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Military reunions: All hands on deck

Photo courtesy Colorado Springs CVB

Planners seeking an ideal spot for a military reunion often look for cities where there are plenty of men and women in uniform. And there is no shortage of sites. From Norfolk, Va., which has every branch of the military within a 45-minute drive, to Kitsap County, which boasts the United States’ third-largest military base, the country is liberally laced with military-centric towns happy to host reunions.

Why choose a military town? For one, they sport military attractions. “If there is something military to be seen, the groups will go there — regardless of their branch of service,” said Molly Dey, senior event planner for Norfolk-based Armed Forces Reunions, which plans events nationwide.

These cities’ CVBs and destination management companies also understand that military planners have special needs. “They are a different market than the convention, association and corporate markets,” said Anne Phillips, president of Phillips Destination Management Services, which handles 60 military reunions a year in Norfolk.

Income, for instance, is an important consideration, especially for World War II veterans who are retired. “We know some of the guests are on a fixed income, and we can find decently priced rooms,” said Adrienne Meyer, convention sales manager for Visit Topeka, which like many CVBs in military towns will help planners look for affordable accommodations. “We want them to have a quality experience.”

That means finding a hotel with a banquet facility for the big dinner and a hospitality room, preferably that lets attendees bring their own alcohol. Both rooms are high on the military reunion planner’s list.

Budget also affects the itinerary. “We listen carefully to what they want to do,” said Marsha Goldstein, president of My Kind of Town, a destination management company in Lake Forest, Ill. “Then we come up with a budget or stay within their budget.”

At many CVBs, a dedicated military reunion specialist will assist with transportation, tours and tickets. CVBs like the Norfolk CVB also help with registration and name badges and provide a mayor’s letter to guests —“essentially anything the group needs,” said Erin Filarecki, the bureau’s public relations manager.

These towns also regularly offer fam tours that target military reunion planners and offer one-on-one site visits.

Here are military towns or areas military planners can consider.

Charleston, S.C.

Charleston’s military history encompasses more than those moments on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Charleston is home to the Charleston Air Force Base, Naval Weapons Station Charleston and the Citadel, a military college.

Citadel parades, held most Fridays during the school year, are a popular aside.

Courtesy Visit Norfolk

Military reunions also visit Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, home to the USS Yorktown, the 10th aircraft carrier to serve in the U.S. Navy, and other naval ships and military planes, including World War II fighters and bombers.

The Medal of Honor Museum, on the USS Yorktown, has a special tribute to medal recipients from the War on Terror. “It’s a tearjerker to walk through it,” said Walter McCants, sales manager for the Charleston Area CVB.

The Yorktown and Patriots Point are visible from the Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park. Opened in 2009, the park features a war memorial for local war veterans.

Two other popular military attractions are the American Military Museum on Aquarium Wharf, located near the debarkation point for Fort Sumter tours, where artifacts from 14 American conflicts are displayed, and the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the CSS Hunley, a Confederate submarine, is undergoing conservation. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. The Hunley sank soon after, and it was recovered in 2000.

“Perfect weather” in September, October and even early November allows planners to avoid peak season and keep rates down, McCants said. Rates are typically lower during the week, as Charleston is a favored weekend destination.


Colorado Springs, Colo.

Colorado Springs is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Schriever Air Force Base, the U.S. Army’s Fort Carson, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), Peterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Space Command.

“Colorado Springs has a rich military history, and it’s a fitting destination for military reunions, conventions and meetings,” said Chelsy Murphy, public relations manager for the Colorado Springs CVB.

“It has great weather, it’s accessible, and it’s easy to get around,” said Dey. “It’s a nice place to have an event.”

About 50 military reunions are held in Colorado Springs each year, and those numbers may increase as of June 9, when the Colorado Springs Airport begins offering nonstop daily flights to Washington Dulles International.

Already, the city has 14,000 guest rooms, including those in 20 full-service hotels, and more are on the way with the opening of the upscale Mining Exchange Hotel in downtown late this year.

Among the fun experiences for military groups are dinners at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Airplane Restaurant, where 42 “passengers” can dine in a fully intact Boeing KC-97 tanker.
One piece of advice, from Dey: Remind veterans groups that the higher altitude in Colorado Springs will require some adjustment.


Columbus, Ga.
There are cities that are near a military installation and there are cities that contain an installation. Columbus falls in the latter group. “Fort Benning is literally part of Columbus,” said Peter Bowden, president and CEO of the Columbus CVB.

The military’s presence and military-focused attractions give the city “an edge up on the competition,” Bowden said. As of May, the city had booked 54 military reunion groups for this year, and a spring familiarization trip for military planners promised to up that number.

Among the area’s military museums are the new 40,000-square-foot National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus; the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park, and, less than an hour from Columbus, the National Prisoner of War Museum, on the site of the old Andersonville prison, where Union prisoners were held.

The military presence has helped fuel new hotels, and most are geared toward military gatherings. “We’ve had an almost 60 percent increase in hotel properties since 2000,” Bowden said. Among them are three limited service hotels in south Columbus that are less than two years old, including the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel, the location for the city’s USO.


Kitsap County, Wash.

When Carol Dankers, vice president of the Navy League of the United States Bremerton-Olympic Peninsula Council, asked two retired Navy captains why they chose Kitsap for their reunions, attentiveness topped the list.

“The most important factor was that this area is so supportive of the military,” she said.
There’s good reason. Naval Base Kitsap is the third-largest naval base in the United States, home to more than 12,000 active-duty Navy personnel plus Marines and Coast Guard.

“The two captains and others emphasize that having a reunion here is less expensive than having the event in a metropolitan area,” Dankers said, “yet a major airport is close, and there is good transportation available.”

Reunion groups can visit two naval museums, the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport and the Puget Sound Naval Museum in Bremerton; see the full-size replica of the U.S. Navy Memorial Lone Sailor statue — the original is in Washington, D.C. — on the waterfront in Bremerton; or take the Seattle-Bremerton ferry to Seattle. Groups that visit in May can build their reunion around the annual Armed Forces Festival in Bremerton.


Lake County, Ill.
Located between Milwaukee and Chicago, Lake County is home to Naval Station Great Lakes, which brings many reunions to the area, said Kimberly Ghys, senior sales manager for the Lake County CVB, a member of the Reunion Friendly Network.

Visitors can attend a recruit boot camp graduation on the base. “It’s very special and beautiful with the people in their dress whites,” said Goldstein.

Other military must-sees include the Great Lakes Naval Museum; the Russell Military Museum, which has more than 100 military vehicles on display from World War I to the present; and Fort Sheridan, a former Army base built in the late 19th century.

Since Chicago is less than 45 minutes away, many groups go there to visit the Pritzker Military Library and the Museum of Science and Industry. Afterward, they might dine at a restaurant on the Navy Pier or take a lake cruise before returning to one of the Lake County’s 60 hotels.


Omaha, Neb.
For events that draw from across the country, Omaha offers a strategic advantage. “It’s close to the geographic center of the United States,” Dey said.  “The East Coast is about as far away as the West Coast.”

As far as a military presence, Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha houses the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the “nation’s eyes, ears and muscle when it comes to protecting the country,” said Bill Slovinski, group sales manager for the Omaha CVB.

The Strategic Air and Space Museum there dedicates 300,000 square feet to military aircraft. Memorial Park honors military men and women who were killed or missing during service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  The park also includes more than 1,000 rose bushes, which are as much of a draw as the colonnade memorial.

When military groups gather here, typically between April and October, they have plenty of accommodation options. Omaha has more than 13,000 hotel rooms, at least 2,000 of which were added in the past few years.


Norfolk, Va.
Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world, is only part of what makes Norfolk a military destination.

“There are so many attractions that appeal to military reunions,” said Phillips of Phillips Destination Management Services.

Norfolk is the burial site of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a World War II Army hero, and his wife; the home of the USS Wisconsin, which earned six battle stars for service in World War II and the Korean War and a Navy Unit Commendation for service in the Gulf War; and Fort Norfolk, the only remaining fort of the 19 harbor-front forts that George Washington authorized in 1794.