Aiken, South Carolina, may be the only historic town in America that can claim its charm continues where its dirt roads begin. Aiken’s cherished dirt roads are the pathways that delineate its world-class horse district.
Many of Aiken’s polo fields, stables, training centers and tracks are found in this horse district, just off its busy thoroughfares. During its “Winter Colony” era, dating to the 1870s, wealthy Northeastern industrialists discovered Aiken and built exquisite mansions they deemed “cottages”. They found Aiken’s moderate winter climate and sandy soil to be ideally suited for breeding and training horses, as well as enjoying polo matches.
In October, Visit Aiken hosted six meeting planner readers of Small Market Meetings on a four-day site inspection tour. Attendees discovered the area’s horse heritage, viewed meeting facilities and explored activities for their delegates. The planners stayed in the city’s distinguished hotel, The Willcox; had breakfast on a dirt road at The Track Kitchen; enjoyed a trolley tour to view the city’s heralded architecture; and took a sunrise walk through Hitchcock Woods.
The Alley and the Trolley
One evening, the group split up to enjoy The Alley, Aiken’s downtown promenade filled with retail shops, bars and restaurants. The Alley is Aiken’s hot spot for fresh-air evenings and outdoor concerts.
The planners took a trolley tour from the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum for a lively introduction to the city’s lore. Royals, presidents and politicians have all contributed to its local color, and several “cottages” are now inns or venues for special events. During their stay, the planners visited venues including the Rye Patch, USC Aiken’s Ruth Patrick Science Center, the Amentum Center for Performing Arts, the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Aiken County Museum.
The National Wild Turkey Federation outside Aiken features a nationally known shooting complex. The planners opted for sporting clays and took turns trying to hit “quail” and “rabbit” targets at two different trail locations. Afterward, they enjoyed lunch compliments of Blue Collard Catering.
Several planners also opted to meet one morning for a sunrise walk at Hitchcock Woods, the largest privately owned urban forest in the country. Superintendent Bennett Tucker joined the group for breakfast at La Parisienne to share the story of how this local treasure is managed.
The historic upscale Willcox hotel was built in 1898 in downtown Aiken. With on-site event planners, it is fantastic for board meetings and corporate retreats. A full buyout of the hotel is available.
Rooms: Most of the 28 individually appointed guest rooms and suites have fireplaces, four-poster beds and soaking tubs, and the suites have antique furniture.
Meeting Spaces: The 460-square-foot Hunt Room can accommodate up to 32 guests. The 770-square-foot Library can accommodate up to 56 people. The Roosevelt Suite can be used for small meetings of up to 15. Meetings can combine the Hunt Room and the Library with space around the pool. The Willcox also manages Crossways and Longleaf. Crossways, located on five acres, is the oldest home in Aiken. With 5,165 square feet, it can accommodate up to 300 guests. Longleaf is a 1,200-acre former Thoroughbred horse farm 30 minutes from downtown Aiken that can be used for corporate retreats and meetings.
Dining: The Willcox has an elegant restaurant and a lobby bar and provides off-site catering for meetings.
Recreation: A seasonal saltwater pool has a deck and sun lounges. There is a gym, a spa and a salon, and loaner bicycles are available.
Carriage House Inn
Built in the 1870s in the heart of downtown Aiken as a family home, the Carriage House Inn has gone through several iterations over the years, including as the production set of a Disney movie. It was converted to a guest house in 1999 and has been expanded several times since then.
Rooms: The boutique Carriage House has 37 individually designed rooms and suites in three buildings.
Meeting Spaces: The Carriage House can host board meetings, corporate luncheons and dinners.
Dining: The Carriage House serves a complimentary hot breakfast and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies and is within walking distance of many downtown restaurants.
Recreation: Hike nearby Hitchcock Woods, tour Hopeland Gardens or watch world-class polo.
Holiday Inn Express and Suites
The Holiday Inn Express and Suites is Aiken’s newest hotel and is conveniently located three miles from downtown Aiken and 30 minutes from Augusta Regional Airport.
Rooms: There are 95 guest rooms with free high-speed internet and work desks.
Meeting Spaces: The Hyatt’s 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space includes two ballrooms that accommodate more than 200 guests each, six breakouts and the Sky Terrace, an outdoor space on the 16th floor.
Dining: A complimentary full breakfast buffet is available in the morning.
Recreation: The hotel has an outdoor pool and a large fitness center. It is near the shops and theaters at Aiken Mall.
Small groups enjoy luxurious rooms at this newly completed four-room accommodation. Built to afford its guests walkable access to downtown, it features distinctly different decor in each suite, with each providing a sleeping room, adjoining living space and a wet bar.
Rooms: There are four rooms with queen beds that all open to a common lobby area, offering four couples or eight friends the opportunity to share the entire complex with complete privacy. The rooms feature fine art and contemporary decor.
Highlights: Walkable downtown access is a major appeal of this property. Guests can enjoy all of Aiken’s downtown sites, restaurants and retail offerings with a short walk or easy drive.
Rose Hill Estate
Rose Hill’s 10,000-square-foot Main House with its distinctive Dutch Colonial shingle style was built in 1898 over the remains of the original antebellum house. The walled estate covers a city block in downtown Aiken and has been restored to its Winter Colony elegance.
Rooms: There are six newly renovated guest rooms and suites in the historic Main House, and the one-bedroom Cottage is in the Rose Hill gardens.
Meeting Spaces: Rose Hill is a full-service event venue with various indoor and outdoor event spaces and on-site catering.
Dining: There are two restaurants — the Stables and Sheffield’s — and complimentary breakfast is served.
Recreation: There are lawn games, and local, regional and national artists perform live music nightly. Outdoor seating features fire pits and a beer garden.
Rye Patch Estate House
The Rye Patch is a 10-acre estate adjacent to Hopeland Gardens, which was the center of Aiken social life in the early-to-mid-20th century. It was donated to the city of Aiken in 1982 after the death of owner Dorothy Knox Goodyear Rogers.
Meeting Spaces: The Rye Patch can host indoor and outdoor receptions. Its library, sunroom and dining room can seat 60 table style and 75 theater style, and there is space for 150 for a reception. The Guest Cottage at Rye Patch, tucked beneath oak trees, is great for small business meetings.
Amentum Center for Performing Arts
The 21-year-old Amentum Center for the Performing Arts, owned and operated by the city of Aiken, is home to the Aiken Community Theatre and Aiken Performing Arts.
Meeting Spaces: The 17,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Amentum Center is available for meetings and in-person and video conferences. It can accommodate 300 people in its auditorium, 95 in the first-floor lobby, 134 in the second-floor lobby, 31 on the balcony and 219 on its stage. A workshop, rehearsal hall and technical support are available.
Dining: Newberry Hall, across the street, can provide catering.
The University of South Carolina Aiken, a part of the University of South Carolina system, is a highly regarded public university with more than 3,500 students. Marking its 60th year, it offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in more than 50 areas of study.
Meeting Spaces: The Convocation Center has a capacity of 3,500 to 4,100 patrons with a VIP room for up to 200 and other rentable meeting spaces. The Etherredge Center has a 687-seat proscenium theater and the 100-seat O’Connell Theatre. The Business and Education Center has several meeting facilities and can accommodate up to 597 theater style, 400 classroom style and 456 for banquets. Groups can schedule tours of the university’s 453-acre campus.
Dining: USC Aiken Catering by Aramark provides a menu of freshly prepared quality meals for all occasions, including customized options.
Shortly after the Small Market Meetings site inspection tour, the Aiken Municipal Development Commission announced plans to develop a new hotel and conference center.
The commission will purchase seven parcels of land, including one that is the site of a defunct hotel, to create the new hospitality and meeting facilities. Plans call for a premium or boutique 100-room hotel, as well as a 25,000-square-foot facility with full food and beverage service. The developers also hope to build a parking garage at the site to service the hotel and meeting facility.
Construction on the site is expected to begin in late 2022 or early 2023.
• Aiken Trolley Tour — This two-hour guided tour of historic sites and points of interest related to the city’s Winter Colony era leaves from the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum. Riders see the home that heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean rented and hear stories of how she often misplaced the Hope Diamond and had guests help her search for it. They also see the Old Aiken Post Office and its steps, where frequent guest Fred Astaire danced for delighted onlookers.
• Whiskey Event and Entertainment Complex — This facility adjacent to JC’s Seafood restaurant includes an indoor reception area, but the real fun is out back. A regulation 18 -hole miniature golf course sits in a grove of trees, and regulation-size batting cages offer delegates a terrific opportunity to enjoy an afternoon of team building or relaxation. Two-hour, half-day and full-day bookings are available.
• Hitchcock Woods — This privately owned urban forest is the largest in the United States. Donated to the city in 1939 by the Hitchcock family, this 2,100-acre forest and grassland preserve offers numerous trails for walking, running and horseback riding. Hitchcock Woods hosts major events each year, including the Aiken Horse Show in the spring and the Festival in the Woods each fall.
• National Wild Turkey Center — This $12 million facility is home to the National Wild Turkey Federation. It encompasses 300 acres, and its guests purchase 2.5 million clay targets annually. Meeting delegates can arrange to shoot skeet, trap shoot or take four-wheel vehicles out on the sporting clay trails to shoot “quail” or “rabbit” clay targets. A catered box lunch or full meal in the center’s covered pavilion makes a great end to a visit.
• The Alley — Spend a couple of hours in downtown Aiken’s entertainment district for outdoor market shopping and a meal. Choose from several busy bars and restaurants, and enjoy lots of outdoor seating along this popular downtown artery. In the evening, your delegates may be able to grab seats for a free live concert.
1. Track Kitchen — This beloved breakfast restaurant is an institution with horse owners, trainers and riders in Aiken. Situated on one of Aiken’s dirt roads in the horse district, the restaurant offers breakfast cooked to order from a menu that includes eggs, French toast, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes and coffee that diners pour for themselves into any of a delightfully diverse collection of mugs.
2. JC’s Seafood — Meeting groups can dine in a casual atmosphere in the Bait Shack private dining pavilion at JC’s Seafood, known locally for its fresh seafood. Seafood specialties can be ordered a la carte or enjoyed as a “low-country boil” featuring shrimp, sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob with a selection of cookies for dessert.
3. Whiskey Alley — This popular restaurant and bar holds a prominent place in the Alley, Aiken’s downtown entertainment district. Choose from shareable plates featuring items like charred broccolini, charcuterie plates, roasted beet salad, fish and chips, and other popular entrees. Sit inside or dine al fresco to enjoy the street scenes in the Alley.
4. La Parisienne French Restaurant and Bakery — This recent addition to the local scene is a two-minute walk from The Willcox and offers fresh-baked French pastries, beignets, croissants and other treats. Full breakfasts, including omelets, are available, and lunch offerings include French hot sandwiches like croissant au jambon (ham) or French brie croissant (ham, brie and tomatoes).
5. Stables at Rose Hill — Live music, an adjacent bar and historic stable-inspired surroundings highlight a dinner at this local favorite on the Rose Hill property. Consider the frito misto appetizer featuring shrimp and calamari, and follow that up with braised short rib served with whipped potatoes and collard greens. Arrive early and walk Rose Hill’s landscaped grounds to view its formal gardens and cherished chapel.
For more information on planning an event in Aiken contact:
Visit Aiken, SC
If you are interested in hosting a FAM for readers of Small Market Meetings, contact Kyle Anderson at 866-356-5128 or email@example.com.