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Garden Meetings Help Ideas Bloom

Padded air walls, floral upholstery, palm frond print on the carpet: After a while, a lot of conference space can start to look the same.

More often, planners are looking for ways to get their groups out of the hotel, away from the convention center and into new surroundings. Gardens offer beautiful, fragrant spaces where vines drape the walls, bright flowers carpet the floor, and lush greenery greets meeting attendees.

“Sometimes getting outside the classroom, from the learning standpoint, is the best thing,” said David Hackney, director of food services and private events for Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. “A completely different environment opens up some senses, and perception just gets turned on.”

Here are five gardens around the country that make great alternative settings for small meetings.

Brookgreen Gardens

Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

Brookgreen Gardens has 9,100 acres; about 5,100 of those are accessible gardens while the other 4,000 are wild South Carolina low country, and “depending on how much rain we’ve had, you can get to some of them, and some you can’t,” Hackney said.

Brookgreen doesn’t offer much indoor space for private events, but with so much land, along with its Native Wildlife Zoo, pontoon boat rides and overland tours, it doesn’t need to.

Planners can rent a 60-person theater in Brookgreen’s welcome center, but the rest of the function space is outdoors. Organizers typically use nine garden areas, including The Gates, Brookgreen’s original entrance, and Live Oak Allée, a spectacular oak alley where “you walk in over there, and your blood pressure goes down five points,” Hackney said.

The Courtyard next to the Holliday Cottage has a custom tent and can accommodate up to 100 people for a seated dinner. Several other gardens and fountain areas can host receptions or dinners, although each should use a tent because “the last thing you want is a perfect martini with an acorn in it,” he said.

Meeting attendees can take guided group tours or explore the Lowcountry Center and Trail. Groups can board the 48-person pontoon boat to float down tidal creeks or hop on an open-air trolley for tours over land; both options highlight nature, wildlife and history as Colonial-era rice plantations.

“If you tell me I’ve got to go to a seminar, I’m going to be in a whole lot better frame of mind because I’m going to Brookgreen Gardens,” Hackney said. “Not too many classrooms float down the water with alligators and birds and snakes all over the place.”

Longwood Gardens

Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

Of Longwood Gardens’ 1,000-plus acres of manicured grounds, wild woodlands and shaggy meadows, more than four acres are under glass. The conservatory houses about 20 gardens that feature more than 5,000 plants from around the world. But the historic glass greenhouse, built in 1919, is also home to several spaces that are available for meetings, banquets and other private events.

The gardens’ two most popular function spaces are the ballroom and the exhibition hall, said communications manager Patricia Evans. The 1929 ballroom, with its hardwood floors, crystal chandeliers and wall of windows that provide views into the East Conservatory gardens, “just screams Old World elegance,” she said. “It’s quite spectacular.” Because the 3,850-square-foot room can be closed off and set up, it’s out of the public way. The Patio of Oranges in the East Conservatory is also available for smaller gatherings, such as a dinner for about 50 guests.

In the Exhibition Hall, a sunken floor that usually holds a few inches of water to serve as a reflection pool, can be drained and used for seating. With an elevated stage and room for about 350 people at round tables, it’s popular for off-site conference events, dinners and other after-hours events, Evans said.

The 1,900-square-foot Terra Cotta Room can be used during the day because it has a private entrance. The room is also in the lower level of the Terrace restaurant, which provides all on-site catering and uses produce from Longwood’s vegetable garden. Groups can arrange to have guides on hand during their event to talk to guests about the gardens.