Stars Lounge on the top floor of the Crowne Plaza Dayton is a favorite perch for many conventioneers but perhaps none more than the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA).
When COPA meets in Dayton, members sit in the 14th-floor lounge, catch up with one another and scan the skies, watching for the arrivals of other members, who are piloting their own planes.
“They’ll look out the windows and say, ‘Here comes Bob,’” said Anna Nash, director of sales for the Dayton/ Montgomery County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“One of our niches, as you can imagine, is aviation,” said Nash.
No surprise, the city that spawned and nurtured the Wright brothers is a preferred gathering place for aviators. The reasons go beyond a lounge with a bird’s-eye view. In Dayton, there is Wright history to absorb, the world’s largest aviation museum to tour and rides to hitch on replicas of the Wright B Flyer III.
But Dayton, a sprawling metro area of some 850,000 about 40 miles north of Cincinnati, appeals to many other meeting segments as well.
Religious groups have plenty of room to spread out in the Dayton Convention Center, where an exhibition hall expands to 68,000 square feet and a 9,000-square-foot ballroom is the recipient of a recent makeover, courtesy of new caterer Ovations Food Services.
Military reunions make their way to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for tours and after-hours dinners or receptions. Sports groups pour into Dayton in the summer, including two major youth soccer tournaments.
Bike enthusiasts are bound to follow, as the city continues its trek to become the Portland of the Midwest. Dayton has a good start, with more than 230 miles of bike paths in the area.
Hard hit by NCR’s relocation
One meeting segment that hasn’t been so strong of late is corporate. The city has been hard hit by corporate relocations, the latest being NCR’s move from the city where it got its start.
“It was the last of our Fortune 500 companies,” said Kathy Barenbrugge, who directs sales for the city’s largest hotel, the 399-room Dayton Marriott. The Marriott is on the edge of NCR’s corporate campus, about a mile from downtown.
“NCR leaving changed the complexion of the corporate market,” said Jacquelyn Powell, president and CEO of the Dayton/Montgomery County CVB.
The University of Dayton and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base will help fill the void, Powell and others believe.
UD has purchased NCR’s headquarters and will move its research arm there. Work on unmanned spacecraft and composite materials is under way at the base.
The research generates meeting business, as evidenced by the Marriott, which broke records for group business in 2009, according to Barenbrugge.
“The university is coming on strong,” said Powell. “They are growing their campus and their capabilities. There have been a lot of firsts in Dayton and it has a lot of do with the future of the university and its research and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and its resources.”
As Powell reminds, “It is not all about the past, even though we have a great aviation history. We consider ourselves the past, present and future of aviation.”
Wright brothers and more
It’s hard not to get caught up in Dayton’s spirit of innovation, especially on a visit to the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and the Wright Cycle Shop next door, in the Wright Dunbar Business District.
The once-downtrodden neighborhood is neat and tidy, fitting for so important a place in history. In terms of the Wright brothers, “This is the neighborhood where it all happened,” said Dean Alexander with the National Park Service.
The middle-class neighborhood is where the Wrights grew up, built and repaired bicycles, ran their printing presses and began thinking about flying.
The bike shop, the fourth of five operated by the brothers and the only one remaining in its original location, shows how the bicycle and the Wrights’ breakthroughs in aviation are connected. Exhibits in the visitors center tell the story of the Wrights’ lives in the neighborhood. Upstairs, two nicely outfitted conference rooms are available for daytime meetings.
In a far-different neighborhood on the other side of Dayton, another Wright site offers a different look at aviation’s first family. Hawthorn Hill, a yellow-brick mansion in a neighborhood of old, stately homes, was the home of Orville Wright, his sister and his father.
He and his brother had designed the home, but Wilbur died before it was finished.
For many years, NCR owned the house and used it as a corporate guest house. Now, it has been given back to the Wright family and is managed by Dayton History, which makes it available for some events. Earlier this year, a contingent of Brazilian generals sipped wine on its porch; in June, spouses of high-ranking generals had a lunch there.
Carillon Park best for broad view
For a broader understanding of Dayton’s inclination toward invention, Carillon Historical Park is a logical stop.
Founded by Col. Edward Deeds, who also founded NCR, and his wife, Edith, the park “is the best place to come for the overall history of the Dayton area,” said Alex Heckman, director of education and museum operations.
The park includes an education center, which is adding a 20,000-square-foot wing to better tell Dayton’s story, and a village of buildings moved to the site such as a cycle shop, stuffed with rare and antique bikes; the barn where the automobile self-starter was invented; and the Wright Brothers Aviation Center, where the original 1905 Wright Flyer III is displayed.
Because of its varied venues, the park is popular for special events. Its village green can be tented. Various village buildings can be used for small receptions. The education center’s atrium can be set for after-hours banquets.
Of course, the history of aviation does not end with the Wrights, and nowhere is that more obvious than at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, home to more than 400 aerospace vehicles in massive metal hangars.
“Here, you can see what 100 years of flight has done for us,” said Teresa Montgomery, chief of special events.
The story the museum tells is more about man than machines.
“We talk about military aviation, but we do it in the way that tells the story of the people,” said Montgomery.
The museum’s new Korean War exhibit, opened to mark the 60th anniversary of the war, is expected to draw veterans of that conflict.
Looking up in downtown Dayton
Like many of its peers, downtown Dayton has had its trials, but a number of developments have enlivened it. Notable additions are Fifth Third Field, home to the Dayton Dragons baseball team, a minor-league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, and RiverScape MetroPark, Dayton’s reclaimation of its waterfront.
The ballpark could be downtown’s biggest boon, boasting sell-out crowds for every home game since it opened a decade ago. RiverScape MetroPark, a ribbon of green along the Great Miami River, is a place to stretch legs, eat ice dream and visit Invention Stations that teach visitors about cellophane, digital watches and other things invented in the city. There are pedalboats, roller blades and bikes for rent and walking paths that link to more than 60 miles of trails.
A performance pavilion, opened this summer, will be used for concerts and other events, and it might also be used as an off-site venue.
Two downtown hotels serve the convention center, among them the 291-room Crowne Plaza Dayton, attached to the center by pedway. It is under new management, and an extensive renovation is on the horizon. Larger groups typically use the Crowne, the 184-room Doubletree Hotel Dayton Downtown four blocks away, and the Marriott, with the CVB helping to orchestrate shuttles.
Dayton has learned to be creative, and for groups of 300 or fewer, the hotel and the center wlll book the hotel’s ballroom and the convention center’s third level as one meeting space to give groups the breakout and exhibit areas that the hotel lacks.
For entertainment, it’s the Oregon District
Among downtown’s best advantages is the Oregon District, two blocks from the convention center.
The historic district is a line-up of two-story brick storefronts where tattoo parlors, art galleries and the district’s oldest business, Bonnett’s Books, stand shoulder to shoulder.
There are also a number of local restaurants, from the spicy Thai 9 at one corner to the rollicking Dublin Pub at the district’s far end.
The Oregon District by no means has the corner on restaurants with flavor.
On the edge of the University of Dayton campus, the Pine Club has held tight to its original 1940s look and its reputation for generous and tender steaks. From sparkling drink glasses dangling upside down over the bar to the knotty pine paneling and the low, low lighting, the restaurant says retro.
Its differences aren’t limited to decor — the restaurant doesn’t take reservations (former President George H. Bush and his wife, Barbara, are perhaps the most-famous patrons to wait for table) and it doesn’t accept credit cards — both measures aimed at making the restaurant more efficient and saving patrons money, said owner Dave Hulme.
Surprisingly, the Pine Club does take checks; customers can even be billed and pay later.
Innovative spirit will see Dayton through
Dayton’s champions believe that it will be the city’s inclination toward invention that will pull it out of the doldrums that affect it and much of the nation. It would be appropriate route for the town where the automotive self-starter was invented.
Heckman, one of Dayton’s younger citizens, sees evidence of the ingenuity that has been so much a part of Dayton’s economic fabric.
And, as it the days of Wilbur and Orville Wright, it is not all in sophisticated laboratories, but in suburban basements and urban garages.
“Dayton has challenges today, but it also has a lot to be proud of,” said Heckman. “There’s still that spirit of innovation.”