While major American cities such as Orlando, Las Vegas and Chicago have a comfortable lock on their status as prime meetings locations, a number of second- and third-tier destinations are trying to capture some of this lucrative market.
Generally less expensive than their first-tier counterparts, such cities have unique settings that can give planners a fresh perspective on their agendas — and provide attendees with new activities and expanded cultural awareness. Here are 10 lesser-known cities that we consider well worth consideration. Each has all the infrastructure needed for meetings — not to mention a full roster of downtime delights — that any planner or attendee could ask for.
Nestled along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville is halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., and runs alongside the 32-acre Falls Park on the Reedy River — a nature haven complete with a 40-foot waterfall and a floating pedestrian bridge. With 1,000 hotel rooms downtown and more than 9,000 in the surrounding county, there's room for groups large and small.
The Greenville Convention Center (the city's largest venue) has an expansive 280,000 square feet of exhibit space, 60,000 square feet of breakout rooms and a 30,000-square-foot ballroom. For adventure-seeking and team-building groups, local attractions include the BMW Performance Center driving school and Fluor Field at the West End, home of the Greenville Drive minor- league baseball team. The nearby mountains are filled with opportunities to go zip-lining, kayaking and horseback- riding among the waterfalls.
Big-city amenities mixed with sophisticated small-town charm are Sarasota’s draws for meetings, whether you’re looking for beachfront, bayfront, urban or suburban accommodations. The 266-room Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, is the largest property in town, with more than 60,000 square feet of combined indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 12,000-square-foot ballroom.
Round out your group’s trip to this Florida hot spot with some golf at top area courses such as the 18-hole Arthur Hills-designed layout at the Stoneybrook Golf and Country Club, a kayak tour through the mangrove tunnels on Lido Key or a comedy show at McCurdy’s Theatre. Or plan an excursion to nearby Longboat Key to revel in a picturesque hide away rich with wildlife and options to relax.
Shaped by the Yellowstone River and surrounded by sand stonerimrocks, Billings is Montana’s under-the-radar jackpot of a destination. The city has many dedicated meetings facilities, found everywhere from hotels to college campuses, restaurants and theaters. The largest hotel, the 316-room Radisson Billings, is home to 50,000 square feet of meeting space. Billings also offers excellent shopping, award-winning dining, Montana’s only walkable brewery district and a variety of cultural attractions.
When the conference is over, hop on a wagon ride through the rolling Montana plains via outfits such as Total Transportation, or try some pancetta- wrapped prawns at Montana Sky. To work off the calories, steer the group onto one of Billings’ scenic bike paths.
LITTLE ROCK, ARK.
In the center of the state, the Arkansas capital city is home to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, just minutes from downtown. Charming hospitality, sincere service, 7,000 hotel rooms citywide and a variety of meetings venues ranging from intimate wine cellars to the 220,000-square-foot Statehouse Convention Center -- the largest venue in the immediate area -- are worth a look.
Once the day's meetings end, attendees can explore landmarks along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail; Arkansas is home to six of the multistate trail's 100 sites, including the Little Rock Nine Memorial at the State Capitol. Riverfront Park, with its sculpture gardens, and the River Market District are brimming with places to eat and drink.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city, offers a wide spectrum of facilities and accommodations. Whether you’re planning a brainstorming session or a convention for 5,000, venues like the Sioux Falls Convention Center, with 139,000 square feet of flexible meeting and 14 breakout rooms, and the Denny Sanford PremierCenter, an arena that seats up to 12,000, are available right in town.
Getting outside, attendees can walk to nearby 123-acre Falls Park, where nearly 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the falls each second. They also can catch a show at the Washington Pavilion’s Husby Performing Arts Center, or explore the city’s outdoor art exhibits, foodie scene, growing brewery and winery experiences, and more.
With meetings venues as unique as a courtroom in the McLean County Museum of History or the halls of the Grossinger Motors Arena, Bloomington has just the right space for groups of 10 to 10,000. Bloomington and its sister city, Normal, combine to offer "are markable quality of life and a traditional Midwestern lifestyle," according to Visit BN, the area's destination marketing organization.
Here you'll find a multitude of arts, culture and entertainment; trails and parks; festivals like the Sweet Corn Blues Fair, held every August; and seven golf courses scattered throughout. In central Illinois, the BN area is two hours from both Chicago and St. Louis. The largest venue for groups is the more than 180,000-square-foot the Grossinger Motors Arena, which seats up to 8,000.
Chicken wings aren’t the only thing this Empire State destination is known for. The city just south of Niagara Falls has undergone a transformation in recent years with a redeveloped waterfront, revitalized neighborhoods and an expanding craft-beer scene. A boom in hotel construction has increased planners’ options. Downtown is now home to nearly 2,000 guest rooms — 1,000 within three blocks of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center and its 110,000 square feet of space.
During downtime, architecture buffs can explore the seven Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures throughout the city. Those looking for culture will want to wander around the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with its collection of modern masters such as Francis Bacon, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol. History fanatics can visit the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, a former private mansion where the 26th president took the oath of office. And don’t forget about those famous falls.
Founded by German immigrants, Fredericksburg was settled 160 years ago among the ranch lands and wildflower fields of Texas Hill Country. About 70 miles from both Austin and San Antonio, the city is perfect for smaller meetings.
Check out fun spots such as the Altdorf Biergarten and the legendary Luckenbach dance hall. The 50-room 1940s-themed Hangar Hotel and connected Airport Conference Center make up the city’s largest meetings venue, with 50,000 square feet of function space. Outside of the meeting hall, attendees can enjoy peach picking, art galleries, winery tours and live music. Experience the life of German settlers at the Pioneer Museum and the Sauer Beckmann Living History Farm, and follow that outing with a beer and some savory Texas-German fare.
One of California’s most affordable and accessible cities, Sacramento is home to a soon-to-be-expanded namesake convention center, currently featuring 384,000 square feet of event space, 137,500 square feet of exhibit space and 31 meeting rooms. The construction project, begun in January, will add 22,494 square feet of exhibit space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, a new kitchen and more. Over 2,000 hotel rooms are within walking distance of the center, and some 4,000 guestrooms are within a three-mile radius.
There’s much to see, taste and explore in the city’s diverse urban arts and culture scene and rich farm-to-table foodscape. Coast along the American River Bike Trail, tour world-class institutions like the historic California State Railroad Museum, catch a show at the Golden 1 Center or go a bit farther out and enjoy the nearby wine country.
In the heart of the Seattle-area tech scene, Bellevue offers a vibrant, modern and emerging destination for planners to book. With 5,500 hotel rooms, 54,000 square feet of event space at the Meydenbauer Convention Center and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just 17 miles away, the city is ideal for groups of 1,500 to 3,000 attendees.
Off-site, attendees can take a Bellevue Zip Tour in leafy Eastgate Park or engage in team building (e.g., build a boat) at Adventura Aerial Adventure Park. The city’s walkable downtown bustles with bars and restaurants; the Bellevue Arts Museum offers local crafts and designs, and the 21-acre Bellevue Downtown Park is an oasis in the heart of town. Head a little further east to enjoy the 10-mile Lake to Lake Trail and Greenway — a scenic path meandering through boggy wetlands, towering forests and historic farms.