On April 4, 1865, in the waning hours of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln traveled by boat to Richmond, Va., to settle matters with the Confederacy. He entered a city still smoldering from a fire set two days earlier by Confederate soldiers as they evacuated. He didn’t stay long.
Almost 150 years later, in 2011, Lincoln returned to Richmond in the person of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis arrived for the filming of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning drama “Lincoln.” This modern-day Lincoln found a very different city and stayed for two months.
Today’s Richmond is still steeped in history, but it has also become a lively and eclectic mix of hotels, restaurants, parks, galleries and theaters alongside an active riverfront where eagles nest and tourists raft white water.
The Washington Redskins hold summer training there, and the Flying Squirrels, a minor-league affiliate of the New York Giants, play baseball there. Outside Magazine last year called it the “Best River Town in America.”
Virginia’s state capital, Richmond is two hours south of Washington on the James River and is ringed by interstates. The city’s population of 205,000 jumps to 1.2 million when the surrounding counties that make up the Greater Richmond region are included.
Convention center is Virginia’s largest
Ten years ago, several of those counties and the city joined forces to open the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Virginia’s largest convention center.
Housed in two two-story buildings linked by skywalks, the center is dominated by a 178,000-square-foot exhibit hall that can be divided into four parts. The center also has a 30,500-square-foot ballroom, 32 meeting rooms, a 258-seat lecture hall with a stage and built-in projection, and an out-of-the-way VIP suite with a fireplace, an outdoor balcony, a kitchen and a private restroom.
Touches of stained glass bring light from expansive foyers into the mostly windowless meeting rooms.
In a first-floor cyber cafe, attendees can tap into the Internet for free on their own laptops or using one of the computer kiosks. They can dine on light fare there or in a second-floor food court operated by Aramark, which also handles the center’s catering needs.
Because of its size, the center can handle large conventions, and it is making a name for itself among sports competitions.
“Sports is our biggest growing segment,” said Lori Coyne, the director of sales and marketing. Two sets of bleachers will be added to the exhibit hall this year specifically for sporting events.
National conventions have included the USA Holstein Association and Mary Kay. If a gathering grows to the 6,000-to-10,000 range, the convention can spill over into the nearby Richmond Coliseum.
“The convention center’s exhibit hall has 16 lighted bays,” Coyne said. “We’ve had everything in here from animals to helicopters. And we recently hosted the ‘Antiques Roadshow.’”
Marriott abuts convention center
A skywalk leads from the convention center to the 410-room Richmond Marriott, the headquarters hotel for most conventions.
“We also have 27,000 square feet of meeting space if the convention center needs more,” sales manager Kyle Forkel said.
Its 15,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom on the lobby level can be divided into 10 smaller rooms; an 8,000-square-foot ballroom on the lower level can morph into eight sections. Six other meeting rooms can accommodate 25 to 50 people.
A renovation of meeting space is planned for next August; the rest of the hotel was renovated top to bottom in 2009.
Nearby, a Hilton Garden Inn, built in Richmond’s historic Miller and Rhoads department store, has 250 guest rooms and a new lounge called Thirst and Fifth.
In addition, Hilton plans to build two hotels in 2015, a Hampton Inn and a Homewood Suites, adding 240 rooms downtown.
Two other hotels are in the plans. Apple REIT, owner of the Marriott, has announced it will open a Courtyard by Marriott and a Marriott Residence Inn late in 2014 in a section of the city called Shockoe Slip, which is near the river. Those hotels will give the city another 200 guest rooms.