If one were to consider the U.S. a grand tapestry, Tennessee’s portion would be woven of bold colors and vibrant images that represent its vast cultural offerings. From a rather tremendous contribution to the international music stage to a rich Southern heritage that is evident in its various museums and historic sites—and let’s not forget its warm hospitality—the Volunteer State offers plenty of off-session opportunities for groups.
It’s a snap for planners to create memorable agendas in Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas as well as its smaller mountain communities. Each locale combines unique meeting facilities and accommodations with distinct experiences that introduce delegates to the state’s cultural flavor.
Top cultural attractions in Memphis revolve around the community’s deep musical roots. Elvis’ Graceland attracts international visitors, and a stroll along Beale Street, booming with live music nightly, sits at the top of most to-do lists.
When the Folk Alliance held a conference in town in February, according to the Memphis CVB, delegates were offered discounts at music-related attractions, such as Gibson Guitar Factory, Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, Sun Studio, and Stax Museum of American Soul Music, as well as at the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange and the National Ornamental Metal Museum.
“Memphis offers a variety of unique off-site attractions that serve as perfect venues for themed special events, especially groups that desire the ‘Memphis Music’ experience,” says John Oros, executive vice president and COO at the Memphis CVB.
The CVB cites several other ways in which Memphis’ cultural offerings are enjoyed by groups, from private parties at Graceland and club crawls on Beale Street to events at The Inn at Hunt Phelan, a restored 19th century mansion that served as the headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant before the Battle of Vicksburg.
“For planners who desire sports action for their delegates, Memphis offers the best in professional basketball, baseball and golf, and college football and basketball,” Oros adds. “Planners may work with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies on group ticket discounts or, from April through September, they may arrange ticket discounts and special events with the Memphis Redbirds and Autozone Park.”
The 2006 EcoQuest International Convention, in fact, executed a welcome banquet/softball game at Autozone Park, complete with fireworks and a performance by Elvis’ original band, Taking Care of Business.
Meanwhile, one of Memphis’ most enduring traditions takes place at a top meetings property in the city: The Peabody Memphis. Attendees should set time aside to view the famous Peabody ducks during their red carpet march to and from the lobby’s fountain. The daily spectacle has taken place at the property since the 1930s.
Tennessee’s musical vibe extends to Nashville, where planners are encouraged to host receptions at the famed Country Music Hall of Fame or the Grand Ole Opry Museum.
“Integrating Music City’s culture into an attendee’s experience comes naturally in Nashville—music pervades our city,” says Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville CVB. “We are fortunate to have such a strong musical heritage that is easily accessible to all of our visitors.”
Music is so celebrated in Nashville that the CVB boasts and recommends an outing along the recently designated Music Mile, “a symbolic stretch of roadway” connecting the $120 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center with the music district of Music Row, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Music City Walk of Fame and Museum.
Several more examples of cultural events that groups have participated in while visiting Nashville, according to Spyridon, include board dinners on stage at the Ryman Auditorium; the use of Centennial Park’s Parthenon for a concert, fireworks display and reception; virtual horse racing at Belle Meade Plantation; progressive plantation dinners; herb butter seminars in the herb garden at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art; Southern cooking classes at Hachland Hill Farms; making a CD at historic RCA Studio B; and dinner on the lawn of The Hermitage, the former home of President Andrew Jackson.
A top tourism destination in the southeast, Chattanooga offers a variety of cultural options for groups seeking off-site activities. Many of these attractions, located downtown or not too far off, according to the Chattanooga Area CVB, make for convenient group outings with a ready-made theme, rather than having to create one in a standard ballroom.
“Our many cultural venues provide a terrific and one-of-a-kind opportunity for attendees to experience Chattanooga,” says Steve Genovesi, vice president of sales at the Chattanooga Area CVB. “They come away with a terrific and sustainable impression about our city, which reflects well for the conference. Chattanooga’s new branding tagline is ‘Chattanooga–A City By Nature.’ This explains how the vibrant downtown is closely surrounded by natural outdoor beauty.”
At the Hunter Museum of American Art, fine arts mingle with splendid natural surroundings, as attendees can check out one of the largest collections of American art in the Southeast as well as lovely views of the river.
Tying in off-session activities to complement a group’s agenda is a cinch in Chattanooga, where events such as the HCI Water Power Conference recently booked an off-site function at the Tennessee Aquarium, which offers group discounts. The Tennessee Municipal League booked an annual conference during the Riverbend Music Festival, one of the top 10 music festivals in the country, which spans 10 days with five stages of entertainment every June on the downtown riverfront. Many military reunions make time during their agendas to see the Civil War Battlefields, where the battle of Chickamauga was fought. And every Friday night from early spring to late fall, downtown hosts a free concert called Night Fall, a perfect event for attendees who want to walk from the convention center to take in some music and food.
Smoky Mountains Region
From one of the country’s most impressive natural wonders to arts and crafts, museums and Dollywood theme park, the communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are cultural highlights of the state.
Gatlinburg prominently displays one of the biggest cultural assets of the Smoky Mountains region, its arts and crafts heritage, which dates to the early settlers of the 1800s. Popular crafts—quilts, ceramics, candles, woodcarvings, and woven fabrics—are produced and sold throughout the city’s Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, an historic, eight-mile loop that has been designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail.
Attendees in town are invited to explore the loop but they may also gather a glimpse of this cultural heritage by simply exploring the hallways right outside the meeting room; the Gatlinburg Convention Center and the adjacent W.L. Mills Conference Center each have more than a dozen built-in display cases filled with early and current arts and crafts pieces. Additionally, planners often arrange for local artisans to perform their skills during receptions.
When the Tennessee Municipal League held its annual convention in Gatlinburg, for instance, numerous artists and craftspeople demonstrated their talents in painting, weaving, sculpting, and woodworking during the event’s opening reception.
“2007 marks the bicentennial of the settlement of the area now known as Gatlinburg,” says David Perella, director of tourism at the Gatlinburg Department of Tourism (GDT). “In addition to numerous events and activities scheduled in celebration of this historic milestone, the city has engaged an historic preservation center, which will identify, catalog and in some cases nominate landmarks throughout our city for placement on the National Historic Register.”
An area abundant in natural beauty as well, it’s worth noting that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is “the indisputable cornerstone of Gatlinburg’s popularity as a meeting destination,” according to the GDT.
Nearby Pigeon Forge shares the grandeur that is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located adjacent to town. According to the Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism (PFDT), the park is “the cultural offering that transcends all others.” Indeed, it welcomes some 9 million visitors a year.
“The park is an absolute American treasure,” says Joy McNealy, senior sales manager for PFDT. “Experiencing any aspect of the park—even just watching the sun set on Mount LeConte from your hotel room—makes a meeting in Pigeon Forge special.”
An easy way for a group to connect with the park is via a three-hour motor coach mountain tour, complete with a guide who describes the park’s history and explains the pioneer heritage of the region.
Of course, mountain heritage resides at two locations inside Pigeon Forge’s city limits: the Old Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Dollywood theme park. Both are crowd pleasers.
The Old Mill, a working gristmill, is a veritable wonderland of wholesome goodness that proudly purveys flour and grains, and uses its products in the menu at its adjacent Old Mill Restaurant. At Dollywood, the heritage of the Smoky Mountains is further celebrated through its musical shows, food, crafts, and an area of the park called Craftsman’s Valley, where the region’s cultural history is highlighted.
“Pigeon Forge is a destination that caters to meetings that want family participation,” McNealy says, citing family-oriented opportunities including those mentioned above, as well as a dozen theaters, thrill rides, go-cart tracks, and miniature golf courses. “The city really rounds out the business side of a meeting.”
Sevierville also spotlights its close proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and according to Scott King, director of sales at the Sevierville COC (SCOC), visitors are able to learn about Appalachian culture at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, located at the entrance to the park.
The community also boasts a number of other cultural draws.
“Sevierville has a wide variety of cultural offerings for groups—from something fun like taking your group to have pictures taken with the bronze statue of Dolly to visiting the Apple Barn and Cider Mill, a working apple orchard where visitors can see how apple cider is made,” King says.
The hometown of Dolly Parton features a bronze statue of the famous singer-songwriter on the lawn of the Sevier County Courthouse. Additionally, the SCOC annually hosts the Mountain Soul Vocal Competition, during which contestants from across the U.S. sing one of the 3,000 songs written by Dolly Parton in their own style. The finals are held the third Saturday in May as part of the Bloomin’ Barbeque & Bluegrass event, which includes a state championship barbecue cook-off and world-class bluegrass music.
At the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, the state’s official repository and archive for aviation history, planners can arrange a catered group dinner. A hangar at the facility can be outfitted with tables, chairs and a USO stage show, which makes for a wonderful opening or closing night reception.
Knoxville is known for its Southern hospitality and East Tennessee charm wrapped in Appalachian culture, including bluegrass and mountain music.
According to the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp. (KTSC), this is something that groups who book events in Knoxville can experience in a particularly special way. Inside the visitors center, located downtown, is the WDVX radio station, and group attendees have been known to participate in the station’s Blue Plate Special, a daily noontime live performance on the WDVX stage.
“We are thrilled to have WDVX’s Blue Plate Special right in the visitors center, so event participants can come right into the center, learn about Knoxville and hear some great East Tennessee music at the same time,” says Kim Paul, vice president of sales at the KTSC.
The recently restored Tennessee Theatre is another attraction that adds to Knoxville’s cultural makeup. According to the KTSC, it’s one of the only theaters in the nation that still looks just like it did during the Roaring ’20s. When Honda brought its “Honda Hoot” motorcycle rally to town last year, “Hoot” attendees watched On Any Sunday, a classic motorcycling documentary, at the theater.
Knoxville is also known for its many historic homes. Last year, the Tennessee Governor’s Conference on Tourism enjoyed a live performance and dinner at the circa-1865 Foundry at the Fair Site, a beautifully restored iron foundry home that is used for special events today.
“The historic homes are something that Knoxvillians truly treasure,” says KTSC Senior Manager of Communications Erin Freeman. “A lot of people don’t know that Knoxville actually has more historic homes than Charleston, S.C.”
Country music heritage, historic mansions, fossils, and a quilt trail are among the many cultural experiences planners can incorporate into agendas in the Tri-Cities region of Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City.
Nestled amid the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, Bristol is another hotbed of Tennessee’s musical roots and a place where meetings delegates will also enjoy beautiful natural surroundings, historical attractions and sporting events.
For history, heritage and culture enthusiasts, according to the Bristol Tennessee/Virginia COC, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Paramount Center for the Arts are standout facilities. The Paramount, in fact, is just one of the many major venues utilized during the annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival held each fall.
Sporting enthusiasts enjoy options in town that range from a round of golf at one of six courses to NASCAR events at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
When a group from Middlesboro, Ky.-based Commercial Bank recently visited Kingsport it experienced one of the destination’s creative cultural excursions, called Wiving Miss Daisy: A Country Hijacking. According to the Kingsport CVB (KCVB), the group was surprised when actors playing a country couple looking for a groom for their daughter “hijacked” their motor coach. The group was then taken to Exchange Place, a circa-1800s historic farmstead where a “ceremony” was performed and the group was treated to a tour of the bride’s dowry as well as a dinner reception.
“Commercial Bank’s travel representative said members were still talking about what a great time they had weeks after their visit to Kingsport,” says Barbara Kite, director of group sales at the KCVB. “They loved the pleasant, fun-loving atmosphere that sets Kingsport apart from typical meeting places.”
Known as Kingsport’s White House, the historic Allandale Mansion provides a backdrop for an evening to remember. The Georgian mansion, with period furnishings and picturesque gardens, is the perfect spot for special events. One group from Atlanta, according to the KCVB, recently enjoyed a suspenseful murder mystery event on the 25-acre estate. During a three-course dinner, attendees participated in an exercise of crime detection to discover and identify the “murderer” in the mansion.
“Many groups are impressed that we offer entertainment at our meeting venues,” says Jud Teague, KCVB’s executive director. “Not only do they learn their intended topics, but they get to experience the culture and hospitality of our area.”
Johnson City, ranked ninth last year in Forbes magazine’s “Best Smaller Metro” list, is rich in history and outdoor recreation. Among its cultural offerings is the Gray Fossil, the world’s largest fossil site. Estimated to be between 4.5 million and 7 million years old, the site features species of red panda, rhinoceros and sloth. The 45,000-square-foot Museum of Natural History and Gray Fossil Site is scheduled to open this summer.
Johnson City strives to individualize group agendas. When it hosted the 2006 Tennessee State Harley Owners Group, which brought more than 2,000 motorcyclists and enthusiasts into the area, attendees enjoyed a series of rides throughout the region that aimed to highlight its cultural and historical aspects.
A route of a different kind, the Quilt Trail is made up of eight area counties that highlight the heritage of hand-painted quilt squares on barns.
“So many of our off-site options take delegates back to the days of discovering our pioneer spirit,” says Brenda Whitson, executive director of the Johnson City CVB. “The beauty of the mountains and the hospitality of our people are an added bonus to the overall experience.”
Two popular festivals that planners book events around are the Blue Plum Music & Arts Festival, an annual event held downtown over the first weekend in June, and the National Storytelling Festival, an annual event that takes place in nearby Jonesborough.
For More Info
Bristol Tennessee/Virginia COC
Chattanooga Area CVB
Gatlinburg Department of Tourism
Johnson City CVB
Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp.
Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism
Smoky Mountain CVB
Williamson County CVB