Southeast destinations and resorts are meeting the demand for in-person events with new developments and immersive incentive experiences.
“Jacksonville has something to offer all types of meetings with our wide variety of boutique and convention hotels,” says Jeanne Goldschmidt, director of convention sales, Visit Jacksonville. “The most popular place in the area for an incentive experience is One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach. The property offers an award-winning experience with its accommodations, Azurea Restaurant and the spa.”
The Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront completed a renovation to its meeting spaces in 2022. The hotel features several River Deck venues overlooking its downtown location, and can arrange incentives such as a private river taxi that doubles as a leisure cruise with a bar and hors d’oeuvres, taking guests to TIAA Bank Field for national football games.
Set to open in 2023 will be the Ambassador Hotel, a TRYP by Wyndham property, a renovation of a century old building, as well as the Springhill Suites at the Jacksonville Beach Pier. Expected to open in 2026 is the Four Seasons resort in Downtown Jacksonville, part of a larger development along the St. Johns River.
New dining experiences include Oaxaca Club, offering an innovative menu of chef-inspired cuisine highlighting this Mexican state, and Jekyll Brewing, acraft brewery.
“What stemmed from health and safety precautions from COVID, quickly evolved into overall wellness and well-being for meeting and event attendees,” says Goldschmidt. “Some trends we’ve seen recently are more attention to details like lighting, including soft lighting in the morning or more energizing lighting in the afternoon, more health-conscious food options for meals and snacks, such as kombucha and wellness shots, and breaks specifically designed for attendees to get outdoors for some sunshine and fresh air.”
“Asheville’s greatest asset is the abundance of enriching outdoor experiences that are all within reach,” says Connie Holiday, director of sales, Explore Asheville. “From world-class mountain biking to paddling along scenic stretches of the French Broad River, visitors of all ability levels have an opportunity to connect with nature in a memorable and meaningful way.”
Anticipated 2023 hotel openings in Asheville include the Restoration Asheville, a 60-suite luxury hotel inspired by Asheville’s free-spirited culture and creative community, featuring local art and craft. The property will offer several private event spaces, including a rooftop bar featuring a terrace and unobstructed views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Another noteworthy 2023 opening is the 71-room Flat Iron Hotel, a Prohibition-themed hotel housed in Asheville’s historic Flatiron Building, that will have a rooftop bar and a hidden speakeasy in the basement. Meanwhile, the 20-room Zelda Dearest will preserve and incorporate three of Asheville’s historic Victorian-style homes, and celebrate Asheville’s ties to Zelda Fitzgerald. Planned outdoor spaces include an event patio, game lawn, gardens and fire pits. Also set to open this year is The Radical, a 70-room boutique art hotel in the River Arts District, with a rooftop bar and restaurant and a hidden speakeasy.
Slated for a 2024 debut, the 185-room Embassy Suites by Hilton will be a new addition to Asheville’s skyline, and will include 7,000 sf of meeting and event space.
“We’re seeing planners push the envelope on meeting agendas by incorporating more personalized outdoors experiences,” says Holiday. “Most local outdoor recreation companies are accustomed to working with groups for teambuilding activities, and Explore Asheville can also help planners customize itineraries, based on group interests and abilities. It all comes down to forging meaningful connections and memorable experiences that will leave visitors feeling rewarded.”
Asheville Wellness Tours offers a range of outdoor experiences including guided forest bathing sessions at the North Carolina Arboretum, just 20 minutes from downtown. For its part, the Asheville Adventure Company offers a guided e-bike brewery crawl exploring Asheville’s thriving beer scene, as well as white-water rafting trips and an e-bike tour in the mountains.
“Meeting planners are looking for unique experiences in new cities,” says Jamie Koshofer, v.p. of conventions, Huntsville/Madison County CVB. “Meetings are back to pre-pandemic levels and attendees want to enjoy these new destinations with fun networking opportunities at unique venues.”
Early 2024 will see a new addition to the Huntsville Downtown skyline with the opening of an Autograph Collection by Marriott property. Offering more than 200 rooms across eight floors, the $40 million project will also feature a rooftop bar overlooking Big Spring Park plus two full-service restaurants and conference/banquet space.
“Meeting attendees are looking to experience a city’s local amenities in a safe, clean environment,” says Koshofer. “They can easily walk from hotels and the Von Braun Center to discover the local atmosphere of downtown Huntsville at establishments like BeeZr® Gastropub + Social Exchange or Poppy & Parliament; and Harrison Brothers Hardware c. 1897 for souvenirs and art.”
Incentive experiences for groups include training like an astronaut at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the world’s largest space museum that offers space simulator experiences. MICE attendees visiting in April can experience the Panoply Arts Festival in Downtown Huntsville’s Big Spring Park, or discover the Downtown Huntsville Secret Art Walk.
“Incentive groups are seeking immersive experiences—things attendees can participate in that gives them a strong sense of having encountered a place in a meaningful, authentic way,” says Marty Couch, director of group sales, Kiawah Island Golf Resort. “That includes introducing guests to the island’s interrelated ecosystems and all the flora and fauna they support. We do that through introductions to the island’s plants and wildlife at Heron Park Nature Center, and then through highly immersive experiences such as naturalist-led kayak tours, Back Island Birding, Gator Walks and Wildlife in the Wetlands. We also offer some more active pursuits that allow attendees to soak in all the natural beauty of our surroundings, such as chartered fishing excursions or—one of our most popular group activities—a marsh boating trip to shoot biodegradable clay targets with a shotgun from the boat deck.”
The resort is currently undergoing a multiyear expansion project, and in 2022 opened a new market called The Nest, which includes a casual eatery as well as retail options. While in 2021, immediately after hosting the PGA Championship, the property introduced four new 2-story, 4-king-guestroom cottages situated next to the Ocean Course clubhouse. The cottages provide distinctive accommodation for an immersive golf experience that would be ideal for a small incentive program.
“Attendees and planners are looking for a turnkey operation and a diversity of accommodations and events offerings, but all organized under one umbrella for a seamless experience, both in planning and execution,” says Couch.
“Attendees will be treated to experiential and interactive experiences that are unique to Louisville,” says Sonia Fong, v.p. of convention sales, Louisville Tourism. “Even though the historic Churchill Downs racetrack may not have live racing during an attendee event, Louisville can tailor the group experience to offer an authentic experience regardless of the time of year. We’ve been known to celebrate the Kentucky Derby in December, complete with an opportunity for attendees to build their own hat or fascinator to wear to the event.”
Future openings in Louisville include the 160-room Dream Louisville Hotel, which will open on Main Street next to the Frazier History Museum and across from the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. It’s part of $100 million development that will feature six F&B options, a rooftop event space, courtyard and art space.
Construction is also underway on Derby City Gaming Downtown, which broke ground in 2021 and is anticipated to open this fall. The $90 million project will be situated across 43,000 sf and will include 500 historical racing machines, a fresh-air gaming area, Derby-themed retail store and over 200 onsite parking spaces. The new entertainment venue is located across from the Kentucky International Convention Center, and will include a main-level sports bar with a stage for music and live entertainment, a bourbon library and wine and charcuterie lounge.
“As more attendees are willing to travel and return to meetings in person, event organizers are craving authentic, value-added experiences,” says Fong. “Louisville is an affordable destination, centrally located within a day’s drive of over half the U.S. population, and is known for its Southern hospitality, walkability and a long list of iconic attractions only found right here in Louisville.”
“Clients want to get creative when traveling to a destination and really experience all the unique activities a city has to offer,” says Adrienne Siemers, chief sales officer, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “On the other side of this push, they are also asking for quiet mindfulness spaces where introverts can step away from the hustle and bustle and take a moment to regenerate, away from the group.”
Southall Farm & Inn, a luxury farm resort, opened late 2022 and offers a range of experiences including hands-on educational tours of the working farm, apple picking at its orchard, beekeeping at its apiary, and foraging for wild edibles in the forest. The Inn consists of 62 guest rooms as well as 16 separate cottages, and offers a range of meeting space including an event center that can accommodate up to 350.
Recent additions in 2022 include a new Four Seasons, 1 Hotel and Conrad, while a new Ritz-Carlton is slated for a first quarter 2023 groundbreaking. Looking ahead, there is potential for as many as 5,000 additional hotel rooms to open in Nashville within the next three years for those who have struggled to find availability, and the city’s $2bn airport expansion is also paving the way for additional international and domestic flights.
“We recently hosted 250 attendees at SmartFlyer’s CORE event at Four Seasons Hotel Nashville and heard some very positive feedback,” says Siemers. “A lot has changed since COVID, but a lot hasn’t. People want to be together. Virtual experiences can never come close to replacing an in-person experience. With over 2,500 rooms currently under construction here in Nashville, our city fills a perfect niche for attendees looking for new experiences who are tired of the typical MICE resort-style experiences. So, the future is not only bright for the MICE industry, but also for Nashville’s place in it.”
Music-themed incentives in Nashville can include creating your own custom guitar at the Gibson Garage, recording your own song at Ryman Auditorium or Historic RCA Studio B, or a VIP Backstage Experience at the Grand Ole Opry.
Located 45 minutes from Nashville, the Jack Daniels Distillery offers such incentive experiences as whiskey tasting and distillery tours via the Mint Julep’s VIP Jack Daniels Distillery Experience or the Ultimate TN Whiskey Experience. The Roll out the Barrel package includes transportation via helicopter and a private barrel selection and tasting.
“Lansdowne has been around since 1991,” says Skyler Dowell, director of sales, Lansdowne Resort. “When we first started, we were built as a professional learning environment, a purpose-built facility that was centered around meetings and events and continuing education. Over the past 15 years, [Virginia’s] Loudoun County has become one of the fastest-growing counties in America, and a lot of the thought around Loudoun as a destination has complemented what Lansdowne has been able to provide on the group experience side.”
Lansdowne Resort offers 45 holes of golf, a 12,000-sf spa, three outdoor pools, tennis courts and scenic trails by the Potomac River. In addition to its onsite amenities, Loudoun County itself is known as the activity mecca of the D.C. region, and is home to 50 wineries, more than 25 breweries and many historical venues. Groups can do tours of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s annex just 15 minutes away. The resort is also just two miles from one of the access points to the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which stretches all the way from downtown D.C. to the mountains near the Shenandoah Valley. The property is also only a 45-minute drive from the heart of the nation’s capital, so groups can experience the local Loudoun scene on certain days, and then branch out and do a D.C. monuments tour on another day.
“Groups are taking more conscious opportunities to build in teambuilding and team-bonding experiences,” says Dowell. “Because in many capacities, this may be one of the only times that their full teams are getting together, given the landscape of a more remote workforce. With people not being in the office even five days a week, the overlap of everybody being together is much more limited.”
exploreasheville.com/meeting-planners; huntsville.org/meetings; visitjacksonville.com/meetings; kiawahresort.com/meetings; gotolouisville.com/meeting-planners; visitmusiccity.com/meetings; lansdowneresort.com/meetings/packages