Horses with heads held high, pulling Amish buggies, share back roads with vans of tourists. Boxes of just-picked strawberries share roadside stands with tin cans for payment. Dark clothes dry on lines hoisted high above lush gardens, where peas and beets share the rich soil with flowers.
Long loved for those bucolic treasures, southeastern Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County has a surprise in store for meeting planners. Lancaster, the county’s vibrant, walkable main city, now shares center stage with the rural areas that have long been the region’s star attraction.
With a new convention center, upscale restaurants and a thriving arts community, Lancaster is on its way to becoming a first-class meeting destination.
“Accessibility, value, hospitality and diversity of product” are reasons planners should consider Lancaster, said Chris Barrett, CEO of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The experience is rich.”
At first it feels like two worlds, one traditional and rural, the other urban and edgy. But stay for a few days and the edges begin to blur.
Downtown convention center opens
For nearly 100 years, the Watt and Shand department store stood in the heart of downtown Lancaster.
The store closed in 1995, and its beaux-arts building sat empty. In June, it reopened as the face of the new Lancaster County Convention Center. Architects saved its ornate terra-cotta, brick and marble facade as they designed all-new construction for the convention space behind it.
“The 19th and 20th centuries are only an inch apart,” said Josh Nowak, director of sales.
The four-level convention center has 90,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, including its first-level exhibit hall. At 46,000 square feet and with a 33-foot-high ceiling, Freedom Hall can be divided into two sections for everything from galas to a quilt show that’s expected to draw 17,000 people in March.
“You can drive a tractor-trailer right in here,” Nowak said. “We also have a 12,000-pound freight elevator that can take a car to any level of the convention center.”
The convention center has a parking garage next door, three entrances and a street set aside for loading.
It also has two 9,000-square-foot ballrooms and meeting rooms clustered on three levels.
Natural light floods through beautifully restored windows, including rounded ones in three corner boardrooms that each seat 25. The building has, quipped a local reporter, “great fenestration.”
The convention center envelops an 1804 Federal-style townhouse and an archaeological dig under a tavern once owned by abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and friend and confidante Lydia Hamilton Smith. Scholars think that cisterns unearthed there hid escaping slaves along the Underground Railroad.
Connected to the convention center, the new 300-room Marriott Lancaster at Penn Square has another 35,000 square feet of meeting space, including two 19th-floor suites with views of the city and its 43 church steeples. Lancaster’s legacy of religious tolerance makes it a favorite meeting place for religious groups.
In standard guest rooms, photographs of farmers plowing fields and the mud sales held every March in Lancaster County to raise money for local fire companies decorate rooms outfitted with 37-inch flat-panel televisions, charging centers on rotating desks and rain showers.
There’s also a pool, a 1,300-square-foot fitness center, a spa, a contemporary steakhouse and a lounge that serves 30 types of wine by the glass.
Building the convention center downtown was not without controversy. Some in this community, accustomed to 11 million visitors flocking to rural “Dutch country” each year, questioned spending $177 million for a convention center in the heart of the city, where several revitalization efforts have failed in the past.
Events during the convention center’s first four months ranged from a meeting of the Pennsylvania League of Cities to a mixed martial arts competition to Auntie Anne’s international convention, which drew 1,000 participants from 43 states and 20 countries.
Carlisle, Pa., event planner Kara Dorman says many of her clients want the convenience and walkability of downtown venues. “Compared to Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C., the Lancaster Convention Center’s pricing is outstanding,” she said. “And the staff is phenomenal. They make my job easy.”
The gamble may pay off this time. The city has come alive with excellent restaurants, quirky shops, art galleries, theater, music and venues for off-site events.
Venues for young-at-heart events
Last year, Lancaster’s 20-year-old Pennsylvania Academy of Music moved into a new contemporary glass, wood and stone building, the last designed by noted architect Philip Johnson before his death in 2005.
Students, faculty and visiting artists give recitals there, and its 3,000-square-foot foyer is available for receptions for up to 300 attendees. Events can be held beneath the stars in a glass-enclosed rooftop atrium with room for up to 400.
Next door, the mezzanine of the historic Fulton Theater is an elegant site for a pre- or post-performance reception for 100.
Its walls are lined with posters advertising appearances by Sarah Bernhardt, W.C. Fields and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; some say you can still find bullet holes in the proscenium arch.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin played at the theater 67 times, and during a performance of Ben-Hur in 1910, people shrieked as real horses running on treadmills on stage appeared to be charging the audience. Now the fare includes professional theater like Phantom and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The theater can be booked for events when no performances are scheduled; a fourth-floor studio is available for meetings or dinners for 100.
Across Penn Square from the convention center, the five-year-old Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum is housed in what was once the city’s largest bank.
A 65-foot barrel-vault ceiling towers above displays of Amish quilts in tall cases. Most of the quilts were collected from Lancaster attics and cupboards in the 1970s by “pickers” to decorate the office walls of clothing company Esprit in San Francisco.
When the collection was sold in 1999, Lancaster brought it home. The museum gallery is available for receptions for up to 150.
Ten minutes from the convention center, Lancaster’s Clipper Magazine Stadium, home to the Barnstormers’ minor league baseball team, offers outdoor skating in wintertime and baseball games and picnics for up to 500 people in warmer weather.
When the Barnstormers aren’t playing, groups can use the field for softball, relays and volleyball. Party suites are equipped for meetings and receptions for up to 120.
Food and fun within walking distance
Known as the Garden Spot, Lancaster County relishes food, and not all of it is “Dutch.”
Restaurants near the convention center include such wide-ranging options as Annie Bailey’s Irish Pub, with a deck for 80 and space for private dinners for 65, to Zagat-rated Carr’s Restaurant, which uses local meat and produce from the Central Farmers Market next door.
Carr’s has a private dining room for 42 and a funky little bar with wine by the glass, the world’s best beers and a brisk business in absinthe, the Green Fairy, now back in vogue.
Downtime can be spent on one of Lancaster’s new Segway tours or shopping the quirky 300 block of North Queen Street.
A must-see is Steve Murray’s shop, Zap & Company. An accomplished collector of vintage clothing and trappings from the 1930s through the 1960s, Murray has supplied costumes for The Aviator, The Secret Life of Bees, soon-to-be released The Lovely Bones and other movies. Flying off his shelves right now are vintage skinny ties, seen on the Emmy Award-winning television show Mad Men.
From industry to hostelry
With a penchant for preservation, Lancaster has long refashioned its old factories and warehouses for modern purposes. Many hotels and restaurants are mergers of past and present.
The three-year-old Lancaster Arts Hotel, 10 minutes from the convention center, is in an old tobacco warehouse.
Local artists have adopted the European-style hotel’s 63 rooms and hang their art there. Among its atypical amenities are wine fridges, bikes with baskets and maps to art galleries, and free taxi service within five miles.
A small art gallery off the lobby doubles as a meeting room for 20 people; the lobby works well for breaks and breakouts.
For larger meetings and events of up to 240 people, the hotel shuttles guests to Lancaster’s gabled and turreted Hamilton Club.
Fenz, a nearby restaurant with a sophisticated gray/black palette and red roses on the tables, used to be the office for a plant that made blacksmiths’ blowers. A round window near the upstairs bar is where owners kept an eye on the production line. Fenz will do daytime events for 125 (before it opens for dinner) and private dinners for 25.
Another conversion is under way in a 19th-century Armstrong Cork Co. factory complex. The four-floor Cork Factory Hotel is scheduled to open early next year with 77 rooms and eight suites, a restaurant and a 2,800-square-foot ballroom with a fireplace and a balcony.
Whole county gets into the act
As the city sets its sights on attracting meeting business, the rest of Lancaster County, favored by leisure travelers, is getting into the act.
By June, the 342-room Willow Valley Resort and Conference Center will be converted to two separate properties: a 184-room Doubletree Resort and the 160-room Willow Valley Family Inn. Willow Valley’s 20,000 square feet of meeting space works well for groups of up to 300 and includes a towering 10,000-square-foot atrium.
The resort began as a 29-room motel in 1966 with meals prepared by Florence Thomas. The Thomas family empire, known for quality, now includes retirement communities, apartments, townhouses, retail stores, a golf course and a family inn.
The sprawling Host Resort and Conference Center, built in 1964, sits on 220 acres in Dutch country. It underwent a multimillion-dollar overhaul three years ago after it was acquired by Milestone Hospitality Inc.
The 319-room hotel has 80,000 square feet of meeting space that includes two exhibition halls, one with 23,500 square feet of clear-span space suitable for 175 8-by-10-foot booths.
It also has a 9,200-square-foot ballroom and 15 smaller meeting rooms. For parties and receptions, there’s a 1,200-seat showroom, a cabaret and a 3,200-square-foot all-weather tent.
The enormous lobby is suitable for receptions, and Vistas, a restaurant that overlooks the 18-hole golf course, is available for private dinners.
The 276-room Best Western Eden Resort and Conference Center has just completed a total renovation, and the results are impressive. For four years running, locals have voted it Lancaster County’s best hotel and banquet facility.
The Eden’s 25,000 square feet of meeting space includes three ballrooms, 14 meeting rooms and an 11,000-square-foot enclosed courtyard.
The hotel also has two restaurants, a boardroom, a fitness center, pools and an executive suite.
Urban and rural Lancaster mesh at the Inn at Leola Village. Built in 2000 on an 1800s farm, this 63-room boutique inn is Lancaster’s only AAA Four Diamond hotel.
The old farmhouse, now purple, still stands, along with five other restored homes and workplaces, including a tobacco barn that’s now the lobby. Guest rooms are new, each with its own personality. Some have a fireplace and some a Jacuzzi, and all have unique showers — some look like caves, others like outdoor showers.
There are seven meeting rooms and a new meeting facility for 250.
Its Restaurant Mazzi is also AAA Four-Diamond rated. It has a private dining room for 40 and a six-person Chef’s Table option.
Don’t miss the hospitality
Although Lancaster County has added some edge and scaled up, it would be a shame to go there and not experience the warmth and hospitality of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Plain and Fancy Farm serves traditional farm feasts, family style. Afterward, you can tour an Amish-style home, or take a farmlands tour as part of The Amish Experience an interpretive and touring center.
This year’s new VIP, or “visit in person,” tours are a good way to meet some Amish people. Traveling in small groups in the late afternoon, tourists visit a farm at milking time and stop at a cottage industry, and then go to an Amish home to sit and chat with the family.
Bird in Hand Family Inn and Restaurant serves local specialties like chicken corn soup, pot pie and roast turkey. Baked goods arrive warm from the family bakery down the street.
Four years ago, owner Jim Smucker added meeting/banquet facilities for up to 110 people. Every Wednesday night, he invites people to gather in his 125-room inn to meet Sarah Ebersol, an Amish woman, and talk about Amish ways and beliefs.
“People can learn a lot from how the Amish resolve conflicts and self-organize around the needs of their community,” said Smucker, who has a doctorate in management.
“There’s a direct application to business. The Amish prove you can get a lot done without a hierarchy.”