At first, Tallahassee feels like Savannah.
Spanish moss drapes trees, azaleas and wisteria brighten spring, green parks shade colonial buildings downtown, and 78 miles of roads wind through canopies of live oaks. Palm trees are scarce. It’s surprisingly green for Florida.
But you soon rub against this gracious Southern city’s cosmopolitan edge. Politicians and briefcase-toting bureaucrats jawbone year round, preparing for the legislative session each March and April.
Upscale boutique hotels have replaced long-time political hangouts, and a sleek tower, the new capitol, rises from behind its gracious two-story predecessor built in 1845.
Tallahassee is also a college town and hub for technology and science. Florida A&M is the oldest historically black college in Florida, and Florida State University (FSU), with 40,000 students, is as well known for research as it is for Seminoles football and recently retired football coach Bobby Bowden, whose statue stands, larger than life, outside the FSU stadium.
Located along north Florida’s panhandle-spanning Interstate 10 midway between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Tallahassee’s five-hour drive-time radius includes Tampa, Pensacola and Jacksonville, Fla.; Atlanta; Birmingham and Mobile, Ala.; and New Orleans. The Tallahassee Regional Airport is served by American Eagle, Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines and US Airways.
The capital’s location was a compromise that dates to 1824, when it was midway between Florida’s then most populous cities, St. Augustine and Pensacola.
As the population of southern Florida grew in the early 1970s, there were efforts to move the capital to Orlando. But a new $45 million capitol erected behind the old one in the 1970s solidified Tallahassee’s hold on state government.
A city of 265,000, Tallahassee is a busy place with 6,000 guest rooms and 400,000 square feet of meeting space, best suited for meetings of 50 to 150.
Three downtown hotels offer meeting space and guest rooms near parks and restaurants that accommodate groups.
Andrews 228 is an attractive below-ground eatery, good for rubbing elbows with politicians. Kool Beanz Cafe is small, local and lively, with an outdoor patio that can seat small groups. Fresh seafood arrives twice a day and includes wild, succulent oysters tonged by hand from nearby Apalachicola Bay.
Chez Pierre can host events for up to 200 on its front deck and has several smaller rooms for 20 to 24 people. Its Grand Provence room can hold 80.
Hotel Duval takes it to the top
Built in the 1950s, Hotel Duval reopened a year ago after a striking $15 million makeover that added an eighth floor with a 2,700-square-foot ballroom and the only rooftop bar in town. The hotel is now part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of independent hotels.
Step off the elevator on the new top floor, and you come face to face with the Tallahassee skyline, including the Capitol dome. An outdoor terrace is available for receptions.
Once a political gathering place known as the Second Capitol, Hotel Duval is now classy and contemporary, with delicate blown-glass chandeliers, a smart cafe, a steakhouse and valet parking.
Its 117 rooms are on six floors, each with different visual and aromatic “color therapy,” from exhilarating red to butterscotch and bourbon. The 1,000-square-foot Presidential Suite could be used for a small meeting.
With meeting space on three levels, Hotel Duval is best for groups of about 150.
Two rooms on the lower level are so cleverly designed that you don’t mind not having any windows. One, suitable for 80, is done in contemporary neutrals with billow lighting, curved squares of light that make the ceiling look higher. The other, which director of sales Pam Bauer calls “the man cave,” is a boardroom for 12 with black walls and a mellow wooden table.
On the seventh floor, a room for 30 with original mahogany walls opens onto a library with a fireplace. The rooms are often used together for meetings and meals.
Up, up and away
Across the street, the 162-room Aloft Tallahassee Downtown bills itself as the “hippest” place to stay. It opened in August 2009 and caters to a “corporate, transient client,” according to Emily Johnson-Truitt, director of sales.
Healthy grab-and-go food is available in the Re:Fuel area, the high-tech fitness center is Re:Charge, the lounge is Re:Mix, and the housekeeping department is called Re:Fresh. Staff greet everyone with a welcoming aloha. On the elevator, you can watch the patterns your feet make on the floor’s gel squares.
“What do people do in a crowded elevator?” Johnson-Truitt said. “They look down. It’s just another twist.”
The hotel has three small meeting rooms (called Tactic, “to spark great ideas”), fully wired for audiovisual equipment. The break room is called Chill. Shuttles will take groups anywhere within a two-mile radius.
The city’s largest hotel is a well-renovated, 243-room Doubletree Hotel with 6,000 square feet of flexible meeting space and a prime location between the Capitol and the city’s string of seven parks. The hotel is ranked in the top 25 percent of Doubletrees and can comfortably handle meetings for up to 150.
The 2,500-square-foot ballroom, just off the lobby, has three 500-square-foot breakout rooms. There are three smaller rooms and a boardroom on the second level.
Like the Hotel Duval, the Doubletree is designated as a Florida Green Lodging hotel. Among its green measures is making bikes available for guests to rent.
Kelly the Cookie King
John Kelly, who has been the general manager for two years and also teaches in FSU’s hospitality school, was dubbed the Cookie King after making warm chocolate-chip cookies a way of life in his hotel, a tradition now Doubletree-wide.
Kelly also listens to his customers. “This is a real relationship town. Our biggest asset is our service,” said the man who claims to have been the first hotel manager to put an ironing board in every closet. “People like to do business with people they like. That’s important here.”
Kelly may be the king of cookies, but during the fall, Florida State Seminoles football rules Tallahassee.
Beyond Bobby Bowden
Meeting planners may be more interested in FSU’s new conference center, which opened in January. Its promise to clients — “Meet in the center, connect to the world” — is a nod to its technological features.
Its 400-seat auditorium has the largest Cinemassive video wall in the Southeast. With 40 46-inch monitors acting as one, a computer screen can be projected with enormous impact.
Fifteen smaller meeting rooms have “smart” lecterns equipped to do webcasts and more. The lobby/reception area is spacious for events, and there’s a parking garage linked to the center. An older civic center across the street is available for trade shows.
Another FSU facility, Doak Campbell Stadium, is the largest brick structure in the world, according to Kerri Post, senior marketing director for Visit Tallahassee.
Within the Seminoles’ home football field is an elegant third-floor ballroom for 600 and four nicely appointed fifth-floor meeting and banquet rooms. On the members-only floor, a terrace can accommodate events for up to 300.
Other Tallahassee meeting and event sites with historic significance are the Old Capitol building; a new conference center at a former plantation, the Goodwood Museum and Gardens; and the Mission San Luis.
Mission San Luis
A new visitors center that resembles a Spanish villa opened in December at Tallahassee’s historic Mission San Luis on the edge of town. It includes a 4,000-square-foot ballroom that seats 250 with an adjacent open-air courtyard.
The center also has a 125-seat auditorium, two rooms that hold 30 each and a small conference room for 12.
Behind the visitors center, life is re-enacted in the mission where Spanish missionaries and native Apalachee Indians lived in harmony for 50 years in separate but equal — and different — neighborhoods.
The Apalachees had round houses and meeting houses and spent a lot of time outdoors. The Spaniards had rectangular houses with walls and thatched roofs and spent more time indoors. Buildings, re-enactors and demonstrations tell the story of life there in the 17th century.
Cotton and corn
A year ago, the carriage house at Goodwood Museum and Gardens was converted to a conference and event center to help support the museum. With rustic open-beam construction, it can seat 240 for a meeting and serves as a hub for tented events for 900 on the terraces and lawns of the old plantation.
The center has become known for good acoustics, and meeting planners also appreciate its free audiovisual services and wireless Internet. Although traditional meeting space is limited, there are ample terraces, outdoor gardens and small cottages for breakout sessions.
Before the Civil War, Goodwood was one of 71 plantations in this red hills region of Florida; it had 2,400 acres of corn and cotton fields and 250 slaves. Tours of the mansion are available.
The reflecting pool and bulb lawn (when it’s in bloom) make beautiful sites for receptions.
Ring in the old
The Old Capitol, saved from demolition by a senator who refused to move into the new building, is awash in history. There, in 1861, Florida seceded from the Union. At the end of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation was read there. On a hill just beyond, explorer Hernando de Soto camped out in 1539 and celebrated North America’s first Christmas.
The lower-level lobby is available for receptions and events, as is the many-windowed, pale-gray Senate chamber with its striped awnings and coral ceiling.
The Old Capitol museum holds fascinating tidbits for history buffs, from a carpetbagger’s carpetbag to a butterfly ballot with a hanging chad from Florida’s tumultuous 2000 Bush/Gore presidential election.
Out in the wild
The Tallahassee Museum, southwest of town on Lake Bradford, gives events a sense of place. As visitors walk along a boardwalk on the 52-acre site, they pass through cypress swamps, where they might catch glimpses of Florida panthers and alligators.
The can-do staff will do barbecues for 300 or cocktail receptions outdoors around a bonfire. They can lead team- building events in canoes or arrange for blues and jazz concerts. Wolves sometimes howl along.
The science center, with a birdwatching wall, is suitable for a board meeting or a reception for 40.
There’s also a meeting room for 50 in the visitors center and a lakeside cafe available after hours for groups of up to 60.
The Nature Conservancy has called Tallahassee “one of America’s last great places.” As an incentive to explore it, Visit Tallahassee offers grants to help planners cover the cost of transporting groups from place to place while they are in the city.
In addition, the state of Florida offers complimentary “Cover Your Event” insurance to cover the cost of rebooking a summer or early-fall meeting (known here as “windy season”) should it be displaced by a named hurricane.
But don’t hold your breath.Tallahassee hasn’t had a major hurricane since the mid-1980s.