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Portland, Maine: Lobsters and Lighthouses

Maine is a beautiful New England state but somewhat off the beaten path. Many Americans say they long to visit the state one day, and when they get the chance, many are thankful they did.

“When meeting planners book the Greater Portland region or anywhere in Maine, they end up having higher-than-average attendance because so many people have never been here,” said Elissa English, the director of sales for the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s on their bucket lists, a place that they have always wanted to go to.”

Lynn Tillotson, who is the CVB’s president and CEO, said Portland is unlike many other meeting destinations across the country: “It still has a lot of authenticity to it with historic elements and one of the few working waterfronts left in the country.”

Visitors can sit in a restaurant in the Old Port district and look out at Casco Bay and watch everything from schooners to lobster boats to large cargo container ships plying their trade in those waters. “I think it all gives meeting attendees a sense of place when they come here,” English said.

Locals also like to brag that they can be sitting in the center of Portland one minute and, within an hour’s drive, arrive either on a sandy beach, a rocky shoreline, a mountaintop or a lake. There is that much variety.

Portland, Maine’s largest city, is located in the southeast corner of the state along the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from having all the natural wonders that abound in the area, it is a modern city with a convenient transportation network. Portland International Jetport is just southwest of downtown. Interstates 95 and 295 whisk people around and through the city. In addition, the popular Amtrak Downeaster is a reliable rail option. Five times a day it transports travelers roundtrip south between Portland and Boston, and two times a day roundtrip north to the cities of Freeport, home of the famed L.L. Bean Company, and Brunswick, a historic seaside community. Meeting planners could easily schedule a train excursion for their attendees during their free time.

Tillotson said Maine is not just a two-season region for visitors. There is plenty to do year-round. “Most people think of Maine in the summer and fall months,” she said. “But the Greater Portland area is really great in winter, too. There is excellent skiing just an hour or so away. We are definitely not a city that shuts down in the winter months.”

One-Stop Meet and Sleep

The Portland CVB focuses on smaller meetings because it operates in a city with a population of 66,000 that does not have a convention center. It frequently hosts association meetings, corporate gatherings, reunions and other special events, but not many larger conventions. The Portland Peninsula has nearly 4,000 hotel rooms. If you look at Greater Portland, with its suburbs and tourist region, the room count climbs to just over 6,000 rooms.

Portland boasts a number of good-size hotels that deftly handle meetings. Two are located in the popular Arts District. Holiday Inn by the Bay Hotel and Convention Center has broad views of Portland Harbor and is Maine’s largest convention facility. It provides 239 sleeping rooms and 30,000 square feet of flexible meeting space that includes a 12,500-square-foot exhibit hall. The largest banquet room seats 1,400 people. Also available are 13 meeting rooms, including the beautiful State of Maine Grand Ballroom.

Westin Portland Harborview is a historic preservation project filled with modern amenities. Built in the 1920s, it was, at the time, the largest hotel north of New York City. The revitalization has created 289 guest rooms and 15,000 square feet of function space. The property features the 5,500-square-foot Eastland Grand Ballroom. For gatherings, the ideal group size is 100, although the hotel can handle groups of up to 500.

Two other conference hotels in Portland stay busy. The recently refurbished Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks sits on an 18-hole golf course. “It feels like more of a retreat and can be a great option for groups,” said the CVB’s English. The property offers 226 sleeping rooms and 14,000 square feet of event space, including 10 event rooms and nine breakout rooms. Maximum capacity for events is 900 people.

Just down the hill from the Marriott hotel is the area’s largest shopping complex: Maine Mall. On the mall property is the Doubletree by Hilton, with 220 guest rooms. Planners can count on 13,000 square feet of ground-level meeting or event space, which can accommodate up to 550 people.

For Larger Meetings

Although there is no prime convention center, if a larger group wants to meet in Portland, there are several stand-alone venues that can accommodate more than 1,000 attendees. One option is the newly renovated Cross Insurance Arena in the downtown area. This venue is known for its music, sports and entertainment options, but the floor of the arena can also be converted and is ideal for exhibits or large meetings where people can fill the nearly 7,000 seats all around.

The arena is located between two major downtown hotels, and meeting planners frequently book their attendees into those hotels and use the arena’s exhibit space as part of their meeting, conference or event.

The largest group that comes regularly to Portland is the New England Veterinary Society. It fills several downtown hotels and uses Cross Arena. The society is also lobbying the city to build a convention center.

Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.