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The Southern Experience

The South is steeped in history and varied cultural traditions. Meetings in the South can be steeped in them too.

Destinations throughout the region have thought up many creative ways for meeting planners to add a bit of Southern flair or local flavor to their events. Here are just a few ideas to get you started. But don’t be afraid to ask the local convention and visitors bureaus for other ways to spice up your events.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Baton Rouge considers itself authentic Louisiana, from its Cajun cuisine to its jazz and blues music. Meeting planners who want to add a little Cajun flair to their conferences or events in the capital city can bring in local musicians or feed their guests fresh gumbo and other staples of Southern cooking. One of the unusual things groups can have at their events is a Second Line parade, which is basically a mobile celebration where groups march or dance behind a brass jazz band as they move through the event venue or out on the street. The idea was taken from traditional jazz funerals, where instead of mourning the dead, relatives and friends celebrate their loved ones with a musical parade.

Other groups will hire a Cajun band and Cajun dancers to perform.

“It is a surprise element,” said Anna Gasperecz, destination experience manager for Visit Baton Rouge. “Attendees think they are there to enjoy the music and watch Cajun dancers, and then they start bringing people up, pulling them from their seats and teaching them dances to get everyone involved.

If groups are more interested in learning about Cajun cuisine, meeting planners can bring in local chefs for cooking demonstrations or classes.

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville, Kentucky, is famous for its Thoroughbred horse racing, and many groups hosting meetings or conferences in the city want to incorporate a bit of the Kentucky Derby into their events. Louisville Tourism has helped groups bring in jockeys and horse trainers to talk about what it is like to race horses and what it takes to raise a foal from birth and turn it into a champion Derby horse.

“A misnomer about the industry is that they are celebrities, the track announcer and bugler, but it is such a wonderfully small nomadic society in thoroughbred,” said Angi Van Berg, vice president of trade show sales at Louisville Tourism. “It is similar to the bourbon industry. They are willing to talk about their craft and the trade.”

If the group wants a more robust Kentucky Derby experience, Louisville Tourism will set up a Derby lunch featuring traditional Southern fare, including tea sandwiches with Louisville’s famous Benedictine spread made from cream cheese, onions and cucumbers. Each place setting has a racing program with eight to 10 horses listed. The program relates to a real race run at Louisville’s famous Churchill Downs track, but the names of the horses are changed to reflect the industry or group hosting the meeting. The official track announcer and bugler from Churchill Downs enter in full regalia and proceed to announce the race. The event gets everyone involved, cheering on their favorite horse. The winner from each table gets to take home the centerpiece: a full bottle of Kentucky bourbon.

Franklin, Tennessee

Most people know that Nashville, Tennessee, is the hub of the country music industry. What they don’t know is that many of the country artists who record in Nashville make their homes in nearby Franklin. Groups hosting meetings or events in Franklin can tap into that legacy by bringing in musicians, songwriters and producers to talk about the industry and how they fit into it. From musical performances to songwriting sessions, meeting planners can fit just about all of those into one of the area’s fine meeting venues or take their groups to places where the music is produced, said Matthew Maxey, associate director of public relations for Visit Franklin.

Castle Recording Studios, which has worked with gold and platinum artists like Taylor Swift and Bon Jovi, now rents space for small groups. Meeting planners can work with Visit Franklin to bring in artists to speak or perform for the group or watch musicians recording their next album.

Another way to add some Southern flair is to visit a local winery or distillery. Whiskey is a big part of Tennessee’s history, and Franklin has gone from three to 60 distilleries in the past decade. Organizations can hold meetings at several of these locations, followed by a tour and tasting. The Leiper’s Fork Distillery hosts what it calls stillhouse sessions where groups enjoy some whiskey and live musical performances. If wine is more their scene, groups can visit Arrington Vineyards, founded by Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn.

Independence, Missouri

Independence, Missouri, is steeped in history, from the Oregon Trail to infamous outlaws and the Civil War. Groups that would like to immerse themselves in the area’s rich history should take a covered wagon tour of the area through Pioneer Trails Adventures.

Ralph Goldsmith started the company in 1999. He wanted a fun way to get visitors to engage with Independence’s past. He hand-built four covered wagons. Instead of using horses, he bred Missouri mules to pull them. Groups can rent out one or all of his wagons for a trip back in time they won’t forget. The wagon train follows in the deep ruts left behind by the thousands of covered wagons that set out from Independence on the Oregon Trail in 1845.

Goldsmith spins yarns about those early pioneers, the violence surrounding the Civil War and the outlaws and bank robbers who terrorized the area in the late 1800s as he takes visitors past historic homes, including one where President Harry S. Truman lived and worked, and the infamous jail that once housed William Clark Quantrill, the leader of Quantrill’s Raiders, and the notorious outlaw Frank James of the James-Younger Gang. When the tour is over, the group can enjoy a chuck wagon dinner around an open campfire in the square outside the National Frontier Trails Museum.

Wilkesboro, North Carolina

Visitors to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, can’t escape the legends of the moonshiners who illegally made and distributed distilled liquor throughout the state. Meeting planners hosting events in the area can bring a bit of that history to their attendees by having a local distiller come and talk about the sometimes-bloody history of North Carolina moonshine. Because of local laws about where stills can operate, the distillers can’t bring those to your meeting venue, but they can bring different varieties for you to taste and tell you about how it is made.

More adventurous groups can set up a tour of Call Family Distillers, a family-owned distillery that has made moonshine from cornmeal mash since 1868. It was the Rev. Daniel Call who made his own whiskey and is credited with teaching Jack Daniels how the distillation process worked. The most infamous Call family member, the grandfather of the distillery’s current owner, Willie Clay Call, earned the nickname “The Uncatchable” during his time evading the Revenuers as he illegally transported moonshine across the state during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Visitors to the distillery can examine some of the vehicles Willie used to run moonshine, with their hidden trap doors for hiding liquor and a switch to turn off the brake lights when he wanted to evade the authorities. Meeting attendees can compare how moonshine was made in the backwoods of North Carolina using wooden steamer stills to the science and artistry of its modern production, including a closeup look at “The Bull,” the distillery’s 2,100-gallon direct steam injection still made from brass and copper.