As editor of Small Market Meetings, I got to visit a lot of what are termed second-tier cities: basically, any city that isn’t New York, Chicago, Las Vegas or one of the other top-20 metropolitan areas.
I quickly learned that “second tier” does not mean second-rate. Take, for example, Little Rock, Arkansas, where the Small Market Meetings Conference returns this fall for the second time in five years. Little Rock wowed us. When we were there for the first conference in 2011, we stayed downtown in what was then the Peabody Hotel, now the Little Rock Marriott, and though the walk through connecting corridors to the city’s convention center seemed long when you were running late, it was convenient and climate controlled. After a day indoors, there were plenty of paths to take along and across the Arkansas River and so many bridges that you would walk over on one and back on another. If you weren’t up to a walk, trolleys whisked you where you wanted to go. Across the street from the Peabody, the Capital Hotel won the hearts of meeting planners for being smart, sassy and comfortably fancy — a good place for a small upscale meeting.
My travels left me with a soft spot for smaller cities. I visited them as a meeting planner would: CVB salespeople showed me hotels, meeting venues and off-site event possibilities.
Two of my favorites were quite different from one another. In Roanoke, Virginia, I stayed in a conference hotel several miles from downtown, so I experienced what it was like to be shuttled downtown, where a lot of meetings are held at the historic Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, now a Doubletree by Hilton. Downtown was where any meeting-goer would want to be in this Blue Ridge Mountain destination, what with Roanoke’s year-round farmers market, where vendors set up beneath awnings along sidewalks, and magnetic local shops and restaurants that draw visitors and locals alike.
When I visited Huntsville, Alabama, about seven years ago, a Westin Hotel had just opened in a new shopping development near the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Alabama’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Between the Westin and downtown, the Huntsville Botanical Garden and the space center wowed me with off-site event potential. The space center also had a full-service Marriott hotel within a stone’s throw, and when I was there, it was — no surprise — busy with a scientific conference.
But again, downtown Huntsville was where charm lived. Within sight of the Embassy Suites, the only decent hotel downtown at the time, was the Von Braun Center, a convention and sports complex; the Huntsville Art Museum, which has been expanded since I was there; and a beautiful park and lake. The city’s downtown restaurant scene was just heating up.
Things have only gotten better in Huntsville and Roanoke and many of the other second-tier cities I visited. Since my visits, food trucks have come to the fore, and both Roanoke and Huntsville are on board with this culinary trend. News just broke in June that Huntsville will be the site of Alabama’s first food-truck park. Unlike other major Alabama towns, Huntsville has continued to grow, and it will soon welcome big-name stores Cabela’s and Whole Foods, as well as a couple of arcade bars, throwbacks to the days of pinball wizards.
Brewing has also gotten big, and Roanoke is on tap in that regard, with seven local breweries that are part of the Blue Ridge Beerway. Center on the Square, a museum and theater complex that was being revitalized when I was there, has since reopened, offering a natural venue for events within an easy walk of hotels.
Both downtowns, which had limited accommodations downtown during my visit, are getting a boost in that department as well. This fall, a 120-room Hampton Inn will open on top of a new parking garage in the middle of Roanoke’s downtown. A sad-sack Holiday Inn that sat next to the Embassy Suites in Huntsville is gone, and its site is slated for new development, which will include a small upscale hotel such as a Hotel Indigo.
What I’m reading in the national press and what I’m hearing from friends and colleagues makes me hopeful that second-tier cities like Little Rock, Huntsville and Roanoke are finally getting their due. Friends on a cross-country trip texted from two places that are familiar to me but that I have never had the pleasure of visiting: Grand Junction, Colorado, and Lawrence, Kansas. “We love these places,” they said. Ditto, I say.