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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Cool towns for hip meetings

Photo by Andy Newman/TDC

A show during a Key West Sunset

A lot of towns try their best to be just like their neighbors. On the ice-cream truck of life, they are vanilla.

And, then there are the towns that have decided they would much rather be themselves. Like the cool kids in high school, these hip towns are unafraid of individuality. They live to shake up the standard and to color outside the lines.

Having a meeting in one of these hip towns can have its upsides.

Circulation is likely to improve, because walking and biking are easy, inviting and expected. Energy might increase, thanks to a diet fueled by local foods in local places. Eyes will brighten thanks to abundant art; ears will be in tune with music that seems to be everywhere.

Best of all, new ways of thinking may emerge in these towns, which, by opting for the road not taken, can lead people down surprising and exciting pathways.

Key West, Fla.
There should be a law in Key West, Fla., that all meetings adjourn an hour before sunset.
In the nation’s southernmost city, the sun’s dip into the horizon is a daily event — a carnival-like gathering on Mallory Square, the harbor and the western horizon just beyond.

“You have to go to the sunset celebration when you come to Key West,” said Carol Shaughnessy, who has spent 30 years in the town of 24,000. “It is a total hoot.”

The tradition is as much an exercise in expressing creativity as a salute to the setting sun. Depending on the day, the “artists” who perform could include a modern-day Houdini, a unicycle-riding dog, jugglers, psychics, cats on a tightrope, a bagpiper and a Bible-pounding preacher.

The sunset celebration solidifies Key West’s reputation as a town that protects individual freedoms and privacy. “People can be themselves,” said Shaughnessy. “We believe people have the right to their privacy.”

When Hollywood types come to town as they often do, cool hotels like the historic Casa Marina and the boutique-style Ocean Key Resort keep quiet about it. They do the same for their meeting clients, who, at the Casa Marina, enjoy the island’s largest private beach as well as the services of a fish concierge, a staff member who identifies guests’ fishing catches, fillets them and offers ways to cook them.

Meetings held in the Ocean Key’s 8,000 square feet of meeting space can adjourn to the resort’s roomy Sunset Pier for enlightening happy hours.


Burlington, Vt.
Lisa Long loves the arts; her husband loves the outdoors. Burlington, Vt., they have found, appeals to both their passions.

An outdoorsy nature comes naturally there, with Lake Champlain on one edge of the city and the Green Mountains on the other. The setting and Burlington’s many colleges — there are four, the largest being the University of Vermont — appeal to creative types and make Burlington an expert in student-driven products such as live music, craft beer and fresh coffee. Bike magazine described its nightlife as “rollicking.”

Long has found her place in the arts world there, leading the BCA Center on downtown Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, a four-block, brick-paved pedestrian mall.

Housed in a former firehouse, BAC is a highly visible sign of Burlington’s vibrant arts community. It is also an energetic events space thanks to Long and her staff, who’ve come up with options like a “customized gallery” for meeting clients.

“I will choose six to eight pieces of art from a database of works available from local artists, and then I will hang those pieces in the group’s rental space.”

The center and Church Street are walking distance from Burlington’s downtown conference hotels — the Hilton Burlington and the Courtyard Burlington Harbor — so an evening out can also become a walking tour.

After a reception at the BCA Center, for example, groups can stroll to Ri Ra, a pub built of materials salvaged in Ireland and reassembled in Burlington where there’s live music Wednesday through Saturday and Irish music on Sunday. Another music option is Nectar’s, the club where the band Phish got its start.


Austin, Texas
A cocktail inspired by bats, a bowling alley/cinema/karaoke bar and Skee-Ball combo, a roomy stage where Willie Nelson has played: In Austin, the breezes off Lady Bird Lake aren’t all that’s cool.

When a 251-room W Hotel was built there, it landed not only among nightspots, shops and restaurants in the city’s musically inclined Second Avenue district, but also next door to the new home of the city’s internationally known music show, “Austin City Limits.” It’s a pricey proposition, but that revered stage can be booked on nonshow nights for company events.

Even an old hotel in the Texas capital has a vigorous vibe. Bartenders at the Driskill Hotel were victorious in last year’s annual Batini Contest, where bars vie to create the tastiest cocktail with Tito’s Handmade Vodka and other local ingredients. Batinis are a nod to the 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that sleep their days away beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge and fly out en masse each night.

The city’s cool extends beyond downtown at a dynamic duo known for hosting hip events. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and its sister business, the Highball, are in a south Austin strip shopping center, but the two venues are known for edgy events.

The Alamo’s theaters show films as they ply patrons with food and drinks. The setting works equally well for business presentations and lectures.

When business is a wrap, attendees can adjourn to the Highball, a throwback to the 1960s with a diner, a vintage eight-lane bowling alley, Skee-Ball and eight karaoke rooms, each a different size and decorated to match its musical theme, from country twang to disco sparkle.

Don’t neglect to book a karaoke room or two, the Highball’s Samantha Fox advises; as evenings progress, even the most Don Draper-like business folks want to belt out some tunes.

“Events planners will say, ‘We don’t want any karaoke rooms,’ and I always tell them to book a few. There is nothing like it in Austin. The funniest groups are the ones that book a room and then say, ‘Please, can we stay another hour?’”


Boulder, Colo.
Don some Crocs and hop on a Schwinn, and you’ll fit right in to Boulder’s casual, outdoor lifestyle.

The Colorado mountain town is headquarters for the lightweight footwear company and home to Crocs’ flagship store. It is also a platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community, where there’s nearly a bike (93,000) for every citizen (103,000).

Because its citizens spend so much time outside, they have long campaigned for environmental protection. The city’s focus on sustainable practices, which began in the 1950s, is reflected in one of its newest hotels, the St. Julien Hotel and Spa.

Being zero waste is the 200-room property’s aim, and it is already managing to recycle 70 percent of its waste on its way to 90 percent, the level needed to be zero waste, according to Valerie Knorr, director of sales.

The hotel also educates guests about their environmental impact. One way it helps illuminate others is by turning out lights in its lobby and restaurant for several hours every Tuesday. During Lights Out, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., guests dine on pizzas, paninis and pastas at a special two-for-one Tuscan Table Buffet as they ponder their impact on the planet.

Said Knorr, “Our poster for Lights Out includes this message: If everybody in America turned off one light for one hour every day, we’d save 18 million kilowatt hours, which is the equivalent of powering 1,600 homes for a year.”

While visitors save the Earth, they should also save room for memorable meals in the town that Bon Appetit called the Foodiest Town in America (October 2010).

Boulder is home to three chefs who’ve appeared on the television show “Top Chef,” including Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg, who now operates out of a retrofitted recreational vehicle.


Columbia, Mo.
In Columbia, Mo., the District is a synonym for cool.

Three colleges, including the massive University of Missouri, border the “43 not-so-square blocks,” as the area  likes to describe itself. Those downtown blocks are packed with 110 shops and 70 bars and restaurants, most which live to serve the built-in audience of 33,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff within walking distance.

Music is delivered in coffeehouses, in jazz clubs, even in a restored vaudeville theater that is home to the best-known club, the Blue Note, open since 1980, where REM, Johnny Cash, Jack Johnson, Wilco, and Dave Matthews have played. Private parties are welcome to rent place and put the two bars and sound and light systems to work.

Another stop for a meeting group is Billiards on Broadway, BOB for short, where management of the retro-style billiards bar is happy to set up a tournament and fuel the group with its Billiards burgers and fresh-cut fries.

Already home to lofts and apartments, the District may soon get a new hotel to replace an old property at its edge. A Hotel Indigo has been proposed.