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Technology and Talent Draw Meetings to These Smart Destinations

Much of America’s tech industry is still concentrated in a handful of major metropolises — the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, New York — but several smaller cities have established themselves as alternative tech hubs that offer lower costs of living, a deep talent pool and geographic diversity.

Many of these smaller high-tech cities are fueled by universities that pump money into research and development and pump out a new class of young, educated, ambitious entrepreneurs every year. Others grew up around government facilities and programs.

Whether on the rocky slopes of Utah’s mountains or the sandy beaches of Florida’s coastline, these high-tech cities deliver high-quality destinations for meetings and events.

Brevard County, Florida

There’s a new space race on, and the starting line is Florida’s Space Coast, which includes the coastal cities of Brevard County.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island has been the launch hub of human spaceflight since the Apollo program, and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station may soon change its name to reflect its new status as a designated facility for the Space Force program.

But the private sector is moving in: Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, the United Launch Alliance and others.

“Now you have not just NASA but all these private companies that have gotten into the business, so we’re probably more so the Space Coast than ever before,” said Peter Cranis, executive director for the Space Coast Office of Tourism.

The area has seen “tremendous growth,” which has contributed to growth in the hospitality sector. Brevard County has about 9,200 guest rooms and is tracking another 2,200 rooms set to come online in the next couple of years.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex serves as both event venue and attraction for meeting groups. The flexible Debus Conference Facility can seat up to 230 for meals, and guests will have a view of towering spacecraft in the Rocket Garden.

The 100,000-square-foot Apollo/Saturn V Center can seat up to 600 banquet guests beneath the 363-foot Saturn V Moon rocket, one of only three still in existence. In the Space Shuttle Atlantis venue, up to 250 guests can dine beneath the orbiter and explore over 60 exhibits. Guided and custom group tours of the complex are also available.

The Radisson Resort at the Port in Cape Canaveral has a 10,700-square-foot convention center, a separate 7,700-square-foot pavilion ballroom and several additional breakout rooms.

Provo-Orem-Lehi, Utah

Utah’s Wasatch Front region is known as Silicon Slopes, a cluster of information technology, software development and hardware manufacturing companies about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

In 2014, Xactware moved to Lehi, where software giant Adobe is now building its second facility. Founders of area tech companies Qualtrics, Omniture and Domo just announced their new Silicon Slopes Venture Fund, which will invest solely in Utah-based startups.

Many of the local startup entrepreneurs are Brigham Young University graduates who “were young Mormon missionaries who have this tenacity and this drive and are used to getting doors slammed in their face; they have an ‘I can conquer the world’ attitude,’” said Joel Racker, president and CEO of Explore Utah Valley.

Utah Valley University in Orem used to be a technical institute and is now headed by a former Microsoft executive, “so its tech programs are over the top,” Racker said.

All that young talent and zeal are manifesting as local startups, and all that local activity is attracting investment. Explore Utah Valley has gone from measuring about 2,300 guest rooms a year to now tracking roughly 4,500 rooms countywide. The Utah Valley Convention Center opened in 2012 in downtown Provo with about 84,000 square feet of combined meeting, prefunction and garden space.

Across the street, the 329-room Provo Marriott Hotel and Conference Center offers another 25,000 square feet of event space, including an 8,100-square-foot ballroom. A new downtown Hyatt Place opened in August with 133 guest rooms and two small conference rooms.

Sundance Mountain Resort in Provo Canyon offers the 3,500-square-foot Redford Conference Center and a 4,200-square-foot rehearsal hall.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

In 2005, a group of local stakeholders came together to start a discussion about how Ann Arbor, Michigan, could become a better destination for companies to launch, a discussion primarily driven by the fact that the University of Michigan (UM) has ranked No. 1 in research funding among the nation’s public universities for years.

A year later, Ann Arbor Spark was born to help entrepreneurs launch startups, as well as attract and retain existing business. The organization also works closely with UM, which has its own incubator and accelerator programs.

“The tech community has grown out of a robust partnership between the university and community, with a lot of stewardship from local economic development engine Spark,” said Laura Berarducci, director of marketing and communication for Ann Arbor Spark.

Much of the area’s tech ties into Michigan’s automotive industry and centers around mobility, such as autonomous and connected driving technology. May Mobility, which is headquartered in Ann Arbor, has driverless shuttles running in Detroit; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Ford Motors recently chose Ann Arbor to pilot its Ford City Insights Platform, a suite of advanced software tools to track and solve mobility issues. Just outside Ann Arbor, the American Center for Mobility is a testing facility for connected and automated vehicles and other mobility technologies.

UM’s wide selection of event space includes the 6,300-square-foot Rogel Ballroom in the historic Michigan Union, which just underwent a two-year renovation, and a 5,200-square-foot ballroom in the Michigan League.

The UM-themed Graduate Ann Arbor hotel opened in 2016 with 11,000 square feet of meeting space, including three ballrooms. Destination Ann Arbor can also tap local tech leaders to be speakers for conferences and meetings.

Santa Barbara, California

The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the beginnings of Santa Barbara, California, as a high-tech destination, and the city is now part of the region sometimes referred to as Silicon Beach. University of California Santa Barbara graduates who went there for an education stayed to launch their own startups. And many of those startups were successful enough to become attractive acquisitions for larger tech companies.

Though much of the area’s early development of tech companies happened in outlying communities, downtown Santa Barbara has recently become a hub for tech companies moving into vacant retail space. Nearly 70 technology companies now call downtown home, according to a Hayes Commercial Group report last spring. Tech companies such as Sonos, LogicMonitor and Amazon have converted dead retail space along State Street into their offices. That has created a ripple effect, prompting new businesses to open in downtown Santa Barbara and in the trendy Funk Zone district near the waterfront.

Smaller events can take advantage of Kiva Cowork, which offers a variety of venues in several locations, but also opened a wine bar and astronaut-themed vegetarian restaurant in downtown.

The Hilton Beachfront Resort offers 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, and the Ritz-Carlton Bacara has more than 70,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.

Groups can gather inside the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, better known as Moxi, or on the rooftop surrounded by views of the mountains, city and ocean. Guests can explore the museum’s interactive exhibits and even book a hands-on “makerspace” activity in the Innovation Workshop. The Santa Barbara Center for Arts, Science and Technology is also available for private events.

Planners who want to provide corporate social-responsibility programming for their events can work with Youth Interactive, an after-school project for teens that fosters entrepreneurial and artistic creativity to prepare them for business success.