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Hot times in Alexandria’s Old Town

Photo courtesy Alexandria CVA

Sometimes, history gets a little old. It’s a dilemma for handsome historic towns that are proud of their heritage, yet hesitant to focus too much on it, lest they appear out of step.

The lucky ones, like Alexandria, Va., have in the last few years seen edgy development in their historic hearts, and the resulting mix of old and new is appealing to meeting planners, who are always on the lookout for something different to enliven their meetings.

The changes in Alexandria are the kind visitors notice most — new hotels, new restaurants and new shops. Many of the changes have come in its popular Old Town, the country’s third-oldest historic district.

“If you hadn’t been here for 10 years you would still appreciate the authenticity and the history but you would recognize that it is different.” said Stephanie Pace Brown, president and CEO, Alexandria CVA. “We think of it as a perfect balance between historic ambiance and contemporary flair.”

New hotels have been built, and old ones have been refurbished, an overall investment of $388 million in the past three years. As a result, Alexandria has about 500 more hotel rooms than it did a few years ago, 4,700 rooms in 24 hotels.

Kimpton arrives in big way
Among the most noted new presences is Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, the San Francisco-based operator of 50 hotels, which now operates three hotels in Alexandria, all in Old Town.

Courtesy Alexandria CVA

The newest is the 107-room Lorien Hotel and Spa, two blocks from the metro station on King Street. At the other end of King is Kimpton’s 241-room Hotel Monaco, a redo of an old Holiday Inn. Between the two is the 45-room Morrison House, which makes frequent appearances on Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List.

All three have meeting space, from 2,000 square feet in the Morrison House to 5,000 square feet in the Monaco. The Lorien splits its 7,000 square feet between indoors and out; its outdoor spaces include terraces that overlook King Street.

The largest new hotel to open is the Westin Alexandria, a 319-room property three blocks from the metro station in Old Town’s Carlyle section. It has by far the largest amount of meeting space among Alexandria’s newcomers at 20,000 square feet.

New chefs cook up a storm
The flurry of new and revitalized hotels comes on the heels of celebrity chefs who’ve migrated from larger cities and have opened their own restaurants, often in the historic buildings abundant in Old Town. Among them are Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, named one of Food and Wine’s best new chefs; husband and wife team Christophe Poeux and Michelle Garbee and their French bistro Bastille and Anthony Chittum at Vermillion.

“We’ve had this little flood of well-known chefs who have come to town to open their own restaurants,” said Pace Brown. The independent restaurants “go so well with our emerging boutique district, a group of independently owned stores, 28 of them,” she said. “We’ve really been fortunate to witness a renaissance where development is coming together from a number of angles.”

Courtesy By Ben Fink, courtesy Alexandria CVA

Adding a number of upscale accommodations suited to small meetings has made the CVA look harder at corporate meetings. “You can’t enter that market at all without the quality of hotels that are desired,” said Pace Brown. “We think there are a lot of opportunities in the corporate market.”

Alexandria is focusing on the financial and pharmaceutical industries along the Washington and Philadelphia corridor, according to Lorraine Lloyd, the CVA’s vice president of sales.

Associations can bring meetings home
The city, home to about 400 association headquarters, is also a natural for that market. To encourage more associations to bring meetings to their hometown, Alexandria’s mayor has sent letters to association chiefs, reminding them of Alexandria’s assets and encouraging them to book meetings there.

Wealth of low-cost off-site options

One of the city’s longstanding strengths is a wealth of off-site options. “We have a lot of off-property experiences that are distinctive and fairly low cost,” said Pace Brown.

Courtesy By Freed Photography

New options supplement standards like Colonial dinners and dancing at Gadsby’s Tavern (see sidebar below) or evenings down river at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.

For example, DC Food Tours has for the past several years offered customized dinearounds. It specializes in introducing groups to the smaller, locally owned restaurants that tourists aren’t likely to discover.

Active, athletic attendees might opt for Bike and Roll, which takes as many as 200 people on bike rides around Alexandria, providing a safe bike, helmet, water bottles and even a snack.
Also new is Carafe Wine Makers, an Old Town shop where groups not only taste wines, but also make wines.

Under the guidance of shop staff, a group can choose a wine it likes and then combine the ingredients to make it. Each batch yields 30 bottles. After fermenting for four to eight weeks, groups can return to bottle the wine or have the shop do it for them.

Groups can also design their own labels, a feature that seems to make the wine-making a natural for events that should be commemorated like company anniversaries, the launch of new products or an executive’s retirement.

Old Town’s established venues also get a great deal of play. One of the busiest is the Torpedo Factory Art Center, on the river at King Street’s foot.

The building is a former torpedo factory (a couple of torpedoes on display serve as reminders), saved from demolition, like many buildings in Alexandria, and repurposed as art galleries and studios for 160 artists. Events can be held there from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Art center is a blank canvas
A large central lobby is the equivalent of a blank canvas. “The great thing about this space is its flexibility and its location,” said Tara Zimnick-Calico, director of special events. “It is just a raw space and you can use it pretty raw or you can theme it with lights and linens. It can be whatever the client wants. It is a fun, fabulous space.”

Courtesy By Ben Fink, courtesy Alexandria CVA

Because of its location, it is easy to pair the center with other Old Town venues. One recent gathering for 500 began with cocktails at the art center, followed by dinearounds throughout Alexandria. The evening concluded with dessert back at the art center.

At a group’s request, artists will sometimes stay around after hours so guests can tour their studios. Some guests purchase hand-crafted items like pottery or handmade knitted hats or gloves.

The other Washington memorial
Alexandria’s George Washington Masonic Memorial is not as well known as the Washington Monument, but as a meeting venue, it is far superior to the more famous monument. Funded by the Freemasons and opened in 1932 to honor the first president and the Freemason’s best-known member, the memorial stands on Shooter’s Hill near the top of King Street, west of the metro station. Having a sunset dessert reception on the ninth-floor observation deck is one way to get a better understanding of the mere eight miles that separates Alexandria from Washington, D.C.

Striking surprises in Memorial Hall
The building’s interior holds several striking surprises. A 17-foot bronze of Washington and two 46-foot murals of the nation’s first leader command attention in Memorial Hall. Six stained-glass windows pipe multicolored light into the hall, which will accommodate 200 person receptions.

By Richard Nowitz, courtesy Alexandria CVA

“You are surrounded by marble and velvet and there’s beauty and quality that you don’t experience everywhere,” said Pace Brown.

A piano and a pipe organ are among the assets in Memorial Theatre, an intimate space with 358 seats in eight tiered rows and room for another 100 temporary seats. Movie goers might recognize the theater from the opening scene of “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.”

Despite all its new, contemporary assets, the historic city has by no means turned its back on its heritage. Pub tours, led by guides in patriot garb, never seem to go out of style.

The city also has a significant Scottish population and more than its share of bagpipers. Pace Brown organized an event for the National Council of State Travel Directors. “We had a bagpiper lead us to dinner in one of our historic building. The sponsors of the meeting were over the moon about it.”

From actors who portray George and Martha Washington to fife and drum corps, “we have a depth of things that add to meetings,” said Pace Brown. “It can add so much and cost so little.”

Another old favorite are cruises on the Potomac, offered for the past 25 years by the Potomac Riverboat Co. The first of the company’s seven boats, the Cherry Blossom, is a riverboat that is operated strictly for private charters.

See the city from the water
Seeing the area by boat gives visitors a greater appreciation for the beauty of the capital and its environs. “It is beautiful in the daytime and also in the evening, especially with the monuments and the bridges all lit up,” said Charlotte Hall, vice president.

In addition to its private cruises, the company operates boats up the river to Georgetown and down the river to Mount Vernon. Its newest venture, launched after the opening of the National Harbor development across the river in Maryland, are two river taxis. Each taxi holds about 120 people; the taxi motors back and forth from Alexandria to National Harbor, home to the Gaylord National Hotel and five other hotel properties. It is a 20-minute trip one way.

The water taxi is among the transportation changes that have made Old Town more accessible. Another is a free trolley that runs along the 17 blocks of King Street, from the metro station to the Potomac River. It’s a route that makes sense, given that King Street is Old Town’s most bustling. It makes it easy to quickly absorb all that is new in what is no longer just an old town.

“We have Colonial ambiance but Alexandria is also sophisticated. It’s not just a Colonial town,” said Lloyd.

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For more Alexandria articles:

Hot times in Alexandria’s Old Town
Alexandria gives Colonial dance a whirl
A quick look at Alexandria