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Meeting ‘inn’ style is a good option for small groups

When Margie Brandt books her company’s board meetings, sales meetings or Christmas parties, her first call is to the Oyster Point Hotel in Red Bank, N.J. If it is unavailable, she uses its sister property, the Molly Pitcher Inn.

“We prefer the Oyster Point because it is smaller and more intimate,” said Brandt, the office manager for VPIsystems, an integrated network planning company. “My group likes that one-on-one.”

Ben and Jerry’s as well as other companies have retreated to the round barn at the Round Barn in Vermont
Courtesy Inn at Round Barn Farm

Brandt and many others use the Goldilocks rule when they choose a meeting site: They find the place that is “just right” for their small groups, and often, those venues are small inns or boutique hotels.

Quaint inns tend to be thought of as small, old or historic, set in pastoral places, but there are many variations of this intimate form of accommodation.

Take the 106-guest-room historic Molly Pitcher Inn and the 58-room contemporary Oyster Point Hotel. The two properties, 1,000 yards apart, work in tandem. Both overlook the Navesink River, each has more than 9,000 square feet of meeting space and are owned by J.P. Barry Hospitality Inc.

At the end of April, the Oyster Point completed a $3 million-plus renovation, which began because windows needed replacing.

“The windows have a northeast exposure toward the Atlantic in a 25-year-old building,” said Kevin Barry, project manager. One thing led to another. “It just snowballed.”

In five months, the traditional five-story hotel was transformed into a modern-day wonder.

“The traditional floral is gone, and now we have contemporary sleek, clean lines,” said Barry. “It is New York–style: black, white and gray, punctuated by blues, greens, oranges and a cream.

“We ripped out the whole side, and now we have floor-to-ceiling windows, as if you are on a cruise ship,” said Barry. “It’s a breathtaking view.”

Exclusivity is a selling point

“Clients love the exclusivity of the Oyster Point,” said Rainey Alwell, director of sales and marketing for both properties. “We [Oyster Point] are small and flexible. Guests can take over the whole hotel. Meetings are more relaxed. What we can offer is personalized service. Our staff is different from the huge convention centers.”

If there is any drawback to meeting at a smaller locale, it would be space. Each property can handle up to 250 people for meetings. Many groups use both properties.

“For instance, a group might have a general session at the Oyster Point followed by team building at the Molly Pitcher,” Alwell said.

All meeting rooms face the water and have blackout shades when needed.

In Red Bank, N.J., the historic Molly Pitcher Inn, above, and the contemporary Oyster Point Hotel, below, are 1,000 yards apart and work closely together. The two hotels, each with more than 9,000 square feet of meeting space, also have the same ownership.
Courtesy Molly Pitcher Inn

At both properties, meeting space adjoins the outdoors — a promenade at the Molly Pitcher and a deck at Oyster Point. “Sometimes we set up a buffet inside, but guests go outside to eat at the wrought iron tables and chairs,” said Alwell.

Built in 1999, the Inn at Ocean’s Edge, outside of Camden, Maine, might not have a long history, but memories are in the making at this 32-room luxury inn on the western shore of Penobscot Bay.

Groups of up to 30 can attend to business and get a taste of Maine’s coast, surrounded by 22 acres of lawns, gardens and woods.

The inn’s lounge, with a fireplace, couches, tables and chairs, serves as the meeting room. Although the staff is happy to move traditional meeting furniture into the room, groups often opt for the comfort of the couches.

The lounge can be closed off by doors for privacy while maintaining an “airy and open feel, because the room has windows on three sides,” said Olga Gourianov, innkeeper.

Courtesy Inn at Oyster Point

“I’d like to say that it was a view of the ocean, but all the guest rooms have that, and the lounge is on the other side,” said Gourianov. “But a view of the ocean is just a few steps away.”

Meetings are also held in the Edge, the oceanfront restaurant.

“Sometimes they will have an afternoon meeting in the lounge, and then move into the restaurant and continue their meeting over dinner,” said Gourianov.

That’s not a bad option. Both the inn and the restaurant, operated by True North Hospitality, are AAA Four-Diamond-rated and have earned accolades from NBC’s Today show, Travel and Leisure and Food and Wine.

Meeting planners like meeting at the inn, where, Gourianov said, “the communication chain is short.” Like many Maine properties, its season is also short of year-round, this year open from May 8 to Nov. 1.

In addition to ocean views, the resort has a heated infinity-edge pool, a fitness room and spa, and an outdoor fireplace. Groups can hike to the top of nearby Mount Battie, or ferry over to Islesboro and bike, or watch local lobstermen at work.

“Attendees don’t usually expect this sort of luxury, considering they are being sent here on business,” said Gourianov.

A former camp becomes a getaway inn

The Highland Lake Inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Flat Rock, N.C., is not a typical inn, with 64 rooms scattered about in a lodge, an upscale bed-and-breakfast, historic cabins, cottages and more recently built garden hamlets overlooking a pasture with goats.

A gristmill and waterfall from 1789 mark the entrance to the property, which has been a school, a military academy and various religious camps. The inn celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

“It’s more than an inn,” said Lisa Keeter, marketing manager. “It’s a country resort within 26 wooded acres with a 40-acre lake.”

With its own lake, Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock, N.C., has the feel of the summer camp that it once was. The inn has a mix of accommodations, from a bed-and-breakfast-style house to cabins, and its meeting spaces are sprinkled throughout the roomy property.
Courtesy Highland Lake Inn

Most popular with meeting groups is the 20-guest-room Lodge, where meetings can be held in a large common area with a fireplace, a game room and a large glassed-in porch.

It’s the lodging of choice for Beverly Goolsby, executive assistant for Morgan AM&T in Greenville, S.C. Her company had weeklong meetings at the inn each month until the economic downturn forced a cutback.

“We try to book the lodge, but if it is full, we use the Woodward House, which is awesome,” said Goolsby. When the group stays at the Woodward, a bed-and-breakfast-style facility, they meet at the Kudzu Cottage, a separate two-room building surrounded by a deck.

The property’s largest meeting facility is the Grand Ole Hall, a former open-air gymnasium that has a large divisible area, several breakout rooms, a banquet kitchen, a bar and a deck that overlooks the organic garden and lake.

The resort’s restaurant, which uses the organic garden’s veggies, herbs and flowers, has won the Wine Spectator Award.

Kick back and relax

The historic property maintains a camp feel with rustic cabins and outdoor activities including canoeing on the lake, catch-and-release fishing, volleyball, tennis and a nine-hole golf course next door.

“Generally, people kick back here and relax like it was summer camp,” said Keeter. “We have ropes courses, a wine-tasting class in which the group must come up with a marketing campaign, a cooking class, Amazing Race-type activities. Sometimes we look outside and see a group all blindfolded walking by or another group cooperating to create cardboard canoes that are supposed to float — 98 percent sink.”

“I have done meetings all over — at lots of fancy resorts — and I can’t say enough about Highland Lakes,” said Goolsby. “They are so agreeable. They make sure things happen.”

Vermont inn invites groups to gather “round”

Nothing says “inn” quite like Vermont, and the Inn at the Round Barn Farm in Waitsville, Vt., says it all.

“Fall here is like living in a bowl of Trix cereal with all the colors,” said Tim Piper, co-owner. Summers are mild, and each December offers a Bing Crosby Christmas.

The 12-room inn keeps meetings to a maximum of 10 people and turns one of its guest rooms, which opens onto a terrace, into a boardroom. A game room used for breakout sessions is nearby.

Like most inns that market to meetings, the Round Barn is equipped with free wireless Internet access, but one modern convenience it does not offer is televisions in guest rooms.

“That gives people a chance to calm down,” said Piper.

“We stress that we are not a conference facility,” said Piper. “We are a refreshment center. It’s a nurturing environment. It is such an intimate, restorative place to both their business and to their soul.”

And attendees love it, because it bears no resemblance to being at work.

“When they walk outside, they are looking at 245 acres,” said Piper. “I tell them they have 24.5 acres a person to work in. They are really getting away.”

The facility’s culinary team-building programs are a good example of the big ideas that can emanate from a small inn.

“We have a field-to-tables program where they can pick vegetables from our 4-acre organic garden for salad and toppings for flatbread pizza. We have an outdoor clay oven by a pond to cook the pizzas in,” said Piper. “It’s a communal family thing and an icebreaker for the company. They see how the whole thing is put together. It’s not from Aisle 5. They can have a salad that is grown 80 yards from where they are eating it.”

Guests can also hike, bike, swim in an indoor lap pool or play golf on four nearby courses. And in the winter, the inn has sleigh rides, two ski areas nearby and its own snowshoe network complete with Cooper, a black Labrador snowshoe guide dog.

“We offer a moonlight snowshoe dinner tour from the inn across the woods to a hunting cabin that accommodates a maximum of 20 people,” said Piper.

The Round Barn at the Inn at Round Barn has been used by auto companies to show new models and even car parts to their clients.
Courtesy Inn at Round Barn Farm

And although the inn is small, the three-level historical round barn just steps away is large enough for gatherings of 200. When it is not being used, guests at the inn can use the facility.

Groups meeting in Burlington and other cities nearby often use the barn for off-site events.

“This is where we show them the real Vermont,” said Piper. “Ben and Jerry’s brought their franchise owners here for a dinner made with all Vermont products.” (Yes, dessert was ice cream.)

A kitschy landmark on the West Coast

If you like the idea of an inn, but 10 to 20 rooms is a bit small, consider the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Not only does it have 110 rooms, but each room in the 50-year-old kitschy inn is different — truly different — from Old West to European-style retreats, and even all-rock rooms with waterfall showers.

Alex and Phyllis Madonna brought in skilled artisans who used unusual materials from around the world to build the central coast landmark on 2,000 acres.

The property was renovated in November, and although the inn is a bit over the top, it has a serious side, too, providing abundant meeting space.

In addition to several banquet rooms in the main inn, the Alex Madonna Expo Center and an outdoor equestrian center are a half-mile from the main complex.

The Expo Center, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space, is considered the largest event facility in the area.

“We have everything from seminars, trainings, networking, luncheons, recruitment sessions and such,” said Susie Kelly, operations manager. “Meetings make up about 30 percent of our business.”

Some beautifully carved wood pillars can obstruct views, but on the upside, most meeting rooms include windows, providing a view of central California.

When looking for the “something old-something new, something small-something large, just-right place,” consider the James Madison Inn in Madison, Ga., about 60 miles east of Atlanta.

Georgia inn in historic complex

The inn, with 17 king rooms and two grand suites, was completed in May 2007 within a historic complex of buildings. A glass atrium links it to a historic building that was transformed several years ago to a conference center with 3,647 square feet of meeting space.

The building also includes a restaurant, an antiques mall and private residences  “Although there is some crossover, typically the people who stay in the inn do not use the conference center,” said Grant. “The groups are different caliber and scaled events.”

Most groups that stay at the inn use its media room, which accommodates up to 16 people, said Jake Grant, assistant general manager.

The Oak Room, where breakfast is served, is also used for meeting space, and can seat 24 or host up to 30 for cocktails.

Outside both facilities, the manicured lawn, adjacent to a park with a pond, is often used for groups.

“We have more than 4,000 square feet of outside space, which can seat up to 200 people,” said Grant. “We have tons of tented events out there.”

Groups, often corporate and special-events, like to take over the inn, said Grant.

“Because we are downtown, guests can walk to shops and restaurants,” said Grant. “It’s very convenient.”

Most likely, Goldilocks herself would find the convenience, intimacy, and relaxation of all these properties to be “just right.”