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Meet Downtown Down South

It isn’t always easy to find city centers suitable for hosting meetings. After all, small towns sometimes lack the resources groups want, and the business districts of larger municipalities can feel like a concrete desert, with more office buildings than charm.

The South, however, is graced by destinations that provide singular downtown amenities sure to keep meeting attendees engaged and energized. From little to large, here are a few of the region’s most unusual city centers.

Little Rock, Arkansas

The state capital of Little Rock, Arkansas, is blessed with a downtown district that is booming, according to Gina Gemberling, Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau vice president of sales and services.

“The energy downtown is very much at a high,” she said, “with our hotel occupancy up tremendously. There are many factors that play into that, including the area’s infrastructure, with the Robinson Center, the DoubleTree and the Marriott located along the riverfront. We also have the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden right outside the Marriott and the Statehouse Convention Center, along with Riverfront Park, which is a city park that wraps all the way down to the River Market District.”

If it sounds like an embarrassment of riches for a city of less than 200,000, these attractions are only part of downtown Little Rock’s appeal to small and midsize meetings. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park boasts a stellar museum and a well-regarded restaurant, 42, overlooking the Arkansas River. It’s connected via a complimentary streetcar to the bustling River Market District that Gemberling says “offers everything from the duelling piano bars to ice cream shops, boutique shopping and souvenir shops.”

Little Rock offers plenty of other unique off-site venues for receptions and meals, like Heifer International. A global nonprofit working to end poverty, the organization hosts private gatherings at its urban farm and headquarters, and River Market’s Ottenheimer Market Hall and the outdoor pavilions behind it can be rented for functions. The downtown’s graceful pedestrian bridges can even be reserved for group gatherings.

Hampton, Georgia

With a population of less than 8,000, Hampton, Georgia, in Henry County, benefits from its proximity to the Atlanta Motor Speedway, less than a mile away. It boasts a wealth of distinctive conference facilities, like Club One, a 26,000-square-foot luxury venue high above the infield, as well as opportunities for adventures including a track tour, a NASCAR driving experience or a ride-along. Across from the track, the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation hosts events in its hangar and books thrilling rides in the organization’s restored combat helicopters.

But meetings don’t have to leave Hampton’s Main Street to find charm, according to Laura Luker, Henry County Convention and Visitors Bureau director of tourism.

“It’s such a cute, vibrant downtown, with a really good mix of shops, restaurants and things to do, all in maybe three blocks,” she said. “It’s a really interesting, eclectic and artistic community.”

The town’s appeal has brought Hollywood calling — everyone’s favorite television show about zombies was filmed there, and the Walkin’ Dead Hampton Tour offers a fun look at the series’ downtown shooting sites. The business district provides good locations for receptions and meetings, too, thanks to Jailhouse Brewing Company’s new space, the Watchtower, which holds about 60 people. Hampton’s historic train depot, built in 1881, can also be rented for events.

Abingdon, Virginia

Abingdon, Virginia, has much to recommend it, including more than 35 independently owned restaurants that are so good this county seat was voted as the country’s best small-town food scene by USA Today readers. With roots dating back to the mid-1700s, Abingdon, which sits in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, is wonderfully historic, too. Downtown spots like the Tavern Restaurant, located in a building erected in 1779, and the Martha Washington Inn and Spa, once a Civil War hospital, give planners plenty of options for receptions and events.

Exceptional outdoor venues include the open-air Abingdon Farmers Market building and the Muster Grounds, where patriot militia gathered during the Revolutionary War and reenactments still take place. In the town center, the beautiful Barter Theatre, the nation’s oldest professional Equity stage, presents live entertainment and can also be booked for functions.

Meeting attendees who want to take in the fresh air and sunshine will be happy to find the trailhead for the celebrated 34.3-mile Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon.

“Groups can rent bikes in town and hire guides, too” said Monica Hall, Abingdon Convention and Visitors Bureau’s group sales manager. “We’ve got wonderful shopping and dining downtown, with a connection to the outdoors right there. It’s very special.”

Oxford, Mississippi

Even if Oxford, Mississippi, offered only its now-legendary culinary scene, which includes James Beard Award-winning chefs John Currence and Vishwesh Bhatt, it would make a great spot for meetings. But the town’s walkability is attractive, too, said Visit Oxford executive director Kinney Ferris.

“We’ve got three hotels that are really close to downtown, so you can park and walk to a wonderful restaurant or a fun place to shop,” she said. “You can also browse art in the galleries around the Square, and there’s great musical acts that come through because of the university.”

The University of Mississippi is home to Rowan Oak, Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner’s estate, which is open for tours. Meeting planners can also charter a double-decker bus from the CVB for a guided look at Oxford and arrange for a reception or meal at James Beard Award nominee St. Leo, or the restaurant’s new lounge. With a well-designed lobby and a lovely rooftop bar, the Graduate Oxford hotel is a festive event site, as is the Grove, Ole Miss’ heralded 10-acre tailgating area.

Ferris said planners should be sure to leave time for their group to indulge in one of Oxford’s favorite pastimes.

“Get a seat on one of the balconies on the Square and have a drink, or a coffee at Square Books,” she said. “We do run at a slower pace, so that gives you an opportunity to just relax and take in the culture.”

Florence, Alabama

Part of an area known as the Shoals, the little town of Florence, Alabama, has been making some big noise, and that’s aside from the sound coming from the legendary recording studios surrounding it. That’s because, though the neighboring sites where everyone from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin recorded are a tourist magnet, downtown Florence is a worthwhile destination on its own. Anchored by clothing designer Billy Reid’s flagship boutique and now boasting chef John Currence’s Big Bad Breakfast, Florence is one happening spot.

That’s probably thanks, at least in some measure, to its historic allure.

“Instead of tearing down these old buildings, people have been renovating them to create a kind of story within a story,” said Florence-Lauderdale tourism manager Randa Hovater. “The restaurant Odette used to be a shoe store, and we’ve got a jewelry store in what was an old bank — even Trowbridge’s has been downtown for 101 years now. There’s something really beautiful about that.”

Trowbridge’s is worth a visit for its orange-pineapple ice cream alone; live entertainment is on the bill at the historic Shoals Theatre; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House is open for tours. Meanwhile, planners will want to check out the sleek and stylish Stricklin and GunRunner hotels, which offer boutique event spaces and accommodations.