In the past two years, Wilmington, N.C., has been named a “Coastal Dream Town” by Coastal Living magazine and a “Distinctive Destination” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Given developments under way, more accolades are likely.
“The most exciting new addition to the area is the Wilmington Convention Center, which will greatly increase the size of events we can handle when it opens this fall,” said John Sneed, convention sales manager, Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast CVB.
The coming convention center has spurred hotel development and refurbishing. In downtown Wilmington, a 125-room Courtyard by Marriott will open a year from now and the 124-room Holiday Inn Wilmington and the 260-room Hilton Wilmington Riverside have been recently renovated.
The North Carolina Bar Association’s annual meeting for 500 this summer will be headquartered at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside and will use nearby beach properties such as Wrightsville Beach’s 135-suite Shell Island Oceanfront Suites, renovated last year to the tune of $10 million.
The newest property in the Wrightsville Beach area is the 118-room Homewood Suites in Mayfaire, which will open in May.
The Cape Fear Coast is home to 31 miles of beaches, including Carolina Beach, where groups can gather at the newly renovated Courtyard by Marriott, with 144 rooms and 3,000 square feet of meeting space. A 191-room Hilton Garden Inn will open near the Carolina Beach Boardwalk in summer 2011; it will have a 350-person ballroom and an oceanview rooftop pavilion.
Wilmington’s primary meeting targets are state and regional associations and state government groups, as well as regional youth sports.
“We are just starting to really emphasize youth sports, although we have always hosted tournaments and have many facilities for softball, baseball, lacrosse and water sports,” said Mikie Wall, CVB vice president of sales and services.
“We also have numerous soccer fields that will host three upcoming competitions, including the Cape Fear Coast Soccer Tournament in May for some 300 teams.”
The new convention center is expected to attract dance and cheerleading competitions. Two other new sports facilities will open this spring, the 19-court Althea Gibson Tennis Center at Empie Park and the 88-acre Olsen Park with five lighted softball fields.
Wilmington’s new venues also include a couple of downtown options for receptions and dinners.
Views of the Cape Fear River are the backdrop for events in the 2,500-square-foot River Room, while 128 South provides space for 200 in a renovated historic building.
Popular tourist attractions are intriguing locations for offsite events as well. The 67-acre Airlie Gardens can host 500 people on its lawn and offers tours of its gardens by the sea.
In 2011, the Battleship North Carolina will mark its 50-year anniversary in Wilmington, and it remains one of the city’s most-sought-after event sites. Groups of 350 can dine on the fantail of this nine-deck National Historic Landmark or take in its newest exhibit on the fast attack submarine, the USS North Carolina.
“Wilmington is also home to one of the oldest theater groups in the nation, the Thalian Association,” said Sneed. “The circa-1858 Main Stage Theatre of the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts will be open for group functions in May following a renovation.”
After meetings, groups may choose to have Wilmington’s newest thespians come to them. The Porch Theatre bills itself as a portable theatre company that provides an interactive evening of dining and theater with themed shows ranging from comedies to murder mysteries.
New Convention Center will triple Wilmington’s capacity for meetings
When it opens late this year, the new Wilmington Convention Center in downtown Wilmington will more than triple the city’s current meeting capacity and allow it to compete with other coastal resort areas.
“We will be able to accommodate 2,000 people in the convention center, so the city can now market to larger groups than ever before,” said Susan Eaton, the center’s general manager. “It will grow the meetings and conventions market across the board here.”
The city is negotiating to bring in a convention center hotel, and several other hotels have announced plans to build in Wilmington.
The Wilmington Convention Center will be the largest facility on the North Carolina coast, and it will provide planners with a new, closer-to-home location for meetings.
“This means that tax revenues from North Carolina meeting groups that had been going out of state will now be staying here,” she said.
Associations line up to book meetings
Already, North Carolina associations are lining up to meet at the new center.
“We are already holding dates for more than 25 meetings with room nights,” Eaton said. “More than half of these groups have committed to multiple years, because they already know they want to come back.”
With Wrightsville, Kure and Carolina beaches a few miles away, Wilmington’s location is a natural for meeting planners who want to combine business with pleasure.
“Our coastal location provides groups with many recreational opportunities, and it’s a great place to bring families, too,” said Eaton.
The convention center is well located in downtown on the city’s 1.3-mile Riverwalk along the Cape Fear River and near the city’s 230-block historic district.
Given Wilmington’s location near the coast, the maritime theme chosen for the center is appropriate.
Its meeting spaces will include a 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom that can be divided into six rooms, 6,150 square feet of meeting rooms and 15,000 square feet of prefunction space.
Event lawn will move events outdoors
Receptions and other events can be held on the 12,000-square-foot event lawn; additional features include covered outdoor riverfront seating and a 580-space parking deck.
The center’s green design and construction elements will likely lead to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which Eaton says has piqued the interest of several environmental groups looking for future meeting sites.
Even before construction began, the facility committed to a sustainable environment when it installed a sand filtration system to prevent runoff into the Cape Fear River. Other green aspects include water-saving devices that reduce consumption by 48 percent, carpets and upholstery made with recycled content, and lighting controls and energy management for individual rooms.