Steeped in tradition and draped in moss, coastal Georgia doesn’t toss words like “transformation” and “explosion of growth” around lightly, but the new Jekyll Island Convention Center has ushered in a new chapter for the region, significantly increasing its capacity and drawing larger conferences back to the area.
From historic Savannah to Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island, both the mainland cities on Georgia’s eastern shore and the outlying barrier islands are modernizing and breathing fresh ocean air into group offerings.
Joseph Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, says the city is poised for a flurry of new lodging options in the next few years. Details had not been announced at press time, but five new hotel projects are reportedly in the works, including a multimillion-dollar mixed-use venue, two upscale boutique hotels and additional independent projects.
According to Visit Savannah, the city saw more visitors than ever before in 2011, drawing 12.1 million people with its rich history, affordability, charm and walkability. Research also found that the CVB’s increased focus on social media has led to growth, with more than 52 percent of visitors to Savannah using social media and interactive outlets to plan their visits, up from 45 percent in 2010.
“Most of our story as it relates to meetings and conferences is the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center,” Marinelli says. “The center has two cool things going on now, and these updates will help us attract new business.”
First, the 330,000-square-foot center will be adding industrial-size hangar doors to the main exhibit hall to better accommodate the aviation shows, automotive events and heavy equipment programs it hosts.
“This new large entryway and accompanying ramp will help us bring in new customers,” Marinelli says.
Completion is planned for September.
The second update is a redesign of the 300-seat amphitheater that includes adding new flooring, high-tech seating and modernized audiovisual equipment.
“The amphitheater is one of the things that makes the venue attractive to meeting professionals,” Marinelli says.
The riverside Savannah International Trade and Convention Center is accompanied by more than 2,000 hotel rooms, beginning with the recently remodeled Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa next door.
A short ferry ride across the river are meetings-ready hotels such as the Hyatt Regency Savannah, Savannah Marriott Riverfront and Hilton Savannah Desoto, with 33,000, 36,000 and 20,000 square feet of meeting space, respectively.
“From a lodging perspective, Savannah is the ideal blend of big-name brands, charming inns, boutique properties and wonderful B&B facilities,” Marinelli says, adding that planners often like to mix and match lodging options. “A meeting here means your attendees will not all be stuck in one big box.”
Recently, more groups have been discovering the warm Southern allure of Savannah.
“We’re attracting more national meetings than ever before,” Marinelli says. “The number has grown by almost 17 percent over the last five years. We’re no longer just considered a nice regional meetings destination.”
Visit Savannah has leveraged the city’s lengthy list of accolades and popularity as a leisure travel destination to grow interest and attract new meetings and conventions.
Quintessential Savannah sites include The Pirate’s House restaurant, with private dining spaces for groups of up to 110 and a gift shop full of pirate lore. Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons restaurant serves up her hearty Southern dishes, and the opulent Mansion at Forsyth Park, with 8,500 square feet of function space and crystal chandeliers, offers cooking classes and private event space at the 700 Drayton Restaurant. Or groups can charter a classic vessel via Savannah Riverboat Cruises and host a luncheon, themed murder mystery party or moonlight evening of dancing onboard.
BRUNSWICK AND THE GOLDEN ISLES
Smaller than Savannah but similarly charming with its city squares and bustling port energy, the historic city of Brunswick offers inviting lodging options and coastal excursions. The grounds of Brunswick Manor, with its moss-draped trees and spacious veranda, feature several areas for group gatherings, including an orchid conservatory.
Offshore, the laid-back Golden Isles are undergoing changes that Scott McQuade, president of the Golden Isles CVB, describes as an “island-wide transformation.”
Separated from the mainland and the city of Brunswick by a six-mile causeway, Jekyll Island is home to a new 128,000-square-foot convention center that complements the island’s existing infrastructure.
“Not only do groups get to utilize the brand-new, meticulously planned conference center, but since it is one of the few oceanfront conference centers on the East Coast, they can look out from the breakout rooms and see beaches,” McQuade says.
New lodging construction is under way to keep pace with the island’s increasing group capacity, with the addition of two new hotels, and new suite cottages being built at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Plans project the island’s room count to grow to around 1,000 by 2014. Preparations for an expanded retail district, to be completed by next summer, are also under way.
McQuade anticipates a shift in the types of groups coming to the isles.
“Over the years, Jekyll has been a conference center that can service groups of 1,000 or even 2,000 people, but with the expansion we will be able to accommodate and host large corporate and association business that we couldn’t before.” he says. “We’ve already begun to see both new business and the return of meetings and associations that had previously outgrown Jekyll Island, and feedback has been glowing.”
On neighboring St. Simons Island, the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort recently updated its outdoor pool areas and added seating to its outdoor Ocean Terrace Grill. The deck area is a relaxing gathering spot, featuring three pools, now complemented by new landscaping.
“It’s popular with both guests and locals. People like to hang out and have drinks by the ocean,” says Bud St. Pierre, the property’s director of sales and marketing.
The largest meeting space is the 2,880-square-foot Lanier Ballroom. Other spaces include the Solarium, with detailed woodworking and antique furnishings, and the Delegal room, with stained-glass windows depicting scenes from St Simons’ history.
“The views from our meeting rooms are outstanding,” St. Pierre says.
Eighty percent of guest rooms at the King and Prince are oceanfront or ocean-view, and the location allows for scenic team-building activities.
“Scavenger hunts are the hot thing,” St. Pierre says. “Groups can travel around the island on four-person bikes, and if planners give the teams cameras, you can play a slideshow at that night’s reception.”
St. Pierre is optimistic about the new Jekyll Island Convention Center.
“Whenever an oceanfront convention center opens up, people should notice it, and hopefully it will draw good groups and bring new interest,” he says.
Also on St. Simons, Sea Palms Resort offers its own convention center with three interconnected ballrooms.
Little St. Simons Island is accessible by boat. The Lodge on Little St. Simons accommodates up to 32 guests in cottages, with activities such as birding, bicycling and canoeing.
The smallest of the island cluster, Sea Island offers more than 25,000 square feet of meeting space and is home to the 175-room Cloister on Sea Island, a luxury property with five miles of private beach, and The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, with 40 guest rooms and two 18-hole championship courses.