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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Creative Venues in the South

At any multi-day meeting, conference, convention or trade show, there is a certain unavoidable malaise that sets in after a few days spent inside hectically running from one session to the next, trying to catch every person on one’s networking list and burning the midnight oil at evening receptions.

All meeting planners have their own ways for combating the inevitable droop of heads on the last day of their event, but few things breathe fresh air into a lagging attendee like a change of scenery, especially one with a view, an outdoor component or high entertainment value.

Whether you’re looking for a fresh space for a meal, a reception or an evening’s entertainment, spaces with big wow await in small market cities and towns around the South.


Kentucky Derby Museum

Louisville, Kentucky

Though the Kentucky Derby Museum is a key tourist draw for any group visiting Louisville, museum staff think of their building as having two completely different sides: a museum by day, a rental venue by night.

“There is no doubt that we are a museum and a cultural attraction, but we’re also a rental facility,” said executive director Lynn Ashton. “In 2009, Louisville had a flood, and we were ruined; and when we started over, we had the designers build in areas throughout the museum for bars and buffets.”

Though decoration is built in, thanks to the museum’s exhibits, museum staff have a variety of tricks up their sleeves to bring events to another level, especially if you want to go with a Derby theme.

“Often, we’ll have a bugler standing upstairs that ‘bugles’ people in, or we’ll have a race activity where you get play money — horsey bucks — and we set up a betting window,” said Ashton. “We research the corporate or association and rename the horses after products or key people who will be at the event.”

To get your preferred dates, Ashton recommends booking at least a year to a year and a half out. The shortest lead time the museum can typically accommodate is three to four months. Though as a general rule, the museum only books one event per day, depending on size and needs, they can run up to three at one time.


Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

Key West, Florida

In a small but highly desirable location like Old Key West, event space is in high demand, but few locations pack in as much culture, history and plain old fun as Ernest Hemingway’s historic home, complete with a clowder of quirky cats descended from the ones Hemingway himself kept on the property.

Before or during events, museum staff can acquaint guests with the property, which includes Hemingway’s extensive collection of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish furniture that was impressive for a writer even of his stature and the penny he purportedly threw into the drying pool cement after his wife spent “all but his last penny,” through 30-minute private tours of 25 to 30 people per guide.

“We like to be gentle to the property,” said event coordinator Vicky Furman. “It wouldn’t look the same if we had 300 people walking around.”

Due to preservation issues, rentals with more than 100 guests are discouraged, even for outdoor events, because of the wear and tear on the lawn and gardens, home to Hemingway’s infamous pool, which cost $20,000 when it was built in 1938 and required builders to dig through 10,800 cubic feet of solid coral.

The pool is as popular an entertaining venue with groups today as it was in Hemingway’s time, when he had a boxing ring built alongside it. The front lawn and brick patio can also be set for outdoor luncheons or evening events.


Hank Williams Museum

Montgomery, Alabama

In his 29 short years, prolific musician Hank Williams wrote tunes that not only have been dubbed the beginning of modern country music, but also have influenced musicians from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan.

There are many places to take in Hank Williams history, from the Rock Hall of Fame to the Hank Williams, Sr. Boyhood Home and Museum in Georgiana, Alabama, but the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery is the only place that groups can book for a special event steeped in the music, myth and memorabilia of country music’s biggest legend.

Located in an otherwise unassuming storefront right in downtown Montgomery, the Hank Williams Museum has just celebrated the 15-year anniversary of its founding by Beth Petty, daughter of former Hank William Memorial Foundation president Cecil Jackson, who met Williams in person just one week before his death.

Petty’s enthusiasm and personal connection has driven the museum to amass the most complete collection of Williams artifacts in existence, including his Cadillac, handmade suits, personal records and awards, and even his birth certificate. The space for group events lies in the midst of the collection.


George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Alexandria, Virginia

George Washington may be best known today as the father of our country, but in his own time, the name he made for himself revolved more around his highly fruitful business as the nation’s most successful distiller.

For groups occupying Washington’s homestead in Mount Vernon for the evening, this is only one of the many surprises you can expect to hear straight from the lips of the first president — or at least a highly trained interpreter playing the part of Mount Vernon’s host in his absence.

“He and Martha were prolific hosts,” said vice president of marketing Rebecca Aloisi. “One of our character interpreters can take the group on an hour-and-a-half private tour of the estate or join for the main event with a presentation germane to the group, such as George Washington on his time in the military, Martha on her life as a military wife during that time or Washington’s physician on plantation medicine.”

As the museum is open to the public during the day, private dining is limited to the Mount Vernon Inn during daytime events; but the museum, education center and reception center lobbies, the east lawn and the reconstructed distillery are all available for evening events.

“There’s a certain magic of being at George Washington’s home after hours and experiencing what the estate was like in his time, how he would have enjoyed it hosting leaders and luminaries of his day,” said Aloisi.


Shiloh Museum of Ozark History

Springdale, Arkansas

This year, the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History celebrates its 50th anniversary, though the collection goes back much further. Originally a 10,000-piece private collection of Native American artifacts that belonged to a local, the museum has now grown to include more than 100,000 photographs, relocated historic buildings including an entire two-acre city block and a 22,000-square-foot main building.

If you are looking for a truly exclusive and unusual off-site venue for a small group, the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History might be just the spot — if your group meshes with the museum’s mission.

“We have a number of groups that meet here regularly — genealogy groups, civil war enthusiasts — but we usually only have groups looking to do something related to local history,” said director Allyn Lord. “We don’t have space for busloads of people, as the meeting room also has some exhibits and collections in it.”

For groups, summer, when outdoor venues are also available and the Ozark mountains are at their peak, is prime time to visit. But the museum also contains an indoor meeting space that can fit 50 to 75 seated guests.

Though the museum does not offer guided tours of its exhibit hall, the staff can brief groups for a selfguided tour through the chronological exhibits on Ozark history from the Native Americans through the Civil War to the origins of “hillbilly” folk culture. Museum staff can offer one of nearly 50 different 30-to-60-minute historic presentations in the meeting hall before or after the tour.


Pavilion at Hunter Valley Farm

Knoxville, Tennessee

When is a farm not just a farm? When it has clay shooting, polar bear swims, pony rides, outdoor lounges, paddleboarding, bourbon-tasting bars and everything else you would include in either a daydream or Disneyland for meeting planners.

Any event that you can think of, we have probablydone,” said owner Nancy Barger. “If you can think of it, we can probably pull it off, and we do most of the planning here ourselves, which saves our clients time and money. We’ve done a leadership conference with brunch, lunch, cocktails and meeting spaces spread all over the 57-acre property ending in a barbecue dinner on our two-acre white-sand beach.”

Events at Hunter Valley Farm typically consist of 100 to 200 attendees, but Barger has held corporate events for as many as 1,200 guests and as few as 50. Just a few miles from both downtown Knoxville and the airport, Hunter Valley Farm is conveniently located to most other local full-service meeting venues.

The one caveat Barger advised for planners, not only at her venue but throughout Tennessee, is that state regulations generally require clients to purchase alcohol and bring it to the venue. But because many corporations don’t want to assume that liability, Barger works with two caterers that can also handle cash bar service.