For groups visiting the town of Dunwoody, Ga., Steven Schumacher envisions receptions in an open meadow alongside an 1870s-era farmhouse, with food trucks lined up and fire pits for making s’mores. As sales manager for Discover Dunwoody, Schumacher has been working to partner with historic Donaldson-Bannister Farm to offer groups a fresh, outdoor alternative for their opening and closing events.
“Buses pull up, the sun is setting, and you have a bluegrass band playing and people toasting marshmallows,” Schumacher said. “Wouldn’t you rather that than just being in a boring ballroom for an opening event?”
Meeting groups seeking out-of-the-ordinary experiences are looking to smaller markets like Dunwoody for big-city amenities with a hometown feel. Instead of booking a standard conference room, a planner could plan their meeting on a yurt reserve in rural Bastrop, Texas. Or they could plan a teambuilding exercise on a pirate ship that sets sail from St. Augustine, Fla.
Having a less populated, more intimate setting is even more in demand now that groups are getting back to in-person meetings and events. Industry professionals say many are looking for destinations they can drive to, or smaller places providing easy access to nearby major metros—while still offering ample hotels, contemporary facilities, and chef-inspired fine dining options. And what these cities lack in size and population, they more than make up for in charm and experiences that are difficult to find a bigger city.
Recently, Discover Dunwoody has been hosting in-person, destination experience events to give meeting planners an opportunity to sample local dining, hotels, shopping, and entertainment so they can get a feel for the area’s attractions.
“We find that bringing planners here is the ultimate goal,” Schumacher said. “You can bring documents and iPads. But once you get to the meat of it—which is them setting foot in your destination and seeing it for themselves—that’s what’s going to put them over the edge.”
One recent itinerary included an opening reception at Le Meridien Atlanta Perimeter hotel, and a cocktail-making demonstration and five-course dinner with wine pairings at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.
“One thing planners said is this is a very upscale experience you typically find only when you go to a major city. Usually when you go to a smaller, third-tier destination, they don’t usually offer an upscale version,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher has also steered foodie-minded groups to Vino Venue, a wine school with tasting machines and a bistro-style restaurant, while sending more adventurous groups to Treetop Quest for ziplining and other outdoorsy activities.
This is not to say Schumacher expects visitors to stay put. Part of Dunwoody’s appeal is it is just a half-hour north of Atlanta and a 15-minute drive from attractions like the upscale Buckhead area and Atlanta Braves baseball games. Dunwoody also has its own MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) commuter rail stop.
“We certainly welcome the other destinations around us, because we know Dunwoody isn’t the only thing to do,” Schumacher said.
Meeting on Main Street
Everything may be bigger in Texas, but for groups seeking a more intimate, convenient setting in the Lone Star State, the town of Bastrop is relying on its quaint setting and one-of-a-kind venues to entice planners. “It’s a little gem in central Texas,” said Cherry Kay Abel, director of sales for Visit Bastrop.
Groups can book an event in the middle of Bastrop’s Main Street, using the town’s historic architecture as a backdrop. Or they can host a small retreat or board meeting at The Reserve at Greenleaf, a luxury yurt resort with a 2300-square-foot open-air pavilion and lawn area.
Bastrop State Park features a new facility for small meetings, plus onsite cabins and 6,000 acres for hiking and other activities before, during, and after conferences.
“We try to have unique and different options for individuals if you can just think outside the box,” Abel said.
There are also more traditional venues like the 26,400-square-foot Bastrop Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 800 guests for conventions, corporate meetings, weddings, and concerts.
At the all-inclusive Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, groups interested in outdoor meetings have access to a natural amphitheater overlooking the Colorado River, and pavilions with retractable glass walls. Horseback rides, archery, and nightly s’mores provide visitors with activities to do between and after meetings.
Bastrop has begun welcoming back more in-person events this year. In May, the town hosted the Little Miss Texas Beauty pageant, which is set to return in January 2022. Further, the town was set to host three more groups in June, ranging in size from 500 to 1,500 attendees.
Even in small towns, transportation can be a concern for groups. To that end, Visit Bastrop recently launched a new electric cab and van service through a partnership with the City of Bastrop, the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS), and cabs of North America. The service provides free rides in the open-air cabs and vans.
“The service has done extremely well in Bastrop so far, and we’re pleased to be providing this as an option for small groups of visitors as we continue our overall destination recovery efforts,” Abel said.
Groups willing to go a little off the beaten path can get closer to attractions like scenic beaches. Along the east coast in St. Augustine, Fla., for example, groups can take in an afternoon on the Atlantic coast or an evening stroll along the European streetscapes of the nation’s oldest city.
St. Augustine encapsulates more than 450 years of history and combines it with 42 miles of beaches, world-class golf courses, and luxury beachfront hotels. Just a few miles north is the seaside community of Ponte Vedra Beach, global headquarters of the PGA Tour. Both cities offer the advantage of being less than a half hour away from Jacksonville, Florida’s most populous city, but also give visitors an opportunity to visit a coastal city without throngs of beachgoers.
“We are an uncrowded destination,” said William McBroom, director of conference sales for the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “St. Augustine’s population is only 14,000, and we are drivable from a large area including all of Florida and much of the Southeast. We have a mix of meetings properties from Four- and Five-Diamond oceanfront resorts to boutique hotels in the historic district, and everything in between. Pretty much all have great outdoor event options.”
Getting out on the water is a popular activity, and there are vessels providing event space for groups of six to 110. The Sabrage, a new waterbound venue, is a 63-foot yacht that can accommodate up to 110 guests with catered food and beverage services. Or, for a more raucous option, groups can schedule a cruise on the Black Raven pirate ship and sing sea shanties with the crew.
For a lesson in history, groups can tack on a tour of the infamous Fountain of Youth to learn about Ponce de Leon’s pursuit of the mythical elixir, or they can explore Fort Mose, the first free Black settlement in the United States. Both are among the options the VCB offers through its Tapestry Program, which provides groups and planners with custom-designed tours emphasizing local history, art, culture, and heritage.
Dining is another big draw in St. Augustine, and there are also food tours that can accommodate groups of up to 50 people. “With year-round fresh seafood and nearby agricultural resources, inspired chefs come here to create and earn recognition in this burgeoning market. And it’s mostly because of the amazing culinary heritage that spans decades, carrying centuries-old traditions,” McBroom said.
St. Augustine is also renowned for golf, with attractions such as the World Golf Village and the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, while the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra offers access to the TPC Sawgrass, which hosts the PGA Tour Players Championship.
Small markets near big cities can take advantage of the resources and connections of their local counterparts.
Take Montgomery County, Md., which sits in the shadow of Washington, D.C., about 30 minutes away, but which serves as an essential destination for the associations and groups that support the nation’s capital.
“There is nothing ‘small’ about the meetings and events that are held in Montgomery County,” said Leila Beltramo, destination sales manager for Visit Montgomery, MD.
Montgomery County is home to 18 federal agencies and the nation’s largest number of life sciences firms. As a leader in the biotechnology industry, the county most recently has been the epicenter of the global pandemic response. “It is expected as business travel returns and areas open up that we will see the return of in-person meetings and events to celebrate, reevaluate, and continue to work on these global issues,” Beltramo said.
Although part of one of the nation’s busiest metropolitan areas, Montgomery County boasts a surprising amount of rural space, with 93,000 acres—one third of the county — designated as an agricultural reserve. There are more than 400 parks and trails, hiking opportunities up Sugarloaf Mountain, historic sites, wineries, and breweries.
“As groups and meetings return, our destination is well suited to support different levels of travel confidence, with all the outdoor activities and attractions and also the peace of mind that our area is not crowded,” Beltramo said.
Groups can take in the Great Falls of the Potomac River, reserve a stay in a fully restored lockhouse at Canal National Historical Park in Potomac, or explore Montgomery County’s self-guided Tastemakers Trail, featuring more than 20 craft beverage producers of local beer, wine, cider, coffee, and spirits.
This past spring brought the opening of Josiah Henson Museum & Park, detailing the story and challenges of Reverend Josiah Henson, his enslavement in Maryland, and the ongoing struggles of racial inequity and justice.
Montgomery County includes Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Rockville, and Bethesda among its popular locations. Each area features a town center with dining, shopping, and entertainment within walking distance or a Metro ride away. North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose entertainment complex is one example; it includes event venues for up to 500 guests and a Canopy by Hilton hotel.
“We have found many groups enjoy either adding a day or two before or after their meeting or event to explore the area,” Beltramo said.
Montgomery has also seen some new hotels, including The Bethesdan Hotel, Hilton’s new 270-room boutique offering. The Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, the county’s largest indoor conference center, has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation.
One benefit of smaller markets is they’re often easier to get to by car. Sherrise Stephens, director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, said drivable destinations are especially popular right now because some people are still afraid of flying.
“I think drivability brings small markets into the picture. And the small markets were able to hold on to their people,” Stephens said.
Being a drive-in destination is one of the selling points of Branson, Mo., which is less than a day’s drive for one-third of Americans and located less than 40 miles from Springfield, Mo.
“One of the most beautiful places there is Big Cedar Lodge,” said Stephens, referring to the wilderness resort created by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. Groups who plan events at the resort have access to 20,000 square feet of meeting space, fine dining, two full-service marinas, five golf courses, and sweeping views of the Ozark Mountains. “There’s not a single detail missed at this resort,” Stephens said.
Farther south in Arkansas are the cities of Rogers and Bentonville— where Walmart is headquartered—which have both benefited from being in the business giant’s footprint.
With online shopping and deliveries in heavy demand, Northwest Arkansas International Airport has been able to support a steady stream of travelers throughout the pandemic because of retail demands. “Even though the world shut down, Walmart kept having vendors go there because they were busier than ever,” Stephens said.
Along the Gulf Coast is the beachfront casino town of Biloxi, Miss., where groups can use the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino for meetings and events.
“In the area by the hotels, there are a lot of really eclectic restaurants. It’s a neat seaside kind of village with really good beaches, too,” Stephens said.
The perks of staying small
As some larger markets struggle to regain their footing with meetings and events, smaller markets have been able to hold their own. Whereas big markets have lost the tax base they depend on to pay for CVBs, there are smaller markets that haven’t missed a beat, Stephens said.
“The Birminghams of the world—they’ve kept all of their people,” she said. “There’s some continuity. I think the small markets fared better with that because they weren’t so reliant on international travel and people flying in for business.”
Even though planners may be tempted to default to bigger markets for their events, Schumacher said a smaller market like Dunwoody offers more personalized attention. For example, a planner may be inclined to pursue a venue with 350 rooms during peak season in a larger city. But with a larger city also comes other events that are competing for that city’s attention.
“They’re looking for the big fish—the 10,000-person event that can come to their city,” Schumacher said. “If you send that lead to us in Dunwoody, you are the big group that comes here.”
Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of New Orleans. For over two decades, she has covered everything from small-town government to Fortune 500 companies. When she isn’t on deadline, she likes to hang out at home with her husband, their two daughters and their very needy Labrador