[ON LOCATION] LISA SIMUNDSON
With centuries of history behind it and untold potential ahead of it, Philadelphia is ready to meet the future of meetings and conventions.
Two hundred-plus years ago, Philly was the center of the push for nationhood, and today the city is pushing forward in multiple areas of group travel, including the life sciences, a major sector of the city’s group business. In fact, PHL Life Sciences is the first separate division of a CVB in the country.
“We are a city of history and a city of medical history,” says Bonnie Grant, executive director of PHL Life Sciences. “We opened the country’s first hospital and the first children’s hospital. We have seven medical schools and 22 nursing schools, along with the full span of academic medical research institutions. Eighty percent of the pharmacological industry has a presence in Philly,” she adds.
With those industries come the meetings, Grant says, noting that the annual BIO International Convention is already confirmed for Philly in 2027 and 2034, and as of late June, nine citywide conventions had been scheduled for the next 18 months, representing more than 163,000 total room nights.
Philadelphia’s convention and conference venues are prepared for the anticipated uptick in meeting and association business, medical or otherwise. Although for one of those venues, health and wellness were up there on the priority list during a recent $60 million renovation, accomplished primarily during lockdown and the subsequent staged reopening of businesses.
“I don’t know of any building that’s as hygienically safe as the Pennsylvania Convention Center...we used the same technology hospitals do,” says John McNichol, president and CEO. The center also just earned Gold Level certification by EIC Sustainable Event Standards for producing and delivering environmentally and socially responsible events.
“Selling the destination used to be about square footage and bandwidth. Now planners are looking at sustainability and green practices,” McNichol says. They’re also looking for flexibility in meeting formats, combining traditional gatherings with the virtual attendance that dominated during lockdown.
“Tech is always evolving, and now there’s a need for overlay and hybrid meetings,” McNichol says, pointing to the convention center’s implementation of fiber optics in their recent renovation, leading to more access points and better integration of virtual participants within the center’s two million sf of event space.
Adding to the center’s impressive capabilities are two adjacent hotels—the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown and the Aloft Philadelphia Downtown—while the Loews Philadelphia Hotel across the street offers 47,000 sf of flexible function space and spectacular rooftop meeting rooms.
A few blocks away in this exceptionally walkable city, the Hyatt Centric Center City offers 310 business-friendly rooms, with outlets and ports, free Internet access, a desk/nook featuring a wall organizer, and meeting space including a ballroom and boardroom.
As the convention center stays up to speed with tech advances, other venues in Philadelphia are also putting their tech savviness to work. Quorum—University City Science Center, for one, offers a range of spaces for everything from board meetings to gatherings for up to 200, with a first-floor drop-in lounge, conference rooms of varying sizes, and a large meeting space featuring a stage, power tables with dataports and XLR connections.
“One of our rooms is miked to pick up even low voices, for Zoom and hybrid sessions,” says Timothy Rissel, customer experience manager. “We also offer pre-conference space and staging areas as well as full- and half-buyouts of the entire space.”
The chronicles of science are on display at the Science History Institute, home to the country’s largest collection of books covering the history of chemistry and related sciences. Available for group events and built to LEED certification standards, the museum and conference center offer an array of meeting spaces boasting high-end AV capabilities, multiple screens and integrated microphones and cameras for hybrid meetings.
“The museum will stay open late for groups, and we can accommodate about 225 theater-style or 120 for dinner,” says Caitlin Martin, director of communications.
One of the Founding Fathers was also a ground-breaking scientist in his own right—Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the lightning rod, bifocals, a flexible catheter and even the first swim fins. Though he never patented any of his inventions, believing they belonged to humanity, they are celebrated at the Franklin Institute, a must-see for anyone visiting Philly and a great place to set a meeting or private event.
“We have all kinds of meeting space, including our magnificent lobby with Ben’s statue,” says spokesperson Stefanie Santo. “Our planetarium can be used with or without seats, and our Franklin Theater can host 250. We also can hang your logos on custom banners outside. It has quite an impact.”
Also part of the Franklin Institute is the Gershman Education and Conference Center, surrounded by a terrace and rain garden and featuring private breakout rooms and a business lounge.
Meanwhile, set near the banks of the Schuylkill River and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennovation Works business incubator and laboratory welcomes innovators from all disciplines to exchange ideas and bring their visions to life in a variety of creative spaces and venues for events and programs—most available for group rentals—including the center’s breezeway and small theaters with stadium-style seating.
Philly may be the City of Brotherly Love, but they love good food here, too. Philly cheesesteak is only the beginning in a city of Middle Eastern, Asian Fusion, European, Caribbean and New American cuisine, not to mention craft beermakers galore.
Groups meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center will be steps from the historic Reading Terminal Market, which for nearly a hundred years was set below the elevated train shed of the Reading Railroad (now part of the convention center). Today it houses 80 merchants offering everything from Pennsylvania Dutch Country to Pakistan. The market is open after hours for group events and boasts dedicated function space for up to 4,000, including adjacent Filbert Street.