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Hidden Gems

Small cities can shine just as bright as large cities, and this is especially true in the meetings industry. These often-overlooked meeting destinations have the natural beauty, historic venues, capable hotels and entertaining activities often found in major metros. But what makes them gold mines is their low price point, flexibility and lack of large crowds.

To discover the distinct appeal and signature charms of lesser-known locations, planners should unearth these hidden gem meeting destinations.

Mobile, Alabama

Home to the first Mardi Gras in North America, Mobile, Alabama, has a long history under several different flags. Once home to Native Americans, it was settled by the French in 1702. The port city then changed hands, first to Britain, then to Spain and finally to the U.S. Being on the Gulf Coast, Mobile enjoys mild winters and fresh seafood with Cajun and Creole influences at its dozens of restaurants. But one of its biggest benefits for meeting planners is its price tag.

“The cost of living is amongst the lowest,” said Tom White, vice president of convention and leisure sales. “Room rates, costs of the meeting spaces, and food and beverage is very low. The dollar goes further.”

Right on Mobile Bay, the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center has 300,000 square feet of meeting space with waterfront views. It features two exhibit halls with 50,000 square feet each, as well as two ballrooms with 7,750 square feet each. The convention center’s two levels have an additional 16 meeting rooms, 52,000 square feet of pre-function space and 45,000 square feet of outdoor space. Connected to the convention center via skywalk is the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel, with 373 guest rooms and 44,000 square feet of meeting space. This is just one of many downtown hotels; altogether, they offer 1,400 guest rooms within walking distance of the convention center.

The Gulf Quest Maritime Museum has additional waterfront meeting and event space for off-sites. Attendees can see the city’s distinct architecture in its historic neighborhoods, learn about the city’s history at the Mobile Carnival Museum or catch live music.

Fox Cities, Wisconsin

The Fox Cities refer to the 19 communities along the Fox River in Wisconsin’s Greater Appleton area. The region is also known as the Paper Valley, thanks to its history in the paper-making industry. The Fox Cities are conveniently located off Interstate 41 and have a regional airport, making them easy to access.

The Fox Cities Exhibition Center, which opened in early 2018, has 38,000 square feet of meeting space and an additional 17,000 square feet of outdoor plaza space. The center overlooks Jones Park in Appleton and is connected to the town’s largest hotel, the Hilton Appleton Paper Valley Hotel. The hotel has 388 guest rooms and 40,000 square feet of meeting space. In Neenah, the second largest of the communities in the Fox Cities, the DoubleTree by Hilton was remodeled in 2017 and has 12,000 square feet of meeting space. It’s also home to the Best Western Premier Bridgewood Resort Hotel, with 95 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

“The great thing about the Hilton Appleton Paper Valley and the DoubleTree Neenah is they’re located in downtown settings,” said Alison Hutchinson, sales director at the Fox Cities CVB. “Within walking distance, you have chef-owned restaurants, shopping and nightlife.”

The Fox Cities also have several distinct venues perfect for banquets, receptions or off-site events. Poplar Hall, an upscale venue with lots of natural light, overlooks the Fox River in downtown Appleton and is perfect for a banquet. North of Appleton, the Bubolz Nature Preserve offers several spaces for meetings and events, from ballrooms to conference rooms to private log cabins. Attendees can hike the trails or participate in outdoorsy team building activities on the nature preserve’s 700-plus acres.

Charlottesville, Virginia

Once home to prominent historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, Charlottesville, Virginia, elegantly combines the past and the present. It’s a college town that comes alive with the academic calendar, but it’s also home to historic estates like Jefferson’s Monticello and Monroe’s Highland. It’s also an up-and-coming wine region, with the Monticello Wine Trail featuring stops at 40-plus area wineries.

“It’s a small town with 10 square miles, but it’s got a lot of unique charm,” said Brantley Ussery, director of marketing and public relations at Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a very historic place situated at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with lots of scenic beauty.”

At the University of Virginia, construction of a convention center is underway and slated for completion in 2025. It will feature 25,000 square feet of meeting space and a 214-room hotel. Charlottesville’s current roster of meeting hotels includes The Forum, a newly opened 198-room hotel with 22,000 square feet of meeting space. There’s also the Omni Hotel, renovated in the fall of 2023, with 208 guest rooms and 14,000 square feet of meeting space. The Omni is located directly on the historic pedestrian downtown mall, giving attendees easy access to one of the city’s liveliest districts. Just west of downtown, Boar’s Head Resort has 22,000 square feet of meeting space and 168 rooms.

Planners have a variety of venues to choose from for off-site events, including the Dairy Market, the region’s first food hall, which has 18 food vendors. It offers event space just downstairs from the food hall, with a 6,000-square-foot space known as the Brick Cellar. Other off-site venues include the historic Monticello and Highland properties, as well as the textile-mill-turned-venue at The Wool Factory. Many of the local wineries also offer meeting space with mountain views, such as the Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards.

Salem, Oregon

Surrounded by the beauty of the Willamette Valley, Salem is Oregon’s capital. This city of nearly 178,000 is conveniently located an hour south of Portland on Interstate 5. In addition to its natural beauty, Salem has a long list of appealing amenities for meetings.

“We’re centrally located in the state, and we have free parking at the convention center and many of the other venues,” said Debbie McCune, director of sales and vice president at Travel Salem.

On its list of capable venues, the Salem Convention Center is located in the heart of downtown. It has 30,000 square feet of meeting space on two floors, including the 8,750-square-foot Santiam Ballroom. The second floor features an additional ballroom with 11,400 square feet. The convention’s center’s adjoining lodging, The Grand Hotel, has 193 guest rooms. Newly opened in April 2023, the chic Holman Riverfront Park Hotel has 127 guest rooms and several meeting rooms, including a 1,150-square-foot ballroom. It’s also just across the street from the convention center. Another downtown venue perfect for off-sites is the Willamette Heritage Center, a historic woolen mill perfect for banquets.

Outside the city, the Oregon State Fair and Expo Center is set on 185 acres and can handle large expos and trade shows. Its newest facility is the Pavilion, an arena with 5,000 fixed seats and a 30,000-square-foot arena floor.

The Willamette Valley is known as a prominent wine and agriculture region, making Salem’s food and beverage scene one of the best in the region. Many of its wineries double as meeting venues.

Kalispell, Montana

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Montana, Kalispell is a town of 28,000. It’s surrounded by the natural beauty of national parks and landmarks and offers an abundance of outdoor activities, from skiing to e-biking along the famous Going to the Sun Road.

“It makes a great destination people want to come to because it’s a great way for attendees to take pre- and post-vacations,” said Dawn Jackson, group sales manager at Discover Kalispell. “We’re so lucky to have Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake nearby, but we’re an all-around seasonal destination.”

Kalispell has two meeting hotels in town, the Hilton Garden Inn Kalispell, which has 144 guest rooms and 14,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 8,550-square-foot ballroom. The Red Lion Hotel Kalispell has 170 guest rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space with an 8,823-square-foot ballroom. The city’s other major meeting space can be found at Flathead Valley Community College’s Wachholz College Center, a newly built 58,000-square-foot facility. It contains a 1,014-seat concert hall, as well as a reception hall and several other meeting rooms.

Kalispell’s museums each have event space, including the Conrad Mansion Museum, a historic house museum showcasing exceptional Victorian architecture and beautiful grounds. The Northwest Montana History Museum, dating back to 1894, was the town’s first school and can now be rented for events. Other off-site venues include the town’s wineries and craft breweries; nearby lodges such as the Sherman Lodge; and the Ashley Creek Historic Venue at Snow Line Acres, a restored lumber building.