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The Carolinas’ Small Town Charm

Meeting planners don’t have to brave the congestion of the Carolinas’ biggest cities to have access to unique meeting venues, first-class restaurants and a taste of history. Many towns in North Carolina and South Carolina go out of their way to attract meetings and conventions at a fraction of the cost of much larger urban areas.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Winston-Salem is reinventing itself from its days as a textile and tobacco hub to a hip, modern city with robust banking, high-tech and bioinformatics industries. The city has spent $1.9 billion reinvigorating its downtown area, including a $20 million facelift to its 105,000-square-foot Benton Convention Center. The center, combined with the Marriott and the Embassy Suites, has 460 rooms and 170,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space.

Along with its more modern spin, Winston-Salem is also home to Old Salem, one of America’s most authentic Colonial sites from the 18th century. The area has 100 preserved or restored buildings, which also offer unique meeting venues. Biotech Place at Wake Forest Innovation Quarter is a former tobacco-manufacturing facility that now drives medical and technology innovation. It also has numerous places to hold events, including a 7,500-square-foot atrium and meeting rooms. It is adjacent to the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel, the former headquarters building for RJ Reynolds, which has 174 rooms and 25,000 square feet of meeting space.

Full of locally owned restaurants and bars, downtown Winston-Salem offers a sampling of cuisines from around the world, including Southern cooking.

“It’s really an authentic feel of what our community’s all about,” said Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem. “It is not cookie-cutter like a lot of other communities where they have a lot of chain restaurants downtown.”

New Bern, North Carolina

New Bern, North Carolina, is a small town with big charm and a penchant for good old Southern hospitality. Not only is it the birthplace of Pepsi, but it was North Carolina’s first capital.

New Bern sits on two rivers — the Neuse and the Trent — and has 300 years of history, including a Civil War battlefield.

The area’s walkability is appealing to groups. Downtown New Bern features locally owned shops and restaurants, art galleries and pocket parks.

There are 425 guest rooms within one mile of the 45,000-square-foot New Bern Riverfront Convention Center and 1,818 rooms total. The Bank of the Arts building is a great after-hours meeting spot and the North Carolina History Center has many meeting space options. A favorite place to tour is the reconstructed 18th-century Tryon Palace and gardens on the site of the area’s former Colonial capitol. Events can be held on the lawn or next door in the North Carolina History Center.

Convention hotels include the Doubletree by Hilton New Bern-Riverfront, the Bridge Pointe Hotel and Marina, the Courtyard Marriott and the Hampton Inn New Bern. The area is also flush with quaint bed-and-breakfasts that can also be booked by group travelers, said Judy Avery, marketing director for the New Bern Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Meeting-goers can take walking tours or historic trolley tours of the area.

Beaufort, South Carolina

Life in and around 309-year-old Beaufort, South Carolina, is set up on a tidal schedule because the town experiences eight-foot tides. It is a slower schedule that “forces people to slow down and focus on what they have going on,” said Robb Wells, CEO of Visit Beaufort. “That’s what our community allows groups to do: reenergize, refocus and hone in on what they are looking to accomplish.”

The second-oldest city in America, after St. Augustine, Florida, the area traces its history back to the Spaniards in 1565, predating Jamestown, Virginia. Beaufort had a garrison fort built off Port Royal Sound and the deepest natural harbor on the East Coast. Everything that happens in Beaufort centers around the water.

The area has traditional and nontraditional meeting spaces. Port Royal Sound Maritime Center has an educational room for meetings. It also offers ecotours that leave from the dock. Groups that want to have team-building activities can learn how to cast a net on the river or do a little crabbing off the dock. They also can learn from the Gullah community how to make sweetgrass baskets or paint with indigo. The Gullah are descendants from plantations during the Civil War era that have inhabited St. Helena Island since that time.

Beaufort has many historic meeting spaces, including the Arsenal, a building built in 1798 that can host meetings of all sizes, and Tabby Place, a converted downtown meeting space with breakout rooms. Beaufort has 2,100 guest rooms. Its main convention hotels are the historic Beaufort Inn and the Holiday Inn.

Rock Hill/York County, South Carolina

York County, South Carolina, is made up of five historic cities: Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York, Tega Cay and Clover. The area is only about 15 minutes from Charlotte but has many of the same amenities as a much larger market and fewer crowds. Home to South Carolina’s only federally recognized Native American tribe, the Catawba Nation, the area also has a 775-acre Revolutionary War site, Historic Brattonsville, that features more than 30 historic structures from the 1760s to the late 19th century, many of which can be rented out for meetings and events.

Fort Mill is one of the fastest-growing cities in South Carolina because it is practically on the border between North and South Carolina. But Rock Hill is the largest city in York County, so many of the area’s large meeting hotels and spaces are there. The Courtyard by Marriott in Fort Mill is the largest meeting hotel, with 5,000 square feet of meeting space and 129 rooms.

The revitalized area offers both history and charm. Former textile mills have been turned into multiuse spaces, including corporate headquarters buildings, restaurants, breweries and hotels. “Our downtown is really starting to thrive,” said Andy Clinton, vice president of sales for Visit York County.

Some of the area’s favorite event spaces include the Glennon Ballroom at Tiga Cay’s The Shore Club; Hightower Hall in Historic Brattonsville, which was built in 1856; and the historic White Home, which was built in 1837 and was the home of one of Rock Hill’s first families.

Spartanburg, South Carolina

Once upon a time, Spartanburg, South Carolina, was the textile center of the South. Over the past 10 years, the area has come back to life with revitalized mills that serve as event spaces, loft apartments and a quaint Southern downtown.

“We’ve got a lot of that charm aspect that people in the South are looking for, but it also has a local feel,” said Naomi Sargent, director of strategic communications for the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “Everything that has come to life here is unique to Spartanburg.”

With 3,000 hotel rooms in the county and 800 in Spartanburg, the area is packed with meeting and event spaces. Everything is walkable. Several hotels and conference hotels are right downtown in one of South Carolina’s cultural districts. A revitalized textile factory called Events at Drayton Mills features 8,800 square feet of event space. It also features unusual outdoor settings. The Summit Pointe Conference and Event Center, which has more than 19,000 square feet of flexible meeting and event space, is anchored by four conference hotels with more than 400 guest rooms.

The Chapman Cultural Center is a collection of three buildings that includes a studio, theater spaces and a grand lobby that can be used for events. Seven colleges call Spartanburg home, and many have meeting rooms and event facilities. The Fr8yard, an open-air biergarten built from repurposed shipping containers, is the only completely open-air bar in upstate South Carolina and a wonderful place to host after-hours events.