Courtesy Columbia CVB
Several entertainment districts and the 30,000-student University of South Carolina (USC) keep things lively in Columbia, a capital city that always exceeds expectations.
“First-time visitors are always pleasantly surprised by how much there is to do in Columbia,” said Jim Twitty, who coordinated an international meeting of 450 doctors and technicians, the First World Conference on Ultrasound in Medical Education, for USC last year.
“Everyone loved an event at the South Carolina State Museum in the Vista Entertainment District,” he said. “It featured local music groups performing everything from bluegrass to steel drums, food and drink stations, and the chance to tour museum exhibits.”
Set near the Congaree River, the Vista is the most popular area for meeting and convention delegates, as it is less than a block from the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and has four hotels, including the 222-room Hilton Columbia Center.
“There are more than 50 bars and restaurants, as well as six art galleries and shopping, in a four-block-by-four-block area,” said Jason Outman, director of sales for the Columbia CVB and the convention center. “Popular dine-around spots are the Motor Supply Company, which also has private reception space for 50; the Blue Marlin seafood restaurant, which can hold 100 for a reception; and the Liberty Tap Room, which has a new private event section for 50.”
Corporate groups looking for fun also go to Jillian’s sports and entertainment bar, which has 20,000 square feet of pool tables, billiards and other sports, as well as dining.
“Just a few blocks away from the Vista is our Main Street Entertainment District, which is undergoing a revitalization with a new facade and lots of new retail and restaurants,” said Outman. “It is home to Columbia’s largest hotel, the 300-room Columbia Marriott.”
The Main Street area features the Columbia Museum of Art, which can be rented for private receptions for up to 1,000 guests and up to 350 for dinner, and the new Mast General Store, one of only eight in the country.
“The Mast store has quite a following and has generated quite a bit of development since its opening in May,” Outman said. “This includes the relocation of the nonprofit Nickelodeon Theatre, which will show art-house and independent films when it reopens this summer.”
Tobacco warehouses and textile mills have become entertainment options in Durham, home of Duke University. In the past decade, this city of 235,000 has revitalized its downtown by restoring historic buildings and creating entertainment districts filled with baseball stadiums, breweries and ballet.
“Our very compact City Center District in the heart of downtown has art galleries and bars, as well as Pop’s Restaurant, which can hold 135 for private dining, and the Revolution, which can hold 50,” said Sam Poley, the Durham CVB’s director of marketing and communications.
It is also home to the 44,000-square-foot Durham Convention Center, which recently completed a renovation and can accommodate groups of up to 2,200.
The convention center is part of a complex that includes the 190-room Durham Marriott City Center and the 1,015-seat Carolina Theatre, which can hold 125 for a reception and is a venue for the Durham Symphony. Several other entertainment districts are nearby, and all are linked by the city’s fare-free Bull City Connector bus. These include the American Tobacco Historic District, located in the former headquarters of the American Tobacco Co., the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer.
“This area has the new 2,800-seat Durham Performing Art Center, which can host 1,000 for a reception in its three-story lobby,” said Poley. “Another popular attraction is the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the new home of the Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball team made famous in the movie “Bull Durham.” It has 10,000 seats, so groups can almost always attend a game.”
In addition to restaurants, shops and outdoor concerts, the American Tobacco Historic District features Bay 7, a private event space for 400 in a former tobacco-curing warehouse.
Southern-crafted beer is the specialty at the Fullsteam Brewery in Durham’s Central Park District. This brewery uses only local products, including interesting options like sweet potatoes and parsnips, and offers live music as well. The Motorco Music Hall, a popular bar that can hold 500 for a reception, is across the street.
“Groups also spend time in Brightleaf Square, former tobacco warehouses that now hold a great collection of shops, restaurants and bars,” said Poley. “They can take the Bull City Connector to the newly restored, Gold LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]-certified Golden Belt District, which houses art galleries and artist studios as well as the Cotton Room, an 11,000-square-foot private event venue that can hold up to 440 for a reception.”
When the Georgia Governor’s Tourism Conference wanted to hold a private concert for 500 during its August 2010 meeting in Athens, conference planner Julie Musselman wasn’t concerned that she hadn’t heard of the band.
“Athens has a wonderful live-music scene, and the alternative bluegrass band recommended by the CVB gave a great concert at the Melting Point at the Foundry Park Inn,” said Musselman, executive director of the Georgia Association of CVBs in Savannah.
“We also found our free nights to be so easy, since we received gift certificates for at least 75 restaurants, clubs and shops that are literally right outside the convention center in the city’s downtown entertainment district.”
Music is often the siren song that lures meeting groups to Athens, a college town known for alternative rock ’n’ roll and world-famous bands such as R.E.M, the B-52s and Widespread Panic.
“Athens has an alternative rock heritage due to our 35,000 University of Georgia students, but there are hundreds of bands here performing all types of music,” said Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications for the Athens CVB.
Meeting guests can hear the Athens sound at clubs throughout the historic 14-block entertainment area across from the Classic Convention Center, which is currently being expanded and renovated.
“The 40 Watt Club, where R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls got their start, is our most famous venue, and it offers private event space for 350 people,” said Smith. “Our largest nightclub is the Georgia Theatre, which recently reopened following a fire; it can hold 1,000 for a buyout or host 100 for a reception.”
In recent years, this northeast Georgia city of 116,000 has also become known for its art galleries and culinary arts. Groups of 100 can have a private dining experience at the National, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant owned by “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson. The National shares downtown space with Cine, a 127-seat art-house cinema with an exhibit gallery for local artists and event space for 110.
“Our arts scene also includes the Lyndon House Arts Center, a gallery and museum which can host receptions for 300, as well as the historic Morton Theatre, which can hold 150 for a reception,” said Smith.