Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: July/August 2013
Top Cities For Small To Medium Meetings
By: Michael Bennett

Location, location, location – it’s singularly the most important dynamic in real estate, yes even more important than cost. In real estate, it’s the location that drives the cost and potential profits for a commercial enterprise or resale value in residential real estate.

Location also plays an integral role in selecting a meeting or convention destination, but cost factors are often mitigated in importance by choice – choice of hotel, choice in entertainment, choice in meeting venues, etc.

Over the years, conventional wisdom dictated that choice could only be obtained in large urban areas. If there’s anything the Great Recession taught us is the large city choice myth is passé.  Many of America’s second and third-tier markets in terms of size offer amenities and options comparable to, or even better than most big cities.

For small and medium size gatherings where pocketbook issues matter, the six destinations below not only give you more bang for your buck, some offer unique experiences that are sure to excite just about any group. If your members insist on the bright lights of the big city, or access to a large urban area, a couple of destinations listed here sit right next door to America’s great cities, giving you access without damaging your wallet.

It’s small-town charm and big city accessibility has moved East Point to the head of the class in this market sector. It’s that convenience along with cost, amenities and overall experience that makes East Point the emerging destination of choice for many of today’s meeting planners. For starters, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport sits in East Point’s backyard, meaning travelers are minutes from hotels, restaurants and meetings facilities.

The Georgia International Convention Center (GICC) is just over three miles from East Point and sits adjacent to the airport. It is the Atlanta areas’ second largest convention center with 400,000 sq. ft. and features Georgia’s largest ballroom at 40,000 sq. ft. Meeting space is plentiful with six 2,000-sq. ft. suites, each divisible into four sections. The GICC features on site catering with the capacity to serve 4,000 meals at one time.

And speaking of convenience, from baggage claim, follow the signs to the Georgia International Convention Center. Hop on the SkyTrain (its free) and visitors arrive at the GICC in less than five minutes. If you must have a rental car, the second stop on the SkyTrain is the Rental Car Center. Meeting and event planners can contact the GICC direct by clicking on the contact link on their website,

The GICC campus has two convention hotels – a 403-room Marriott headquarters hotel and a 147-room SpringHill Suites. In total, East Point has 16 hotels with a combined 58,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. For shopping and restaurants, the Campcreek Marketplace in East Point is minutes from the GICC.

Reunion planners who need a little offsite catering services should checkout “This Is It! BBQ & Seafood” right in East Point. This restaurant is a local institution known for its BBQ, seafood and soul food. East Point is home to 17 parks with amenities ranging from tennis and basketball courts to pavilions, grills and outdoor hiking trails perfect for family reunions or team building exercises.

A Day trip to many of Atlanta’s top tourist hotspots is only 20 minutes from East Point on the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). Visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, the World of Coca Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta and Inside CNN. During the summer take in a baseball game at nearby Turner Field.

The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau offers full service support for East Point group gatherings. For a list of contacts, go to

This city, known as “The Gateway to Fun” is sure to spice up any meeting, convention or group gathering. Kissimmee has an impressive array of meeting facilities, hotels and unique venues just minutes away from some of the world’s top theme parks, world-famous attractions and the Orlando International Airport.

Kissimmee can easily accommodate gatherings from 5 to 25,000 or more. It’s a well-rounded family entertainment hotspot that has a little something for everyone. In total, Kissimmee has over 263 hotel properties accounting for more than 900,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. From cozy motels to luxury suites, Kissimmee is sure to have something to fit any budget. The combination of affordable resort and convention properties are a staple of the Kissimmee group gathering scene.

The top venue for groups large and small is the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center. This resort has arguably hosted more top events than any property in Central Florida. It features 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, 100 meetings rooms and a maximum of 58 breakout-meeting rooms. The property has the absolute latest in technology and equipment. The Gaylord sits on 63 acres with three atriums that create distinct Florida environments all under one roof. The property has 1, 291 rooms and 115 suites.

Two other outstanding convention properties are the Omni Resort at ChampionsGate with 720 rooms and over 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and the new Embassy Suites Orlando-Lake Buena Vista South with 300 rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. For group gatherings requiring less than 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space try the Comfort Inn Maingate, Fantasy World Resort, Hampton Inn & Suites or the Seralago Hotel & Suites Maingate,

Nothing more adequately defines Central Florida than its myriad theme parks. These parks need no introduction, but the top ones are Walt Disney World® Resort, Universal Orlando® Resort, SeaWorld® Orlando and Legoland. Several of the larger resort properties have free shuttle service to area theme parks and the airport. For a change of pace, try a family golf tournament, an airboat ride, fishing tournament, Zip-lining, horseback riding or miniature golf. And if you need a few minutes away from the kids there are more than enough spas around.

For some after-hour entertainment try a dinner show. The three most popular are Arabian Knights, Capone’s and Medieval Times. For help with all Kissimmee planning needs call (800) 831-1844, email or visit for direct contact information.

It’s the second largest city in Illinois and sits just 37 miles west of Chicago. If you need an alternative to that big city destination, Aurora is the answer---its big city amenities at great value. Local attractions include the Hollywood Casino Aurora featuring slots, blackjack, poker, three restaurants and lots of movie memorabilia.

Paramount Theatre is the premiere arts and entertainment venue in Aurora. Checkout the Broadway Series and enjoy iconic plays such as Miss Saigon, In The Heights, 42nd Street and Rent. The Chicago Premium Outlets draws thousands of visitors a month and features many of the top brand names.

RiverEdge Park was designed with a little something for everyone from kayaking and canoeing to a 10-acre music venue. Entertainers from country music sensations Randy Travis and Loretta Lynn to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Dr. John and Buddy Guy have performed here. For thrill seekers and outdoor enthusiasts there’s whitewater rafting on the Marge Cline Whitewater course or Kayaking along the Fox River. How about boating, fishing, hunting, snowshoeing, skiing, biking and hiking – its all here for the taking.

Just down the road in nearby Yorkville is the state’s largest waterpark, Raging Waves. The park sits on 40 acre and features 17 waterslides, a separate kiddie pool and 23 private cabanas. Getting to Aurora is easier than one might think. Aurora is located on Interstate 88 equidistant from both Chicago O’Hare and Midway Airports. Simply rent a car and drive one hour. Another option is Amtrak or the Metra Train lines.

The Best Western Timber Creek and Convention Center is the region’s largest meeting facility with 25,000 sq. ft. of space. The property, just outside of Aurora has 100 guest rooms, including suites and whirlpool rooms. A mere five minutes from Aurora is the Rich Harvest Farms, a 1,820-acre spread with an award-winning 18-hole golf course. Golf Digest America ranked this course as one of America’s Top 100. This private and secluded locale has 40,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space and over 40,000 square-feet of outdoor function space.

In Aurora is the Hampton Inn & Suites with 127 rooms. This property offers five meeting rooms, video conferencing and can host from 90 to 140 attendees depending on configurations. There’s also a Holiday Inn for small gatherings. Meeting planners who need additional information can call (630) 256-3194 or fill out the form on their website at

Alaska’s capital city might be our nation’s best-kept secret. Juneau looks like a portrait one might see in an art gallery – beauty, color, wildlife, quaint and majestic all in one setting.  Why Juneau? It could easily be the adventure of a lifetime for any group.  Juneau has many unique attractions not seen in the Lower 48. The Mendenhall Glacier is a tongue of ice stretching 12-miles from the Juneau ice field to Mendenhall Lake. At its widest point the glacier is more than a half-mile wide and 300 to 1,800 ft. deep.

Salmon spawning is an event in Alaska. From July to September many of the natural salmon spawning streams are brimming to capacity and make for a great spectator event. Between April and September enjoy the majestic beauty of one of natures most awesome creatures as more than 600 humpback whales inhabit the waters of the northern Inside Passage. There are daily sightseeing tours for a closer look.

Bears are a way of life in Alaska. Black bears are frequently spotted around Juneau, but if you want to see the big boys, the Brown bears, take a floatplane to Admiralty Island National Monument and Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area.  The most popular place on the island is Pack Creek Bear Sanctuary where you can observe bears feeding on one of their favorite foods, salmon. It is recommended that any trip to Alaska wilderness be with an experienced guide.

Downtown Juneau streets are lined with shopping options for authentic Alaskan and Native American souvenirs and other items.  The best way to get to Juneau is by air on Alaska Airlines with daily flights from Seattle. Juneau can host up to 1,000 attendees using multiple hotel properties. Centennial Hall Convention Center in downtown Juneau’s Historic District can host up to 1,075 in a theater setting. Centennial Hall is getting a little makeover during the summer of 2014, so book now to be among the first to see the new look convention center.

Other small venues offer majestic views of that great Alaska scenery. Imagine an opening reception atop Mount Roberts with its views of the valley and town below. Don’t like heights, how about a reception along the banks of Gastineau Channel or Auke Lake? Juneau hotels are typically small properties, less than 100 rooms; some have one or two meetings rooms. Meeting planners call Liz Perry at (907) 523-3729 or send her an email to


Located about an hour from both New Orleans and Baton Rouge at the intersection of Interstates 12 and 55, Hammond is becoming one of the newest suburbs of both cities. It is the largest city in Tangipahoa Parish and home to Southeastern Louisiana University.

Hammond’s top attraction is the Tangipahoa African American Museum and Veterans Archives. This museum tells the story of African-Americans in all their permutations; from family life to Civil Rights, arts and entertainment to inventions, sports, medicine, architecture, politics, religion, law and technology.

Among the museums collections are twenty-three 8’ by 5’ mural paintings on each side of the hall depicting the plight of African Americans from life in Africa to slavery to modern day America. In total, the museum has 8,200 sq. ft. and features eight exhibit rooms on everything from the Underground Railroad to Sports Heroes and an active Genealogy Lab.

The museum is fully capable of hosting events. The Dinner Theater seats 200, the Heritage Center seats 500 and the Annex can hold up to 50 people. Catering is available. The museum’s website is or you can call (985) 542-4259.

Hollywood has found a home in and around Hammond and Tangipahoa Parish. The movie Ray (the biopic on the life of Ray Charles), the film that earned Jamie Foxx his first Academy Award for Best Actor, and the first season of the hit TV series In the Heat of the Night starring multi Emmy-winner Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins was filmed in and around Hammond.

In addition to Hollywood, the region has turned into a family reunion and small meeting and convention destination. The largest venue is the Quality Inn & Conference Center in Hammond. This property has 171-rooms with a 4,131-sq. ft. ballroom that can be configured in a variety of settings.  The Southeastern Louisiana State ballroom has over 6,500 sq. ft. of space and a maximum capacity of 500.

The Tangipahoa CVB can answer all your questions. They can be reached online at or calling (800) 542-7520.

Nestled along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Albemarle County, Charlottesville’s natural beauty is breathtaking.

Charlottesville’s top attraction is Monticello, the mountaintop home of our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. It is the only home in America recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. Guided tours are available throughout the year. Jefferson’s other legacy to the region is the University of Virginia (UVA). Visit the Rotunda and adjoining Pavilions that form The Lawn.

Charlottesville and the surrounding area is actually home to three presidents, in addition to Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all hail from this area. The Albemarle County district is the nation’s fifth largest wine region with over 20 vineyards in the area. There are also several Wine Tours along the Monticello Wine Trail.

The entertainment scene rivals that of any big city. Sheryl Crow, Jay-Z, Elton John, U2 and Lady Gaga are a few of the stars that have performed here recently. The 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena and the historic Paramount Theater are great places to catch your favorite artist. Outdoor enthusiasts will love hiking, camping and horseback riding along the region’s many trails. If you want to go it alone, the area offers acres of land and water to choose from. Try the Rivanna Trail or the 100 plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in nearby Shenandoah National Park.

The African American Cultural Arts Festival is held in late July each year. The Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American & African Studies at the University of Virginia has several events throughout the year worth attending. Meeting facilities in the region include the multi-media ready John Paul Jones Arena at the UVA. This facility can house large tradeshows with up to 200 vendors or a reception for up to 600 guests at the versatile Courtside Club.

Keswick Hall at Monticello has 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 600-acres of outdoor space to stage those special events. Also, many of the local vineyards have space for social gathering and of course a little wine tasting along the way.

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Performing Arts Center features a 1,276-seat auditorium, with a spacious lobby for receptions and several classrooms that can be used as meeting rooms. The city has a wide range of hotels, inns and bed & breakfasts. The prestigious Boar’s Head Inn, run by the UVA features 170 rooms with a spa, golf course, gym, squash facilities and indoor tennis courts. UVA plays their tennis matches at this facility. The 573-acre property offers 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space spread out among 19 meeting rooms, including two ballrooms.

The two largest hotels are the DoubleTree with 235-rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space including a 4,850-sq. ft. ballroom and Omni Charlottesville Hotel downtown with 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The city is served by USAir, American Airlines, Delta and United. If you love train rides Amtrak is a great option, just over two hours from Washington DC.

To learn more about Charlottesville go to or if you need to plan an event email Brigitte Belanger-Warner at  While our list is by no means all-inclusive, the superior quality of the overall experience makes these destinations worthy of consideration. We often seek locations that breed familiarity. It’s time to live a little and take on a unique or new destination.

There is nothing in America that can replace the feel Juneau and surrounding wilderness or the pastoral settings of Charlottesville and the Virginia countryside. Mother Nature is awesome. While Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando and New Orleans are great places for any group, the nearby towns of Aurora, IL; East Point, GA; Kissimmee, FL and Hammond, LA offer everything their big city brethren has to offer and a few things they don’t, like easy access and a small town feel.
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