Wish You Were Here
Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2010
Family Friendly Destinations
By: Michael Bennett


It’s no secret we are living in tough economic times. Money is tight, forcing families, associations, trade groups and other organizations to do more with less. Those of us fortunate enough to still have jobs are afraid to take vacations for fear our jobs won’t be there when we return.  Many are getting around what we hope is a once-in-a-lifetime problem by combining group gatherings with family vacations – a sort of two for one special that actually is a positive development for those destinations hosting meetings and other incentive travel.

All the destinations profiled below were selected because they are family-friendly and affordable. By family-friendly we mean places to take the kids while one of the parents is attending their event. Lots of free or significantly discounted attractions to stretch those already tight budgets even farther. We looked at things like the number of hotels in a particular region that had microwaves and kitchenettes to save families the expense of eating out every night. Several hotel properties have free shuttle service to and from the airport, and much of the on-sight transportation is free or can be obtained at significantly discounted prices.

Other items of note we were looking for; are the destinations easy to get to; are the amusements and cultural attractions within walking distance of a hotel; do the CVBs offer family-friendly planning services?  The destinations below are a mix of large metropolitan centers and smaller, yet equally as dynamic a locale as their larger brethren in terms of amenities and family-friendliness.



BATON ROUGE
Baton Rouge, located on the banks of the Mississippi River about 80 miles west of New Orleans, is one of the most family-friendly cities in the United States based on affordability, a host of family-friendly festivals spread throughout the year and numerous attractions and activities. Baton Rouge and its 8,000 hotel rooms are among the most affordable in the nation, and 4,500 of those rooms can be committed for citywide meetings and conventions. The nine percent sales tax and 13 percent hotel/motel tax are among the lowest in the country. The Baton Rouge River Center has 70,000 sq. ft. of exhibit hall space and 125,000 sq. ft. of flat floor space with eight breakout rooms, along with theatre, classroom and banquet seating.

If you love to eat, many of the city’s 900 restaurants reflect the region’s culture and heritage from Cajun and Creole to French and Mexican cuisine. Don’t be surprised if you experience dishes here that you’ve never seen or heard of anyplace else, as the area’s many fine chefs love to innovate. The architecture, local music and culture are a blend of African-American, Caribbean and French and you might easily hear some of those nuances in the local language. The term Cher for example is a term of endearment not restricted to just the French in Baton Rouge. Zydeco, blues, and Cajun music are just some of what you’ll enjoy as you make your way around the city.

Some of the sites you might want to experience in Baton Rouge include Riverboat Tours, plantation tours, The Belle of Baton Rogue Casino, and the BREC Baton Rouge Zoo. There are so many children’s and other family-friendly attractions you need to visit the CVB website at visitbatonrouge.com for a complete listing.

Meeting planners make sure you ask about the many themed venues to host events such as LSU’s Hilltop Arboretum, Alligator Bayou, one of the many plantations that dot the area, or head to one of America’s premiere Historically Black Colleges, Southern University and the Museum of Art. If you happen to be in town during college football season try a tailgate at a Louisiana State University or Southern University game.

The CVB can assist groups with planning tours tailored to specific needs – log on to visitbatonrouge.com and if you’re planning a meeting call (800) LaRouge.

BIRMINGHAM, AL
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Birmingham is a city that continues to impress. Dining, shopping, wonderful entertainment, great culture, its people and its history are part of what makes Birmingham so special.  The words “southern charm and hospitality” are often tossed around to describe many cities in the South, but if there were ever a city that lived up to the true meaning of those words, its Birmingham – the warmth and hospitality of its people are infectious. Whether you are planning a meeting, a vacation, a family reunion or a combination of all the above you will not leave this city disappointed. Family reunions are big business in Birmingham. To help you get started the Convention and Visitors Bureau has a link on their website to assist. Go to birminghamal.org to get started and of course you can always call them direct at (800) 458-8085.



For attractions check out the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham Zoo, Alabama Adventure Water and Theme Park, Riverchase Galleria Mall and the Talladega Motor Speedway. To follow Birmingham’s Civil Rights history, go to biriminghamal.org and click on the “Civil Rights” link. There you will find the “Freedom Land Suggested Itinerary.” It’s a great way to visit virtually all of the prominent Civil Rights locales within the city from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to Kelly Ingram Park, the Fourth Avenue Business District and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Birmingham is extremely affordable for meeting planners on a tight budget. There are numerous venues for gatherings from the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex to the Boutwell Municipal Auditorium.

FORT WORTH

When most visitors think about Texas, their mind usually races to Dallas, Houston, Austin or San Antonio. If you stopped there, then you missed one of the most exciting cities in United States – Fort Worth. Here are some things you should probably know about Fort Worth. It’s the 17th largest city in the United States and the 5th fastest growing city with populations of 100,000 or more. Combined with its neighbor to the east it’s the largest visitor destination in the state of Texas. The city was voted the #4 value-friendly destination in the U.S. by Hotwire.com and no other city in the country has such a preserved western heritage.



There’s more. Lets start with the Fort Worth Convention Center. This state-of-the-art facility has over 253,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space with a 13,500-seat multi-functional arena. The convention center located downtown is within walking distance of approximately 2,300 hotel rooms and there are another 13,000 throughout the city. While in the downtown area, you can get around for free between the hours of 10am to 10pm on the Downtown Get Around. This service stops at most of the major hotels and popular landmarks. The nearby Will Rogers Memorial Center hosts in excess of two million visitors a year who attend the many cultural, equestrian and recreational events.

Fort Worth has a history of hosting African-American groups. That list includes, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, The Links and the National Organization of Black County Officials to name a few. For those who want to immerse themselves in the African-American experience of the American west head to the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame (Formerly the National Cowboys of Color and Hall of Fame). If your trip includes taking the family you will find plenty to do starting with a trip to the Museum of Science and history where kids can take part in “CSI: The Experience” exhibit named after the famous television series.
For a true Texas experience head to the Fort Worth Stockyards for entertainment, restaurants and Wild West performances. Contact the Fort Worth CVB at forthworth.com or call (800) 433-5747 to start your adventure.

NORFOLK, VA
Norfolk is the cultural, financial and entertainment center of the Virginia waterfront. Located in the southeast corner of Virginia where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic, this is a region of unspoiled natural beauty. It’s a great destination for boaters, families, romantic getaways, and meetings and conventions. Norfolk has a thriving arts community with studios, galleries and performance venues featuring working artists’ located in the downtown D’Art Center. While in town make sure to visit the Tiffany glass collection at the Chrysler Museum of Art or attend a live performance at Attucks Theatre or the Chrysler Hall.

If you are traveling with children try the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, Ocean View Beach Park, the Virginia Zoo or Nauticus, a maritime-themed science museum. Since April 2007, Norfolk has become a premiere destination for the cruise ship industry. From the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center visitors can sail to Bermuda, the eastern Caribbean, The Bahamas or New England.  And when not hosting cruise ship passengers Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center transforms into a magnificent facility to host meetings and special events. The Half Moone Vista is a 12,500-sq. ft. space ideal for large banquets, weddings or other ceremonies. The Grand Rotunda is perfect for receptions and the adjoining Virginia and Bermuda rooms are great for small gatherings or corporate meetings.

Norfolk is a prime family reunion destination. The CVB has a complimentary family reunion planning service that will assist you in planning everything from hotel and banquet facilities to shuttle service. Call the reunion staff at (800) 368-3097.

OAKLAND, CA
Oakland is one of this country’s best-kept secrets as a family-friendly tourist destination and a hubbub of meeting and convention activity. Few places offer the combination of a great meeting locale and a family-friendly tourist destination. Start with the Oakland Zoo, simply put it’s one of the best in the country. There are cultural exhibits in the education center and a “rides area” featuring a carousel and of course a rollercoaster.  Other places to take kids include: Children’s Fairyland: the Chabot Space Science Center, which houses the largest public telescope in the United States; and the Museum of Children’s Art.



One of the more popular areas of Oakland is Jack London Square. There’s dining, entertainment such as live jazz and shopping. Since you are already on the waterfront why not take a ferry ride in San Francisco Bay? If you are a history buff, check out the African American Museum and Library. And if you are a sports fan, Oakland is the only city in California with a team in the three major sports. Oakland is also a great jumping off point for tours to California’s wine country, Silicon Valley, Lake Tahoe and Monterey.  On the meetings and convention front, the Oakland Convention Center and Oakland Marriott City Center are downtown and just 10 minutes from the airport. Right outside its doors is Chinatown, Old Oakland, Preservation Park and a short walk from the waterfront and the aforementioned Jack London Square. The convention center has 48,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and the adjoining Marriott offers another 25,000 sq. ft. and 483 guest rooms.

Meeting planners call the Oakland CVB at (510) 839-9000 or write to info@oaklandcvb.com and ask them about their Hometown Host Program. It’s a great tool for planning family reunions, military veterans gatherings and other group events.



PASADENA, CA
Located 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena is a one-of-a-kind treasure that must be experienced. Words alone are not enough to describe a city of such beauty, art and culture. It’s a city of tree-lined streets, lush gardens, stately mansions, fantastic museums and art galleries, trendy boutiques, retail stores, playhouses and some of the best restaurants you’ll find anywhere. Meeting planners will love the recently completed expansion of the Pasadena Convention Center. This award-winning facility features 55,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 25,000-sq. ft. ballroom and a 28,000-sq. ft. outdoor plaza.

The expanded Center now completes the Pasadena Convention Center complex that includes the refurbished Conference Center and the historic Pasadena Civic Auditorium where Michael Jackson first performed his now famous “moonwalk” during “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” This entire complex is located within walking distance of four major hotels, and Old Pasadena, a trendy 22-block European style shopping and entertainment district. There are approximately 2,500 hotel rooms in Pasadena ranging from the 350-room Westin Pasadena to the 296-room Hilton and a 314-room Old Pasadena Courtyard by Marriott. The signature event most visitors to Pasadena are familiar with is New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade followed by the Rose Bowl Game. Viewers often camp out overnight on or near Colorado Boulevard for a prime spot along the parade route.

But there’s more to the city than the parade. Attractions include: Armory Center for the Arts, The Gamble House (a great place as an alternate venue for special events), The Huntington Library, Arts Collections and Botanical Gardens, Kidspace Children’s Museum, Norton Simon Museum and the Pacific Asia Museum – I could go on but you get the idea. There are performing arts centers in abundance from the Pasadena Playhouse to the Pasadena Jazz Institute. To learn more about this beautiful city got to visitpasadena.com or call (800) 307-7977.

PHILADELPHIA
Philadelphia is the epitome of a family-friendly destination. Visitors to one of the greatest of American cities experience a destination like no other and the beauty of it all; many of the top attractions are free or very affordable.  Start by visiting Independence National Historic Park. It’s arguably the most historic square mile in the United States. A trip to the park will take you to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Carpenters Hall, Second Bank of the United States and Franklin Court.

Other great venues include: The Franklin Institute, Adventure Aquarium, Philadelphia Zoo, The Academy of Natural Sciences, National Constitution Center, Please Touch Museum or Eastern State Penitentiary. If you starve in Philly, that’s your fault. This city has some of the best eateries on the planet, everything from BBQ to old world Italian – and if you leave without trying a Philly Cheesesteak steak shame on you. Shoppers love coming to Philadelphia. The phrase “more bang for your buck” carries a significant meaning – no taxes. That’s right, shop to your heart’s content, you won’t be paying any taxes.



Convention attendees make sure you ask the CVB about the “Show Us Your Room Key or Badge Discount Pass,” good for discounts at restaurants and other tourist venues throughout the city (expires December 31, 2010).  The expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center has 528,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space, the largest in the Northeast, with a 55,400-sq. ft. ballroom making it the largest on the east coast. There are over 10,000 hotel rooms nearby and 17,000 within a 30-minute drive. The Philadelphia CVB website has numerous tools available to help meeting planners and tourists organize a trip to the city. Visit philadelphiausa.travel for details. Oh and did we mention, Philadelphia is a top destination for those planning a family reunion.

TORONTO, CANADA
Toronto is one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities in all of the Americas. It is the cultural, entertainment and financial capital of Canada and entertains over 16 million tourists a year. Located on the North shore of Lake Ontario, Toronto’s latitude is very close to that of Northern California giving the region a surprisingly moderate climate.  Toronto has become the destination of choice for U.S. sponsored association meetings outside the U.S. And as a destination it’s within 90-minutes of 60 percent of the U.S. population, and boasts 8,000 restaurants and 38,000 hotel rooms.  With 2.5 million sq. ft. of exhibition halls and convention facilities the city can handle a gathering of any size. The largest venues are the Direct Energy Centre with over $1 million sq. ft., the International Centre with over 500,000 sq. ft. and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre with over 600,000 sq. ft.



African-American conventions are no stranger to Toronto. They recently hosted the National Association of Black Engineers and are slated to host the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners in later this year and the National Medical Association in 2013. Toronto has everything you would expect to find in any large American city with outstanding restaurants, arts, entertainment and sports – in fact, sports tourism is big business in Toronto.  Take in the sites of the Toronto Zoo, or if you happen to be in the city in mid-July try the Beaches International Jazz Festival, Ontario Place (waterfront amusement park with 30 rides) and so much more. If you are interested in learning more about this great city go to seetorontonow.com

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