A former stomping ground of Mark Twain, Gordie Howe and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hartford proper is not huge, but it sits right smack in the middle of 23 million people, all within a 150-minute drive. Only Manhattan tops that statistic, and it's a big reason why meting planners keep returning to Hartford. Bradley International Airport is 15 minutes away and the entire state is more than well connected to other forms of transportation.
"We are fortunate to experience a lot of repeat business," says Michael Van Parys, president of the Greater Hartford CVB. "Once groups come here, they realize their numbers improve usually exponentially, year after year, because of the location."
Southeastern Connecticut is at least a postcard picture or two. The romantic aura of a New England seaport, film-like scenery, Old World mansions and the cozy maritime allure of Mystic Country all combine for a suitable alternative. Not too far inland from the coast, one finds massive casinos providing all the amenities for a large function while still maintaining the remoteness of the forest.
Steeped in history, Hartford is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Its bragging rights include America's first public art museum and the country's longest continuously operating newspaper, The Hartford Courant. Since Hartford can't possibly compete with nearby heavyweights like New York or Boston, the city takes advantage of its smaller status to provide a more intimate experience for meetings and conventions.
"Planners are like big fish in a small pond when they come to Hartford," Van Parys says, adding that locals of every sort, from hotel concierges to police and theater managers, all take part in the welcoming process for every group descending upon the city.
"We host monthly meetings where we make everyone in the hospitality industry aware of the different groups that are coming, so they're ready," he says. "The restaurants, the entertainment venues, the taxis—anything that might have some opportunity to touch the group when they're here."
Making its debut in 2005, The Connecticut Convention Center is the largest facility of its kind between New York and Boston, with over 140,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and 25,000 square feet of meeting space. Overlooking the Connecticut River, the venue is connected to the Marriott Hartford and the Connecticut Science Center, anchoring Adriaen's Landing,
a new residential, restaurant and retail development along the river. The Hartford Marriott features 409 guest rooms and 13,000 square feet of meeting space.
The Connecticut Science Center in downtown Hartford has been open for a few years now. According to Van Parys, Hartford has seen a recent uptick in science-related meetings due to the center's opening. The National Science Teachers Association, for example, is bringing a group to Hartford later this year.
"It was a huge draw for them," Van Parys says. "We use that venue not only just for science groups, but because it is such a unique venue, and it's attached to the Marriott and then also the convention center. A lot of people have opening or closing receptions where they take over the whole venue and get to really experience it."
A smaller airport, Hartford-Brainard, is just a few miles from the Connecticut Convention Center. The facility was a major factor in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's decision to meet in Hartford in 2007. The group will return again this fall.
"Almost 2,000 private planes fly in and they can park right there at Brainard Airport," Van Parys says. "They have a trade show at the airport and then we shuttle them in, and there's a regular trade show that goes on at the convention center as well."
The XL Center, home to the 2011 National Champions, the University of Connecticut basketball team, is also common for trade shows, exhibitions and events of all shapes and sizes. An exhibition space of 68,000 square feet can accommodate a wide variety of options. The arena where the team plays also includes 45 executive suites, numerous meeting rooms and a 310-seat restaurant, all of which are available for executive gatherings.
Many alternatives to the larger venues exist. Lady Katherine Cruises can provide private charters for up to 200 people for a boat ride down the river. Hartford's most popular banquet facility, The Boathouse, is the city's only year-round waterfront banquet destination. Common for parties, weddings, receptions and a variety of events, the venue can accommodate 230 for a reception, 150 for a sit-down dinner and a few thousand more with outdoor tenting.
The Old State House, Connecticut's first state capitol building, is one of the oldest facilities of its kind in the U.S., dating back to 1796. A National Historic Landmark, the State House is popular for corporate functions, weddings and other events.
The Mark Twain House and Museum is the same building where the author lived from 1874 to 1891, writing some of his most famous novels. Several options are available for meetings, including a 175-seat auditorium, a lecture hall, a cafe, a terrace and an atrium.
Bradley International Airport serves the area quite well. The Sheraton Bradley Airport Hotel provides 15 meeting spaces, the largest of which is 4,000 square feet. The New England Air Museum, located at the airport, can accommodate small groups in its meeting and reception spaces.
Suburbs like Farmington and Southbury also provide meetings-equipped properties. The Hartford Marriott Farmington, Crowne Plaza Southbury and Heritage Hotel in Southbury are all popular for small meetings.
Aside from the legendary tourist village of Mystic and its environs, the Mystic Country region of Southeastern Connecticut includes over 40 different communities. Historic seafaring towns hug the water, offering a unique example of maritime history in America. As the landscape evolves inland, things quiet down a bit, and the remote stillness of more rural environments begins to take over.
As a whole, the area is a distinctive slice of New England, where casino culture effortlessly intertwines with nautical history, romantic getaways remain close enough to civilization, and commercial entertainment venues do not take away from idyllic charm.
"All of this is at affordable prices," says Janice Putnam, marketing and sales manager of Mystic Country, Eastern Connecticut Regional Tourism District. "Because we're not in a big city—there are no large cities here—everything is generally more affordable."
Putnam also says there hasn't been as much long-range planning as of late, so lead times are still considerably shorter, another factor leading to more give and take during the
bargaining process. Lately, hotels have been more flexible when it comes to negotiation.
"With both the meeting planners and the properties—there's a lot more wiggle room going on," Putnam says. "Everyone knows budgets are tighter, so the properties are willing to work with planners and associations for the absolute best experience for the best price."
What's more, gambling isn't far away. Three large casinos provide specific components of the Mystic experience for planners. Together, The Foxwoods Resort Casino and the MGM Grand at Foxwoods offer 150,000 square feet of premium meeting space. Several options are available, including the largest
pillar-free ballroom in the Northeast at 50,000 square feet and a prefunction area totaling 16,000 square feet.
The Mohegan Sun, owned by the tribe of the same name, is over the top. In addition to 1,200 guest rooms in 34 stories, the property features 100,000 square feet of flexible meeting
space, including a 38,000-square-foot ballroom with no pillars. Also available are 30 individual meeting rooms accommodating 5,300 people, plus executive boardrooms and loads of prefunction space.
Even though the casinos are located in a forest, they still remain close to everything else. The properties are centrally situated, just about halfway between the rural countryside and the coastline.
"You see these huge modern structures that actually sit quite nicely right in the middle of all of this green," Putnam says. "Everything is within a short distance. In 15 or 20 minutes, you can go from the casino to the coastline."
Groups can also take advantage of several other meetings-ready properties, including the Hilton Mystic, Hyatt Place Mystic and Mystic Marriott Hotel and Spa. Additionally, about 20 miles north of Mystic in Norwich, the Spa at Norwich Inn is a favorite meetings retreat option.
Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea caters to everyone from scholars to sailors, and from business travelers to travelers
curious about the seafaring experience. Planners have access to an entire recreated 19th century coastal village, which is perfect for meetings. Leisurely strolls, chartered adventures on the water, maritime art exhibits and educational programs can all be intriguing components of any event or function. There's even a boathouse, common for groups and corporate meetings.
"After your meeting, you can go have a lobster dinner on the water," Putnam says.
The Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration provides yet another escape from the average boardroom, with meeting and event space. Groups can have a board meeting surrounded by the denizens of the deep.
"To have a setting around fish and aquatic life is just different," Putnam explains. "It kind of sets a mood for creativity. And also takes you away into another world."
Even though Mystic Country contains no large metropolitan area, it can accommodate large meetings spread out over several different venues. Sometimes as many as 1,500 people descend upon the area.
"We've done citywides, where 800 to 1,000 people that come into Mystic proper and stay at different hotels and go to different venues throughout a three- or four-day event," Putnam says. "We can do citywides on a much smaller scale and it's really fun. We include the attractions with those events."
Gary Singh is a newspaper columnist, travel writer and freelance journalist.