If you haven’t had a chance to explore much beyond historic, happening Atlanta, or legendarily charming Savannah, Georgia, we’ve got some good news for you: The Peach State proudly serves up a pleasing variety of less populous cities and towns that are as great for smaller meetings as Georgia’s famed fruit is for noshing.
Filled with Southern charm, spots like Athens, Cartersville, Macon, McDonough and Statesboro offer not only plenty of bang for meeting planners’ bucks, but also environments far removed from the frenetic paces of bigger cities.
In their off-hours, meeting attendees can relax and enjoy pleasures like enriching culture, outdoor activities galore and lovely downtowns that offer escape from the hustle and bustle of their lives back home. And when it’s time to roll up sleeves, these locations provide plenty of modern venues that are equipped with the latest technology. For planners organizing a compact event, these smaller Georgia markets can provide everything they need and nothing they don’t.
Athens isn’t known just as the home of the University of Georgia, though the school’s crackerjack football team scores the town plenty of press. Perhaps even more notably, blockbusters acts such as R.E.M. and the B-52’s got their start in the city. Of course, Athens is appealing to meeting planners mostly for other reasons.
“We have a safe and entirely walkable small downtown area,” said Nick Arnold, director of sales for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s live music found in multiple venues every night, a great culinary scene with hundreds of bars, restaurants and retail establishments all sitting on the north side of the iconic University of Georgia campus. And all of it is just steps away from the Classic Center, our downtown convention center, as well as over 1,750 hotel rooms, which are available right in downtown Athens as well.”
The 104,540-square-foot Classic Center offers everything a big-city convention facility does, like in-house audiovisual and catering, a grand hall with banquet seating for 3,000 and 35 breakout rooms. Athens meeting hotels include the Graduate Athens, with a historic, 2,600-square-foot ballroom, and the Hyatt Place Athens. Connected to the Classic Center, it features 190 guest rooms and 3,997 square feet of event space.
Attractions like the UGA State Botanical Garden and the Georgia Museum of Art, as well as the Creature Comforts Brewing Co. and the Terrapin Beer Co., can host off-site events, and all give tours, great for downtime fun. Music fans will want to feed their passion with a music-themed walking tour or by taking in a show at historic venues like the 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre.
Macon gets much of its heart from the musicians who hail from it, including Otis Redding, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers.
“You’re really able to learn about our musical history once you get here,” said Valerie Bradley, vice president of marketing for Visit Macon. “We have several attractions you can visit, like the Big House, Mercer Music at Capricorn and the Otis Redding Foundation. Our musical heritage is a major draw for us.”
The Big House, the Allman Brothers Band museum; Mercer Music at Capricorn, which houses exhibits related to the celebrated studio and record label; and the Otis Redding Foundation, home to a museum dedicated to the soul man, are all worth a visit in conference off-hours. So, too, are the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Tubman Museum, the country’s largest institution focusing on African American art, history and culture. Both offer event space, with the Hall of Fame featuring the 1,500-square-foot Georgia Room. The 49,000-square-foot Tubman Museum offers a central atrium that can seat 150 for a banquet.
Bradley recommends meeting-goers make time to play outside, especially on and around the Ocmulgee River. But when work beckons, the Edgar H. Wilson Convention Center provides 82,000 square feet of floor space, five breakout spaces and 11 meeting spaces, with in-house catering and audiovisual available. The Marriott City Center Hotel, which is attached to the Convention Center, features its own 9,594 square feet of event space, including a 3,034-square-foot ballroom.
With a population of only about 21,000, Cartersville has more world-class museums than any town its size should reasonably be able to claim — and they’re about to be joined by another. Best of all for meeting planners, not only do the Tellus Science Museum and Booth Western Art Museum offer blockbuster exhibits for after-hours enjoyment, they can be rented for off-site events as well. The Savoy Automobile Museum will open in late summer 2021; it will feature not only cool cars like mid-century Corvettes but also gathering spaces such as a Grand Hall Gallery.
“Cartersville is a refreshing place for a business meeting,” said Regina Wheeler, director of operations for the Cartersville-Bartow County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For example, The Booth has a large sculpture gallery for a wonderful meet-and-greet. Or, Tellus Science Museum has a great prefunction setting. How many people can say, ‘I’ve had drinks with an apatosaurus?’ And even the Bartow History Museum is a beautiful, private venue for an off-site meeting.”
For meeting-goers who want to get out into the fresh air and sunshine, Lake Allatoona, said Wheeler, “is at our beck and call.” The CVB will arrange boat rides for groups, including transportation onboard its bus. “It belongs to the convention and visitors bureau, and we are here to serve everyone,” Wheeler said.
Cartersville is home to the Clarence Brown Conference Center, which features an 11,500-square-foot main ballroom divisible into four spaces, with audiovisual support and full-service catering. A new Courtyard by Marriott with 108 rooms and a meeting space is set to open next to it by the first quarter of 2021.
Home to Georgia Southern University (GSU) and known for the song “Statesboro Blues,” penned by bluesman Blind Willie McTell and remade by the Allman Brothers, Statesboro is booming. Two years ago, the city received $20 million from the state to help fund a massive project that will create a new reservoir and park and transform a downtown drainage ditch into a creek surrounded by smart new commercial and residential development. Not bad for a place with a population of slightly more than 31,000.
In the meantime, there is much to commend Statesboro for meeting planners, including the Nessmith-Lane Center at GSU. It includes a 367-seat auditorium, a ballroom that can accommodate up to 400 guests, in-house catering and audiovisual support. The city’s Holiday Inn provides four meeting rooms and in-house catering.
The Natural Resources Building at Ogeechee Technical College is also an extremely popular choice for meetings, according to Becky Davis, executive director of the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s stunning,” she said. “Their main room has huge stone pillars, floor-to-ceiling glass and automatic shades. They have breakout rooms as well.”
But Statesboro offers other facilities that are great for group tours and off-site events. Davis recommends that meeting planners take a look at the Eagle Creek Brewing Company, noting, “Their chef just won the best shrimp and grits in Georgia at the Southern Living food festival on Jekyll Island.” Further options include the Center for Wildlife Education at GSU, which offers a flight show with raptors, and the Hunter Cattle Company, a family-owned spread that hosts hayrides, dining under the stars and more.
As much as any other location on this list, McDonough is the quintessential small Southern town, blessed with the kind of hospitality that lets you know immediately you’re in the Deep South.
“What makes us so unique is the small-town charm that we have,” said Christy Collier, director of tourism for the McDonough Hospitality and Tourism Board. “We have a beautiful downtown area. And we’re in a great location, with Atlanta just north of us, and Savannah just south of us. We’re in the great heart of Georgia.”
With a population of less than 26,000, McDonough still manages to provide ample conference facilities. According to Collier, the city has about 18 hotels and most feature meeting rooms; the Hilton Garden Inn, for example, offers a 1,500-square-foot ballroom, along with audiovisual support and catering. But where the town really shines is in its other venues, like Story on the Square, a bookstore with a 2,400-square-foot loft that can accommodate 120.
If meeting-goers can tear themselves away from McDonough’s adorable downtown, in their downtime they might want to visit Southern Belle Farm, which also offers gathering space. Fruit picking on the farm’s lovely 330 acres makes for a fun teambuilding exercise, as does the escape room that takes over the Camera Museum nights. Collier also recommends visiting the brand-new C.O. Polk Interactive Museum for a look at McDonough’s history and the powerfully evocative Heritage Park Veterans Museum.