Eighteen Southern spots that make you go WOW!

Some places just have it. They’re the kind of jaw-dropping destinations that dazzle attendees and make meetings memorable. For our annual roundup of destinations that WOW, ConventionSouth presents 18 impressive ideas for planners to consider, from down-home fun to high-end luxury.

City Museum, St. Louis, Mo.

Everything about the unique, eclectic City Museum in downtown St. Louis is a WOW. From the main floor’s colorful mermaid mosaics to the rooftop Ferris wheel, the venue is a weirdly wonderful immersive art experience.

A slide spirals visitors down 10 floors, while a school bus dangles over the edge of the roof under the watchful eye of a 3,000-pound praying mantis sculpted by the museum’s founder Bob Cassilly. The first floor features an ocean theme and a 5,000-gallon aquarium. The second floor offers a stunning marble bar and enormous bank vault doors. Above that lies a captivating mix of salvaged architectural pieces, including a section of the cornice from the old Chicago Stock Exchange building.

The fantastical space is a mixture of playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel constructed mainly from found and repurposed objects. It’s 600,000 square feet of whimsy with miles of tunnels, slides, climbers, bridges, castles, and secret passages to explore. And that’s just inside—outside, a massive climbing sculpture includes two planes, one of which once belonged to singer Wayne Newton.

City Museum has spaces to host as many as 400 people, and the rental includes free admission.

Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, New Vrindaban near Moundsville, W. Va.

Called America’s Taj Mahal, the ornate golden palace amid the West Virginia mountains needs no explanation of its WOW. Once a private religious community, the impressive compound emerged from a dark past with new leadership and is now open to the public with event space, lodging, and a walking tour where you might spot some resident peacocks.

The site offers a peaceful spiritual retreat against a backdrop of glittering India-inspired architecture, marble floors, crystal chandeliers, more than a hundred fountains, and an award-winning rose garden containing more than 150 varieties of roses. The walls and pillars are accented with semi-precious stones and 22-karat gold leaf.

The colorful surroundings were built in the 1970s by Hare Krishna devotees who wanted to honor their spiritual leader, Indian guru
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. With a sketch on a scrap of paper and no architectural or construction expertise, the followers built what CNN called one of the eight religious wonders to see in the United States.

The Palace Lodge offers accommodations for 280 guests, and the property includes 10 guest cabins. The community has a working dairy and cow sanctuary, a restaurant serving Indian cuisine, yoga studio, and Wellness Center. This traditional setting includes modern amenities: Its Community Hall has Wi-Fi and audiovisual equipment and holds nearly 300 people.

The JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa, Sonora, Texas

If The JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa isn’t on planners’ radar, it should be. This west Texas luxury destination offers a high-flying WOW: its own airport. A hidden gem set on 13,000 acres of Texas Hill Country, the ranch has a private paved runway and a hangar for those seeking fly-in fêtes without major airports.

The full-service airport accommodates private charter jets and personal aircraft. Located less than a half mile from the main lodge, the airport features a 5,300-foot, fully lighted asphalt runway and fueling station. The hangar has crew and passenger lounges, space for multiple jets, and doubles as a unique event space for more than 1,200 people.

Once guests touch down, they don’t have to leave the property to experience upscale activities, including a full equestrian program, off-road ATV and UTV adventures, a gold-standard Jack Nicklaus Putting/Chipping Green, clay and skeet shooting, whiskey tastings, and a cooking and wine pairing class. There’s even a walk-in humidor and a course in understanding horse psychology.

The more than 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space offers room for social distancing. And for those who really want to escape, take off to the ranch’s exclusive Archer’s Nest Villa, a seven-bedroom house with a private swimming pool, outdoor kitchen, and full home theater—plus an option to request a personal chef.

Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, Hot Springs, Ark.

The largest hotel in Arkansas, the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa taps into a wellspring of WOW. The resort pipes water directly from the area’s famous hot springs into the hotel. Its Thermal Water Spa allows visitors to bathe in the steaming mineral waters that have long been associated with therapeutic benefits.

The historic hotel has undergone several iterations, but its present structure opened with a swanky New Year’s Eve gala in 1924. Its twin towers are an architectural holdover from the previous two structures: the original 1875 wooden structure with its gas lights, which was razed in 1893 to build a Spanish Renaissance-style building that fire destroyed in 1923.

The iconic site has hosted Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Babe Ruth, and even Al Capone, a frequent visitor who rented an entire floor for his entourage. Outside the front door is Hot Springs National Park, the famed Bathhouse Row, and The Gangster Museum of America.

Westgate River Ranch Resort, River Ranch, Fla.

You don’t have to go west to experience a dude ranch and rodeo. Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is located in the middle of Florida. With unique accommodations from luxury covered wagons to glamping, there’s a lot of WOW at this resort.

Among the biggest: the Swamp Buggy. The oversized all-terrain vehicle sits on massive tires and takes guests for an elevated tour of the property. The custom-made buggy is so high, riders have to climb a set of stairs to get aboard.

Saddle up for the Saturday Night Rodeo featuring trick riding and barrel racing in a 1,200-seat arena. The monthly Nashville Singer-Songwriter Series brings live country-music concerts to the party.

Unleash your inner cowboy with a horseback ride, break in your boots with some line dancing, and sidle up to the saloon bar for a frosty cowboy-boot mug. Teambuilding activities include cattle drives, private rodeos, airboat rides, and an action-packed adventure park
with ziplining, rock climbing, a mechanical bull, mini-golf, and bungee jumping.

With more than 16,500 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor function space, including nine meeting rooms, this place makes for a memorable gathering. All you need to bring is your Stetson.

Luxury Yachts, Various locations

If it won’t bust your budget, luxury yacht charters definitely make a WOW impression. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, several charter companies offer luxury yachts for daily or overnight rental.

You don’t have to be a sailor to take to the water in these attention-getting vessels; the boats come with an experienced crew. And if attendees prefer calmer waters, docked boats offer a landing place to come and go throughout the day during a conference or convention—
a nice perk to show appreciation for sponsors or a private meeting and networking space for C-level executives. A cruise on a yacht also makes
a motivating employee incentive. Plus, overnight rentals save hotel room costs.

There’s something about being surrounded by water and cool breezes that can make people relaxed and productive. Plus, being out in the fresh air means less worry about health and safety.

Chartering a corporate, event, or super luxury yacht is a creative way to host a memorable event and make attendees feel special and rewarded.

Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale, Mo.

At Big Cedar Lodge, rustic meets luxury. This remote haven set on 4,600 acres amid Missouri’s Ozark Mountains is a WOW of natural and man-made beauty. With two full-service marinas and access to the clear waters of Table Rock Lake—one of the top bass fishing lakes in the country—Big Cedar offers a destination to connect with the great outdoors.

Inspired by a commitment to conservation, the property includes the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum showcasing the geological history of the Ozarks and housing a significant collection of Native American artifacts. The Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail provides a 2.5-mile path visitors traverse in an electric cart. Along the way, stop at the Bat Bar for a drink inside the cave.

Big Cedar offers spectacular views, waterfalls, a variety of accommodations and restaurants, a 50,000-square-foot fun-filled activity center, pools, a luxurious spa, and one of the most beautiful fitness centers you’ll ever workout in. The property’s Top of the Rock Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, is the first par-3 course to be included in a professional championship.

The Grandview Conference Center can accommodate 1,000 people, or book a gathering in the Wine Cellar Event Room or aboard Big Cedar’s 62-foot yacht, The Lady Liberty. The property even includes two chapels for destination weddings.

Hampton, Va.

The iconic Hampton Coliseum is a definite WOW—especially at night when the geometrical structure is bathed in light. The Virginia landmark has a 1960s Space Age look consistent with the time of its design. From its construction on what was mostly a vast stretch of farmland to today, the 84,000-square-foot multipurpose arena has stood the test of time.

But it’s not the only impressive venue in Hampton. The entrance to the Hampton Roads Convention Center is draped in white sails as a dramatic visual reminder of the first settlers to reach the area by sea more than 400 years ago. The center offers a whopping 344,000 square feet of convention and exhibit space designed to accommodate a variety of events. With a 102,600-square-foot exhibit hall and a grand ballroom with banquet seating for more than 1,600, the center’s 35 flexible spaces can host as many as 14,000 attendees

Those are just some of the many charms the easily accessible city of Hampton offers within its central location in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Virginia region. The history of Hampton, founded in 1610, echoes that of America, and much of it can be traced through a visit to Fort Monroe National Monument—the largest stone fort in the United States.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park , Gulf Shores, Ala.

Considering that hurricanes devastated The Lodge at Gulf State Park in 2004 and again in 2017, the property’s re-emergence is a definite WOW. Established in 1974, the original lodge was as a hub of community for three decades; the reimagined property now stands as a symbol of resilience.

Equally impressive is the setting of the beachside Hilton hotel. As part of the 6,150-acre Gulf State Park along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, the property is an example of environmentally friendly coastal development. The unique park boasts nine distinct ecosystems, abundant wildlife, three freshwater lakes, and 28 miles of trails. The lodge building was inspired by its surrounding environment, taking advantage of natural lighting and ocean breezes. With a more hurricane-resistant construction, the lodge embraces sustainability with reduced energy and water use and even offers an electric-vehicle charging station.

A central focus of life at the lodge is connecting to the outdoors. The lodge experience includes an active lifestyle and access to white sand beaches and emerald waters. With unduplicated character, the lodge offers nearly 19,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, including 16 meeting rooms, a ballroom with adjoining terrace, and an oceanside pool.

Massanutten Resort, Massanutten, Va.

Here’s a Massanutten Resort group-activity WOW: Northern Lights Snow Tubing, with glowing neon lights on 16 lanes of sliding—and a conveyor lift to take you back to the top for another run. Or take home a new skill through one of the resort’s select classes, including caricature or landscape sketching, introduction to meditation, and beginner ukulele or harmonica.

Set on 6,000 acres in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley just two hours from Washington, Massanutten is a four-season adventure resort. Hit the ski slopes in winter and the waterpark in summer (or in winter at the indoor waterpark, repeatedly rated among the best in the country).

The property has activities for all tastes, from escape room fun to shopping, golf, an adventure park, mountain biking, cooking demonstrations, and arts and crafts. They also offer a chance to try the sport of curling on synthetic ice. And with stunning mountain views all around, it’s easy to snap a winning shot for the Massanutten Resort Calendar Photo Contest. The resort introduces new activities regularly, so there’s always something different every time guests visit.

The resort offers personalized event planning services, onsite banquet services, and a variety of rental spaces, including the ski lodge, a conference center, and even the waterpark. Massanutten is mountains of fun, and associates of the 100 percent employee-owned company regularly volunteer, provide expertise, and donate to local organizations.

Perdido Beach Resort, Orange Beach, Ala.

The setting alone makes Perdido Beach Resort a WOW. The waterfront resort sits on the Gulf of Mexico where the turquoise surf brushes sugar-white sand.

And the property itself offers even more. As the largest privately owned full-service resort hotel on the Alabama Gulf Coast, the luxury destination provides personal service that keeps guests coming back year after year. Add to that a recent renovation of all facilities, meeting rooms, guest rooms, common areas, and the building exterior.

Perdido Beach Resort is located near Alabama Point, where the Intracoastal Waterway meets the Gulf. The resort also is near many area attractions, including The Wharf entertainment district, the historic 19th-century Fort Morgan, fishing, boating, golf, shopping, nightlife, guided dolphin and wildlife kayak experiences, ziplines over the water, and the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo where visitors can get up close and personal with kangaroos, sloths, and lemurs.

Billed as The Gulf Coast Paradise, Perdido Beach Resort offers 44,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space and banquet facilities. Two outdoor beachfront venues total 14,500 square feet. The property has an in-house audiovisual company with state-of-the-art equipment and lighting to make any production top notch.

Snowshoe Mountain, Snowshoe, W.Va.

Snowshoe Mountain covers a WOW-inducing 11,000 acres in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountain Range. The year-round resort’s property includes
a lake and the second highest point in the state.

Snowshoe is a winning resort, both figuratively and literally. Last year, Snowshoe took honors in several categories of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine’s readers’ choice awards, including overall best ski resort, best ski run, and best bicycle and terrain parks. Snowshoe Bike Park—one of the largest trail systems in the East—has won numerous honors in the MTBparks.com Riders’ Choice Best Bike Parks Awards for the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast region.

That means skiing in winter and biking in summer on award-winning trails. And there’s even a lift that takes your mountain bike to the top of the mountain. The resort offers more than 60 ski trails in three unique ski areas, along with 40 bike trails, snowmobiling, tubing, swimming, off-road adventures, Segway tours, yoga, a spa, and a Gary Player-designed golf course. Find eateries from fine dining to a sports pub, and
shop in a picturesque European-style alpine village.

With more than 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including the 15,000-square-foot Expo Center, combined with lodging for up to 10,000, strap on your snowshoes and head for the mountains.

The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

For those who like luxury and pampering (and who doesn’t?), The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa is their WOW. The AAA Four Diamond resort on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island invites relaxation in an Atlantic beachfront setting.

Guests can partake in wellness-inspired amenities, including the onsite Heavenly Spa. The resort has its own Peloton Studio, along with three outdoor pools. Dine on farm-and-sea-to-table meals with fresh local ingredients. And each of the 416 guest rooms and suites has a private balcony.

Access to the Port Royal Golf & Racquet Club lets visitors enjoy top-ranked tennis facilities and world-class courses, including one of the first golf courses on Hilton Head Island. Take in an excursion, such as kayaking, dolphin tours, fishing, boating, and surfing.

The 5,000-square-foot Grand Ocean Terrace provides a stunning venue, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls offering panoramic oceanfront views and a full balcony to take in the ocean air. The property has a total of more than 38,800 square feet of flexible meeting space, including the 13,439-square-foot Grand Ballroom and the outdoor Oceanfront Deck.

Coushatta Casino Resort, Kinder, La.

You don’t have to be a high roller to bet on the WOW of this casino resort. With a 100,000-square-foot gaming floor, Louisiana’s Coushatta Casino Resort hits the jackpot with thousands of reel and video slot machines, Vegas-style gaming tables, a live poker room, and high-stakes gaming salons. And the casino’s live bingo makes for a winning group activity.

The massive resort, owned and operated by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, is an integral part of the Kinder area’s economy, employing more than 2,000 people. Since opening in 1995, the resort has continued to expand in size and services. Today, the award-winning casino offers a variety of dining options, live entertainment, and an outdoor pool with a lazy river and multiple slides.

There also are plenty of lodging options on the resort property, including The Grand Hotel, Seven Clans Hotel, and the Red Shoes RV Park & Chalets. Executives and preferred guests are provided local transportation to and from the resort.

Beyond the fun and games, Coushatta has more than 50,000 square feet of meeting space. Coushatta Casino Resort is an encore from last year’s WOW issue and a gaming good time in the Sportsman’s Paradise state.

Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas

Size alone makes the Austin Convention Center a WOW! The center spans six city blocks in the heart of Austin’s downtown business district. The venue boasts five column-free exhibit halls totaling 247,052 square feet, ballrooms ranging up to 40,510 square feet, and 54 meeting rooms.

And the facility has more to offer than sheer size. Health and safety protocols, environmentally friendly design, and state-of-the-art technology add to its impressiveness.

The center has achieved Global Biorisk Advisory Council STAR accreditation, meaning it implements stringent protocols for cleaning, disinfecting, and preventing the spread of infectious diseases. What’s more, the building is LEED Gold certified, one of the highest ratings the U.S. Green Building Council offers to recognize buildings that are cost saving, energy efficient, and sustainable.

One of the most technologically advanced convention centers in the country, the complimentary Wi-Fi accommodates 20,000 devices at once. The gigabit-rated facility moves voice, video, and data at more than one billion bits per second. New video walls display client messaging and provide direction for attendees. In-house services include 24/7 network support, event customization,
and plug-and-play capabilities.

The facility lives up to the maxim, “Everything’s bigger in Texas,” making the Austin Convention Center an encore from previous WOW issues.

Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, New Orleans, La.

The official hotel of the National WWII Museum, the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center sits on the museum’s campus and offers exclusive curated packages in conjunction with the museum. The Art Deco-style design and World War II décor of this New Orleans Warehouse District venue give it a unique WOW factor.

For a memorable gathering, rent Rosie’s on the Roof. The rooftop bar offers stunning views of the city and takes its name from the iconic Rosie the Riveter image, who symbolized women’s invaluable contributions to the war effort.

The hotel itself has a connection to WWII: It is named for Andrew Higgins, former president of New Orleans-based Higgins Industries, which developed and produced the Higgins Boat, an amphibious landing craft used during the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Opened in 2019, the 20th-century vibe belies the hotel’s 21st-century technology. The second-floor conference center offers more than 18,000 square feet of state-of-the-art meeting and event space.

The hotel’s 230 era-inspired guest rooms include three truly “presidential” suites named in honor of former presidents with deep ties to WWII: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. Each suite includes Big Band-era records and a vintage-style record player.

The award-winning hotel honoring the Greatest Generation is an encore from last year’s WOW issue.

Myrtle Beach Convention Center, Myrtle Beach, S.C. 

Visitors notice the Myrtle Beach Convention Center before even stepping inside, thanks to the WOW of the massive “Whaling Wall” mural stretching across the building’s north exterior. Internationally recognized artist and conservationist Wyland created the colorful aquatic mural in 1993, and it has become an iconic part of the South Carolina city’s landscape. The marine theme is appropriate for a center located just steps from the Oceanfront Boardwalk along the Atlantic coast.

One of the largest convention facilities on the East Coast, the center offers a 100,800-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall that features 35-foot ceilings and can host 520 exhibit booths or 10,000 attendees seated theater-style. And the glass-enclosed South Carolina Hall of Fame area shines with bright sunlight, while the renovated 17,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom features 24-foot ceilings and space for as many as 1,000 guests.

Green initiatives at the center include a well-developed recycling program and occupancy motion sensors designed to turn lights off in meeting rooms, ballrooms, and restrooms if no movement is detected after 30 minutes.

Located only three miles from the Myrtle Beach International Airport, the center adjoins the Sheraton Myrtle Beach, which offers its own event space. The convention center is making an encore appearance from last year’s WOW iss

West Baton Rouge Parish, La.

The Kite Capital of Louisiana is a soaring WOW. Located along the Mississippi River across from the state capital of Baton Rouge, the area is known for its unique fairs and festivals, including Kite Fest Louisiane and Sugar Fest. The parish was established in 1807 and features down-home food, Southern hospitality, and a lot of history.

For a sweet group outing, get the flavor of the area with a tour of the West Baton Rouge Museum. Set on six acres, the award-winning museum traces the bittersweet history of sugar in Louisiana. As part of the museum’s support for Louisiana’s French culture, they offer tours in French, along with free monthly Cajun music jams. Workshops are available to try blacksmithing and woodworking.

The West Baton Rouge Conference Center is among the newest and most modern meeting facilities in the Baton Rouge area. This state-of-the-art venue in the parish seat of Port Allen offers big-city amenities with small-town prices. Banquet and conference rooms can be configured for small groups of up to 50 or large gatherings with as many as 299 attendees. The facility has onsite catering and event planning and support staff.

Conveniently located less than two hours from New Orleans via Interstate 10, West Baton Rouge is so sweet, it’s an encore from last year’s WOW issue.

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