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Carolinas: College towns are smart

Courtesy Chapel Hill/Orange County CVB

Nothing could be finer than to meet in the Carolinas, especially with the intellectual, yet fun-loving atmosphere of its abundant colleges and universities.

The institutions of higher learning often offer meeting space served up with a dose of youthful energy.

That energy fuels a meeting. “People who come here enjoy interacting with students,” said Penny Hall, marketing manager for Clemson University’s convention center and inn. “There’s just an excitement about the eagerness of college students.”

Chapel Hill, N.C.
Chapel Hill is home to one of the nation’s oldest state universities — the University of North Carolina (UNC) — and its 24,000 students and 2,600 faculty members. It is consistently ranked among the great institutions of higher education in the nation.

For a true collegiate experience, meetings can convene at the Carolina Inn, a 185-room campus hotel in the historic Franklin Street district that locals think of as the university’s “living room.”

Established in 1924, the hotel is as high class as it is historic. It has earned the AAA Four Diamond Award, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America.

In keeping with its historic nature, the hotel’s 13,000 square feet of meeting space, which includes three ballrooms, is adjoined by formal parlors, sitting areas and a sunroom. Gardens enhance its courtyards and a patio.

The largest meeting facility in this town of 56,000 is also on campus. The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education, with 25,000 square feet of meeting space, is named for William Friday, who served as UNC president for 30 years, and his wife, Ida, a painter and sculptor.
The center, which opened in 1991, has 23 meeting areas, including a 420-seat auditorium. It hosts educational events on health care, technology, education, the economy and the environment.

“We have three markets in Chapel Hill,” said Linda Ekeland, director of sales for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They are education, medical and association. Professors want to bring their associations here.”

Among all of Chapel Hill’s established meeting places is a new hotel, the 130-room Aloft-Chapel Hill hotel, which opened in May 2010 with meeting space for small groups.


Durham, N.C.
Ten miles from Chapel Hill is a town of a quarter-million that is home to one of the nation’s best-known private research universities: Duke University in Durham. Durham is also home to North Carolina Central University, a public, historically black university.

Durham’s major industry is health care, but it is also known as a haven for foodies, according to Sam Poley, the Durham Convention and Visitor Bureau’s director of marketing.

“Out of 41 places listed as food towns by the New York Times in 2011, Durham is one of six cities in the United States,” he said. “To know our food culture, you must look at our beer culture.”

Durham has three microbreweries, and one in particular, Fullsteam, is an ideal meeting spot, said Poley. Opened last year, Fullsteam is a wide-open space during the day for meeting groups of 200 or more.

“I call the place rec center chic,” said Poley. “It has no TVs, but it has a stage in the corner, pinball machines, bowling machine and pingpong tables. A glass wall looks into the brewery. It is an interesting, creative venue.”

The brewery and tavern are inspired by the agricultural and culinary traditions of the South.
“The beers are made with local ingredients such as yams,” said Poley. “They have a smoked hickory porter that will drive you wild. It has a cult following.”

For more traditional meetings, the Durham Convention Center is an option. It is located in downtown Durham, a four-square-mile area that includes the new Durham Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the city’s minor-league ballfield. Renovations under way will add more breakout spaces, improve foodservice, update decor, improve accessibility and add the latest technology. City leaders also voted to sign a contract with Global Spectrum to manage the convention center for the next five years. It was previously managed by the Shaner Hotel Group, which owns the adjacent Marriott hotel.

Another downtown option is Rigsbee Hall, opened in 2007, with 2,500 square feet of open event space with polished concrete floors, exposed brick walls and floor-to-ceiling street-front windows.


Boone, N.C.
Meetings have long been a part of business in Boone, a Blue Ridge Mountains town where more than 200 years ago, four American patriots discussed their American Revolution plans. That meeting resulted in victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the turning point in the fight for freedom.

Even though the patriots didn’t get the chance to mingle with college students, meeting attendees today have that opportunity at Appalachian State University.

The school trumps the city in terms of population, with 17,000 students compared with Boone’s 12,000 citizens.

The campus, which adjoins historic downtown, is home to the university-owned and -operated Broyhill Inn and Appalachian Conference Center. It is Boone’s only full-service hotel, conference and event facility. The inn and conference center are no longer learning facilities for students, but students continue to serve as staff there.

“Many of the hospitality and tourism students do their internships here,” said Cindy Venable, event coordinator.

The 83-room inn looks out over the Blue Ridge Mountains and Boone. Its 20,000-square-foot conference center includes a recently renovated 6,400-square-foot grand hall.

Also on campus is the Turchin Art Center, a former church that can serve as creative meeting space. In addition to various galleries, the center has a lecture hall that seats 125 and a conference room for more than a dozen.

“Meeting attendees will run into students who are interested in art, and there are a lot of them here,” said Michelle Ligon, director of public relations and visitor services for the Boone Tourism Development Authority.


Columbia, S.C.
Columbia is best known as home to the University of South Carolina (USC), but the city also has more than a handful of smaller colleges and universities. The result is thousands of college students in the state capital, population 130,000.

“We have 26 markets, but our niche markets are religion, the top market; government, because we are the capital; and education,” said Jason Oatman, director of sales for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We target groups with the help of the university,” said Oatman. “In April, we will host the first World Congress on Ultrasound in Medical Education. The dean of the medical school at USC is the lead developer and worked with the school in hosting the conference on several levels.”

The city’s many colleges also come into play when faith-based organizations come to town. Those groups often use campus facilities for their gatherings, Oatman said.

The USC campus is scattered throughout downtown, and one area near campus that has become a student hangout is the Vista, a neighborhood of about 60 bars and restaurants on the Congaree River.

The USC Continuing Education and Conference Center has meeting space available year round with housing offered in June and July. The center, which can accommodate up to 13,000, has 90 meeting and event rooms.

“While meeting planners usually don’t incorporate sports or theater productions into meetings, attendees are generally provided a calendar of activities and offered the chance to buy tickets,” said Oatman. “Some people come to Columbia before or after the meeting to attend special events.”

Columbia’s downtown also has a convention center and 11 hotels with 2,000 hotels rooms. There are 12,000 hotel rooms in the region.


Greenville and Clemson, S.C.
Greenville and Clemson are two college towns about 45 minutes apart that often team up to accommodate meeting and convention groups.

Clemson is a small college town known for its top-tier research university by the same name. Furman University, Bob Jones University, North Greenville University, Greenville Technical College and the MBA program for Clemson University are all located in Greenville, population 60,000. All have venues for meetings, according to Diane Wilson, director of information services for the Greenville CVB.

For example, North Greenville University, a Southern Baptist liberal arts school, often hosts religious markets. Those that need large assembly halls can opt for the Carolina First Center and its 400,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space. It claims to be the largest convention center between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

With so many colleges, students are abundant throughout downtown as well as the surrounding outdoors activities.

“We have many biking and hiking trails,” said Wilson. “We also have a walkable downtown, and we are an hour and a half from the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we have a variety of recreational opportunities.

“Greenville is a surprise to people. It’s a good location. It’s a smaller town with all the amenities of a larger city,” said Wilson.

Among those is access to an international airport. Greenville-Spartanburg International serves the region; its service doubled in March with the arrival of Southwest Airlines, which will fly nonstop from SPI to Houston, Nashville, Chicago and Baltimore.

Clemson University and its 17,000 students are the largest component of Clemson, said Penny Hall, marketing manager for the Madren Conference Center and James F. Martin Inn at Clemson University. The city has a population of 11,000.

“Meeting groups at our property can take part in [the university’s] performing arts and all major sports. We have the offerings that a town this size wouldn’t have — performing arts, a golf course, a botanical garden — but in a small college town,” said Hall. “The combination is the best of both worlds.”

The 57,000-square-foot conference center and inn, both 16 years old, employ students, who work in restaurants and shops and at the golf course. The inn’s Seasons restaurant just reopened after being gutted and rebuilt with a new floor plan as well as a new menu.

“The property [the hotel, conference center and golf course] is beautiful, situated on Lake Hartwell, which offers a lot of recreational opportunities,” said Hall. “Next door is the botanical garden. We are very nature oriented.”


More on the Carolinas:

Synergy at the seashore
College towns are smart
The race is always on