The words “Southern charm” usually conjure up images of Aunt Bea serving fried chicken on the “Andy Griffith Show” — and rightly so. Or maybe the first thing that comes to mind is the slow sound of jazz music or the twangy beats of bluegrass. Perhaps your imagination revels over rows of old-time city streets that appear to have been plucked straight out of another century or sweeping plantation fields or battlefields that live on as testaments to American history.
One thing is certain: When it comes to meeting destinations, the appeal of hosting an event in the South goes far beyond the never-ending flow of sweet iced tea. Envelop your employees, team or conference attendees in the rich world of Southern hospitality by holding your next get-together in one of these cities that knows how to lay the charm on thick.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Don’t be fooled by its name: Little Rock is anything but little. With a population of about 200,000 people, there are plenty of open arms to make sure your stay is as perfect as possible. Your choices for venues are vast.
For staggering class, opt for the 20,000-square-foot William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Or for boutique charm, seek out spaces like the Empress of Little Rock, an old-fashioned Victorian inn with conference amenities. There are plenty of middle-of-the-road options in the city’s numerous hotels as well, if convenience is your primary concern.
No matter which location you choose within the city, be sure to spend some time downtown at the River Market. Two open-air pavilions provide space for year-round entertainment and draw locals and tourists alike to a district that has become a mix of cuisine, nightlife and the arts. You may even decide to cap off your conference with a party or a picnic at a pavilion or plaza. The view will have you easily convinced as to how Little Rock earned the nickname River City.
Step away from the modern amenities, and enjoy pockets of Southern history that have been preserved in places like Little Rock Central High School, where nine black students made integration history. Also be sure to visit the beautiful Old State House museum, which served as Arkansas’ Capitol from 1836 to 1911. By the time your meeting reaches its conclusion, you’ll likely draw a conclusion of your own: that Little Rock is the perfect blend of old and new, and the ideal city to host your future events.
It doesn’t get much more Southern than the classic movie “Steel Magnolias.” Where was it shot? You guessed it — Natchitoches. If you’ve dreamed of walking the same mossy streets from the movie as Sally Field and Dolly Parton, then a meeting here will be a check off the business list and the bucket list for you and your team.
This Louisiana town may be small, with a population of around 18,300, but it’s big in Southern flavor, especially when that flavor is of a famous Natchitoches meat pie. The savory pork-and-beef regional creation has its own festival in the town, which usually falls sometime in late September every year. Plan your meeting right, and you’ll get in on the food and the fun.
For a more formal group meeting, the Natchitoches Event Center is a great centrally located option. The space includes three large presentation rooms, with smaller conference rooms for specific sessions.
Or why not take advantage of the town’s classic architecture? You can become a part of it by having your event at a smaller location like the Sweet Cane Inn, a Victorian home built for Louisiana congressman Phanor Breazeale in the late 1800s. The home has now been converted into a bed-and-breakfast and can accommodate small business retreats. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the Old Creole South, all the while moving forward with your team.
Beaufort, South Carolina
When talking “Southern Charm,” many folks will rattle off places like Savannah, Georgia, or Charleston, South Carolina; however, between the two on the Atlantic Seaboard, lies their Low Country neighbor, Beaufort, South Carolina (pronounced BYOU-fert by the locals). Beaufort is a gem of Southern comfort built on Port Royal Island, so there the sea is everything.
If your team has many or even a few outdoor enthusiasts, they’ll enjoy the natural exploration opportunities in Beaufort. Get out on the water via a guided kayak tour, or climb the lighthouse and take in the view at Hunting Island, and you’ll see why.
The man-made sites on the island are almost as breathtaking. Beaufort is one of the few U.S. cities to have its entire downtown designated as a historic district. Influences from Spanish and English settlers in the area have left a lot of interesting architecture to be enjoyed. Many of these structures are antebellum mansions that owe their untouched existence to a decision by Union troops to occupy, rather than destroy, the town during the Civil War.
For a serenely Southern meeting with a modern twist, try the Old Bay Marketplace and Loft. The historic building has been renovated to highlight the original brick with new wood floors, modern lighting and a minimalist design that will showcase presentations and be a clean space for thinking.
Looking for a meeting experience a little more steeped in tradition? Check into the Rhett House Inn, the very name of which conjures up the love interest of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” The impeccable staff will help you plan your small-business meeting or retreat and pair modern amenities with the building’s old South Carolina charm.
If you hear “Monticello” and instantly think of Thomas Jefferson’s home, you’re correct. But the place we’re talking about is a far cry from Jefferson’s residence in Virginia. To help you keep them straight, remember that our Floridian friends pronounce it “mont-ah-SELL-oh.”
This sleepy town that sits near the top of the Florida panhandle is a living definition of Southern charm. Victorian architecture, Spanish moss and quiet parks may have you wondering whether you’ve discovered a duplicate movie set for “Forest Gump.”
The city has plenty of hotels with adequate space to hold your conference or event as well as some less traditional options. One of the latter would be the Monticello Opera House, which serves as the civic center for Monticello’s surrounding Jefferson County. The ground floor of the Opera House offers meeting and banquet space; the top floor boasts an old-fashioned theater. Outside is a private garden that’s perfect for some reflection or refreshment. The space can be reserved for events of from two to 200 attendees.
Spend your postbusiness hours strolling down Jefferson Street, where you’ll find antebellum architecture galore, shops, and the historic Jefferson County Courthouse. Be sure to eat at the Rosemary Tree Café and browse through the gift shop, which showcases items from local artisans. Also try local favorite eatery Brick House just up the road, where you can chow on some traditional Southern fare like fried green tomatoes and grits.
A city that is equal parts big city and small town is a smart choice to be near the top of your list of destinations for meetings in the South. Mobile boasts an extensive list of venues and activities to keep your group engaged and to maximize your meeting experience.
Add some whimsy to your event by hosting sessions at the Mobile Carnival Museum downtown, conveniently located within walking distance of restaurants and several hotels. The space was opened in 2005 to preserve all things Mardi Gras — which started, contrary to popular belief, not in New Orleans, but in Mobile. The building’s 14 gallery rooms, theater and den can all be custom converted into the perfect event space for you. Maybe you’ll acquire some inspiration for some postmeeting revelry from the multitude of original costumes and mystic pieces preserved in its halls.
For a more stately experience, hold your meeting at the Battle House Renaissance Hotel and Spa. The AAA Four Diamond establishment is the perfect cocktail of Southern elegance, modern amenities and prime location across from the Mobile Convention Center.
From either location, you can walk to numerous Mobile attractions. For a big-city experience, you can catch a movie or a show at the Gulf Coast Exploreum and Imax Theatre. To experience the small-town charm, check out historic sites like the Bragg Mitchell Mansion, an impeccable example of Greek Revival architecture. The mansion is available to be booked for private dinners as well and just may be the perfect spot to cap off a weekend retreat.
Soak in all this gulf location has to offer by taking your team out to dine during the day at one of the city’s many local seafood spots. Coastal Living magazine recommends Nan Seas Restaurant, a favorite of the natives, with a gorgeous view of the bay to boot.