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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Columbia’s Comeback

Just over 30 years ago, National Geographic magazine named Gervais Street, the main drag in Columbia, South Carolina, the ugliest street in America. Comparing the picture it printed to Gervais now, you’d think they were talking about a different city.

“I’ve looked at Gervais from every angle, and I can’t figure out where they took that picture from,” said Andrea Mensink, director of communications for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism.

Today, the Vista neighborhood around Gervais is home to hundreds of restaurants and shops that have turned the city’s previously unsightly industrial remnants into an area of cutting-edge architecture and design. And the country’s hippest hotel chains are taking notice. In March 2015, a 130-room Hyatt Place hotel moved in, and a 107-room Aloft, which will be Columbia’s first boutique-style hotel, complete with a living wall, will open in the neighborhood in 2016.

After sustaining significant damage due to extensive flooding last October, these new developments and the potential they represent are another encouraging rebound for this comeback city.

Along the riverfront, the state’s capital city goes positively futuristic at the South Carolina State Museum, which features both the state’s history and some of its top interactive exhibits, including a digital planetarium and 4-D multisensory theater. The stunning state museum, fresh off a $21 million expansion completed in 2014, is an apt symbol of the whole of Columbia: revering local history while incorporating the best of the present.

Many of the most popular event venues in town, from 701 Whaley, a former mill village company store, to the 200-year-old Seibel House and Gardens to the Motor Supply Company Bistro on Gervais, housed in a former motor supply store, mold historic settings into hip modern venues. Though Columbia has its own convention center and hotels from all major chains, unusual venues like these — and the CVB’s ability to match the right ones to each group — are one of the city’s big draws today.

“Compared to other markets that may focus on trying to draw large events, our team takes individual care and utilizes our resources to make every event a VIP experience, no matter the size,” said Jason Outman, executive director of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Time and time again, planners tell us that the easy accessibility, affordability and Southern hospitality of the Columbia region keep them coming back.”

Largest Meeting Venues

In the Vista neighborhood, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out over the city and the verdant University of South Carolina campus, the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center is relatively new to the meeting scene in the city. When it opened in 2004, it added 142,500 square feet of meeting space to downtown Columbia, including a 17,135-square-foot ballroom and a 24,700-square-foot exhibit hall. In its first seven years, it welcomed 1 million visitors.

As home to the University of South Carolina, a school with a strong sports tradition, some of the largest venues available for rent in Columbia are the university stadiums. Directly adjacent to the convention center, the Colonial Life Arena, which seats up to 18,000 in the largest arena in South Carolina, includes an atrium lobby, with 65-foot-high glass panels, that is available for evening receptions when there is not a university basketball game in progress. Its Frank McGuire Club, entertainment suites and executive suites are all available for rent and can be customized to meet a group’s needs throughout the year. The university’s 467,576-square-foot Carolina Coliseum also features stadium seating for large lecture events, as well as a variety of meeting and classroom options.

Just outside the city, the South Carolina State Fair grounds offers some of the biggest meeting rooms in town, with nine spaces available for rent totaling 147,956 square feet. The 40,000-square-foot Cantey Building and the 35,000-square-foot Goodman Building are the largest. Outside groups are unable to use the venue in September and October, when the 101-acre grounds are dedicated to preparing for and closing out the South Carolina State Fair, which has run since 1869 and now draws more than 400,000 people each year.

Sweet Dreams and Successful Meetings

Within walking distance of the Columbia Metropolitan Center and right in the heart of the bustling Vista district, the 222-room Hilton Columbia Center includes just under 6,000 square feet of meeting space in luxurious gold tones to match the sumptuous interiors of the AAA Four Diamond property. Its Palmetto Ballroom can host up to 280 attendees or be configured as two banquet halls and breakout rooms. The hotel also has two boardrooms and two additional meeting rooms. A 122-room Hampton Inn is just a few blocks from the convention center, and the remaining downtown hotels are a half-mile to a mile away.

Smack in the middle of downtown, the Columbia Marriott, within walking distance of the Columbia Museum of Art, an ideal place for a scenic evening reception, offers 27,000 square feet of meeting space and 300 guest rooms. The Marriott’s 18 meeting and event spaces include the 6,360-square-foot Carolina Ballroom, the 6,550-square-foot Capital Ballroom and the 1,860-square-foot Palmetto Ballroom, which can be broken into 14 breakout rooms.

The 134-room Sheraton Columbia Downtown Hotel right on Main Street offers the best opportunity to sleep in historic surroundings. It began in 1913 as home to the Palmetto National Bank, and became a plush Sheraton complete with lounges on its roof and in its former bank vault after a $20 million renovation that finished in 2008. The owners are already at it again, renovating from the ground up, beginning with a new Starbucks lounge concept that opened in the former Sherlock Holmes Pub at street level.

Hilton also has a new property coming online through a rebranding of the downtown Clarion Hotel, which will reopen later this year as a dual-branded Hilton Garden Inn and Home2 Suites, with 220 rooms and more than 6,000 square feet of meeting space.