Get Smart in Chapel Hill


Gabi Logan
Published September 09, 2016

College town, tech hub, top foodie city: Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to define Chapel Hill, North Carolina, all of its common descriptions underscore the area’s incredible undercurrent of energy, evolution and exciting spaces. It is a Southern city, among others, that makes headlines for its newness and trendiness without betraying its glorious history, which creates an ideal backdrop for planners looking for a setting for events with class as well as the best modern amenities.

“Orange County has the highest concentration of PhDs in the country, which creates a great mix of people and draws a lot of international folks to the university,” said Marlene Barbera, director of sales for the Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau. “The university itself holds a lot of national meetings, but as a destination, we are better for small meetings, meetings under 150 attendees; but we can do up to 400.”

Chapel Hill’s strength in the small meetings arena comes in part from its venues, which tend toward boutique hotels and atmospheric spaces, and its walkability, as most of the city’s meeting venues are in and around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, which lies on the city’s main drag, Franklin Street.

“You have four craft beer places, award-winning restaurants, James Beard Award-winning chefs, a comedy club and all kinds of other things groups could do right on Franklin Street. [That’s why] we like to see the destination as super-small-town charm with big-city flair,” Barbera said.

Major Meeting Venues

As a small meeting market with a major university, Chapel Hill is not home to a traditional city convention center as the hub for its larger meetings. Rather, several conference centers on the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus, which ranks every year as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the nation, serve the same function while offering every visiting group the feeling that they are the only ones holding an event that day.

The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education, within walking distance of the Courtyard by Marriott, is the largest meeting venue in town, with 25,000 square feet of recently renovated, state-of-the-art meeting space that includes 25 meeting rooms and a skylight-lit atrium. Renovations have added the ability to easily arrange video recordings of meeting or conference proceedings or incorporate teleconferencing, as well as touchpad controls of audiovisual systems.

The Kenan-Flager Business School also includes two buildings available for outside meeting and event rentals: the Kenan Center and the Rizzo Conference Center. The Kenan Center offers a dining room for up to 220 guests, a tiered conference room for up to 150 guests, three breakout rooms and two exterior terraces. The IACC-certified Rizzo Conference Center centers on the DuBose House, a Georgian home listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and features 21,000 square feet of meeting space spread over 41 light-filled meeting rooms. The Rizzo Conference Center also includes 116 guest rooms.

Major Hotels

On the UNC campus, the elegant 185-room, AAA Four Diamond Carolina Inn looks much older than its 90 years — in a good way. When an alumnus of the class of 1889 opened the hotel in 1924 at the cost of approximately $250,000, it included all of the top amenities of the time in an exterior meant to evoke George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. Historic portraits in gilded frames line the walls of its meeting and dining rooms between drapery that wouldn’t look out of place in a Baroque French castle.

The hotel and its restaurant, which both have Forbes four-star status, are fresh from recent renovations. The major renovation to the hotel, completed in 2013, breathed fresh air into all aspects of the hotel’s infrastructure and gave a fresh look to all guest and meeting rooms and public areas. Last fall, the Crossroads Chapel Hill restaurant updated its menu and layout, adding new outdoor spaces and a fire pit, and migrating the bar and dining spaces to create a cozier lounge environment and increased opportunities for private dining. Following renovations, the Carolina Inn features 14,365 square feet of indoor event space and 15,035 square feet of outdoor event space.

On Franklin Street and two blocks from UNC in the heart of downtown, the 67-room Franklin Hotel Chapel Hill, recently added to the Curio Collection by Hilton, features modern meeting rooms with built-in features like fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows in more than 7,800 square feet of event space, including its Windows restaurant. At the other end of downtown, the hypermodern Aloft Chapel Hill offers 130 guest rooms and three meeting rooms geared toward board meetings and retreats, two combinable 500-square-foot “ex:change” meeting rooms and a 600-square-foot “tactic” meeting room.

At the eastern end of Franklin Street, outside of downtown Chapel Hill, the AAA Four Diamond Siena Hotel Autograph Collection was created as a labor of love. Inspired by the original owners’ trips to Italy, the hotel is true to its Italian namesake, the Tuscan hill town Siena. It features rare Italian antique furnishings and wall decor that displays the neighborhood flags of Siena’s “contrada” on the hotel’s interior, and fountains and bocce ball courts on the “terrazza.” The hotel’s 79 guest rooms feature touches like marble showers and balconies, and its 3,000 square feet of meeting space offers natural lighting and Italianate chandeliers. The newly renovated Il Palio restaurant features multiple opportunities for semiprivate dining.

Unusual Venues

One of Chapel Hill’s most popular and unusual locations for an off-site or team-building event is Southern Season, a gourmet specialty store with facilities for private dining and cooking classes. The culinary center began in Chapel Hill 1975 with one 800-square-foot location and has grown to include locations in Raleigh and Asheville, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. Its original location features everything from an old-fashioned soda fountain to four distinct meeting spaces: the oak room and adjacent garden patio; the 12-seat boardroom; and the mezzanine, which overlooks the main restaurant and store. Planners should also build in time for attendees to explore and shop, as the extensive store features deep selections in gift items from coffee to chocolate. “Their wine store is bigger than the visitors bureau,” said Barbera.

Just outside the city, providing a sharp contrast to the high-tech, modern facilities now common throughout Chapel Hill, the Barn at Valhalla allows groups to step away from projectors and smartphones and focus on a glamping meeting or reception in the great outdoors. Spread over 30 acres, the Barn at Valhalla offers groups opportunities for outdoor team building, lakeside picnic lunches and retreats for up to 150 attendees.

In addition to more traditional meeting spaces at the Carolina Inn, the Rizzo Conference Center and the Kenan Center, the UNC campus also includes several unusual venues. Spreading out in an imposing blocklong brick edifice just off Franklin Street, the Ackland Art Museum includes an 18,000-piece collection that spans the centuries and continents. Groups can take over the entire museum outside of operating hours, either in the evening or during the Monday or Tuesday closings. The museum gives rental priority to university groups and other nonprofits, and outside groups must pay an additional fee to become museum sponsors in order to reserve the space.

Groups can also rent the rotunda, the state dining room and the 220-seat full-dome theater of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, one of the largest planetariums in the United States. When it opened, it was the most expensive building in North Carolina and only the sixth planetarium in the United States. The planetarium has similar guidelines for for-profit rental groups.

The North Carolina Botanical Garden, also affiliated with the university, features a variety of event spaces in its LEED Platinum-certified James and Delight Allen Education Center as well as throughout its gardens. For an unusual meeting setting, groups can use the 1,595-square-foot Reeves Auditorium, which is flooded with natural light and has 28-foot ceilings, space for up to 200 attendees and a private, covered deck. The center also includes two classrooms that seat up to 50 guests and an antique-outfitted seminar room for up to 15 guests.

In season, the Forest Theatre, with open-air amphitheater seating and a natural stone wall as a backdrop, can be used for a fresh take on a general session or award show. The gardens and patio adjacent to the Education Center are available for rental for larger groups, and smaller groups can take their cocktail reception into the botanical garden’s display gardens, which include wide-ranging collections of ferns and carnivorous plants and plants used in horticultural therapy.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Location: Central North Carolina

Access: Interstate 40, Raleigh-Durham International Airport

Major Meeting Spaces: Friday Center, Rizzo Conference Center

Hotel Rooms: 1,208

Offsite Venues: North Carolina Botanical Garden, Southern Season, Barn at Valhalla, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center,
Ackland Art Museum

Contact Info:

Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau