From the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge Highlands to the sands of Virginia Beach, Virginia is blessed with natural wonders and historic treasures that create the perfect meeting milieu.
America’s history is intrinsically tied to Virginia, site of the first colony and the birthplace of eight presidents.
George Washington’s hometown of Fredericksburg is now a bedroom community of Washington that draws numerous state associations and corporate retreats.
Meeting planners find that Revolutionary War-era inns and state-of-the-art hotels mix amicably in the city’s extensive historic district, and the history lessons continue for groups that visit some 4,400 acres of Civil War battlefields in the area.
From one of the world’s largest natural harbors in Norfolk to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia’s Tidewater region has a maritime history that flavors its meetings and off-site events. Two popular area attractions enhance their meeting business with aquatic extras: The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach immerses clientele in its new Restless Planet exhibit, and Nauticus in Norfolk offers such diverse options as battleship tours and science demonstrations.
Tourists have always been drawn to the stunning scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but in recent years, the enterprising local community of Wytheville has expanded its economic base by building a new state-of-the-art meeting center. Abundant hotels, restaurants and scenic natural attractions like the New River sweeten the deal in Wytheville.
Virginia may be for lovers, but it’s ideal for meetings and conventions, too.
A center at the crossroads
Although it has only been a few years since the city of Wytheville decided to enter the meetings and conventions market, this Blue Ridge Highlands town of 8,000 now hosts some 400 groups annually.
|Courtesy Wytheville CVB
“Wytheville has really come into its own due to the vision of our city leaders,” said Rosa Lee Jude, director of both the Wytheville CVB and the Wytheville Meeting Center. “Their decision to build the Wytheville Meeting Center has served as a catalyst for our community’s growth since it opened in April 2007.
“In fact, our marketing tag line is Small Town …. Big Experience, because we have so much to offer here in Wytheville,” she said. “There are 60 restaurants and 1,500 hotel rooms — several new hotels including the Comfort Suites, Country Inn and Suites, and Fairfield Inn were built around the meeting center — as well as new attractions and special events.”
The centerpiece of the meeting center is the 9,000-square-foot Evansham Ballroom, which can be broken into three smaller rooms. Breakout sessions and meetings fit nicely in three meeting rooms, which accommodate 150 people each and total 3,000 square feet.
“The facility is also great for team building, as it has 60,000 feet of recreational space, including a six-lane swimming pool, climbing wall and indoor walking track with incredible mountain views,” said Jude. “Meeting planners can contact me to set up customized team-building programs, and it is great for attendees’ families, too.”
At the crossroads of Interstates 77 and 81, with proximity to North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee, the center has been in demand from day one. Its clientele has ranged from local social groups to multistate meetings like the 350-member Southeast Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils’ annual conference in 2008.
“Our meeting business has remained strong despite the downturn in the economy because we aren’t dependent on one market,” Jude said. “We target groups ranging from state associations to government agencies and corporate business meetings, and our future efforts will include military and other types of reunions.”
Diverse is the best way to describe meeting planners’ options for off-site receptions and events in this long-time tourist town: the Wohlfahrt Haus German dinner theater for events of 250, and the Heritage Preservation Center museum and the Westwind Farm and Vineyard, both for events of up to 100.
“We also have an extensive historic district with the circa-1776 Log House Restaurant that is popular for off-site meals,” said Jude.
The outdoors tends to be a big draw, too, with the New River Trail State Park, eco-tourism at herb and flower farms and guided tours at the city’s 45-acre animal safari park among the options.
Much to “sea” in Hampton Roads
From a Malaysian peat swamp inhabited by rare crocodiles to a sophisticated cruise center on one of the world’s largest natural harbors, aquatic attractions in Virginia’s Hampton Roads provide extraordinary locations for meetings and off-site events.
Four environments that existed in prehistoric Virginia envelop groups as they walk through the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Restless Planet exhibit, which opened in November in Virginia Beach.
“Restless Planet is like stepping into another world, and it creates a completely different aquarium experience because it is fully immersive,” said Linda Candler, marketing director. “It features the sounds, smells and feel of habitats ranging from an Indonesian volcanic island to the coastal Sahara Desert to the Red Sea.”
About 6,000 new creatures make their homes in the linearexhibit, which moves chronologically through time.
The Restless Planet exhibit cannot be rented separately for events, as it is open to other areas of the aquarium, but it can be added to any Virginia Aquarium rental for a nominal fee. The state’s largest aquarium is already a popular venue, site of some 400 meetings or social occasions each year for groups of up to 3,000, and the Restless Planet exhibit is boosting its use. The aquarium’s 2009 holiday bookings have tripled.
“We also have many corporate groups excited about including it in their 2010 events,” she said. “For example, Restless Planet has been added to the local Portfolio Recovery Associates’ annual party for 900 people here in February. And the Edgar Cayce Center for Research and Enlightenment will hold a fund-raiser this winter that uses our 175-person Promenade Room and the Restless Planet.”
The aquarium also has a new 15-person Komodo Boardroom, as well as the new Journey of Water galleries, which follow the path of Virginia’s watershed from upland rivers to the Chesapeake Bay. This area includes the Coastal Foyer, which can hold 30 people for receptions or animal programs.
Virginia’s maritime experiences are a natural part of meetings and events at Nauticus, a contemporary science and technology center in Norfolk.
“Groups can view interactive sea-life exhibits, take part in hands-on science demonstrations and tour the historic Hampton Roads Naval Museum and USS Battleship Wisconsin,” said Dana Mayo, special events sales manager.
The center’s primary meeting spaces are in its Living Sea Landing aquarium area, with room for 250-person receptions, and the 350-person Living Sea Theater.
Although events can’t be held on board the Battleship Wisconsin, which is docked next to Nauticus, the Battleship Wisconsin Vista indoor open area provides views of the celebrated vessel during seated dinners for up to 100 people.
“All indoor receptions are held after hours, but we also have several outdoor venues that can be used at any time,” said Mayo.
“These include the Lighthouse Portico, which can hold 250 people for a cocktail reception or 100 people seated, and the Elizabeth River Pavilion, a covered deck that can hold 800 for cocktails.”
Nauticus primarily draws corporate and military groups of up to 2,000, and hosts many opening and closing events, like an 1,800-person reception held last February for the American Bus Association’s (ABA’s) annual convention.
Groups as large as ABA use the entire Nauticus campus, which includes the adjacent 80,000-square-foot Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center. Designed with nautical architecture, the center has 33,000 square feet of meeting and event space and a 13,000-square-foot terrace that overlooks the Elizabeth River. The center can handle as many as 550 for dinner and 1,200 for receptions.
An “inn” place to explore American history
When the Road Runners Club of America meets in Fredericksburg in May 2011, some of its 270 members may be surprised to learn they are lodging at an inn built by an original signer of the Declaration of Independence.
|Courtesy Fredericksburg Area Tourism
“Downtown Fredericksburg is filled with historical treasures like the Richard Johnston Inn, and meeting planners love using them,” said Lura Hill, manager of tourism sales, Fredericksburg Regional Tourism Partnership. “However, we can now offer them the choice of a new venue: the 98-room Courtyard by Marriott, which has almost 3,000 square feet of meeting space and is the largest facility in the historic district.”
This juxtaposition of old and new is the norm in this northeastern Virginia city of 20,000. Established in 1728, Fredericksburg was home to Presidents George Washington and James Monroe and boasts a 40-block National Historic District.
Groups that visit the Fredericksburg area, which also includes Spotsylvania and Stafford counties, often try to make local history part of their meetings. For example, the Road Runners Club is planning receptions at the Capital Ale House, a new beer garden located in a 200-year-old building, as well as at historic Market Square.
“Market Square was used in Colonial days as a public market, and it has now been refurbished as an outdoor meeting venue of 2,200 square feet that can accommodate 200 banquet-style,” said Hill. “Since it is near the new Courtyard, it can also serve as an overflow facility.”
Located 50 miles south of Washington, Fredericksburg draws many state associations, corporate retreats and reunions to downtown meeting sites that include the circa-1854 Inn at Fredericksburg Square, which can handle 250 for dinners and 450 for receptions, and new meeting space for 100 at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.
“However, some of our largest meeting venues are outside of the historic district at the Central Park shopping district off I-95,” said Hill. “These include the 110,000-square-foot Fredericksburg Expo and Conference Center, which can accommodate 3,400 people and features an 800-person ballroom, and the 196-room Fredericksburg Hospitality House and Conference Center, which has 12,000 square feet of meeting space.”
This area will also be home to the Kalahari Indoor Waterpark and Resort, a $200 million complex with 200,000 square feet of conference and event space and 900 hotel rooms that is expected to open in 2012.
Groups with free time enjoy touring attractions like Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington, where legend says he chopped down his father’s cherry tree, or other Washington family sites, including the home of his mother, Mary Washington, and Kenmore, his sister’s plantation home.
Fredericksburg is also known for four Civil War battles that claimed 15,000 soldiers, commemorated at the nearby Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Those thousands of war deaths explain the city’s reputation as one of the most haunted places in the country.
The Virginia Downtown Development Association, whose 100 members met in Fredericksburg in October, couldn’t resist exploring the city’s supernatural side with an evening candlelight Ghosts of Fredericksburg walking tour.
More recent history unfolds at the home of noted impressionist artist Gari Melchers, where receptions for up to 100 can be held on the banks of the Rappahannock River.