Courtesy Visit Winston-Salem
Katherine Tandy Brown
Published May 02, 2017
In Winston-Salem, everything old is or is becoming new again.
Founded by Moravians from Eastern Europe in 1766, the North Carolina town of Salem was all about religion, music, literacy and traditional skills, like hearth cooking. Thanks to textiles and tobacco, the nearby town of Winston, circa 1851, was a thriving industrial center. In 1913, the two joined as Winston-Salem.
Embracing its heritage, this gem of fine arts, theater, architecture, culinary arts and technological research, known as the City of Arts and Innovation, is in the midst of an ongoing, citywide “reinvention.” Public and private investments of $1.5 billion are funding new retail, entertainment and nightlife venues, conference facilities, infrastructure and hotel upgrades.
“Winston-Salem is really good at taking something and repurposing or reinventing it to be more useful,” said Christian Schroeder, director of sales and services for Visit Winston-Salem. “Sixty to 80 years ago, eastern downtown was totally Reynolds Tobacco. Now an old tobacco-drying facility houses Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, an urban research park that includes Biotech Place, a center for regenerative medicine and a 10,000-square-foot off-site group meeting space. A lot of historic buildings have become offices and condos because more people want to live downtown. Brand-new Bailey Park is a popular community gathering spot.”
Even the city’s old cigarette vending machines have become art-o-mats that, via token or cash, dispense art-to-go.
Revitalized Meeting Space
A 100,000-square-foot example of the city’s reinvention is the downtown Benton Convention Center (BCC). The building’s $20 million reinvention from its 1960s and 1980s architecture includes significant structural, design and technological upgrades to its interior and exterior. Begun in March 2016, the project is set for completion this month.
Remarkably, the center has remained open during the entire phased construction.
Once cement floored, its downstairs, 46,000-square-foot exhibit hall is now carpeted, with air walls and a built-in stage, giving the area more options for varied-size meetings and exhibits, breakout rooms, banquets and the capacity for hosting multiple groups.
Two large upstairs ballrooms, each about 20,000 square feet, can serve as individual spaces and breakouts or, if needed, can combine for one large general session.
“We’re adding prefunction space, as well, with lots of natural light,” Schroeder said. “You can see the downtown activity and vibrancy from inside the center.”
An outdoor terrace hosts receptions and breaks from indoor meetings.
The BCC is part of the 170,000-square-foot Twin City Quarter (TCQ) complex, a hub for downtown meetings that includes a 315-room Marriott hotel with an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant and a 146-room Embassy Suites, all connected by a skywalk and all under one management company.
“TCQ makes it easy for event planners with one point of contact for all three entities,” said Richard Brooks, TCQ’s area director of sales and marketing. “If things change at one of the two hotels or the complex, we can rectify it in a snap.”
The hotels add a combined 70,000 square feet of meeting space. The Marriott includes six suites, and its 5,390-square-foot ballroom welcomes 600 for a reception.
“The complex is within a five-minute walk of 30-plus restaurants, bars, museums, retail outlets and the Downtown Arts District without having any additional transportation needs or costs,” Brooks said. “And the Winston-Salem Dash minor league baseball team plays a walkable mile away.” The team name refers to the dash between Winston and Salem.
An Art Deco prototype of the Empire State Building, the old Reynolds headquarters morphed into the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in April 2016. With 174 guest rooms, including 15 suites, the luxury boutique hotel features 6,375 square feet of space for smaller meetings. Named after the wife of R.J. Reynolds, the Katharine Brasserie and Bar pampers with steamed oysters and sweet tea.
“The property has a big-city feel that Winston-Salem was looking for in this time of enormous growth,” said John Esainko, general manger. “There’s no hotel quite like it in the area.”
Off-site venues in downtown Winston-Salem are plentiful and varied.
Located next to the Embassy Suites, the Stevens Center is the primary performance center for the highly acclaimed University of North Carolina School of the Arts. This lovingly restored, 1929 movie theater has seating for 1,380 and a 10th-floor reception hall for 130. The former Hanes Hosiery mill, the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts occupies a 100-plus-year-old building with two roomy event areas, one an impressive 3,300-square-foot multipurpose space. Once the town’s post office and federal building, the 72,000-square-foot Millennium Center, which took BCC overflow during its reinvention, can accommodate up to 1,500 guests in a variety of spaces.
Wake Forest Biotech Conference Center offers 15 rooms, including an auditorium that seats 120, and a soaring 7,500-square-foot atrium for large receptions.
Owned and managed by Wake Forest University, the Graylyn International Conference Center, a five-minute drive from town, is a return to 1930s and 1940s gentility on 55 explorable acres with beautifully tended gardens, lawns, woods and a quiet lake.
Graylyn’s facilities feature four period dwellings, including the 46,000-square-foot 1932 Manor House, renovated in March, which offers meeting spaces from a 10-person boardroom to a conference room that seats 165. Rife with cutting-edge technology and stellar service, the center has 85 one-of-a-kind guest rooms for overnight retreats, including five suites.
The Graylyn staff can tailor team-building activities to meet a group’s needs. The most popular of its 25 activity choices is the Cupcake and Gingerbread Challenge. Teams learn trust and communication skills when one member gets a peek at a bakery item and relays info about its design back to a team that must then create and eat the goodie. Sure to cause laughs, Pirates of the Piedmont instructs a team to build a boat from limited resources and navigate it across the lake.
“Graylyn is not a cookie-cutter conference center,” said Alyssa Armenta, marketing manager. “If a group wants to have a meeting set up in U-shape one day and switch to theater style the next, we can flip it within an hour, no matter the group size.”
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