When it comes to iconic maritime heritage and time-tested New England wonders, you can’t beat the seaside sensations of Newport, R.I. From the most famous mansions in North America to a regal sporting scene with two claims to fame, the elegant escape has a sophisticated setting ideal for magnificent meetings. And a slate of new venues and activities has further enriched the options for planners and attendees.
“Newport’s history is what makes it such a memorable locale for groups to experience,” says Tim Walsh, vice president of sales for the Newport and Bristol County CVB. “Newport has been shaped by colonial and maritime history, the Gilded Age—which produced the ‘Summer Cottage’ mansions that the city is most famous for—and of course, the America’s Cup legacy that is still a major component of the island’s lifestyle. Visitors can sense and experience this history throughout the entire city.”
Walsh concedes that even in a locale rich with vibrant venues, the amazing mansions—Rosecliff, Castle Hill and Belle Mer among them—steal the show when it comes to wowing your attendees.
“To conduct a meeting or event in such an opulent setting is an experience to remember and one to impress,” he remarks, sentiments echoed by Andrea Carneiro, communications manager for the Preservation Society of Newport County.
“The Newport Mansions are a popular destination for travel groups and meeting planners because they offer variety, beauty and a sense of history,” Carneiro says. “We have audio tours, guided tours, a behind-the-scenes tour, beautiful gardens and exceptional shopping. And we can provide elegant space for meetings of various sizes, as well as options for cocktail parties, celebration dinners and tours.”
Among the most renowned of the 11 historic wonders are The Breakers, the most opulent of the bunch, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion once home to the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family; the Elms, a Parisian-styled palace hallmarked by stunning Classical Revival gardens that were recently restored; Marble House, a Versailles-themed structure with its own Vanderbilt ties; and Rosecliff, a photogenic beauty that has served as a shooting locale for several major films, including The Great Gatsby, True Lies, and Amistad.
For group grape and gastronomy fun, Rosecliff and Marble House will pair up for the 6th Annual Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival Sept. 23-25. The savory celebration boasts representation from more than 100 top wineries from around the globe, plus culinary creations from dozens of premier restaurants in the region. Throw in an array of expert guests from the world of food and wine—and the remarkable setting—and you can easily see why the festival has quickly gained recognition as one of the best celebrations of its kind in New England.
The marvelous mansions, however, aren’t the only historic sites worthy of a group experience.
“Another venue built in the late 1800s is one of the finest examples of Victorian shingle-style architecture, The International Tennis Hall of Fame,” Walsh says. “There are multiple locations within the six-acre grounds for meetings and events of all sizes, but a very special one is the Clock Tower. Only small groups of approximately 10 or less can utilize this 12-sided space with a wood dome ceiling, and the mechanisms of the 1880s Tiffany clock are exposed, adding to the ambience and experience.”
Walsh adds that a traditional post-meeting experience is a round of croquet on the well-manicured grass courts.
And of course, when it comes to traditions, the seaside city’s sailing scene is a heralded one known by yachtsmen around the globe. Taking to Narragansett Bay aboard a sailboat is a group experience that can be melded to your liking, whether it’s just a sightseeing adventure or a challenging team-building outing that can even be arranged as a regatta competition between groups of attendees.
One established company offering such an adventure is 12 Meter Yachts, boasting an entire fleet of sailing boats and able to host anything from an exhilarating harbor tour to a racing regatta for 300. The company also partners with Terry Wildemann, a local speaker and wellness coach, on special team-building jaunts intended to strengthen communication skills in a unique environment.
“Imagine gaining newfound respect for a teammate, understanding why a co-worker does what they do, finding solutions to issues, and learning to communicate and work together in a completely different environment as you laugh and learn your way to creating successful teams,” Wildemann says, adding that a pre- and post-event teleconference are a part of the enjoyable and educational program.
Groups can select from a number of other waterborne options, including schooner excursions or powerboat adventures from Classic Cruises of Newport at Bannister’s Wharf or a sightseeing sojourn aboard the Viking Queen, an excursion boat launching out of the Gateway Visitor Center.
Landlubbers wary of the water may prefer taking in the superb scenery aboard a vintage railroad train operated by the Newport Touring Company, which even offers a dinner train with intriguing options like themed murder mystery and cabaret-style dining events.
Among the city’s newer offerings are a pair of tours perfect for groups looking to go gourmet or get gritty.
Newport Gourmet Tours takes you behind-the-scenes at some of the city’s top dining spots and foodie shops via its leisurely two-hour treks that can handle groups of up to a dozen. Among the fun possibilites are dining in a historic tavern that once hosted Washington and Jefferson or receiving a hands-on lesson from an expert chocolatier.
The Newport Storm Brewery and Thomas Tews distillery, which opened its newest facility in Newport this year, offers combined tours and tastings of their beer- and rum-making operations that include a souvenir keepsake for attendees.
A flurry of activity has also bolstered the already enticing hotel landscape.
At the Hotel Viking, a historic property also known for being Newport’s first Green Certified lodging, a multimillion-dollar upgrade has taken the 136 guest rooms in the property’s Newport Wing to new heights of luxury. The lodging is a veritable mecca of meetings and events, with 13,400 square feet of function space that includes two ballrooms and a handsome executive boardroom, and in friendly weather the rooftop lounge is an ideal setting for an alfresco affair.
Other big hotel activity includes the reopening in April of the Vanderbilt Grace, an enclave of elegance formerly known as Vanderbilt Hall. The 33-room Beaux Arts beauty is a sophisticated boutique escape of classy comfort—and cuisine as well, with this summer’s launch of Muse by Jonathan Cartwright, creating an instant buzz among local and visting foodies. As for potential event space, offerings range from an intimate boardroom for up to 14 to a 1,280-square-foot conference room for up to 35.
Meanwhile, last spring, the classy and cozy Mill Street Inn wrapped up improvements to its eight Townhouse suites that included new gas fireplaces and flat-screen plasma TVs. And the Hyatt Regency Newport recently upgraded its offerings for business travelers with new group enhancements that include coworkers competitions (Olympic-style events), team sailing and picnic games.
Hyatt’s newly expanded Pineapples on the Bay eatery reopened this spring , providing a perfect perch for vistas that include the city’s iconic Newport Bridge.
Other major meetings properties that have substantially enchanced their offerings in recent years include the Newport Marriott, which renovated meeting space and refurbished guest rooms, and the Newport Harbor Hotel & Marina, a waterfront group favorite that features newly renovated public areas and the popular restaurant, Pier 49 Seafood & Spirits, serving New England specialties.
Not far from Newport lies another small city with big appeal for planners.
“Bristol, just about 30 minutes from Newport, is a historic gem often called ‘America’s Most Patriotic Town,’” says Andrea McHugh, marketing and communications manager for the Newport & Bristol County CVB. “Mount Hope Farm offers panoramic views of Mount Hope and Narragansett Bay, which makes for a picturesque off-site meeting location, as does Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum, with 33 rolling acres on Bristol Harbor. You’ll also find the Bristol Harbor Inn in the heart of downtown, a welcoming, boutique-style hotel. With its charming eateries and shops, complete with red, white and blue center road stripes, this coastal community makes an ideal location to relax, unwind and soak up the best of small-town Americana.”
But whether you plan on a group getaway to Newport or Bristol, or combine the likeable locales for your event, accessibility and variety are clear bonuses.
“Newcomers are always surprised how easy it is to get to Newport and Bristol by car, train or plane and how much is available in this compact area,” says the CVB’s Walsh. “From all types of lodging options, historical experiences, architecture, diverse dining, cultural, culinary and music festivals, to a large range of outdoor activities,the locale offers something for every age group, interest and budget.”