There’s a certain feel to a college town that can’t be beat. Youthful vibrancy, a respect for knowledge and the ability to play hard when the day’s done: Communities that host institutes of higher learning offer it all, making them great places to hold meetings. Plus, planners can easily find unique ways to jazz up a conference with a little school spirit, whether it’s through a campus tour or a visit from a mascot.
Here are a few dynamic college towns to consider for your next meeting.
Boulder, Colorado, offers planners a bounty of gifts, including not only its location at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but also the 33,000-student-strong University of Colorado (CU), which sits nestled against the town. Though meeting groups should be sure to take advantage of the town’s lauded outdoor adventures, which range from e-biking Boulder’s many trails to heading up, up and away in hot air balloons, they shouldn’t miss out on opportunities related to the school.
For example, CU, which has long been heralded for its weather science and aerospace programs, is heavily involved in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
“They both work with groups to tour the facilities,” said Mary Ann Mahoney, CEO of the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau. “NCAR is housed in a beautiful I.M. Pei building, but the depth of the knowledge there, and also at NOAA — that’s where the weather forecasts come from — it’s so fascinating to see.”
Traditional meeting spaces in Boulder include the newer Hilton Garden Inn and the Embassy Suites by Hilton Boulder, which sit adjacent to one another and offer a total of 376 guest rooms and 11 meeting rooms. For off-site events, planners might want to look to the Boulder Theater, with a 5,000-square-foot meeting room, or the Museum of Boulder, which offers a rooftop venue with a gorgeous view of the mountains and a total capacity of 350 cocktail style.
Tucked away in the gently rolling Flint Hills, home to the precious last 4% of America’s tallgrass prairie ecosystem, Manhattan, Kansas, benefits from something the Big Apple can’t claim.
“We are told over and over again that we have unsolicited friendliness,” said Karen Hibbard, vice president and director of Visit Manhattan, Kansas. “We will genuinely welcome you.”
That congenial vibe extends through Kansas State University, the public land-grant school that abuts the town. Founded in 1863, it offers a gorgeous campus for attendees to stroll through, dotted with handsome buildings crafted from limestone quarried locally. According to Hibbard, K-State is happy to bring its expansive energy to meetings, whether that means a rousing performance by the marching band or an equally festive visit from mascot Willie the Wildcat.
Speaking of meetings, the newly expanded Manhattan Conference Center, which is attached to the 135-room Hilton Garden Inn Manhattan, offers 34,000 square feet of customizable event space, cutting-edge audiovisual technology and catering. For off-site events, the Flint Hills Discovery Center is within walking distance of downtown and features a rooftop terrace and a glass atrium. Meanwhile, attendees who are looking to team build can tackle the zip lines at Wildwood Adventure Park or hike the trails at K-State’s breathtaking Konza Prairie Biological Station.
Oxford, Mississippi might be small — with around 26,000 residents, its population is only 6,000 more than the enrollment at the University of Mississippi, the learning institution that calls it home. But with Southern charm galore, a famed food scene and a pretty-as-a-picture downtown square, Oxford makes a mighty appealing meeting destination. The town doesn’t shirk in the venues department, either, thanks to the Oxford Conference Center, which offers meeting space for 1,200, a 300-seat auditorium and full catering and audiovisual services.
Three hotels — the Hampton Inn Oxford Conference Center, TownePlace Suites Oxford and Tru by Hilton Oxford — serve the conference center. Or attendees can stay and meet downtown at the Graduate Oxford. With decor inspired by Ole Miss, it can host up to 200. The Lyric Oxford, a converted theater, makes a great place for receptions since attendees can walk to one of the town’s James Beard Award-winning eateries after the event.
In their off-hours, attendees will also want to visit Rowan Oak, once Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner’s home. “And of course you’ll want to see the campus,” said Kinney Ferris, Visit Oxford’s executive director, “whether that’s on our double-decker bus tour or we’ve even set up garden tours on the grounds with Jeff McManus, the university’s horticulturist. So we can always get creative and come up with something fun to pique interest in your attendees.”
Blessed with a laid-back vibe and a stunning location along Lake Champlain, Burlington, Vermont, also boasts the University of Vermont (UVM), which is situated within the town of about 42,000. Planners have a host of ways to tie in their meeting to UVM, founded in 1791 and known as a leader in sustainability.
“The University of Vermont has Division I sports programs and great facilities to welcome groups, whether it’s a smaller, 25-person event to a basketball game or 150 people to a soccer game,” said Tom Carton, director of sales for Hello Burlington. “Groups could also meet some of the athletes or do a Q& A with the athletic staff.”
Other opportunities for leisure time activities include taking a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory tour in nearby Waterbury or wandering Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian walkway filled with 100-some shops and restaurants. Attendees can also cruise the lake aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen, which makes a great off-site event option for 350. HULA Lakeside, a spiffy new co-working space, can book events for up to 500.
When the time comes to buckle down, Burlington has a number of choices for meetings, such as the Doubletree by Hilton Burlington, with 309 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, and the Hilton Burlington Lake Champlain, with 258 guest rooms and 16,000 square feet of exhibit space.
With a population of 50,000, Charlottesville, Virginia, is proof positive that college towns often boast cultural scenes to rival those of much larger cities. Home of the University of Virginia, famously founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, Charlottesville was dubbed locavore capital of the world a few years back by Forbes. In addition, the area also offers the Monticello Wine Trail, which includes nearly 40 wineries.
And then there is Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia’s Academical Village, both designed by the third president and together named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Attendees will want to visit the village, home to the school’s instantly recognizable Rotunda, and Monticello.
“No visit to this area is complete without a trip there,” said Brantley Ussery, director of marketing and public relations at Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In recent years they’ve really been undertaking efforts to tell a more inclusive and complete story of Thomas Jefferson and his estate.”
Planners can schedule off-site events in a wide range of spaces at Monticello and at James Monroe’s Highland, just down the road. Meeting hotels in Charlottesville include an Omni, with 205 guest rooms and 12,441 square feet of meeting space, and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Charlottesville, with 239 guest rooms and 16,150 square feet of event space.