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Triple Threat in Tennessee: Tri-Cities

Courtesy Britsol CVB

A takeoff on the expression “two heads are better than one” could be “three convention and visitors bureaus are better than one.” That’s the bonus awaiting meeting planners in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in East Tennessee’s and Virginia’s Tri-Cities area, where the towns of Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn., and Bristol, in both Tennessee and Virginia, combine forces as members of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association to promote meetings and tourism.

“It’s great,” said Tallie Shelton, director of sales for the Johnson City CVB. “We get to alternate manning a booth at national trade shows and work together to bring meetings and visitors to town. However, we do get competitive over room nights.”

Courtesy Bristol CVB

The three cities are 20 minutes apart, with more than 3,600 combined sleeping rooms, 210,000 square feet of meeting space and a combined population of 500,000 among them. Their proximity makes it easy to collaborate on conventions and conferences.

For example, when the Tennessee Governor’s Conference convenes in the Tri-Cities in September, Gray Fossil Site Natural History Museum in Johnson City will host the opening reception, which will continue at Bristol Motor Speedway. On the second night, Kingsport will host a dine-around.

Attendees will meet and stay at a resort ranked by Marriott International as its No. 1 property in guest satisfaction: MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center in Kingsport. Fifteen minutes from the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, the 30-acre resort is a work in progress. In August 2009, a $15 million expansion and renovation project added 110 guest rooms to the 195 existing rooms, which were completely redone with the latest technology and an eco-safe slant. A new indoor swimming pool and a cardio-focused fitness center were also added.

By the end of this year, the resort will have expanded again with the addition of a $14 million executive conference center. The 22,000-square-foot facility will include two amphitheaters, two boardrooms, a conference room, a ballroom and a reception area overlooking the golf course. With the addition, the resort will have 87,000 square feet of meeting space.

“The biggest reason for our expansion is to book larger groups and multiple groups,” said Mark Unick, sales manager. “We could fill the existing square footage of meeting space with a group that may take 200 sleeping rooms. But those 110 additional rooms now afford us the capacity to take more groups and still have plenty of meeting space to accommodate.”

In an intriguing partnership, Eastman Chemical Co. owns the hotel and restaurant, the city of Kingsport owns the meeting space, and Marriott International manages the property. Corporate management, said Unick, ups the level of service.

Courtesy Johnson City CVB

Liz Cole, a human resources assistant for Ivey Mechanical, planned a meeting at MeadowView a year ago for the Mississippi-based company. About 250 attendees filled the property, and the nearby Hampton Inn was used for additional guest rooms.

At MeadowView, “customer service was beyond impressive,” Cole said. “You could say you needed something, turn around, and it was there. When Mark Unick first began pursuing our company in 2006, my boss wondered why we should go to a meeting site seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But by 2008, he finally said yes, and he agreed that the price and the experience were great.”

During leisure time, the women in Cole’s group chilled at off-site spas while the men hit the links at Cattails, the resort’s championship par-71 course. MeadowView’s team-building menu includes golf tournaments and murder mysteries.

Tri-Cities’ history is nearly as fascinating as a murder mystery. Railroads built to haul away the region’s rich iron ore attracted big-city organized criminals, who cashed in on the rampant bootlegging of Appalachian mountain-manufactured whiskey.

Located on the rail line between Chicago and Miami, Johnson City in the 1920s became known as “Little Chicago,” with speakeasies and underground escape routes for such unsavory characters as Al Capone, who reputedly holed up there, generating various forms of vice. Moonshine transport runs are said to be part of the origins of NASCAR.

Prior to Prohibition, the grand Carnegie Hotel thrived downtown from 1890 to 1919, when it burned.

In 2000, a wealthy history buff rebuilt it with 139 oversize guest rooms and 11 suites right across from the East Tennessee State University campus. A late-19th- and early-20th-century flavor prevails.

Courtesy Johnson City CVB

“The Carnegie’s facade is identical to the original,” said Crystal Phillips, director of sales. “So much of the interior, like our Roosevelt Library, is true to the time period with overstuffed couches, old-fashioned rugs and parquet floors, yet with every modern convenience.”

In April 2009, Robert Richards, Tennessee Greenways and Trails coordinator, planned a forum involving 76 people, many of whom stayed at the Carnegie.

“The rooms are palatial; there’s a piano bar on weekends and a terrific spa,” he said.
Specializing in corporate-group spa events, the Carnegie’s Austin Springs Spa and Salon can customize packages from 30-minute express minimassages to 10-hour total pampering. Spouse tours include a baking demo and floral-arrangement classes.

The hotel’s artsy Wellington’s Restaurant is known for its luscious steaks. It caters every event held at the hotel, from a 400-person affair in the grand ballroom to an intimate dinner for 10 in its wine cave and tasting room.

Connected to the AAA Four-Diamond hotel by an enclosed walkway is a full-service conference facility for up to 800 people. The 23,000-square-foot Millennium Center has every bell and whistle in its 16 meeting rooms, from ergonomic chairs and tiered seating to high-speed Internet access throughout. An unexpected bonus is its French master chef.

“Meetings here become a real experience,” said Lori Bailey, sales manager. “Chef comes out and talks with attendees. People love that interaction.”

Shag society chooses Holiday Inn
Just across town, the completely renovated 203-room Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center has a ballroom that is so dance-friendly that the Mountain Empire Shag Society has booked an annual party for 200 dancers there through 2011.

Courtesy Johnson City CVB

“We could find plenty of ballrooms,” said Joletta Woodward, club president, “but we needed a place where we could set up tables to eat and have dance-floor space afterward. Brenda Whitson at the convention bureau coached us on negotiating a contract that was very affordable.”

The hotel’s sister property in Bristol, the Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites Bristol Convention Center, is in the midst of a $3 million upgrade to include its 226 guest rooms and 20 suites. A multiplex movie theater, restaurants and shopping are a five-minute walk from its 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

On the state line, the two Bristols, in Tennessee and Virginia, are separate entities with their own governments that take turns maintaining the huge, 100-year-old “Bristol” sign that arcs between the two over State Street. Also shared is the honor of being the official Birthplace of Country Music. In 1927, during the famous 12-day “Bristol Sessions,” such greats as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family made the recordings that launched their musical careers.

Live music downtown throughout the year includes a rockin’ Rhythm and Roots Reunion in September. Future plans include a Smithsonian-affiliated cultural heritage music museum.

“Bristol brings a mountain music, home-cooked, hometown feel to meetings,” said Kimberly Leonard, marketing and sales director for the Bristol CVB. “For downtown meetings, there’s a 1931 art-deco movie palace and 1902 restored train station.”

Revamped with hand-painted murals and a Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, the 756-seat Paramount Center for the Arts hosts Broadway-style  plays and performances by three local ballet companies.

Passing trains perk up parties at depot
Meeting attendees can learn about Bristol rail history at the train depot, which has several rentable spaces, including the outside platform that accommodates 80 and is within sight of the Bristol sign.

Courtesy Kingsport CVB

Passing trains heighten the mood, says Brad McCroskey, general manager at the depot. “Freight trains still go by. It adds atmosphere. Everyone rushes to the windows.”

Larger conventions can meet at Johnson City’s Freedom Hall Civic Center, where annual meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses draw from 1,800 to 4,700 attendees who overnight in Kingsport and the host town.

“We always announce big events to our members the first week of January, and the hotels add extra staff to answer the reservations phones that weekend,” said group rep Ken Ross. “Johnson City is a win-win for us.”

No matter which city is a meeting’s home base, the Tri-Cities’ off-site venues are but a short drive away.

Driving is big business at the Bristol Motor Speedway Complex, known as the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” where NASCAR drivers zoom for glory before 160,000 fans for a week each March and August.

“NASCAR’s popularity is constantly growing,” said Crystal Miller, event manager for the complex. “The sheer numbers of fans and their vast range of backgrounds and lifestyles are amazing. If you’ve never been to a NASCAR race, you owe it to yourself to attend at least one, because when those engines fire up, you can’t believe the thrill.”

The rest of the year, the 1960s-era facility hosts gatherings in a 2,300-square-foot banquet room with an overflow patio and in any of 18 comfortable suites that overlook the track and that vary in capacity from 28 to 250. Race videos add action, and each suite comes with an attendant and a bartender.

Courtesy Kingsport CVB

Attendees create their own thrills at the Richard Petty Driving Experience by riding shotgun in a two-seat NASCAR stock car driven by an instructor at speeds up to 165 miles per hour or by taking the wheel for 12 laps on Bristol’s oval with its 36-degree banked turns.

Thrills of a different kind await next to the Cherokee National Forest at Doe River Gorge, 750 acres with three and a half miles of whitewater, where team building is a specialty.

“We’ve hosted groups from chamber of commerce leadership to SWAT team training,” said Grant Parker, director of marketing for Doe River Gorge Ministries. “Our Adventure Race involves orienteering to a destination where a team works together to accomplish a task on low- or high-element ropes courses.”

Attendees stay in riverfront cabins, a gorge-view 100-capacity lodge with a meeting room and fireplace or in rustic teepees. A dining hall serves 200.

“Corporate groups can rappel over our 130-year-old train tunnel, work on our static challenge courses and two canopy ziplines, and cross our rope Burma Bridge 250 feet over the gorge,” said Ryan Vernon, activities director. “Our paintball course is great for strategizing. The military uses it for training.”

In addition to outdoor activities, an 85-passenger narrow-gauge train from railroad heydays offers quiet rides through the gorge.

The olden days are beautifully preserved in Tennessee’s oldest town, Historic Jonesborough, once home to Andrew Jackson and now the Storytelling Capital of the World. Historic homes, brick sidewalks, folksy shops and eclectic eateries define this 18th-century gem, where the modern International Storytelling Center offers performances, seminars and exhibits.

“When you wrap facts in blankets of stories, people remember them,” said Linda Poland, Jonesborough’s resident storyteller, whose company provides walking tour guides and keynote speakers. “A 
storyteller can help get a point across for a meeting to accomplish many goals.”

Meeting spaces include a 14,000-square-foot education building with a 95-seat theater, a 200-year-old inn and a 3-acre community park. Historic Main Street can be closed off for an evening block party, with gourmet cuisine or barbecue under tents, music, storytelling and horse-drawn carriage rides.

One Kingsport off-site venue is only slightly younger than Jonesborough. Once a stagecoach stop, 62-acre Exchange Place is a restored 1800s farmstead where docents in period costume impart history and guests can jump on a hayride, chow down on catered Southern cooking and clap to bluegrass music on a back porch that seats 50.

A Southern belle setting
Kingsport’s antique-filled Allandale Mansion, on another former farm, is a visual twin of the White House. Up to 80 can dine there and follow hoop-skirted Southern belles on a home tour or have a barbecue in a barn and hayloft that handles parties of 100.

Courtesy Kingsport CVB

“Corporations can buy out the property and bring in a chef for a truly special event,” said Rod Gamayel, manager.

In May 2000, highway crews near Gray, Tenn., 15 minutes from Johnson City , made a find so remarkable that it turned the site, two miles off Interstate 26, into a tourist attraction.

After workers unearthed the fossilized remains of a red-faced panda, previously found only in the Himalayas, a 33,000-square-foot museum and visitors center was built, and an archaeological dig began.

Today, at East Tennessee State University’s Gray Fossil Site Natural History Museum, groups can wander past massive 4 million-year-old to 8 million-year-old skeletons and join in the dig.
“Our visitors can watch paleontologists at work and can help dry screen for fossils,” said Jeanne Zavada, the museum’s director. “People find new ones every day.”

Construction will double the facility’s meeting space to 7,000 square feet and its capacity to 600 and add a cafe, all with the region’s mountain scenery.

“We’re tucked in at the foot of the Blue Ridge Parkway with mountain ranges on every horizon,” said Brenda Whitson, executive director of the Johnson City CVB “It’s gorgeous. Plus, we’re easy to get to, we’re affordable, and our Southern hospitality comes from the heart.”

Read also:

A Quick Look at Tri-Cities