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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Saltwater + sand = inspired meetings by the beach

Courtesy Cottage Rental Agency

Stingrays, hurricanes, oil spills: The beach has its hazards. All the same, few can resist its allure, its calming effect, its ability to inspire.

The beach is a sensory experience, from the sound of the waves, the smell of saltwater, the feel of sand between the toes and the taste of fresh seafood.
That’s what makes meeting in a beach town, especially a small one, so ideal. Groups can get away from it all, recharge and brainstorm.

Seaside, Fla.
It’s always a day at the beach in Seaside, which is exactly the way the town was designed.
The birthplace of new urbanism, Seaside was founded 29 years ago by Robert Davis, whose grandfather purchased the land in 1946.

“Robert Davis loved the simple things,” said Jon Ervin, Seaside’s director of public relations and marketing. “Instead of wanting new toys as a kid, his greatest joy was a day at the beach.”
To this day, the beach is Seaside’s main attraction.

In the last decade or so, 15 small communities have developed along 
the Panhandle with Seaside as the center. “Each community has its own feel,” said Ervin.

In Seaside, eye-appealing cottages form a semicircle around the town center along Highway 30A, which parallels the beach. Although most stay in cottages, a few inns and bed-and-breakfasts, such as Vera Bradley’s Inn, are available, and behind the inn is an original motel that has been remodeled. Each room is decorated with a different, funky Americana decor. Its courtyard, sometimes combined with the inn, is often used for receptions or dinners.

Meeting attendees typically park their cars and rarely use them again. They can say good morning to fellow attendees across a picket fence. The No. 1 pastime is bicycling on the paths that connect the town.

When leaving their individually named cottages, guests might feel like Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank in “The Truman Show,” which was filmed there more than a dozen years ago.

Breakfast for meeting attendees is often a voucher for Modica Market, an old-style general store. Boxed lunches are perfect for those headed out to golf, fish or sit on the beach. Dinner can be anything from shucking shellfish to a formal sit-down dinner.

Instead of traditional meeting rooms, meetings can be held on outdoor greens, in cottages and on the beach. Seaside has nine beachside pavilions, including one that accommodates up to 70 people and has a  dead-on, eye-level  view of the deep-blue Gulf of Mexico.

“Our best asset is the location on the beach,” Ervin said.

For those who require more traditional meeting rooms, several are attached to the town’s charter middle school, which was built with the money earned from the filming of “The Truman Show.”

A 1,286-square-foot meeting room has a soundproof projection booth and a floor-to-ceiling roll-down screen. Downstairs is the 328-square-foot Smolian Board Room.

The sea and abundant sunshine are enticements, especially for creative types.

“This is where ‘Cooking Light’ launched its magazine,” said Ervin. “They wanted someplace with good light.”


Galveston, Texas
Galveston has weathered many storms over the years, including Hurricane Ike, which devastated the town in 2008.

“A week after Hurricane Ike, the AIG effect hit,” said Meg Winchester, Galveston Island Convention and Visitor Bureau director.

Ike heavily damaged the island, but now that 98 percent of Galveston’s attractions are back in business, and other issues such as the economy and the BP oil spill are getting the headlines, the hurricane has become old news.

“We have hardly mentioned Ike in the past year,” said Winchester.

Through it all, the historic Texas town 50 miles south of Houston keeps coming back even stronger.

Today, it has more than 150,000 combined square feet of meeting space at various hotels, as well as 140,000 square feet of meeting space at its convention center, situated along Seawall Boulevard overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Opened in 2004 and managed by San Luis Resort, it offers a 43,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 15,500-square-foot ballroom on the second floor and 11 breakout rooms.

“On average, the convention center holds 500 to 2,000, but it can handle as many as 4,000,” said Winchester.

Kathy Kasper, assistant executive director of the Texas Counseling Association, brings members of the association to the Galveston Island Convention Center regularly.

“We sit at the registration table and feel like we are on vacation, because we can see the beach,” she said. Although her groups go to Galveston to earn credits to keep their licenses, they manage to find their own fun.

“They escape from us all the time,” she said. “And Galveston has such wonderful places to eat.”

Another popular meeting place is the 428-room Moody Gardens Hotel and Spa Resort, which has 103,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 60,000-square-foot exhibit hall and 36 breakout rooms.

The resort is capable of handling the challenges meeting groups sometimes present.  A few years ago, it helped National Western Life make arrangements for a circus as entertainment for its national meeting.

“Our attractions include the aquarium, rain forest, discovery museum, a beach and paddle wheeler,” said Jamie Weir, director of sales and marketing. “Guests don’t have to leave the premises.”

Technically, they do, if they want to see Galveston’s beach, which is a mile and a half away. What Moody Gardens offers instead is Palm Beach, with white sand imported from Florida.

“Galveston has the historical component,” said Winchester. “The Hotel Galvez is celebrating its 100th anniversary next  year and provides state-of-the-art meeting facilities.” It, too, overlooks the Gulf.


Petoskey, Mich.
Petoskey is on the northwest portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and although it does not have a typical seashore, it does have a beach.

“Michigan has more freshwater shoreline than any other place in the world,” said Peter Fitzsimons, executive director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau.

Set on an inlet of Lake Michigan on Little Traverse Bay, the town of 62,000 has offered beach getaways for decades.

Many started going there in 1875, when the Methodists founded Bay View, a Chautauqua on more than 300 acres. Since then, six generations of affluent people have summered in Petoskey, said Fitzsimons.

“With its cool breezes, it is where people came in the summer before air conditioning,” he said. “It’s a step back in time with its architecture, fine dining and shopping. It’s a resort town. This is not a tourist trap. People come to enjoy the ambiance, our view of the bay.”

At the same time, meeting groups find plenty to do. “We have great team-building activities,” said Fitzsimons. “We have ropes at the summer camp and a zip line at the ski area. We also have a young American dinner theater, where young people teach the audience to sing and dance.”

Petoskey does not have a convention center, but it does have first-class resorts.
The Inn at Bay Harbor, a Renaissance Golf Resort, is a full-service convention hotel on the beach with 137 guest rooms and suites and seven function rooms offering 6,600 square feet of meeting space. Honored as one of the Top 500 Hotels in the World in 2009 and 2010 by Travel and Leisure, it has 45 holes of golf, the Spa at the Inn, a private Lake Michigan waterfront and an outdoor swimming pool.

“The flexible meeting rooms are on the lower level, but we also have hospitality suites on the penthouse level,” said Julie Ard, director of resort marketing. “People are just more productive when they have the view we can offer.”

Receptions are often held on the terrace and the expansive lawn, she said. Outdoor evening events come with a bonus. “We have million-dollar sunsets,” she said. “No one goes indoors before sunset.”

Three other properties offer meeting facilities for smaller groups. The 92-room Bay Harbor Village Hotel and Conference Center, three miles north of Petoskey, has more than 4,500 square feet of flexible meeting space, more than 12 miles of paved nature trails, golf, cruises from its marina and bonfires on the beach.

Two historic hotels, Stafford’s Bay View Inn and Stafford’s Perry Hotel, have water views. Bay View was built in 1886 overlooking Little Traverse Bay. Stafford’s Perry Hotel, built in 1899 in the Gaslight Shopping District, is the only luxury resort hotel still in operation of some 20 built during that period. On a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, the hotel has 79 guest rooms and six meeting venues.


St. Simons Island, Ga.
Coastal breezes along St. Simons Island beckon visitors to the Georgia destination.
The largest of four barrier islands off the coast of Brunswick, St. Simons is an hour north of Jacksonville, Fla., and an hour south of Savannah.

One of the most popular meeting spots is the waterfront King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort. “Seventy-eight percent of the 195 guest rooms have ocean views,” said Bud St. Pierre, director of sales and marketing. “The advantage we have is that we have the highest rating that’s oceanfront. People don’t have a lot of time. Often the leisure part of the stay is gone, so just to be able to see the ocean while brainstorming for a new product is an advantage.”

With such a view, additional entertainment is not required. “I’ll never forget a high-level state meeting I attended as a guest,” said St. Pierre. “Right in the middle of this meeting, someone said, ‘Hey, look at the dolphins.’ The meeting came to a standstill, and everyone watched the dolphins.”

The resort’s nearly 6,000 square feet of meeting space includes the Lanier Ballroom and three additional meeting rooms. The oceanfront lawn is used for dinners and receptions.

Although the resort offers a variety of activities, including fishing and golf, the No. 1 requested activity is bike riding. A trail runs throughout the island.

“People don’t find time to do that at home,” said St. Pierre.

Another meeting locale on St. Simons Island is the Sea Palms Golf and Tennis Resort with 7,500 square feet of meeting space.

The island’s largest meeting facility is Epworth by the Sea, a Methodist conference center. Its 36,000 square feet of meeting space is available for public use if it is not booked, said Patrick Saylor, Brunswick and the Golden Isles media relations director.


 Florence, Ore.
There’s water everywhere you turn in Florence, an hour west of Eugene, Ore. Seventeen lakes and rivers are nearby, but Florence’s major water feature, the Pacific Ocean, is just over a dune. To the north of town, a beach stretches 25 miles north; to the south is the 42-mile Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

“Florence provides an ideal opportunity for convention and meeting delegates to experience the Oregon Coast,” said Lisa Lawton, director of community relations for Travel Lane County. “Abundant sightseeing, recreation, dining and quaint shopping options are all within close proximity to meeting and lodging venues.

“The dunes are particularly perfect for wildlife viewing, sand-dune-buggy riding or the unique sport of sand boarding,” said Lawton.

Although Florence is a town of 22,000, it does have its own full-service convention and performing-arts facility. The Florence Events Center’s 8,000 square feet of meeting space includes a 457-seat theater.

For oceanfront accommodations, there’s the 128-room Driftwood Shores with 3,270 square feet of meeting space.

For views of the Siuslaw River and Old Town Florence, the 55-room Best Western Pier Point Inn has 1,700 square feet of meeting space. For those who enjoy gaming, the 93-room Three River Casino and Hotel has 7,050 square feet of meeting space.

“The Federal Court Clerks Association recently met in Eugene but held a very special dinner in Florence as part of their conference activities,” said Lawton.

“The dinner was held outdoors along the beautiful, rugged cliffs of the Pacific Ocean on the expansive lawn of the century-old Heceta Head Lighthouse and Bed and Breakfast,” she said.