January 2012

Mountain Marvels

by Katie Morell

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Mountains are arguably some of the most beautiful things in nature. They inspire poetry (think J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Durin’ and Robert Frost’s ‘The Mountain’), they guard towns against violent weather and they create endless adventure options for outdoor enthusiasts.

Meeting planners working to find their groups a little inspiration, quiet time or open-air excitement can head south to a variety of destinations—from West Virginia to Tennessee to Virginia to North Carolina—and find exactly what they seek.

Here are a few mountain destinations in the southern half of the United States that deserve a look.

WEST VIRGNIA
Planners craving landscape variety needn’t look further than West Virginia, dubbed the Mountain State thanks to its especially hilly eastern edge. Perhaps the state’s most famous (and luxurious) digs are in White Sulphur Springs at The Greenbrier, located in the midst of the Allegheny Mountains—part of the Appalachian Mountain Range. The property offers more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space, a 40,000-square-foot spa, four golf courses, and a new 103,000-square-foot casino, Casino Club at The Greenbrier, which opened last year.

Roanoke, Va.
The 95,000-person city of Roanoke is Virginia’s mountain and urban hub. Regardless of where you stand downtown, you’re sure to catch a glimpse of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Seeing the mountains every day really makes this area so beautiful and welcoming,” says Catherine Fox, director of tourism and communications for the Roanoke Valley CVB. “We also have easy access from most areas on the East Coast.”

Shops and restaurants line Roanoke’s charming downtown, and most are independently owned, says Fox. Visit in the spring, summer and fall and you’re sure to see vendors line streets with everything from fresh produce to colorful flowers. Attractions aren’t too far away, starting with the Taubman Museum of Art. The facility boasts a 670-person atrium for standing receptions and an auditorium for up to 200 guests, perfect for a lecture or awards ceremony.

Also popular is the Market Building, which was renovated in August. Open every day, the historic building features shops, restaurants and a meeting space on its upper level for up to 400 people, seated theater style.

Meeting space is easy to come by in Roanoke, starting with the Roanoke Civic Center, which recently put in a new HVAC system, energy efficient lighting and new flooring in the meeting rooms.

“There is also a new entryway in the meeting space—it’s really nice,” says Fox, adding that the building has 110,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 46,000-square-foot events center.

Less than a mile south sits the 332-room Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, another gem for group gatherings.

“The conference center meets the International Association of Conference Centers’ criteria and is attached to the hotel; it offers 63,000 square feet of meeting space and recently underwent a renovation of the meeting space and guest rooms,” Fox says. “Even more recently, they redesigned a courtyard, which has added extra outdoor meeting space. The location of this property is great, too, it is literally a block from downtown.”

Just up the street is the newish Cambria Suites, which opened in June 2010. It features 127 guest rooms and 1,000 square feet of meeting space.

“We are really excited about the Cambria Suites because it offers bike rentals,” says Fox. “Since the hotel is so close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and greenways, biking is a great way to experience the mountains. The property has two small meeting rooms, perfect for board meetings.”

The area’s largest hotel news is the Sheraton Roanoke, located about five minutes from the city’s downtown core. Formerly a Wyndham, the 320-room property recently underwent an $18 million renovation before becoming a Sheraton. The property refurbished its 17,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as the lobby and guest rooms.

Asheville, N.C.
Asheville, N.C. is one of those cities everyone wants to visit—a fact that Dianna Pierce, assistant vice president of group sales and services for the Asheville CVB, is happy to explain.

“When people visit Asheville, they tend to make a personal connection with the area…then they go back and tell all of their friends,” she says. “We are entirely surrounded by mountains—it is just beautiful. We also are surrounded by the Blue Ridge Parkway—there are four entrance and exit points in our community. You could be attending a meeting downtown or sitting at an outdoor café and within 15 or 20 minutes you could be hiking on a trail off the Parkway. The city offers a terrific diversity of experience.”

Asheville’s downtown starts at the scenic Pack Square Park, a five-acre outdoor area, and extends to the Grove Arcade, a block-long Gothic structure filled with shops and restaurants inside.

“Downtown Asheville is so much fun,” says Pierce. “There is always something going on.”

Arguably the most sought-after accommodation in all of Asheville is The Biltmore. The 8,000-acre property, right in town, offers space for meetings at its four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate.

“The Inn on Biltmore Estate is gorgeous and it has meeting space for all types of groups,” Pierce says. The 5,000-square foot facility features a board room, terrace, lobby and other meeting spaces.

Not too far away is The Grand Bohemian Asheville. The hotel’s regal and ornate decorations (check out the antler chandeliers) make for an inviting group retreat, as does the property’s 5,000 square feet of event space, including a 2,200-square-foot ballroom. It has 104 guest rooms.

Beyond the Biltmore area, groups can enjoy meeting at the Renaissance Asheville Downtown, which features 271 guest rooms and 21,000 square feet of gathering space. Come to town this summer and you will have the opportunity to check out a new Aloft Asheville, which is under construction.

Also under construction is the Asheville Civic Center—currently undergoing an $8.5 million renovation slated for completion early this year. Improvements include new elevators, a banquet hall renovation, the construction of two breakout rooms (square footage to be determined) and concourse upgrades.

The Grove Park Inn is another popular option, as is the Hilton Asheville and Crowne Plaza.

Chattanooga, Tenn.
Standing in Rock City, a complex on the top of Lookout Mountain, you’d never know you were just six miles from downtown Chattanooga. The scene is entirely breathtaking—especially if you go to the edge of Lover’s Leap.

“You can see seven states from Lover’s Leap—the view is just tremendous,” says Lori Morrison, director of national accounts for the Chattanooga Area CVB. “Rock City also has a swing-along bridge and gardens where you can see all types of flowers.”

In addition to the views, groups can meet in a pavilion and visit nearby Ruby Falls.

“Ruby Falls is spectacular—it is 1,100 feet beneath the earth’s surface and it is the nation’s deepest waterfall,” she says. “You can go caving under there and there is also a zip line you can try.”

If you’re in the mood for some hustle and bustle, head down to Broad Street, Chattanooga’s main drag. A free shuttle can transport you down the approximately 15 blocks of shops, restaurants and attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum (both are available for private events).

“Chattanooga is surrounded by mountains; no matter what direction you face, you can see them,” Morrison says. “It is so beautiful all year around, and especially in the fall when you see the leaves change.”

The city’s largest meeting space is the Chattanooga Convention Center, which houses 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and 21 meeting rooms. The center is connected to the Chattanooga Marriott, which offers 341 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of group gathering space.

Other notable meeting hotels include the historic Sheraton Reed Hotel, which recently completed a renovation of its 241 guest rooms, and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Chattanooga Downtown, which finished a $20 million renovation in 2008.

 

Katie Morell is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Meetings Focus editor. She also writes for Hemispheres, Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times. For more information, visit www.katiemorell.com.

 

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