Up-and-Coming Meeting Destinations 2019

Cities like Louisville, Baltimore, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City are expanding their meeting space and adding attractions for groups.

Dubbed the “Gateway to the Rockies,” Aurora offers 300 days of sunshine a year, as well as five golf courses and 97 public parks.

A great way to refresh a recurring meeting is to take it to a new destination. While the following cities might not automatically spring to mind, all are increasingly pushing their way onto planners’ short lists, thanks to shiny new hotels, booming culinary scenes and engaging activities for groups. From 2017 to 2018, these 10 towns all moved up the hot list of Top 50 Meeting Destinations in the U.S. from event-tech giant Cvent. 

Aurora, Colorado

Up 14 places to enter Cvent's list at No. 42

The Centennial State’s third-largest city is ideally situated for business and recreation. Minutes from Denver International Airport, this former military town is home to players in industries such as aerospace, defense, renewable energy, bioscience and health care.

Dubbed the “Gateway to the Rockies,” Aurora shares Denver’s 300 days of sunshine a year, and adds five golf courses and 97 public parks. Groups book horseback riding excursions with 12 Mile Stables or hop on Pedego Electric Bikes for a scenic loop around the Aurora Reservoir.

Sampling local beers also is a sport in Aurora — 15 establishments are brewing in town. Try an apricot blonde ale at Dry Dock or a Milkshake IPA at rocket-themed Launch Pad Brewing. Meanwhile, a historic aviation hangar now serves as Stanley Marketplace, housing 50 local businesses, including Annette, a modern gastropub from rising-star chef Caroline Glover.

Aurora’s largest hotel is the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center, a brand-new 1,501-room resort with nearly 500,000 square feet of convention space, nine restaurants, a spa and a look that trades traditional conference hotel décor for rustic, alpine-cabin style. For smaller groups, the Hyatt Regency Aurora–Denver Conference Center offers 248 rooms, a 24/7 gym, a restaurant and 11,800 square feet of meeting space.

Baltimore, Maryland

Up 3 places to No. 27

A flood of Millennials and a surge of new development have pushed Baltimore into a welcome state of urban renaissance. Across the city, new food halls, chef-driven restaurants, breweries and boutiques are making this historic city an exciting place to revisit.

The Inner Harbor remains Baltimore’s centerpiece, and the primary spot for meetings. The 32-story, 750-room Baltimore Marriott Waterfront offers 80,000 square feet of event space close to the Baltimore Convention Center and its 300,000 square feet of exhibit space, while the elegant 128- room Sagamore Pendry, set in a renovated 1914 building, caters to smaller groups with 5,000 square feet for meetings.

The city’s public markets have been operating continuously since before the Declaration of Independence, with two having recently been resurrected: the 230-year-old Broadway Market in Fells Point and the 1846 Cross Street Market in Federal Hill. For top-notch dining, chef John Shields serves Chesapeake Bay food at Gertrude’s Kitchen at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and James Beard–nominated chef Cindy Wolf offers French cuisine with a low-country influence at Charleston.

Charlotte, North Carolina

Up 1 place to No. 30

While most cities have a downtown core, Charlotte’s is called Uptown, a compact, walkable district anchored by the 550,000-square-foot Charlotte Convention Center, Bank of America Stadium and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where groups can get a rush from racing simulators and pit crew experiences. Getting to Uptown is easy, as it’s just 7 miles from Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Southern comfort food is the hallmark of Mac’s Speed Shop in Charlotte, N.C.
Southern comfort food is the hallmark of Mac’s Speed Shop in Charlotte, N.C.

Across the street from the convention center, the 700-room Westin Hotel offers nearly 50,000 square feet of meeting space; the property’s wellness theme is supported by a 24-hour gym and a restaurant that serves locally inspired cuisine packed with SuperFoodsRx ingredients. The 300-room AC Hotel/Residence Inn and the 200- room Kimpton Tryon Park are evidence of Uptown’s recent development boom. Both feature rooftop bars favored by many locals.

Uptown is packed with 200 restaurants, and one of the best ways to sample the cuisine, and the city’s history, is to find the right guide. The Southern Food Bicycle Tour with Charlotte NC Tours takes riders through historic neighborhoods, stopping for local bites at institutions like Mac’s Speed Shop, the Midnight Diner and the 7th Street Public Market. Other worthy excursions include visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center for rafting and kayaking.

Grapevine, Texas

Up 2 places to No. 21

Sandwiched between Dallas and Forth Worth, Grapevine is a quick trip by car or rail from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the country’s fourth largest.

Turn up the heat at Tolbert’s Restaurant and Chili Parlor in Grapevine, Texas.
Turn up the heat at Tolbert’s Restaurant and Chili Parlor in Grapevine, Texas.

Large groups check in to the newly expanded 2,000-room Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center to enjoy its 10 restaurants, resort pool area, spa and 490,000 square feet of event space. Groups can book sunset sails on Lake Grapevine with Black Watch Sailing or take on 9 miles of hiking and biking trails. Two new properties are in the works, the boutique 120-room Hotel Vin and a 1,021-room waterpark resort being built by Stand Rock Hospitality. Their opening dates have yet to be set.

Texas is the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the U.S., and Grapevine has its own wine trail, while wineries such as Sloan & Williams and Umbra line the town’s historic Main Street. After a tasting, drop into Tolbert’s Restaurant and Chili Parlor for live music and the famous chili, or try Dino’s Steak and Claw House, an old-school establishment in a vintage bank building.

Irving, Texas 

Up 2 places to No. 38

A diverse community with a thriving arts and music scene, Irving benefits from its perch between Dallas and Fort Worth, offering easy access to D/FW Airport and the entire metro area. For groups, the young Las Colinas Entertainment District on the shores of Lake Carolyn encompasses hotels, restaurants and entertainment options such as the Toyota Music Factory. 

Mustangs at Las Colinas by sculptor Robert Glen graces the Williams Square complex in Irving, Texas.
Mustangs at Las Colinas by sculptor Robert Glen graces the Williams Square complex in Irving, Texas.

That area is right next to the 275,000- square-foot Irving Convention Center and its new hotel, the 350-room Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas with 47,000 square feet of meeting space. Also nearby is the new 152-room Texican Court, a luxury take on the motel model that delivers a Southwestern vibe with outdoor fire pits and 3,500 square feet of meeting space.

Stand-up paddle-boarding is an active way to see the lake, but a more relaxing version includes sliding into an Italian gondola for a guided tour of the Mandalay Canals, Irving’s version of Venice. For fans of Texas BBQ, a staple in Irving, try Dickies, around since 1941, or Tommy’s for an authentic experience. Golf-minded groups might want to look into the 431-room Four Seasons Resort and Club, which offers a PGA-caliber Tournament Player’s Course.

Kissimmee, Florida

Up 1 place to No. 26

Kissimmee is close enough to the action of Orlando’s theme parks yet far enough removed to create a secluded, calming atmosphere for meetings. A 30-minute drive from Orlando International Airport, the 1,416-room Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, with the state’s largest in-hotel exhibition hall, offers 400,000 square feet of event space, nine restaurants, a spa, an adults-only pool and a water park. The newly opened 2,200-acre Reunion Resort captures a true resort vibe with 270 one- to three-bedroom villas, three golf courses, a five-acre water park, a spa, tennis courts, a fitness center and six restaurants.

Kissimmee is the gateway to the Everglades, so many group activities revolve around getting outside and experiencing the local waterways and wildlife (namely alligators). Gatorland lets guests zip-line over the creatures or traverse wooden walkways into the depths of an alligator-breeding marsh. Team-building trips with Wild Florida Airboats take groups speeding through the Florida wetlands. Guided eco tours with the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, one of Kissimmee’s most serene spots, wind through a Cypress forest to search for alligators, turtles and water birds.

Louisville, Kentucky

Up 3 places to No. 39

Bourbon and speakeasies rule the scene in Kentucky’s largest city. At the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, group tours are followed by crafted cocktails at its private speakeasy. Angel’s Envy lets guests bottle their own barrel-aged bourbon, while Louisville’s newest distillery, Rabbit Hole, features the Overlook, an event space that hosts up to 120 for a reception with sweeping city and Ohio River views.

Groups can bottle barrel-aged bourbon at Angel’s Envy in Louisville, Ky.
Groups can bottle barrel-aged bourbon at Angel’s Envy in Louisville, Ky.

In trendy NuLu (new Louisville), known for its galleries, boutiques, and lively bar and culinary scene, Hell or Highwater’s Prohibition-era style allows visitors to unwind after a day of meetings.

Louisville’s food offerings feature plenty of BBQ, but you’ll also find fine-dining spots headed by notable chefs. Doc Crow’s caters to groups and the downtown crowd with Southern smokehouse style. In Whisky Row, star-chef Edward Lee’s Milkwood blends Korean and Southern cuisine.

NuLu’s new 156-room Marriott AC welcomes smaller groups with 2,630 square feet of event space. The year-old 600- room Omni Hotel offers 70,000 square feet of meeting space, a marketplace, the Pin + Proof speakeasy and a rooftop bar. The Omni is a block from the Kentucky International Convention Center and its 200,000 square feet of exhibit space; the facility’s $207 million expansion and renovation was completed last August.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Up 3 places to No. 25

Scandinavian culture and a still-vivid industrial past make Minnesota’s most populous city a draw for meetings. Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport is about a three-hour nonstop flight from most major U.S. hubs; the facility also has the lowest number of weather-related delays in the nation.

Groups can kayak around Minneapolis.
Groups can kayak around Minneapolis.

Bordered by the Mississippi River and surrounded by 13 lakes, the city’s compact downtown is walkable at street level or above via the Minneapolis Skyway — the world’s largest contiguous system of enclosed, second-level bridges. Traditional big-brand hotels — such as the newly remodeled 645-room Hyatt Regency, with 100,000 square feet of meeting space and Café Lurcat, a sophisticated spot with a lively bar — cater to large groups. A new crop of midsize properties in reimagined industrial buildings includes the 183-room Canopy by Hilton Minneapolis Mill District, whose loft style is marked by exposed brick walls and beamed ceilings; guests can borrow bikes to explore the Thresher Square neighborhood.

Activities in Minneapolis are driven by the season. During the warmer months, groups can schedule kayaking tours on the Mississippi River with Paddle Bridge, or hop on UffDa Adventures’ Paddle Tap floating pub on Lake Minnetonka. Attendees can embrace their inner lumberjacks by throwing axes and rolling logs at Flanneljax’s.

National Harbor, Maryland

Up 2 places to No. 32

Set on the Potomac River, just a few miles south of Washington, D.C., National Harbor is a 350-acre, mixed-use waterfront destination with a touch of Las Vegas flair. The 2,000-room Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, with its business vibe, is the town's anchor. The property delivers more than 600,000 square feet of meeting space and plenty of restaurants, along with a rooftop lounge, a spa and an indoor pool. The 300-room MGM National Harbor brings gaming to the Potomac, and has a theater with a rotating mix of entertainment, plus nightclubs and a casino floor that's bigger than the White House.

The Capital Wheel takes guests soaring above the Potomac in National Harbor, Md.
The Capital Wheel takes guests soaring above the Potomac in National Harbor, Md.

The campus-like National Harbor downtown also entices visitors with multiple attractions. The Capital Wheel, a 180-foot Ferris wheel with climate-controlled cabins, soars over the Potomac, while movie nights and yoga classes use the river as a backdrop. Fleet Street, the town's entertainment hub, buzzes with bars and restaurants such as Succotash by James Beard Award–nominee Edward Lee. Kayaking and paddle boarding are active options on the river; attendees also can hop a water taxi for a ride across to explore Washington, D.C.'s monuments.

Salt Lake City, Utah

Up 2 places to No. 41

This city’s proximity to the mountains makes it an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts, but it also offers plenty to keep visitors downtown. Despite tricky liquor laws, Salt Lake has cultivated an impressive collection of brewers and distillers. The resurrected Fisher Brewing Co., founded in 1884, serves crafted brews in its taproom and features a rotating cast of local food trucks. Also try the Sugar House and Beehive distilleries for tastings and tours.

The city’s restaurant scene is booming. Lake Effect, next to the 675,000-square-foot Salt Palace Convention Center, features live music, crafted cocktails and a Latin-infused menu.

Hiking trails abound around the 2,100- square-mile perimeter of city’s namesake Great Salt Lake, and it’s possible to sail and kayak out on the water that has a salt content second only to the Dead Sea.

Development around the convention center has brought in new hotels such as the 164-room AC Hotel by Marriott Salt Lake City Downtown, but the five-diamond, 775-room Grand America Hotel still is Salt Lake’s grand dame, offering more than 40,000 square feet of event space and a traditional style marked by Richelieu furniture, Murano-glass chandeliers and plenty of Carrera marble. A yet-to-be-branded convention-center hotel with 700-plus guest rooms and 62,000 square feet of meeting space is being developed on the southeast corner of the Salt Palace, to open in 2022.