Courtesy Emerald Coast CVB
Here’s a way to start a modern-day mutiny. Book a meeting in Norfolk, Va., the city where the Elizabeth and James rivers and the Chesapeake Bay come together and neglect to get attendees out on the water.
“If you come to Norfolk and don’t get out on the water, you’ve made a mistake,” said Tom Van Benschoten, general manager of the American Red Rover Tall Ship. “Because the harbor is one of the world’s busiest, there’s so much to see: historic sites, commercial shipping and Navy ships.”
On North Carolina’s oceanfront Outer Banks, attendees can take to the waves in a kayak. On the Emerald Coast in Florida’s Panhandle, teams can cast lines for a whopper in a fishing derby on the Gulf of Mexico. And in the West Virginia mountains, river rapids can provide thrills — and a few spills.
Whether it’s the wide Atlantic Ocean or intimate DeGray Lake in Arkansas, water expands the scope of a number of Southern meetings destinations.
The fleet meets in Norfolk
“Norfolk is almost entirely surrounded by water,” said Erin Filarecki, media relations manager for Visit Norfolk. “So there’s not much water related that we can’t do for meetings groups. We have a great selection of cruises to get folks out on the water.”
The Red Rover is one example. The elegant three-masted, 135-foot schooner with sails of red tanbark plies the Elizabeth River and Hampton Roads Harbor April through October. On charters, up to 120 attendees can hoist a sail, take the helm, or admire the views on sunset dinner cruises.
For larger groups, the sleek Spirit of Norfolk bills itself as “festive but affordable” for up to 450 passengers. Its Gospel and Big Band cruises can add some spark to a voyage.
Several land-based options put parties on firm footing near the water. The Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center is a waterfront cruise-ship terminal that can accommodate up to 1,500 guests; its spaces include the 13,500-square-foot Half Moone Vista, with sunset views over the water, and the nation’s largest collection of privately owned ocean liner models.
Next door, Nauticus, a maritime museum, overlooks the USS Wisconsin, one of the largest and last battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy. The museum and ship welcome events.
Norfolk is home to the world’s largest naval base, and the best place to learn about this massive military presence is on the Victory Rover, a spunky boat with two-hour cruises that pass by the Navy’s aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and other vessels.
Embrace the beach in Duck
The Sanderling Resort and Spa’s neighbors — the sea and the bay — are always making waves. The 12-acre resort in Duck, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound.
“You can kayak right off the dock in the sound along the Audubon Trail, where there’s spectacular bird-watching in the fall,” said Wendy Coulson-Murray, director of sales and marketing.
Even during meetings, attendees are reminded that they are on the shore. A 1,500-square-foot meeting room has a deck, one of a number of outdoor group gathering areas, and an executive suite has water views.
“You walk out of the Sanderling, and bingo, you are on the beach,” said Dougald Gilmore, president of International Veterinary Seminars, which held a three-day meeting for about 80 veterinarians in September. It was the third meeting Gilmore has planned there.
Housing options include rooms in three inn buildings and in five vacation homes, including a six-bedroom oceanfront often used for corporate retreats.
After morning meetings, some of Gilmore’s attendees took a 20-mile roundtrip truck tour to see wild horses among the dunes; another group went kayaking on the sound.
“It was so warm,” he recalled, “that some people just kicked back on the beach.”
Back to nature on Arkansas’ quiet water
Water brings tranquility at DeGray Lake State Resort Park in Bismarck, Ark., where one wall of the park’s conference center looks out on the lake, whose surface is occasionally broken by a leaping bass or a walleye.
“DeGray is a clean Corps of Engineers lake with no development nearby,” said Kathy Ritter, director of sales. “It’s a perfect, quiet place for a meeting in a natural setting away from the busyness of a city.”
The state park lodge is far from rustic. Its 94 guest rooms have wireless Internet access; the lobby is warmed by a fireplace and a restaurant affords sunrise and sunset views.
Coaches’ Outreach, a Christian-based organization for coaches and their wives, buys out the property every summer for a marriage and Bible study conference.
“One reason we keep coming back to DeGray year after year is because it’s such a beautiful setting for our coaches and families to relax and get back to what’s important in their lives,” said Tanya Baugus, event coordinator and administrator.
During down time, many of Baugus’ attendees head to a courtesy dock or full-service marina for boating and striped bass fishing, or to the park’s 18-hole golf course, where water comes into play on seven holes.
Other options are snorkeling excursions, kayak tours and lake cruises. Flat-bottom boats, party barges, canoes, kayaks and water bikes can be rented in season.
And, of course, folks can always just chill on the beach and gaze into that tranquil water.
A treat to meet on a Mississippi beach
The best way to get a handle on Biloxi, Mississippi’s 300 years of history is by climbing aboard one of two authentic replicas of a Biloxi oyster schooner at the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum and taking to the Gulf under billowing sails.
Biloxi’s White Winged Queens can be booked for two-and-a half-hour narrated cruises for up to 50 passengers each. Pavilions on the vessels’ pier can handle receptions for up to 200.
“The schooners can sail to gorgeous barrier islands that are about 11 miles out,” said Kay Miller, the city’s downtown services manager. Those islands can also be the site of private sunset beach parties.
“Biloxi’s waters are calmer because of these islands,” said Miller. “Groups can also take a ferry to Ship Island and tour 1850s-era Fort Massachusetts.”
The beach and sea are in almost constant view, even at popular attractions like the gulf-front Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis; the new Frank Geary-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, featuring the creations of local potter George Ohr; and the 1849 Lighthouse, next to Biloxi’s new visitors center, which will open come spring.
All of those attractions and much more were damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but Biloxi is coming back beautifully from the hurricane’s onslaught, said Miller.
“Biloxi has maintained its character and charm, with the great Gulf, great weather all year and gorgeous live oak trees. The casinos have perked up the economy, but they have not taken the area over. Here they simply add another tourism opportunity.”
Coastin’ on the ocean in the Sunshine State
Yet another location with on-the-water sailing is the Florida Panhandle’s Emerald Coast, which encompasses Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island. For eight consecutive years, Destin has been Southern Living readers’ Best Beach Destination.
“We’re famous for our sugar-white beaches and emerald-green waters,” said Sherry Rushing, travel industry sales manager for the Emerald Coast CVB. “It’s a great place where meeting planners can work a little and play a lot.”
A day aboard the schooner Nathaniel Bowditch, which sails into the Gulf of Mexico, is a good way to combine work and play. Up to 22 passengers can help the crew or drink wine, eat cheese and watch dolphins.
As Destin’s fishing fleet is Florida’s largest, charter boats can provide corporate getaways or team building.
Based 40 miles away from the coast in Milton, Adventures Unlimited’s Team and Leadership Center offers team-building activities that incorporate the water with overnight canoe trips, kayaking and tubing.
Spouses will want to find their way to one of the spas at such resorts as the oceanfront Emerald Grande, a condo-suite hotel with meeting space that overlooks Destin Harbor and the Gulf. Guests can play golf, fish, snorkel, scuba, jet ski or soak up the beach sun.
Another gathering site, the Emerald Coast Convention Center, with 35,000 square feet of meeting space and local art, is situated on Okaloosa Island across a highway from the beach.
“The harbor, the boats, the gorgeous water and white sand — there’s just no place like it,” said Tisha Maraj, the center’s sales and marketing manager.
Southeast Tourism Society Meeting Guide