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A Raleigh good time

Denny Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, can sum up the impact that $3 billion in investment has had on his North Carolina city in a succinct seven-word statement: “Raleigh,” he said, “is essentially a brand-new city.”

“In the past year, we’ve opened a new downtown convention center, and we have a new terminal opening at Raleigh-Durham International,” Edwards said. “We have great new hotels, including the Raleigh Marriott City Center, the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills and North Carolina’s first Umstead Hotel, plus over $35 million in existing hotel renovations.”

Big changes grab headlines

 The vast changes have gotten the attention of national publications. Forbes magazine last year named Raleigh No. 1 on its Best Places for Business and Careers list. “Right now, according to Forbes and the Kiplinger Letter, we’re the fastest-growing city in the nation,” said Jana Rae Oliver, the CVB’s director of sales.

A quick look at Raleigh

Greater Raleigh Convention
and Visitors Bureau
421 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC 27601-2995
(800) 849-8499
(919) 831-2887 fax

Fayetteville Street’s revitalization makes it a popular after-hour destination.

What’s New: The city’s $3 billion downtown renaissance is continuing. The 500,000-square-foot Raleigh Convention Center and adjoining 400-room Marriott Raleigh City Center opened last fall. The Sheraton Raleigh Hotel completed a $5 million renovation. The 229-room Renaissance Raleigh Hotel North Hills opened in December. A 290-room Westin Raleigh Soleil Center will open this year with 30,000 square feet of meeting space. Phase 1 of a $600 million terminal redevelopment and expansion at Raleigh-Durham International Airport is open. The North Carolina Museum of Art will reopen soon after a $138 million renovation. Hybrid shuttle buses offer free rides downtown.

Rooms: The Raleigh area has more than 14,000 hotel rooms; 1,000 are within a mile of the Raleigh Convention Center. Thirteen full-service hotels have 2,500 square feet or more of meeting space.

Location: Raleigh is in central North Carolina, 25 minutes from Triangle Research Park and midway between Florida and New York. Interstate 40, an east-west connector, passes through the city, and north-south I-95 and I-85 are within 25 miles. Raleigh is 143 miles northeast of Charlotte, N.C.; 147 miles south of Richmond, Va.; 251 miles southwest of Washington; and 424 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Transportation: Judged by Airport Retail News to be the favorite airport in North America among international business travelers, Raleigh-Durham International Airport is 15 miles from downtown. Amtrak also serves the area.

The Raleigh Museum of Art will reopen this fall with 40 percent more gallery space.

The ongoing renaissance is anchored by three interconnected projects completed a year ago and aimed at making the state’s capital a capital for meetings as well.

In June 2008, the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel, built in 1982, completed a $5 million renovation of its 353 guest rooms. The 400-room Marriott opened in August.

Then, in September, the city’s long-awaited Raleigh Convention Center (RCC) opened during a weekend of downtown hoopla. The four-level facility has placed Raleigh in a new league as a convention site, with a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 32,600-square-foot ballroom and 20 meeting rooms encompassing another 32,000 square feet of space.

Two hotels and center form triplex

Because the center and two hotels are connected by underground walkways, all three can be put to use by large conventions. The Sheraton has about 20,000 square feet of meeting space; the Marriott, 15,000.

“We are truly a triplex,” said Michele Bevevino, the Marriott’s director of sales and marketing. “Planners can have breakouts from the convention center here and at the Sheraton.”

Wisely, Raleigh did not build its meeting palace in a void. The four flat, tree-lined and safe blocks that separate it from North Carolina’s Capitol are rife with restaurants, coffee shops and eclectic stores.

A $14.5 million project called City Plaza will add even more come October. Nearby hotels are poised to benefit.

“City Plaza will bring a new focal point for downtown entertainment,” said Kevin Johnson, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Raleigh. “Our location couldn’t be better.”

Several features make the

Outdoor concerts add to the action downtown.

massive RCC more personable. In a plaza, a bronze statue of Sir Walter Raleigh astride his horse sits below a 9,284-square-foot shimmer wall that sparkles in the sunlight. The wind activates the 79,464 aluminum squares that depict an oak tree, an appropriate symbol for the City of Oaks, making the tree change shape and even disappear. At night, the piece is backlit by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that can change colors and flash.

Inside the RCC, the emphasis on art continues, with museum-quality pieces that enliven walls and cubby holes.

The new center is more than twice the size of the city’s old convention center, which opened on Fayetteville Street in 1977 and was imploded just shy of 30 years later.

Center makes larger meetings possible

“Raleigh never had a large-meeting option previously,” Oliver said. “All of our state associations were looking to come home to the capital, and now it’s happened.”
The RCC expects to receive platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification this fall. Green groups have taken notice.

In 2011, Raleigh will host the National Solar Energy Conference, thanks to a recommendation from the Association of Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which met at the convention center last fall.
AASHE had anticipated 800 to 1,000 attendees; another 800 attendees were walk-ins. The meeting sold out at 1,700, and organizers credit the convention center’s design and other features of Raleigh’s convention district.

“Our members loved the openness, daylight and green building features,” said Judy Walton, acting executive director of AASHE. “We housed attendees at the Marriott, Sheraton, Clarion and Red Roof Inn. One of the highlights for us was the biodiesel shuttle service.”

Hybrid buses provide free rides

Nicknamed the R-Line, Raleigh’s hybrid buses transport folks free from the convention center to downtown destinations, including five entertainment areas and several free museums.

Another group that met at the RCC not long after it opened last fall was the annual World Burn Congress conducted by the Phoenix Society of Burn Survivors. Many of its 683 attendees have special needs.

A rickshaw powered by a human bumblebee is among the enviormentally friendly ways to get around Raleigh, N.C.  Visitors can also catch free rides on hybrid shuttle buses.

“The convention center provided plenty of aides to push wheelchairs,” said meeting planner Pam Peterson. “The Greater Raleigh CVB brought in representatives from Chapel Hill’s UNC Burn Center for sensitivity training for the staff of both hotels before our meeting. That training seemed to spread to the whole city, because whenever our attendees were out and about and needed help, someone always stepped right up.”

Service is the byword at the Sheraton, said Larry Jones, general manager. “Most of our management have at least 10 years here. Because of that, we absolutely know how to take care of our groups.”

Big Ed Watkins reigns at his Big Ed’s City Market, a Raleigh, N.C., standard known for its fried chicken and banana pudding.

Betty Worley, president of the National Student Exchange, concurs. She planned a conference in March for 170 attendees at the Sheraton.

“The banquet staff was absolutely terrific — on time, on target, with a smile on their faces and a can-do attitude,” Worley said. “One of our attendees has dietary concerns that slipped past us. The restaurant hustled to accommodate her with foods that weren’t even on our menu.”

The Marriott’s Posta Tuscan Grille has also gained a reputation for its special events, with a 65-page banquet menu, Tuscan cooking classes for team building and a private dining room for 60 that overlooks the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts.

Performing arts center fits keynote speeches

In the middle of town on revitalized Fayetteville Street, the center is home to the state’s symphony, ballet, opera and theater company. Among its meeting venues are the 2,277-seat Memorial Auditorium, built in 1932, and the 1,700-seat Meymandi Concert Hall.

“The hall is a perfect place for large assemblies with keynote speakers,” said Jim Lavery, the center’s general manager. “Instead of a flat-floor ballroom, we have good seating and good sightlines. Last fall, we put on a performance by the ballet and several artists for a group of 1,400 Japanese visitors. Our caterer prepared a dinner and reception beforehand and coffee and dessert afterward. We try to match up our entertainment with conventions that are booked in town.”

The fact that Raleigh is close to Research Triangle Park, the country’s largest planned research park, and home to seven colleges attracts many groups looking for elements of arts and culture in their meeting places, among them medical, pharmaceutical and educational groups.
“We’re a very educated community,” said Edwards. “What residents demand in quality of arts, culture, restaurants and nightlife certainly transcends to the quality of life we have to deliver for meetings.”

Smaller groups are the specialty of the Umstead Hotel and Spa, located in Cary, between Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. A 2009 Mobil Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond property, the hotel has a wildlife habitat, a lake, a walking trail and contemporary art collected by owner and computer software magnate Jim Goodnight and his wife, Ann. A Dale Chihuly glass sculpture dominates a lobbyside sitting area, available for cocktail parties for 25; a lawn with a fireplace that overlooks the lake accommodates larger receptions.

The Umstead’s 10,000 square feet of meeting space, business center and dedicated meetings concierge make it “a perfect place for a corporate retreat,” said Allison Jenkins, director of group sales. “The fact that we are a contained area with complete silence and serenity is our biggest draw. We’re seeing a trend toward shorter, more productive meetings to save money. Here it’s easy to keep attendees in one place. And they can bring their spouses for treatments in our full-service spa, art tours and afternoon teas.”

The Umstead is a Mobil Five-Star property in the Raleigh suburb of Cary.

In addition to playing golf at a nearby country club, guests can enjoy burgers and pizza at the bar or dine at Herons, the Umstead’s Mobil Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond restaurant. Its selections include produce from its own garden, a wellness menu and a tasting menu prepared by executive chef Scott Crawford.

The Renaissance Raleigh Hotel North Hills, six miles from downtown in Raleigh’s new midtown, North Hills, is another major player in Raleigh’s hospitality scene. Opened in December, the 229-room hotel has North Carolina art on every wall and 8,600 square feet of bright, contemporary meeting space.

Five years ago, additional parking made North Hills more walkable, and today, the development burgeons with nearly 100 stores and boutiques, a dozen-plus restaurants, health and fitness services, and entertainment options that include night spots and stadium-style cinemas.

“North Hills is totally Madison Avenue meets Main Street,” said Bill Gant, general manager of the Renaissance. “Our guests can walk to everything. We are connected to Gold’s Gym, the Natural Body Spa, an eclectic shopping experience and 2,800 seats of dining in North Hills, from a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to Five Guys Hamburgers. And a North Hills East expansion will add 10 acres with apartments, retail and a senior living center to our current footprint. We’re still growing.”

Attending a hockey or basketball game at the RBC Center is a popular group outing, especially around the holidays.

About 10 minutes from downtown, the 18,000-seat RBC Center, home of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and North Carolina State University basketball, is a logical choice for groups that enjoy spectator sports.

“A lot of small to midsize companies, especially around the holidays, want to take their employees out for a special night,” said Davin Olsen, general manager. “So they’ll come to a hockey game or a basketball game and rent a suite.”
For a different way to bond, Adventure Associates’ half-day, high-tech GeoTrek treasure hunt has teams using hand-held global positioning system devices and following clues to a number of noted Raleigh locations.
“GeoTrek is a great way to work in small teams,” said Rebecca Tilley, managing director. “A lot of groups use it to facilitate starting a new project together, finding out how each member can contribute, with an emphasis on decision-making and strategy.”

Two of Raleigh’s off-site venues are adding to their facilities. At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, groups of up to 1,600 can meet downtown among dinosaur bones. In 2010, the museum will open a $100 million, city-block-wide green Nature Research Center next to its current facility.

Another growing attraction, the North Carolina Museum of Art, will reopen this fall after a $138 million expansion, increasing its gallery space by 40 percent and allowing it to display 22 Rodin sculptures.

For reflective gatherings, All Saints Chapel

Several blocks away, All Saints Chapel is a quiet place where 140 to 298 can meet in an 1875 Episcopal chapel.

“All Saints is a beautifully historic, peaceful setting for a one-day meeting away from the phone,” said Sarah Morris, events coordinator for Empire Eats, a catering company.

One area good for local meals is City Market, a downtown neighborhood that radiates old-fashioned ambiance amid brick streets, early-20th-century streetlights, art galleries and cozy restaurants, an easy ride from the convention center on the R-Line.

At Big Ed’s City Market, antiques cover every wall and ceiling, and a Dixieland band plays on Saturday mornings. Customers can order a farmhand-size breakfast all day and often meet 252-pound, overalls-clad Big Ed Watkins himself.

Groups can rent the 170-seat building. A satisfied customer left the following message on a napkin: “This food is slammin’ from the fried chicken down to the ‘nana puddin’.”
Big Ed’s reminds visitors that the revamped Raleigh, like its famous oak trees, is still strongly rooted in the South and its gracious traditions.