Big cities, big opportunities: Urban destinations offer variety and options for challenging times

Travel and tourism have come roaring back this year. People are anxious to return to a sense of normalcy after two years of pandemic living. Still, the meeting and event industry faces lingering challenges, from rising costs to competition for space, supply-chain issues, staffing shortages, flight frustrations, and strict contract clauses.

With a wide variety of options, urban centers are poised for a renaissance. Big cities offer several advantages, including major airports and airline hubs, large convention centers, a wide selection of dining and lodging options competing for business, mass transit systems, a broader workforce pool, and diverse entertainment and attractions. The South has some of the country’s finest cities, both large and mid-size. Here’s a selection of mighty metros that are ready to welcome meetings and events in a big way.

Atlanta

Midtown Atlanta is a commercial and arts hub filled with museums and historic sites.
Midtown Atlanta is a commercial and arts hub filled with museums and historic sites.

Georgia’s largest city may be a metropolis, but it’s known as the “City in the Forest.” The urban oasis of Atlanta earned the nickname due to its abundance of trees and greenery, which some say cover nearly half of the city’s acreage—the most of any urban center in the country. It’s also home to Braves baseball, civil rights history, more than 90,000 hotel rooms, and numerous meeting facilities.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is among the busiest airports in the world and a major international hub, offering easy access for visitors to this peach of the South. The Atlanta Convention Center at AmericasMart offers 500,000 square feet of space and 45 breakout rooms, with 1,100 Westin and 206 Hotel Indigo guest rooms onsite. Then there’s the Georgia World Congress Center with a whopping 1.5 million square feet of exhibit space, touting itself as the world’s largest LEED certified convention center. The Atlanta Exposition Centers and the Cobb Galleria Centre also offer first-rate meeting facilities.

Plenty of attractions keep attendees entertained between sessions, including the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola museum (the beverage giant is headquartered in Atlanta), the 22-acre Centennial Olympic Park, Civil War museums, and numerous arts and culture venues. Downtown Atlanta also has top-notch dining and shopping. The aptly nicknamed Hotlanta is hot: Lonely Planet recently named Atlanta the No. 4 city in the world on its 2022 Best in Travel list.

Baltimore

Baltimore's Inner Harbor offers great views, restaurants, and attractions.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor offers great views, restaurants, and attractions.

Situated on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland’s largest city has a wealth of attractions along its Inner Harbor, with lovely waterfront views, wonderful fresh seafood, great museums, historic ships, and the world-class National Aquarium. Getting to the city is easy, with Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport just 15 minutes from downtown.

The Baltimore Convention Center offers 300,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space in the heart of downtown. It is conveniently located next to a rapid-transit train station and linked to the Inner Harbor, hotels,
and restaurants.

Kireem Swinton, interim vice president of sales and customer experience for Visit Baltimore, is encouraged by the many projects that are revitalizing the city. “All across Baltimore, we’re taking former industrial zones and historic buildings and bringing them back to life thanks to a new wave of development,” Swinton says. “Many of these remodels are just a short drive from the convention center. So, guests don’t have to travel far to experience all the new things.”

One project in the Water Street District aims to transform an unused industrial zone into an energetic and walkable corridor between the Horseshoe Baltimore casino and M&T Bank Stadium, where the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens play. The area will include the new 70,000-square-foot live music and event venue The Paramount Baltimore.

“Baltimore is a resilient city on the rise,” Swinton says. “We’re proud of our passionate community of artists, entrepreneurs, and changemakers. Baltimore is walkable and affordable. We have shopping, restaurants, one of the best aquariums in the country,
and many cultural institutions. Planners should choose us because we work with them, and we create a unique experience
for their attendees.”

Birmingham

The 19-acre Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham, Ala., celebrates the area's industrial and artistic heritage and has been nicknamed ‘Birmingham's Living Room.’
The 19-acre Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham, Ala., celebrates the area’s industrial and artistic heritage and has been nicknamed ‘Birmingham’s Living Room.’

Alabama’s centrally located Birmingham boasts a rich history, sporting and music events, and award-winning dining. Called the “Dinner Table of the South,” Birmingham chefs and restaurants have won seven James Beard Awards.

Visitors benefit from a relaxed Southern atmosphere with modern, sophisticated facilities. The city has plenty of green space—including the new 10-block-long City Walk BHAM—and greens along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

In July, Birmingham hosted The World Games, an 11-day international multisport event organized with the support of the International Olympic Committee. “It’s been a great opportunity,” says Michael Gunn, senior vice president of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “All eyes have been on us to show the city in all its glory. Having athletes here from around the world gave us the chance to showcase some of our unique venues and events.”

From the Birmingham CrossPlex’s 750,000-square-foot multipurpose athletic and meeting facility to the new $180 million, 47,100-seat Protective Stadium, Birmingham has experienced healthy renovations and expansions.

Gunn also cites lessons from the pandemic. “We’re one of the first cities in the state to get the GBAC STAR certification for sanitation with the convention center,” Gunn says, referring to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which offers more than 222,000 square feet of exhibit space. “People want to see that we’ve taken on safety precautions, and we’ve upgraded our equipment to the changing needs.”

The Birmingham Civil Rights District has long been a draw for visitors and includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park. Other sites include the famous 56-foot-tall cast-iron Vulcan statue and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum showcasing more than 1,600 motorcycles, rare racecars, and its own racetrack. The city also boasts the vibrant Theatre District.

“These things set Birmingham apart,” Gunn says. “We’re easily accessible, and we’re open for business.”

Charleston

Charleston, S.C., has repeatedly been voted one of the best cities in America.
Charleston, S.C., has repeatedly been voted one of the best cities in America.

Though smaller in size, historic Charleston is big in stature. Charleston has topped the Best Cities in the United States list for 10 years in a row, based on votes from Travel + Leisure readers. And with good reason: The South Carolina city offers a blend of cobblestone streets, relaxed hospitality, and pristine beaches in a quaint yet modern setting.

“We like to say, ‘There is only one Charleston,’” says Bobby Pilch, assistant director of sales for Explore Charleston. “We excel at comfortably hosting smaller, intimate programs. Planners can utilize both hotel space and some of our unique offsite venues to spread their attendees around the city while giving them an opportunity to experience the destination.”

Visitors can get outside the meeting room and enjoy views across Charleston’s picturesque harbor, take a horse-drawn carriage ride by the pastel-painted 18th-century houses of Rainbow Row, stroll through Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, sample some She Crab Soup, shop at the historic Charleston City Market, or visit Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War reverberated. And new offerings are being introduced all the time.

“The most anticipated attraction scheduled to open is the International African American Museum, slated for early 2023,” Pilch says. “As a prominent historic destination, our walking and motorcoach tours are always evolving.”

Pilch says flexibility was key to the city’s success in coping with COVID-19 restrictions. “Our bureau has consistently worked hand in hand with local and state health and safety leadership to implement appropriate guidance in order to safely host events and meetings,” he says.

Charleston International Airport is accessible from most major hubs, and the charming city offers 150 hotels and award-winning resorts with 138,000 square feet of convention space.

Dallas

The 19-block Dallas Arts District—considered the largest urban entertainment district in the nation—includes museums, public art, performance venues, and more buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects than any other location in the world, according to USA Today.
The 19-block Dallas Arts District—considered the largest urban entertainment district in the nation—includes museums, public art, performance venues, and more buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects than any other location in the world, according to USA Today.

Visit Dallas has a motto: “Dallas delivers.” Big D is The Lone Star State’s third largest city by population and area, but when considered in combination with nearby Fort Worth, it jumps up the list.

Dallas offers more than 35,000 hotel rooms, thousands of area restaurants, friendly locals, and warm Texas hospitality. With its historic Western character and Southern charm, upscale shopping, and cultural museums and attractions, Dallas has something for everyone. Dining options range from barbecue to some of the best Tex-Mex in the country, along with fine-dining establishments. Getting to Dallas is a breeze with two major airports servicing daily direct flights from more than 200 destinations.

Located in the center of downtown, the award-winning Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas is one of the largest in the nation, with 1 million square feet of exhibit space. It connects to the 1,001-room Omni Dallas Hotel via skybridge. Earlier this year, Visit Dallas announced plans for a new 2.5-million-square-foot convention center adjacent to the current facility. The new center will feature 800,000 square feet of exhibit space, including a 100,000-square-foot ballroom. The $2 billion project launches construction in 2024 and is expected to be complete in 2028.

AT&T Discovery District is a new entertainment area boasting a variety of eateries and a multisensory experience. The destination includes outdoor event space with views of a 104-foot-tall media wall.

“Dallas delivers an incredible atmosphere for planners and meeting attendees,” says Chelsey Norris, communications manager for Visit Dallas. “And your dollar goes further here. The cost of doing business in Dallas is seven percent lower than the national average. As the city experts, we are familiar with booking patterns and major events in the city and will offer the planners full-service support, from RFP sourcing to a detailed customized site inspection. We help attendees maximize their free time through the creation of pre- and post-conference activities, from tours to a sampling of one-day itineraries.”

Houston

Houston's Buffalo Bayou Park offers 160 acres of nature flanked by the modern skyscrapers of downtown. The metropolis has several green spaces, including Skylawn, an elevated park and farm set atop an old post office.
Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park offers 160 acres of nature flanked by the modern skyscrapers of downtown. The metropolis has several green spaces, including Skylawn, an elevated park and farm set atop an old post office.

America’s fourth largest city, Houston is the largest city in Texas by both population and square miles. Recently dubbed “America’s newest capital of great food” by Food & Wine magazine, the city is filled with dining options, including 10,000 restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisine from more than 70 countries.

Myriad shopping options and a wide range of properties for meetings and conventions create an attractive destination for meeting planners. The Bayou Music Center can accommodate 3,464 guests for private events. The George R. Brown Convention Center provides 1.2 million square feet of space; the complex is one of the nation’s largest. The convention center is located about 10 miles from William P. Hobby Airport and approximately 20 miles from George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Visitors can choose from the Hilton Americas, Hyatt Regency, Marriott Marquis, and Four Seasons Hotel, to name just a few of the high-end properties near the convention center in the Central Business District.

Houston is a sports lover’s dream, with the NBA’s Rockets, MLB’s Astros, and NFL’s Texans. For those who want some space, the 12-acre Discovery Green has been called one of the most innovative urban parks in the country. More green space can be found at Skylawn, the rooftop park and farm at the new entertainment venue POST Houston, a food and recreation hub set in an old post office. The city also is home to the must-
see Space Center Houston, the Houston Botanic Garden, and a thriving arts and culture scene.

Miami

The iconic Freedom Tower in downtown Miami houses the Museum of Art and Design and is currently undergoing renovation. The 1925 tower is a National Historic Landmark.
The iconic Freedom Tower in downtown Miami houses the Museum of Art and Design and is currently undergoing renovation. The 1925 tower is a National Historic Landmark.

Famous stretches of beautiful beaches, an ultramodern skyline, and glitzy nightlife make Miami a memorable destination. Paired with nearby Miami Beach and its iconic Art Deco architecture and energy, the area captures the best of it all. The sunny southern Florida locale has long been a draw for tourists and business travelers, boasting relaxed sophistication, a vibrant blend of cultures, rhythmic music, and amazing food.

Planners can choose from more than 480 hotels with a total number of guest rooms exceeding 64,000—with more being planned in the always growing metropolis. Recent property openings include Atwell Suites Miami Brickell, citizenM Miami Brickell, and YOTEL Miami. An 800-room Grand Hyatt Miami Beach is scheduled to open in 2025, with 90,000 square feet of indoor conference space.

The area has three convention centers offering a total of well over a million square feet, including the Miami Beach Convention Center (which recently underwent a $620 million modernization), Miami Convention Center, and the Miami Airport Convention Center. The James L. Knight Center theater has 16,000 square feet of staging area and seats 4,569.

“The reasons to choose Miami for your next meeting destination are endless,” says Carol Motley, senior vice president of convention sales and services for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We are a global meetings destination. Clients want to increase attendance and provide their attendees with an exceptional experience. Miami provides intellectual capital in some of the top emerging economies such as finance, technology, aerospace, and utilities. Miami is a sure bet for meeting planners.”

Nashville

Nashville's 2.1-million-square-foot Music City Center sits in the heart of downtown. Right next door is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the city's famous Honky Tonk Highway is steps away.
Nashville’s 2.1-million-square-foot Music City Center sits in the heart of downtown. Right next door is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the city’s famous Honky Tonk Highway is steps away.

The “Country Music Capital of the World” has never sounded better. The Tennessee state capital along the Cumberland River has a compact and walkable downtown filled with famed attractions. From Ryman Auditorium to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Honky Tonk Highway, and the new National Museum of African American Music, “Music City” lives up to its nickname.

“You name a genre, and we’ve got it,” says Adrienne Siemers, chief sales officer for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “But we also don’t stray too far away from what built this city, and that is the country music scene. People know when they come here, they’re going to hear great music they can’t experience anywhere else.”

The city resounds with entertainment. Last year, the mixed-use development Fifth + Broadway opened downtown with numerous shops and restaurants. Nashville also is a standout for food; be sure to try the Nashville Hot Chicken.

Nashville has several sizeable conference areas: the 2.1-million-square-foot Music City Center in the heart of downtown, the Fairgrounds Nashville with more than 120,000 square feet of indoor space, and Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center with a stunning 750,000 square feet of meeting space. Nashville Municipal Auditorium seats 9,654 and has a 38,400-square-foot outdoor plaza. Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators also offers meeting space. And the city continues to grow.

“We never stopped creating and building during the pandemic,” Siemers says. “The city is as vibrant as it’s ever been. We opened 4,200 hotel rooms, including some new luxury properties, with 3,100 in the planning stages. To have that inventory—a significant number downtown—is really exciting.”

Siemers adds: “We’re easy to get to—a day’s drive from 40 percent of the U.S. population and a quick flight from most major cities, with connections to over 100 destinations. Nashville has maintained its niche as ‘Music City’ and the Southern hospitality that sets us apart from our competition.”

New Orleans

Jackson Square's St. Louis Cathedral is a New Orleans landmark in the French Quarter. Visitors can take a tour of the historic area in a horse-drawn carriage or enjoy a fresh beignet at Cafe Du Monde right across the street.
Jackson Square’s St. Louis Cathedral is a New Orleans landmark in the French Quarter. Visitors can take a tour of the historic area in a horse-drawn carriage or enjoy a fresh beignet at Cafe Du Monde right across the street.

The Crescent City is where the good times roll. Home to fabulous music, Cajun and Creole cuisine, the French Quarter, and some of the most famous festivals in the country, New Orleans has long been a favorite destination for meeting planners and attendees.

“We like to say New Orleans is ‘built to host’ because our city is rooted in memorable experiences,” says Stephanie Turner, senior vice president of convention sales and strategies for New Orleans & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization (DMO). “Our hospitality is genuine, and when you combine the very unique attributes of New Orleans with that meeting event, you create memories.”

New Orleans offers a long list of entertainment, unique attractions, fine dining, and state-of-the-art facilities. The award-winning New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is among the largest convention centers in the country, with 1.1 million square feet of contiguous event space. The center adopted a $557 million capital improvement plan to renovate and develop new facilities, including a convention center hotel. An adjacent $1 billion riverfront entertainment district is in the works.

For a historic city, there’s a lot that’s new in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport opened a new terminal at the end of 2019, and the city added three luxury brand hotels this year, including the Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans and the Virgin Hotel New Orleans. Caesars Entertainment is currently doing a $325 million renovation and rebrand of Harrah’s New Orleans, including the addition of a new
340-room hotel.

The world-class National WWII Museum, next to the Art Deco-style Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, is in the midst of a $400 million expansion. The recently erected Bollinger Canopy of Peace above the museum campus is a stunning addition to the city skyline.

“All these new additions are really exciting for us,” Turner notes. “Since the pandemic, New Orleans & Company learned the importance of real communication and the DMO as a resource for planners when they’re looking to come to a destination.”

San Antonio

The popular San Antonio River Walk in Texas features restaurants, hotels, museums, shopping, and strolling, with the convention center nearby. River boats offer sightseeing and dinner cruises.
The popular San Antonio River Walk in Texas features restaurants, hotels, museums, shopping, and strolling, with the convention center nearby. River boats offer sightseeing and dinner cruises.

Texas is so big that three of its major cities made this list. San Antonio is the second largest city in Texas by population and area with lots of room for outdoor gatherings. The city offers a blend of cultures and a rich history, not the least of which is exemplified by the famous Alamo, which offers guided and audio tours. The city also has a strong history of hosting meetings and conferences.

The San Antonio River Walk is among the most iconic and popular areas of the city, lined with shops, restaurants, hotels, and museums. Visitors might catch a boat parade along the river, or a group could rent a boat for a private cruise. The Mexican restaurant Casa Rio was the first restaurant on the River Walk and is a perennial favorite.

Right by the River Walk is the city’s walkable convention center district featuring the Henry B. González Convention Center. The convention center offers 514,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, including 86,500 square feet of column-free multipurpose space and more than 70 meeting rooms, and boasts the largest ballroom in Texas: the 54,000-square-foot Stars at Night Ballroom.

The 1,003-room Grand Hyatt San Antonio River Walk is adjacent to the center and offers 115,000 square feet of event space with state-of-the-art technology. Many additional hotels and nearby resorts offer visitors a Texas-size howdy.

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