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Family-Friendly Southern Destinations

Veteran meeting planners know the secret to boosting their conference attendance: Hold the event in one of the South’s premier family vacation destinations.

Busy professionals love mixing business and pleasure by bringing their families to their conferences. And in destinations that cater to visitors of all ages, meeting planners find a combination of exciting attractions and useful venues that make family-friendly events a breeze.

Here are five meeting destinations in the Southeast that are also famous for family fun.

Snowshoe, West Virginia

Skiing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of West Virginia, but think again. Snowshoe Mountain is the largest ski resort in the mid-Atlantic and offers all-season fun for visitors of every age. But what it doesn’t offer may be the biggest draw of all. Located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, there’s little or no cell service.

“One thing that I hear from a lot of families when they come visit us is ‘the kids didn’t have cell phone service, so we talked and interacted and played board games,’” said marketing director Shawn Cassell. “I like to say, ‘disconnect to reconnect,’ and that really does happen here.”

The resort is situated at the top of the mountain (almost 5,000 feet above sea level), which makes for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Meeting attendees can relax in a hammock alongside Shaver Lake, take a scenic ride on the chairlift or play a round at the resort’s 18-hole PGA Championship golf course.

Snowshoe Mountain has over 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including the 15,000-square-foot Expo Center.

Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana

Conveniently located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Tangipahoa Parish is the self-proclaimed “Strawberry Capital of the World,” with half a million visitors descending each April for the town of Ponchatoula’s Strawberry Festival. The entire parish is a sweet place for families to explore.

Emily Matise, director of sales for Tangi Tourism, says that visitors must not miss a trip to the Global Wildlife Center. The 900-acre preserve is home to about a thousand animals.

“It’s nothing like a zoo,” said Matise. “The entire 900 acres is fenced in. You take a wagon or a jeep tour, and then you’re hand-feeding giraffes and zebras and camels and bison. It’s all about conservation and education, and everyone loves it.

The Grand Ballroom at the Student Union at Southeastern Louisiana State University serves as the parish’s convention center and accommodates up to 1,000 people for lectures and 700 for seated banquets.

Holiday Inn is the largest convention hotel, accommodating groups up to 125.

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

Every year, 5 million people visit Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, which has a surface area of almost 55,000 acres and laps against more than 1,000 miles of shoreline.

Missouri is known for its caves, and Bridal Cave is a family-friendly adventure for all ages. One-hour guided tours showcase the fascinating geologic history of the cave. On the surface, Thunder Mountain Park has an observation tower, nature trails, picnic areas, and a rock and mineral shop.

There are six conference hotels in the region, with 1,439 guest rooms, 82 meeting rooms and more than 200,000 square feet of meeting space.

Margaritaville Lake Resort Lake of the Ozarks (formerly Tan-Tar-A) has 560 guest rooms and 76,700 square feet of versatile space. The Lodge of Four Seasons has 352 guest rooms and 22 meeting rooms.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

Famed for their beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, are attractive destinations for anyone who loves the water.

“We are such a family-friendly destination in general,” said Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “Meeting attendees can have their meeting, and there’s plenty for families to do — everything from going to the beach or doing dolphin cruises to exploring 6,500 acres of Gulf State Park.” 

Entertainment abounds at the Wharf in Orange Beach, a pet-friendly district that has a 10,000-seat amphitheater, tons of shops and restaurants, a Ferris wheel and a nightly laser light show.

“Even our restaurants are family friendly and fun,” said Russ. “In addition to great food, Lulu’s has two rope courses and a beach arcade, and The Hangout has bubble parties. There’s always something to do.”

The Perdido Beach Resort offers 344 guest rooms, as well as 44,000 square feet of flexible indoor/outdoor meeting space and banquet facilities. The Lodge at Gulf State Park has 350 guest rooms and 40,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor event space. The Orange Beach Event Center at The Wharf has 18,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

A Smoky Mountain hamlet known as the home of Dollywood — singer/songwriter Dolly Parton’s sprawling resort, spa, amusement and water park — Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, also the gateway to Smoky Mountains National Park. Admission-free, it’s the most-visited national park in the nation, welcoming more than 12 million guests each year.

“I tell people all the time, there’s something in Pigeon Forge to do from the age of 3 to 103,” said Leon Downey, the executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “Our only industry is tourism, so family vacations are what we’re all about and have been for 60 years.”

Among those things are the 160-acre Dollywood Theme Park, Splash Country, snow sports, a 407-foot observation tower and 2.1-mile aerial cable car in nearby Gatlinburg, and underground caverns and museums in Sevierville.

Groups from 1,500 to 12,000 can attend events in the LeConte Center, which has a 100,500-square-foot, clear-span exhibit space with up to 17 separate breakout rooms.

Riverstone Resort has 130 guest rooms and four meeting rooms, with 3,600 square feet of exhibit space, 350 capacity for theater and 250 for seated banquets. Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa can accommodate seated banquets of 140 and theater seating of 170. It has nine meeting rooms and more than 300 guest rooms.