There is a lot for meeting planners to love about North Carolina’s Triangle region, home of the famed Research Triangle Park.
Besides the expertise and training resources offered by the region’s research universities and colleges, including Duke and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), there are the area’s major tech and medical corporations, including IBM, Cisco, and GlaxoSmithKline.
The Triangle also offers great access, with a location that is within a day’s drive or an hour’s flight for more than half the population of the U.S. Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) has recently undergone a $700 million terminal expansion project and is adding amenities like a new bag handling system and glass elevators. Southwest Airlines is the airport’s anchor tenant, and Delta, United, US Airways and JetBlue all offer frequent domestic and international flights.
Factor in the area’s affordability, excellent convention facilities, business-friendly culture and proximity to North Carolina’s Atlantic beaches and mountains, and the Triangle becomes even more appealing as a Southern meetings destination.
When North Carolina’s capital city earned businessweek.com’s ranking last fall as “America’s Best City” it was no surprise to Loren Gold, executive vice president of the Greater Raleigh CVB.
“They looked at indexes for cost of living, visitation, lifestyle attributes like green spaces, attractions and our hospitality infrastructure,” Gold says. “A lot of what they cited in the recognition is what draws meetings to us, like the 150 restaurants we have downtown, a major performing arts center and great access to pre- and post-meeting opportunities on the coast and mountains.”
There are 40 free attractions for visitors, and the CVB offers the Red Carpet Welcome program, which provides attendees with discounts and savings at 220 restaurants, attractions and other services throughout Raleigh.
There are also about 100 festivals a year at live music venues throughout Wake County. The range covers everything from classical to country and blues.
Groups may tap into the area’s cultural diversity with Tobacco Road Tours, showcasing various North Carolina traditions and adventures, including a look at historic Raleigh and a City of Oaks Walking tour, the Pub Crawl & Haunted Adventure, and an African American Heritage tour.
Active group options include Triangle Rock Club near downtown Raleigh, an indoor rock climbing center and gym with climbing, bouldering and a comprehensive strength and aerobic fitness center. The center provides a variety of team-building options for groups.
Hotel choices include The Umstead Hotel and Spa, Renaissance Marriott, Raleigh Marriott City Center and Sheraton Raleigh. Recently opened hotels include Hilton Garden Inn Raleigh/Cary, with 132 guest rooms, and the LEED-certified Hyatt Place Raleigh West, which has 132 guest rooms and is near Raleigh’s hot “Inside Wade” district. Coming in late 2012 or early 2013 are a Hampton Inn & Suites, with 135 rooms and 4,200 square feet of meeting space; the Hampton Inn South Glenwood, with 126 guest rooms and 1,400 square feet of meeting space; and a Hyatt Place, a 137-suite LEED-certified property with indoor and outdoor gathering space.
Durham stands alone, about 28 miles from Raleigh in a different county. Three quarters of Research Triangle Park is within its boundaries, and so is Duke University. This means about 4,000 tech, medical and education meetings find Durham’s side of The Triangle a great destination choice annually.
“Durham has a unique sense of place—not a typical city with a downtown district and lots of big buildings,” says Corey D. Bizzell, director of group sales and services for the Durham CVB. “We are doing lots of revitalization, particularly of our former industrial areas like the Tobacco District, where groups now find great event spaces, restaurants and entertainment.”
The good news for planners, according to Bizzell, is that Durham has good attractions but nothing like beaches or gaming tables to lure attendees away from the meetings business at hand.
“We do a lot of both national corporate and association meetings, and the religious market also does very well in Durham,” he says. “Our ideal meeting group size is 250 to 300 guest rooms on peak, and we can accommodate up to 10,000 people under one roof.”
Bizzell says one of Durham’s biggest selling points is its facilities lineup. The city’s principal group venue is the 44,000-square-foot Durham Convention Center and adjacent Durham Marriott at the Convention Center, with 187 guest rooms. The city has approximately 300,000 total square feet of meeting space and 7,700 guest rooms, with more hotels on the horizon.
Three properties are scheduled to open in 2012: a 122-room Hilton Garden Inn, a 145-room Resident Inn and a 151-room Hyatt Place. The 165-room Spark Hotel & Spa Starwood Luxury Collection is set to open in 2014, and a 65-room expansion on the Rizzo Conference Center on the UNC campus is scheduled for completion in 2014.
When business is done, Durham-based groups enjoy eclectic entertainment, such as baseball games with the Triple-A Durham Bulls team and events at the Durham Performing Arts Center, featuring Broadway and other shows on what is billed as the largest stage between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. At Durham’s Museum of Life and Science, there are butterfly houses and other exciting exhibits, as well as attractive venues for off-site functions.
The corner of the Triangle that has a reputation for being “edgy and unique” is Chapel Hill, where groups will find intriguing meeting sites and experiences that include engaging artists, writers and music. The unique atmosphere may have something to do with the city’s university centerpiece, and it leads some groups to connect in woodland retreats and amphitheaters, such as The Barn at Valhalla or the outdoor Forest Theatre on The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
Chapel Hill is an ideal meetings choice for groups ranging in size from 150 to 600 attendees, according to Linda Ekeland, director of sales for the Chapel Hill/Orange County CVB. Because there are two large research hospitals in the area, the city captures many medical, pharmaceutical and education/training meetings, she says.
“Also, we are in the heart of North Carolina and have plenty to offer groups at affordable rates,” Ekeland says. “Contrary to some misperceptions about our prices, we have average room rates now of about $115. We have a variety of lodging options that range from [AAA] Four Diamond properties to boutique and funky choices with limited service. Our full-service choices include Sheraton Chapel Hill, with 168 guest rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space, and the Carolina Inn, with 184 guest rooms and 14,000 square feet of meeting space.”
For larger meetings, the William & Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education features 25,000 square feet of meeting space.
Coming in spring 2013 is the 142-unit Hampton Inn & Suites, Chapel Hill/Carrboro, with 3,000 square feet of meeting space and 18,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space. The new property will have a 24-hour business center and in-house catering services. Courtyard by Marriott recently completed a makeover to guest rooms and public spaces and added the Bistro concept, featuring breakfast, dinner and coffee service. Meanwhile, the Siena Hotel completed an extensive renovation to its Grand Ballroom.
Groups can take advantage of unique off-site venues such as the North Carolina Botanical Garden, which is one of the largest natural displays of botany in the Southeast, with 1,000 acres of preserved land featuring nature trails, carnivorous plants, perennials, aquatics and herb gardens. The new LEED Platinum-certified, 29,000-square-foot education center is an ideal group gathering site featuring an auditorium and classrooms. Guests may enjoy a picnic or boxed lunch on the center’s outdoor patio.
Groups gathering in the Chapel Hill region are only two hours by car from the North Carolina coast and three hours from the mountains.
Ruth A. Hill is a frequent contributor to Meetings Focus South.