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Small towns with big attractions

Courtesy U.S. Space and Rocket Center

When the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation Society was looking for a location for its August 2010 gala, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., was an obvious choice.

The official museum for NASA and America’s manned flight program, the center is a prestigious venue, appropriate for an event that honored the nation’s living Medal of Honor recipients.

Some 600 people attended the event at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, the center’s newest venue.

The center is one example of celebrated attractions that double as meeting and event venues in second- and third-tier cities throughout the Southeast.

Iconic attractions such as Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., and the historic bathhouses at Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Ark., make for intriguing event.

For example, Bowling Green, Ky., is the only place in the world where the Chevrolet Corvette is built, making it a natural draw for Corvette affinity groups, among others.

“We get so many clients who are meeting in the city and are fascinated by our facility,” said Jana Sublett, facility rental coordinator at the National Corvette Museum. “They want to come here because they know they won’t find the same experience anywhere else.”

Have a blast at space and rocket center
Manning a simulated mission to Mars or sipping a cocktail under the Saturn V rocket makes for anything but ordinary events at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

The center is the world’s largest hands-on space technology museum and the Visitor Information Center for the Marshall Space Flight Center.

“Groups can make their events more interesting by adding our attractions, a private tour or even requesting a speech by a NASA astronaut,” said Claudia Jones, director of special events.

For example, Halsey Food Service of Huntsville held a customer appreciation evening in early August for 800 people and added to the fun by launching a space shuttle via space simulators and showing a movie at the 288-seat Spacedome Imax Theater. A fireworks show capped the evening.

The Davidson Center for Space Exploration can accommodate events for up to 1,500 people. Among the events held there is the Space Exploration Celebration Reunion, which reunites about 1,000 former NASA employees.

“Corporations are our biggest market, but we also hold many charitable, private and government events,” Jones said. “Our local markets include defense and military contract companies, and we can accommodate groups of 4,000 in the entire facility.”

The center’s other venues include Shuttle Park, for receptions of up to 2,000. and the Galaxy Dining Room, for dinners of 150.

The center offers customized, corporate team-building camps when the summertime Space Camp youth program is not in session.

“Corporate groups including eBay, Sears Roebuck and Boeing have participated in our indoor and outdoor programs that can last from a few hours to five days,” said Michele Leahy, director of corporate programs. “The most popular are  space and aviation simulation training.”

Learning to pilot a jet fighter and execute combat maneuvers builds leadership and planning skills. During the space program, groups launch, orbit and land a space shuttle, which builds problem-solving and communication skills.


Get soaked in Hot Springs
Soaking at a spa seems almost mandatory in Hot Springs, Ark., a city that grew up around thermal springs so revered that they have been federally protected since 1832.

Hot Springs National Park surrounds downtown and is home to eight bathhouses, several of which have been restored to their their early-1900s opulence and are now used for receptions as well as therapeutic baths.

The bathhouses are lined up along Bathhouse Row, on the city’s main drag.

“Groups can learn the history of the 5,500-acre park at the visitors center museum in the Fordyce Bathhouse, which can also host small receptions for 50 people,” said Cindy DeWitt, director of sales, Hot Springs CVB.

With its stained-glass ceilings, terra cotta fountains and white marble, the Spanish Renaissance Revival-style Fordyce is considered the most luxurious of the bathhouses, although all are handsome, representing varied architectural styles.

The recently renovated Ozark Bathhouse, home of the Museum of Contemporary Art, can be used for receptions of up to 300.

“We have many, many receptions among our seven art galleries of world-class art and are planning a classroom as well,” said Lori Arnold, executive director.

The lobbies of the Lamar, Superior and Hale Bathhouses can host small meetings and receptions, according to Hot Springs National Park Superintendant Josie Fernandez.

“Since lots of visitors want to do more than just read about the baths, meeting planners often include spa options as a spouse event or free-time activity,” said DeWitt.

The Buckstaff has offered traditional sitz and steam cabinet baths since 1912; at the recently reopened Quapaw, guests can relax in four large soaking pools and have spa treatments.


Discover the Old West in Georgia
When the Advocates for Children in Cartersville, Ga., held a benefit for 230 people last April, it chose the new event facilities at the Booth Western Art Museum; the group liked it so much it will return this year.

“This is a world-class venue that is absolutely fabulous for an event,” said Patty Eagar, executive director. “We held a reception, silent and live auctions, and a dinner and even toured the museum’s galleries at no additional cost.”

A 40,000-square-foot addition to the Booth Museum doubled its exhibition space and made room for a 250-seat banquet hall and a 3,200-square-foot ballroom. The museum has America’s largest permanent exhibition of Western art.

“Groups can also have events in the 140-seat Booth Theater and small meetings for 30 in the Borderlands meeting room,” said Jacquelyn Hollis, director of events, Georgia Museums Inc., Cartersville.

To add a touch of the Old West, many groups include programs by cowboy singer Doc Stovall or Booth Museum historian Jim Dunham, who spent years as a “trick gun” performer for dinner shows and studio tours.

“We also have new galleries on Native American artifacts and the Civil War, and I always leave all the galleries open so groups can tour them at no extra cost,” said Hollis.

The Booth Museum is one of two Smithsonian-affiliated museums in this Blue Ridge Mountain foothills town 45 minutes north of metro Atlanta. The other, the two-year-old Tellus Science Museum, has 6,000 square feet of banquet space with seating for 400, a 120-seat digital planetarium and the 200-seat Tellus Theater. Its Great Hall can also seat 250 and includes a dance floor.


Add some vroom at Vette museum
Enthusiastic best describes groups that meet at the National Corvette Museum, the world’s largest museum dedicated to a specific car.

The Bowling Green, Ky., museum draws more than a dozen Corvette groups each year, as well many meetings and receptions.

“Corvettes seem to inspire a certain passion that has created group events like the C5C6 Bash held in April,” said Sublett. “Last year, 300 owners of the C5 and C6 models held a Margaritaville party with a cookout and a band in our conference center.

“We also get corporate clients who love Corvettes or are just curious about them,” Sublett said. “Groups meeting in Bowling Green often want to come out to hold a reception or event and tour the museum as well as the GM Bowling Green Corvette Assembly Plant, the only place in the world where Corvettes are made, which is located across the street on I-65.”

The museum’s 8,300-square-foot conference center has a 500-person capacity. Welcome receptions for 200 can be held on Corvette Boulevard, where new Corvettes waiting for their owners are on display, as well as in the 12-story, glass-ceiling Skydome, which can hold seated events for 100. The facility’s 60-acre campus also includes an outdoor amphitheater for 10,000.

“The Corvette’s early history is the backdrop for 48-person seated events in Nostalgia Area, while the Corvette Cafe is a ’50s diner with Corvette pictures and memorabilia that can seat 80,” said Sublett. “We also have the 160-seat, renovated Chevrolet Theater, which recently hosted Bowling Green school officials for a social networking conference.”


Peanut butter and bananas, anyone?
You know you are at Graceland when bite-size peanut butter and banana sandwiches are on the dessert menu.

“People are always asking about Elvis’ favorite foods, so we recently added these special treats to a dessert station,” said Marianne Murphy, special events manager at Elvis Presley’s former home in Memphis, Tenn.

Curiosity about the legendary singer and his Graceland Mansion lures many meeting planners to this iconic attraction, which can accommodate up to 1,200.

One thing groups won’t find at Graceland are Elvis impersonators, who out of respect for the Presley family’s burial site aren’t allowed.

“We do between 100 and 150 after-hours events each year for training and incentive groups, as well as associations meeting in Memphis,” said Murphy. “Even people who aren’t really fans are intrigued, and they almost always leave as fans of the man behind the museum.”

Most events are held in the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion, where groups of 250 can socialize around Elvis’ car collection. The collection is showcased in a drive-in-theater exhibit that includes “The King” performing on a full-size movie screen.

“Our other venues include the pavilion, which is the ticket plaza area by day; but at night, it is transformed into a beautiful event facility for 250, seated, or 300 for a reception,” said Murphy.
Groups of 110 can hold an event in the Chrome Grill, which also has an automobile theme: the Rockabilly Diner is a 1950s cafe for parties of 65.

Groups can hold tented events in or outside of the Graceland Plaza, but the Graceland grounds and mansion are available for guided tours only.

“A self-guided tour of the mansion and grounds can be added to any event, which we try to do at the beginning of the evening,” Murphy said. “However, the gift shop as well as two ticketed attractions, the Lisa Marie customized jet and the Sincerely Elvis Museum, are usually left open so groups can see them at their leisure after dinner.”

After spending time at Graceland, many want souvenirs of their visit. “Meeting planners often use our Elvis key rings as a napkin ring during their event,” said Murphy.


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