Huntsville, Alabama, is nicknamed Rocket City, a nod to its 60-plus-year association with the U.S. space program as well as its history of developing military rocketry. But you might also call Huntsville “Smart City” because of how the community has been transformed by the highly intelligent workforce that gravitated there for technology-driven research and development.
“We are an engineering town that is undergoing tremendous growth,” said Bob Rogers, vice president of conventions for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re not your typical Southern or Alabama city. There are a lot of specialized and highly educated people working here.”
This northern Alabama city could prove to be a pleasant surprise for meeting planners looking for a small, modern city in which to hold meetings, conferences and special events. Huntsville will be the site of the 2016 Small Market Meetings Conference (SMMC), October 2-4, and the city is eager to host it.
“I have had the experience of going to two of those conferences,” said Rogers. “It is a great mix of people, like the 100 or so meeting planners and the 175 travel industry representatives that will attend. Their groups fit nicely into our city and the downtown area. There will be plenty for them to see and do.”
Rogers said Huntsville can handle larger conventions, but the types of meetings SMMC attendees will potentially bring are the ideal size. The city has 550 hotel rooms in the downtown area, with another 200 or more coming in the next year.
The SMMC will take place in South Hall in the Von Braun Center, a few blocks from the heart of downtown Huntsville. The center is named for the late Wernher von Braun, who, with his team of German scientists, came to America after World War II to help launch the U.S. space program.
The center has a total of 170,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including a top-of-the-line exhibit hall with 8,100 square feet “before you hit the first pillar,” according to Marie Arighi, director of sales and marketing at the center. There are about 25 breakout rooms and an arena that seats 8,600. Smith Concert Hall seats 2,000, and the in-the-round playhouse is well suited for general sessions that need 500 seats.
Arighi said her team doesn’t like the word “impossible.” “We always like to say we can do anything in this building,” she said with a chuckle.
Another outstanding meeting facility is the Jackson Center, located in the heart of the Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research campus in the country. The Jackson Center provides meeting space, professional staff and state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment to assist any group with its meeting, training session or event.
“We were built for education purposes and for businesses and corporations here in the Research Park to have a place to meet and work,” said the center’s Jamie Jones, director of sales, who also added that any local, national or international group can book space at the center. “We have excelled in marketing this place and have seen more businesses coming in to use it due to positive word-of-mouth.” After a long day of work, the Jackson Center Pub is a great place to unwind and to continue the day’s conversations.
The official SMMC hotel is Embassy Suites, which opened in 2006 and has 295 guest rooms. “The beauty of it is the conference attendees will not have to go outside if they don’t want to,” said hotel sales director B’Lisa King. “They can use our second-floor walkway straight over to the Von Braun Center. We just want to roll out the red carpet for them.” King also mentioned that the hotel has 7,800 square feet of meeting space of its own for meeting planners to consider for future business dealings.
Another conference hotel in the city is the Huntsville Marriott, located on the grounds of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and just off I-565.
“We have 290 guest rooms,” said Jennifer Terry, the Marriott’s director of sales and marketing. “We’re the perfect convention hotel and can handle from five people up to 300. We have very flexible meeting space, newly renovated. We have a 6,000-square-foot ballroom with six breakout rooms.” Terry said the hotel is ideal for any group that wants to keep all activities under one roof.
The third major convention hotel is the Westin Huntsville, where a big expansion is coming by the end of the year. The hotel has 210 guest rooms, but the former condos on top of the hotel are being converted into 179 suites, to be called The Element.
“It’s a one-stop facility,” said Michele Lewis, director of catering and conference services at the hotel. “When you come here, you park your car and never need to start it again until you depart.” By that, she means that the hotel is adjacent to the Bridge Street Town Centre, an upscale lifestyle center with plenty of restaurants, shopping and entertainment options right outside the hotel’s door.
3, 2, 1… Liftoff
In the 1950s, Huntsville was chosen as the site for the Marshall Space Flight Center, where the early rockets used in the U.S. space program were designed and developed. These include rockets used for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs that eventually got astronauts to the moon, as well as those used for the Space Shuttle program. Now the center is working on rocketry that will boost humans into space and then on to Mars in the 2030s. It’s an exciting time for the community.
Although the staff at the Huntsville/Madison County CVB is still working on the entertainment and tour options that will be available for SMMC delegates, one thing is certain: “They will see things related to rockets; that I can guarantee,” said Rogers. By that he means the fabulous U.S. Space and Rocket Center, a one-of-a-kind museum that boasts an extensive collection of 1,500 pieces that includes rockets, engines, spacecraft, space suits, simulators and other hands-on exhibits. SMMC will bring its attendees to the center for an educating and entertaining evening of food, fun and camaraderie.
The center is Alabama’s most popular tourist attraction. Many parents from all over the region can remember accompanying their children when they stayed overnight at the center’s Space Camp.
Meeting planners should note that there are several auditoriums, theaters and classrooms available to rent for meetings at the museum. Then there is the massive Saturn V Hall, named for the moon rocket, that can host as many as 1,000 guests right in the middle of all the exciting rocket and space history.
“A lot of organizations will bring their opening or closing event here,” said Claudia Jones, director of special events at the Rocket Center. “They can incorporate into their event various space and rocket simulators, or special movies, or even fireworks shows.”
Those German rocket scientists who came to live in Huntsville decades ago greatly influenced the level of culture in the city. It’s rare for a city this size to be able to support not only a symphony orchestra, but also arts centers, museums and a Broadway theater league, which all enrich the community. The city also has a beautiful neighborhood adjacent to downtown full of historic homes meticulously restored in an area known as Twickenham Historic District.
Event and Entertainment Venues
SMMC delegates will likely get to enjoy a unique entertainment complex called A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard. It was a functioning lumberyard in the 1800s and supplied building materials for many of the city’s early settlers. Today, it is a hip, busy entertainment center with multiple restaurants, bars, live music, stages, games and festivals. It features an open-air patio and veranda and is filled with many artifacts from the old lumberyard. Wedding receptions, corporate events and fundraisers there are common.
An explosion of nature can be found at the gorgeous Huntsville Botanical Garden, the city’s 112-acre pride and joy. The site features gardens of every flowery description, trails and a staggering variety of activities and events that bring thousands of people to the site.
“We have several beautiful venues and many opportunities and rental spaces right now,” said Carol Casey, vice president of communications and programming. However, big plans are in the works for the garden. “A new facility will open in March 2017 that will have three really large rental venues with a grand hall, a conservatory and a carriage house.”
Old schools that have closed are sometimes turned into apartments or just demolished, but a project in Huntsville, known as Campus #805, has turned a former middle school into a 13-acre mixed-use development. Campus #805 will soon be hopping with restaurants, bars, breweries, music stages, retail shops and event venues.
All in all, attendees of the 2016 SMMC will have much to see and do in Huntsville come October. “I think they’ll have a nice visit,” Rogers said.