In the panoply of Tennessee convention cities, Nashville, with its huge convention center, array of entertainment opportunities and variety of historical attractions, seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room. However, savvy meeting planners see an abundance of top-notch choices around the Volunteer State. Here’s a look at five of them.
Great Smoky Mountains
The siren’s call of the Great Smoky Mountains pulls multitudes to east Tennessee, including meeting attendees. The majority head to Sevier County, where three communities — Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville — are ready with lodging, meeting spaces and plenty of leisure activities.
Gatlinburg, the smallest, is tucked up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most-visited national park. Its stature grew after the park was dedicated in 1940, and its calling card is that it’s largely a walkable town.
A building boom is underway in Gatlinburg: A 10,000-square-foot expansion on the Gatlinburg Convention Center is set for mid-2021. The Margaritaville Resort, with 4,000 square feet of meeting space and a laid-back, Jimmy Buffett vibe, opened in 2018. And Annakeesta, which calls itself a mountaintop theme park, continues to expand its collection of observation towers, zip lines and suspended bridges through the trees.
Nearby Pigeon Forge, famous for its “five miles of fun” along its central corridor, is home to Dollywood, Tennessee’s most-visited paid attraction. Dollywood is popular with meeting groups for recreation and meal functions; its Blue Ribbon Pavilion seats 450. And the 300-room DreamMore Resort and Spa has eight meeting rooms — almost 9,000 square feet, counting prefunction space — plus more than 2,500 square feet of outdoor meeting terraces. Directly in town, the Ramsey Hotel, for decades a Holiday Inn, is a mainstay for meetings, and Black Fox Lodge, in Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, is among the newer options.
Sevierville, the county seat and the most populous of the three cities, offers yet another feeling. Sevierville and Pigeon Forge both have massive event centers with more than 100,000 square feet each, and Sevierville has built a reputation for outlet shopping and other nonmeeting diversions, such as all-terrain vehicle tours and high-speed go-kart tracks. New is the group-friendly Soaky Mountains Waterpark, and the Ridge Outdoor Resort offers a meeting room that seats 200, an auditorium that seats 500 and the novelty of glamping tents and tiny-home cabins.
The city famous in song, history and geography has been on a roll in recent years for business relocation, leisure travel and meetings. With some of the nation’s best internet service, Chattanooga has honed a high-tech reputation, and it thrives on its close-to-nature attributes. The great outdoors practically smacks you in the face here.
“When you can look out of your hotel room and see the mountains and admire the sweep of the Tennessee River, it lifts your spirits and makes for a better meeting,” said Barry White, president and CEO of Visit Chattanooga.
The 185,000-square-foot Chattanooga Convention Center is the focus for many planners. Ask the staff about the “mood-enhancing” photovoltaic lighting technology that filters sunlight inside through 30-foot ceiling openings. The convention center is attached to the 341-room Chattanooga Marriott, which has 7,500 square feet of meeting space. Almost 1,500 additional first-class rooms are nearby, and free electric shuttles weave through the core of the city.
The 199-room Chattanoogan Hotel is part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, and the boutique 90-room Edwin Hotel in the Marriott Autograph Collection overlooks the river almost at the foot of the city’s famous blue bridge, the Walnut Street Bridge, a pedestrian-only structure. Nearby are the Hunter Museum of American Art, a popular off-site venue, and the Bluff Art District.
Chattanooga’s mainstay visitor attractions continue to offer planners activity and event options. Among them are Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Incline Railway, which, in 2020, marked 125 years of climbing Lookout Mountain. The Tennessee Aquarium, with both freshwater and saltwater collections, is popular for free-time diversion and special events. It will celebrate its 30th birthday in 2021.
“Chattanooga is especially appealing for meeting attendees who can tag on an extra day for outdoor activities,” White said. “You can go hiking, kayaking, rock climbing or hang gliding right here or go only an hour away for whitewater rafting thrills on the Ocoee River.”
About 190 miles up the Tennessee River by boat but only 115 miles by car is Knoxville, famous as the home of the University of Tennessee, along with its riverside football stadium, and as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also a solid choice for meetings.
Knoxville’s downtown, once as moribund as almost any American city’s core, now hops with excitement, hotels, restaurants, shopping and meeting potential. The city still is earning dividends from the Knoxville World’s Fair way back in 1982.
The 500,000-square-foot Knoxville Convention Center and the 66,000-square-foot World’s Fair Exposition Hall, overlook World’s Fair Park and the iconic Sunsphere. The Holiday Inn World’s Fair Park, known to many planners because it is adjacent to the convention center, is being transformed into the full-service Marriott Knoxville Downtown, expected to open in 2021. Away from downtown, the Chilhowee Park Exposition Center has a 57,100-square-foot exhibit hall that is popular for trade shows.
The immediate downtown area has 1,800 first-class rooms in multiple properties, several suited for smaller corporate meetings. All benefit from Market Square and Old Town. Market Square is a pedestrian mall almost always vibrant with music and events, including Shakespeare on the Square, and bustling with restaurants and shops.
Nearby Old Town, for years known for nighttime entertainment, has matured into a daytime destination, too, according to Sarah Rowan at Visit Knoxville. In addition to off-site venues such as Jackson Terminal, and Mill and Mine, Old Town offers the Pretentious Beer and Glass Company. It’s part brewery — Knoxville is quite the craft beer town — and part glassblowing art facility. Enjoy a brew while watching an artist make your souvenir glass.
Additional off-site venues to consider include the Knoxville Museum of Art, with its stunning Cycle of Life sculpture, and the Museum of East Tennessee History, which illuminates everything from Native American culture to World War II’s Manhattan Project.
Tennessee’s other major river, the Cumberland, provides the setting for Clarksville, a city of approximately 165,000 residents made especially vibrant by a four-year university and a military base. The military base is Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne, the Army’s only air assault division, and the university is Austin Peay State University, where every sports enthusiast enjoys yelling, “Let’s Go Peay!”
The real charm of Clarksville is the heart of its downtown atop a bluff overlooking the river. Clarksville is sometimes called the City of Spires because of its numerous steeples and towers that poke into the Tennessee sky. Among them are the imposing Montgomery County Courthouse and the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center. The Customs House, a popular event venue, occupies a building completed in 1898 to handle the foreign mail created by the region’s once substantial international trade in tobacco.
Brick storefronts in the historic district are entrances to numerous shops, galleries and restaurants. A popular destination is the Strawberry Alley Ale Works, which offers craft beers and a diverse menu. Its second level, called Upstairs at Strawberry Alley, has 5,000 square feet of open space and a 360-degree view of downtown, the river and the surrounding countryside.
More event space is available at locations such as the Old Glory Distillery; the Wilma Rudolph Event Center, which has space for a 500-person banquet; and Historic Collinsville, a rural pioneer settlement that features restored log homes and buildings, some from as early as 1830.
Franklin is a tale of two cities for meeting planners. One is new and modern along Interstate 65, where the Franklin Marriott Cool Springs Conference Center offers plenty of facilities — 297 guest rooms, 22 meeting rooms, banquet space for 1,200 — and the other is five miles west, where the historic heart of the community lives in a pleasant jumble of intersecting roads and along the banks of the Harpeth River, a scenic float stream.
Main Street Franklin has a somewhat Norman Rockwell or Hallmark movie feel. Sidewalks are lined with specialty shops, and chef-driven restaurants occupy spaces that originally were mercantile locations.
An example is Gray’s on Main, a restaurant and bar that brought new life to a Victorian building built around 1876 that was a pharmacy for more than a century. Nearby is the Franklin Theatre, a movie theater from 1937, now reimagined as a 300-seat performance hall and event location. You’ll find more stories, literally and figuratively, at Landmark Booksellers, housed in a building that Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett visited.
One base of operations for a downtown meeting is the Harpeth Hotel, part of the Hilton Curio Collection. It is sleek and trendy, but it blends well into its historic setting.
Surrounding Williamson County is famous for its open spaces and scenic horse farms, and its off-site venues are noteworthy. Check out the Barn at Sycamore Farms, Graystone Quarry or Dark Horse Studios, especially for corporate and awards events. Dark Horse Studios’ primary function is as a recording studio for top-name acts. You probably know some of its prior patrons: Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Hunter Hayes, Bela Fleck and Carrie Underwood.