By: Jason Hensel
It’s human nature to seek out the new, the unexplored, the lesser-known places in our world. Creative renewal and inspiration often happen in these new places, which draw even more people to them. These four cities are examples of destinations growing in popularity with meeting and event planners. They all have walkable downtowns, charming hospitality and enough individual personality to inspire attendees.
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1. Greenville, South Carolina
One recurring theme in feedback Sherri Martin (MPI Carolinas Chapter) receives from international and domestic business leaders about meetings and events in Greenville is that the city combines a modern and cosmopolitan experience through its restaurants, hotels, entertainment and walkability while maintaining its spirit of charm, warmth and Southern hospitality. “For the thousands of meeting participants Michelin hosts each year in Greenville, once they visit, they are not surprised to learn that it’s one of the highest-ranking and fastest-growing markets in the U.S. for business growth and livability,” says Martin, North American events manager for Michelin.
Michelin holds meetings of all sizes throughout the year in Greenville at a variety of venues. It most recently held a 500-attendee event for its global leadership team. “The ease of bringing in international guests to Greenville was a plus, and the downtown accommodations and walkability to a variety of restaurants and venues allowed business divisions to hold individual dinners for team-building and networking purposes, in addition to the larger meeting at the TD Convention Center during the day,” Martin says.
According to David Montgomery (MPI Carolinas Chapter), Greenville’s downtown is emerging as a culinary hotspot. “Our tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly, 1.5-mile Main Street features more than 110 inventive restaurants, art galleries, theaters, boutiques, craft coffee shops and more,” says Montgomery, vice president of sales for VisitGreenvilleSC. “Steps from Main Street in the heart of downtown, Falls Park on the Reedy River offers an experience where you can walk across the floating Liberty Bridge and enjoy views of 40-foot waterfalls.”
The city represents the best of the South—architecture and gentility—but it also has an interesting international flair, says Emelyn Shabel, ovations architect at Greenville-based Think Up Consulting. “With BMW and Michelin both here, there is a unique European presence that you find in the food, the arts and in the languages spoken on the street,” Shabel says.
For large meetings and events that require a venue such as the TD Convention Center, Martin says it’s important to know that the distance from downtown to the convention center is not a major obstacle thanks to multiple transportation options. “With the growth in the meeting and event industry, a solid group of event support companies has emerged locally to provide quality audiovisual, event staging, content services and additional support on the ground for corporate event teams,” she says. And for groups seeking unique experiences, Greenville is home to eight breweries, with plans for more to open soon.
Not only are we seeing an increase in requests for traditional, hotel-based meetings but we’re also seeing an influx in requests for unique venues and group activities, which include culinary and brewery tours,” Montgomery says.
2. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The world’s only Harley-Davidson Museum and the world’s only moving art museum are in Milwaukee, home to 150 state and county parks and 15 public beaches with access to Lake Michigan. It’s also home to Northwestern Mutual, which hosted its 137th Annual Meeting there in July. “This annual event brings more than 10,000 of our financial professionals and their families from across the country ‘home’ to our company’s headquarters in Milwaukee,” says Sheri Paape (MPI Wisconsin Chapter), events planning consultant for Northwestern Mutual. “Our meeting’s general sessions are hosted at the BMO Harris Bradley Center Monday through Wednesday, and we have a large exhibit hall at the Wisconsin Center throughout the duration of the meeting.”
Hosting its annual meeting in Milwaukee, Paape says, allows home office employees to connect with the organization’s financial professionals. According to Paul Upchurch, president and CEO of Visit Milwaukee, the city has seen a big growth of hotel rooms, and several more projects are in the pipeline. One of those projects is the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center and entertainment district, set to open in 2018.
“The entertainment district is part of the new arena being built for our NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks,” Upchurch says. “That arena is only a block and a half from our convention campus (which in addition to our convention center also includes a theater as well as another arena). So, this will create one large campus experience where the facilities, hotels and entertainment options are all either connected to, or within walking distance of, their meeting.” Paape says there are also several restaurants and bars for attendees to enjoy while they’re in town.
“The city is safe, clean and easy to get around,” she says. “It’s also awesome to be right on Lake Michigan, and meeting attendees can experience our beautiful lakefront. This year, I was the race director for our Roots & Wings Run/Walk, an event we hold every year during our annual meeting. We design our 5K and 10K courses to specifically allow our almost 8,000 runners to take in views of Lake Michigan throughout the entire event.” Milwaukee is also known for its hospitality and friendliness, Upchurch says. Paape agrees. “Milwaukee is a friendly and welcoming city, which makes the meeting experience better for the planner and the attendee,” Paape says. “Southeastern Wisconsin has been our company’s home for more than 160 years, and we enjoy being able to share it with our financial representatives from around the country every year.”
3. Mobile, Alabama
Organizations are attracted to Mobile because of affordability and history. “Historic downtown Mobile is an extremely walkable area, with dozens of restaurants, shops, bars, art galleries, museums and historic districts just steps from the convention center and headquarters hotels,” says Stacy Hamilton, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Mobile. “No Mobilian has ever met a stranger, and our residents and business owners truly appreciate every convention that comes to town.” One of those conventions was the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC), which attracted 4,974 attendees to its four-day event in Mobile in 2014. According to SETC Executive Director Betsey Horth, the city’s diverse meeting spaces were a good selling point for the variety of sessions the conference programs.
“In four days, we have over 350 workshops, four keynotes, commercial and educational exhibits, professional auditions, off-stage interviews, design competitions, undergrad and grad school auditions and interviews, five theater festivals and more,” she says. “It’s not easy for us to find a location where we can walk to everything.” However, in Mobile, Horth says that attendees could walk to the additional theater spaces needed for concurrent productions. “Mobile is a community that appreciates the arts,” she says. “Over 710 children attended our Theatre for Youth Festival. The CVB and hotel support is remarkable. They helped us tap into the cultural aspects of the city, made our planning easy, made sure the city restaurants and bars knew we were coming and provided a shuttle, which increased our dining options.”
Hamilton says that new hotels and dozens of new restaurants have added over the last five years to the overall meetings package the CVB has been able to offer. Both the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel and The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa offer meeting space that supplements the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center, and additional sleeping rooms are within walking distance. “Mobile’s key people know what it is to work together with you to produce the best event possible,” she says. “My staff so appreciates our Mobile partners and their ideas on how we can use their spaces and tap into their culturally rich city and locations.” Horth and SETC had such a great experience that they’re planning to return to Mobile in 2018. “I think you will find a team of professionals who will listen to what your needs are and discern how Mobile might fit them,” she says. “The creative synergy we have with our Mobile partners is remarkable.”
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
The power of Iceland, according to Thorsteinn Örn Gudmundsson (MPI At Large), is in the energetic source of nature, culture and local mindset. “All these elements serve as the perfect backdrop for a memorable and effective event,” says Gudmundsson, managing director of Meet in Reykjavik. “Visitors claim it’s the island’s energy, diversity and authenticity that gives the country an otherworldliness and spiritual inspiration.”
Iceland’s mark on the world over the last several years via arts and entertainment has not gone unnoticed, especially among younger event attendees seeking unique experiences. “Most people have a need to cultivate their curiosity and find moments that take their breath away,” Gudmundsson says. “In a world of distraction and technical overload, we need magical places to fulfill and renew our mind and body with energy. Iceland visitors talk about the special energy they experience and how they connect with their core.”
Business Destinations magazine named Reykjavik the “Best MICE Destination in Europe 2017,” and the MICE market has grown almost 15 percent year over year for the past five years. It’s expected to continue that type of growth in the future. “And the number of annual conferences with more than 1,000 delegates has increased twelvefold since the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre’s opening in 2011,” Gudmundsson said in an interview with Biz Events Asia. The Harpa, which can accommodate up to 3,500 attendees, is a beautiful venue whose impressiveness isn’t lost on planners. “I was absolutely astounded when I arrived in Reykjavik and saw the Harpa,” Jonathan Sandler, executive committee chairman for the 89th Congress of the European Orthodontic Society, says in a testimonial video for Meet in Reykjavik. “I think Reykjavik is the perfect destination for [our] conference. It is such a small and manageable town with this world-class conference center right in the heart of the town.”
While Reykjavik’s strength is its spectacular nature, Gudmundsson says, it can also be a weakness. “Marketing a ‘nature’ destination can be quite challenging,” Gudmundsson told Biz Events Asia. “While individual demand for Iceland is exploding, a wrong perception regarding accessibility, infrastructure and professionalism from a risk-averse MICE planner or decision maker is a real threshold.” A clear message, then, is paramount. “Clarity in message and focus on these key elements was and is crucial to creating a [truer] perception,” he said in the magazine interview. “For example, on accessibility, the number of direct flights to North America is almost double that of Sweden, Norway and Finland combined, due to the Icelandair hub connecting Europe to North America.” Sandler feels that Reykjavik will soon be one of the top 10 international conference destinations. “I think it will be an unrivaled congress destination within the next few years as soon as the rest of the people running international conferences hear about this superb destination,” he says.