanks in part to 37% population growth between 2000 and 2010 and projected economic growth of 6.6% between 2011 and 2013; it was also No. 1 on Forbes’ list of the biggest U.S. boomtowns of the next decade. Other accolades include No. 2 on this year’s TripAdvisor list of the top U.S. destinations on the rise and No. 1 on RelocateAmerica’s 2011 list of the best cities to live in.

Tourism and meetings on the move: Big-name hotels have been rapidly moving into town. Last March, The Westin Austin at the Domain opened with 341 guest rooms and 17,000 sq. ft. of space; in December 2010, the W Austin debuted with 251 rooms and 10,050 sq. ft. Also new is Moody Theater, a 2,700-person venue that hosts groups when not serving as the setting for the renowned Austin City Limits Live indie musical showcase.

In addition to these recent improvements, the city has much on the horizon. A 1,012-room JW Marriott will break ground this June, with a slated completion date of January 2015. The hotel will be the city’s largest property, offering 115,000 sq. ft. of space. Additionally, a 296-room Hyatt Place Downtown hotel will open next spring with as-yet-unspecified meeting space.

Steve Genovesi, senior vice president of sales for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the city enjoys the highest hotel occupancy rates of any Texas city, and notes it’s one of only a few locales in the country to be adding hotel projects at this economic juncture. The reason? “The case has been made that the convention industry is strong and has a bright future.”

Why it rocks: Austin is known as Texas’ enclave of cool. This is due largely, of course, to a popular music scene that has eclipsed even L.A. and New York in its buzz-worthiness. In addition to Austin City Limits Live, the city hosts the annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival and has about 200 live music venues, the most per capita of any city in the nation. There are also cutting-edge restaurants, funky art galleries and museums, a happening nightlife scene and a population rife with hipster-artist types. This youthful, progressive atmosphere is more than fun; it’s a convention draw. “Many associations are finding that Austin fits well within their strategic plans to grow their attendance for young professionals. It’s a perfect marketing tool,” Genovesi says. He’s not understating it when he says simply, “There’s a high curiosity about Austin as well as a pent-up demand for Austin.” That demand shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.


The buzz: Indy was No. 8 on the 2011 Forbes list of fastest-growing cities; particularly impressive is its projected 4.4% economic growth between 2011 and 2013.

The biggest hubbub, though, has been generated by the city’s hosting of the 2012 Super Bowl, which earned raves from tough-to-please pundits and sports-world bigwigs. Influential New York Times sports writer Judy Battista tweeted after the game, “Take a bow, Indy. You were spectacular hosts. Hope the game is back here soon.” New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin began his morning-after victory speech by praising the host city and giving kudos to the general manager at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, where his team stayed. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell not only said the city did a “fantastic” job, but called it a “viable candidate” for a future hosting gig—no mean feat for a relatively small metropolis. These kudos should be a boon for the city’s future meetings business.

Tourism and meetings on the move: About $3.3 billion has been invested in new construction and renovation efforts over the last few years. Last January, the city unveiled significant upgrades to the Indiana Convention Center and Marriott Place Indianapolis, a collection of five Marriott hotels; this included the debut of the JW Marriott Indianapolis, the nation’s largest JW Marriott. At the end of this year, the city will complete the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile urban pathway featuring public art that is expected to have a total economic benefit of more than $800 million, due in part to an anticipated boost in tourism and convention business. The city also invested in sprucing up various neighborhoods in anticipation of the Super Bowl.

Why it rocks: Notwithstanding its painful Colts season, Indy is a sports-lover’s dream. It’s home to the world-famous Indy 500, 10 professional sports teams and two national collegiate teams, and it features such off-site spots as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hall of Fame Museum, NCAA Hall of Champions, and Lucas Oil Stadium—the venue that so impressed the Super Bowl throngs. Beyond this known enticement, the city has been gaining esteem for its cultural scene, thanks largely to such world-class museums as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the nation’s largest museums, and Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. People are also catching on to the fact that it offers a trifecta of Midwestern charms: clean, safe and filled with friendly locals.

Greenville, S.C.

   TD Convention Center, Greenville, S.C.

The buzz: Greenville’s list of accolades in the last couple of years is too lengthy to disclose in full. Here is just a sampling: One of the top 10 downtowns (Forbes), top 15 best cities for young adults (Forbes), top five most fun, affordable cities (Businessweek), top 10 places to live (RelocateAmerica) and top 10 most affordable cities in America (RelocateAmerica).

The city is also a business and employment hub: It is home to more than 75 Fortune 500 companies, including BMW and Michelin North America, and was named one of the 30 best cities for jobs by The Daily Beast last year. And there is more overseas investment in the Greenville metro area, per capita, than in any other region in the U.S.

Tourism and meetings on the move: Several meeting venues in town are new or recently enhanced. Last July, the Carolina First Center reopened as the TD Convention Center following a $22 million renovation. The Peace Center for the Performing Arts is undergoing a $21.5 million face-lift, including expanded lobby space and new designs for the Grand Plaza. And The Children’s Museum of the Upstate, one of the 10 largest children’s museums in the country, opened in the city a few years ago.

The hotel scene is also on a development upswing. The Courtyard by Marriott-Greenville Downtown opened in the spring of 2010 with 135 guest rooms and more than 2,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. This December, Hyatt Regency Greenville, with 328 rooms and 24,000 sq. ft., will wrap up an extensive renovation of its lobby and plaza space.

Why it rocks: All the features of an A-list destination intersect in this attractive Southern locale. The downtown area is walkable and appealing, with independent boutiques, public art, restaurants, museums, galleries, outdoor attractions and parks striking a balance between the natural and the cosmopolitan. The food scene, defined by Southern comfort staples with a sustainable twist, is starting to gain mainstream acclaim (“Shhhh…Greenville, South Carolina, has become a culinary hot spot,” was the headline for a Wine+Dine article last September). The arts scene is stellar, with public art throughout downtown helping it earn Southern Living’s designation as “South Carolina’s City of the Arts.” Add in more than 500 historic sites and a robust business scene, and it’s easy to see why planners are gravitating to the city. The CVB is catering to this market—according to Todd Bertka, CASE, vice president of sales for the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 85% of the CVB’s resources go toward meetings.

“By virtue of the developing corporate and manufacturing sectors in our region, Greenville has evolved and is now emerging as a strategic location to do meetings business,” Bertka says. “With our convenient location, cost-effective meeting facilities and entertainment options, companies from BMW to Michelin to Synnex are seeing the value of conducting their business in our destination. Business opportunities coupled with new experiences are paying dividends to corporate meeting managers who choose Greenville.”

Mesa, Ariz.

   Mesa Arts Center, Arizona.

The buzz: Along with neighboring cities Phoenix and Glendale, Mesa was No. 3 on Forbes’ fastest-growing-cities list last year, thanks in large part to a healthy population growth rate of 29% between 2000 and 2010 and projected 4.3% economic growth rate between 2011 and 2013. According to Smith Travel Research, the Mesa/Chandler area experienced double-digit occupancy growth for 10 consecutive months last year over the previous year—a rarity in these economic times. In the last couple of years, Mesa has also been named one of the top 10 places to live in a Money magazine survey.

Tourism and meetings on the move: The big to-do in town is a planned new Chicago Cubs spring training complex, set for completion in late 2013 (in time for the March, 2014 spring training season). The $84 million venue will not only be an enticing off-site option, but will also freshen up the downtown landscape with new restaurant and retail offerings in an adjacent development called Wrigleyville West. On the hotel scene, the Phoenix Marriott Mesa is undergoing a renovation, including to guest rooms, the lobby and public areas, slated for completion by the end of 2012. Also garnering attention is the regional Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (AZA), served by Spirit and Allegiant airlines; a new aircraft facility is slated to open in 2013, while new service is continually being added, including to Las Vegas and Oakland, Calif., in the last year.

Why it rocks: Mesa’s claims to fame have long been a scenic desert backdrop and renowned arts scene. It’s the closest town in the area to the desert, so attendees can rock-climb, mountain-bike, take a Jeep tour or fly in a helicopter over Southwestern landscapes. They can also enjoy the Mesa Arts Center, a performing and visual arts complex with four performance venues and five art galleries that opened a few years ago. For artistic team building, the center offers the Discovery Series, during which attendees can learn the craft of printmaking, painting and other disciplines under the tutelage of a renowned artist in one of 14 studios.

More recently, Mesa has gained traction for its environmental efforts, particularly its sustainable dining scene. “We’re located near a rural area where all the farming takes place,” Michelle Streeter, director of public relations for the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau, points out. Not only does this mean ingredients are commonly sourced locally, but attendees can easily get out of the boardroom and into nearby farms and orchards for eco-friendly team building.

Of course, there’s also the simple fact that the city is affordable—in the current economic climate, a major driver of tourism and meetings growth. “We’ve always been an affordable destination,” Streeter says. “The city is definitely popular because of the economy.”

Main image: JW Marriott, Indianapolis.

Niche Growth

Several destinations are gaining attention for niche growth. Here are some up-and-comers in the food, beer and art scenes.


The leader in the happening street-food scene is arguably Portland, Ore., where streetside vendors hawk everything from Korean tacos to ham-and-Gouda waffles. A growing ethnic cuisine scene, including a surprisingly large presence of Creole and Cajun restaurants, has recently put Houston on the foodie map; among many accolades, Budget Travel called it one of six “Dining Destinations to Watch” last year. (For more on Houston food, turn to pg. 161.) The culinary scene in Providence, R.I., known for its fresh New England seafood and ethnic diversity, has also been gaining recognition; it landed at No. 3 on Travel + Leisure’s 2011 list of America’s best cities for foodies.


Portland and San Diego, perhaps the most talked-about brew towns in recent years, have transitioned from emerging to established status. Newer kids on the block include Asheville, N.C., which recently three-peated on being named Beer City USA in an annual online poll conducted by microbrew guru Charlie Papazian (see pg. 182 for more on the city); and Oklahoma City, which has won praise for such local outposts as Mustang Brewing Co. Oakland, Calif., has one of the hippest beer scenes around, with breweries popping up in converted warehouses and locally crafted beer on tap at trendy restaurants.


St. Petersburg, Fla., is gaining traction as a leading destination for arts aficionados. The city opened the $36 million Dalí Museum last January to much fanfare and debuted a renowned Dale Chihuly glass-art collection at the Morean Arts Center a couple years ago. In the past few years, San Jose, Calif., has amped up its public art presence downtown and added several tech-influenced art installations to the newly revamped Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC). Alberta, Canada is also on the move. In Edmonton, the Art Gallery of Alberta reopened in 2010 following an $88 million renovation and redesign; that same year, the Banff Centre, a space where artists-in-residence mingle with conference-goers, wrapped up a $100 million capitol-improvement project, including the debut of the Kinnear Centre for Creativity & Innovation.

Emerging After Disaster

Not long ago, the forecast in Nashville, Tenn., was bleak. After suffering a torrential flood in May 2010, the city suffered $1.5 billion in damage, including to the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Gaylord Opryland Resort, Schermerhorn Symphony Center and Opry Mills mall.
Flash-forward to today, and the city is not only back, but better and more vital than ever. All of the damaged venues are back online, and Music City USA is in the midst of a dramatic development boom.

In spring 2013, the city will unveil its expanded Nashville Convention Center, with a 350,000-square-foot exhibit hall and 90,000 sq. ft. of meeting-room space; a few months later, an Omni with 800 rooms and 80,000 sq. ft. will open adjacent to it, while the existing convention center will become a massive medical mart. In 2014, the Country Music Hall of Fame will double in size. Other developments include a new Johnny Cash museum opening this summer and the recent debut of the Hutton Hotel.

These dizzying changes help explain why the city landed at No. 1 on TripAdvisor’s 2012 list of top U.S. destinations on the rise and No. 3 on Forbes’ 2011 list of the biggest U.S. boomtowns of the next decade. The Nashville spirit, it seems, is exceedingly tough to break.