On the outskirts of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, meeting planners can not only find budget-friendly locations with lower prices, free parking and tax savings, but also take advantage of a new wave of renovated historic venues and event spaces that effortlessly mix indoors and outdoors.
Home to Pennsylvania’s portion of Brandywine Valley, Chester County is just 35 minutes from the Philadelphia International Airport. “We’re a suburban, countryside setting but very accessible,” said Courtney Babcock, sales manager for the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau. “You can get here quickly off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, room rates are going to be lower because you’re not in the center, all of our properties have free parking, and our tax rate is just 9 percent for occupancy and sales tax.”
Traditional meeting hotels in the area are a big draw right now, as several of Chester County’s main spaces are fresh off complete renovations. The Desmond Hotel and Great Valley Conference Center, which includes 26,000 square feet of meeting space and a 130-seat amphitheater, completed a full overhaul of its rooms in 2015, and the Sheraton Great Valley in Malvern, with 7,000 square feet of meeting space, has also freshened up its entire property. More of a boutique setting than the Desmond, the Sheraton includes a tavern dating back to the 1700s, the White Horse Tavern and Wine Bar, which features a farm-to-table menu, live music and frequent special menus and tasting events.
“We have some great hotels, but what we sell most are our unique venues,” said Babcock. In Phoenixville, a historic, compact downtown that flourished due to a local iron and steel company in the 1800s, is home to the Phoenixville Foundry, an 18,000-square-foot event center with a mezzanine balcony. In downtown West Chester, groups can rent the Chester County Historical Society, with space for 350 inside and 120 on its outside patio.
One of the area’s most popular meeting venues for planners looking for something outside of the usual meeting room mold is Longwood Gardens, a Pierre du Pont estate with more than 1,000 acres of meadows and woodlands.
“You can have an event in the conservatory among all the displays,” said Babcock. “As fall scenery goes, it’s the top. But they do have limited availability, as they do their own education classes as well. They have some smaller indoor space that’s more likely to be available.”
Babcock recommends groups book at least a year out for the conservatory space.
An hour east of Pittsburgh, within convenient driving distance of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and Baltimore, Laurel Highlands is a prime place for groups looking for a glamping meeting.
“As a major outdoor destination, we’re a good place to incorporate team building,” said Anna Weltz, director of public relations for the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. “We’re a year-round destination. There’s world-class golf courses, hiking and biking on the Great Allegheny Passage, one of the top sites for whitewater rafting and the most [snow] accumulation in southeastern Pennsylvania, which makes for great skiing.”
One of Laurel Highland’s most popular venues is the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, which caters to groups of all sizes and budgets, with its range of accommodations from Forbes Four Star, AAA Five Diamond Falling Rock to a recreational vehicle camping area. The year-round resort is known for its on-site French-style chateau, 124-room Chateau Lafayette, based on the Ritz Hotel in Paris. In addition to 35,000 square feet of meeting space, the Nemacolin includes opportunities for ziplining, fly-fishing, four-wheel-drive off-road driving and team building on a ropes adventure course.
Latrobe, known as home to Arnold Palmer, Mr. Rogers and the Pittsburgh Steelers summer training camp, has several of the region’s top meeting venues, including the performing arts center and the Fred M. Rogers Conference Center, a LEED gold-certified building, at St. Vincent College.
“Arnold Palmer is alive and kicking, and it’s not uncommon to see him walking around [Latrobe,]” said Weltz. The new SpringHill Suites Pittsburgh Latrobe has been developed in collaboration with Palmer and offers packages that allow groups to golf at his private country club.
Weltz warned that “summer is very busy, especially because of the uniqueness of these facilities. Destination weddings are huge here, and a lot of times you can be competing with a very large wedding.”