Attendees at today’s meetings, conventions, trade shows, and corporate events consider more than just education and networking opportunities when mulling over whether or not to buy a ticket.
More and more, corporate event planners and meeting professionals act like leisure travelers, looking beyond the meeting agenda and basing their decision on the remarkable experiences the destination offers.
They want signature local cuisine, craft brews, regional arts and culture, and adventures not found anywhere else.
So, while we’re all fans of tried-and-true destination cities such as Chicago, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, New York City or Las Vegas, fresh experiences in new, unexplored locales can be the best allure to boost attendance.
Not to mention that second-tier cities give a lot more bang for your buck by offering price points that most first-tier cities can’t.
Using GroupSync, we uncovered five meeting destinations that offer not just attractive affordability but also ample hotel meeting space for large groups, good airline connectivity, great weather, and plenty of share-worthy, après-meeting fun.
Here are second-tier meeting destinations and cities that deserve a second look.
Event planners don’t have to go far to find an alternative to Orlando, one of the most popular — and priciest — meeting destinations in the world. Located just 25 minutes from the Orlando International Airport, sun-drenched Kissimmee is a short drive from SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando Resort. Plus, the town is poised at the front door of all the Walt Disney World theme parks. In fact, many Kissimmee resorts offer complimentary shuttles to the Disney parks, a perk for attendees who bring their families.
Attendees can also travel via Amtrak’s Silver Service/Palmetto line, which originates in New York and makes a stop in downtown Kissimmee. This Orlando suburb boasts more than just world-famous theme parks. Event planners are often surprised to discover the city’s bevy of freshwater lakes for group kayaking and canoeing. Or the group adventures in the famed Florida Everglades, including exciting airboat rides and ecotours. For after-hours activities, attendees can explore the quaint historic downtown Kissimmee, lined with local cafes, bars and shopping.
Guest rooms: 862
Following an extensive $40 million expansion that wrapped up in October 2017, the 862-room Omni Orlando at ChampionsGate now boasts a total of 248,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space, including a new conference center and an expansive event lawn. A new grand salon ballroom features a porte cochere for private arrivals and a charming terrace with event gardens, grand lawn, fireplaces and a promenade.
Your attendees can be some of the first to experience their new room product, the Sunset Lodge and Suites, featuring studio suites and premium king balcony rooms. Groups looking for golf experiences can check out the newly restored greens at the Greg Norman-designed champion golf courses. And when attendees want to let loose, they can explore the resort’s nine restaurants, Mokara Spa, heated pools, a lazy river and the area’s only resort wave pool.
Just east of Denver and a short drive to the Rocky Mountains, Aurora is soon to be the home of the new and exciting Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. This vibrant suburb boasts close proximity to the Denver International Airport, located just 10 to 15 minutes away (compared to a 30-40 minute driving distance between downtown Denver and DIA).
Attendees can skip the rental car altogether and opt to take the newest light-rail option from the airport, the R Line (also known as the Aurora Line). Since DIA is less than a five-hour flight from all major metropolitan U.S. cities, Aurora is positioned as an appealing destination for groups with attendees across the country.
Former military infrastructure has been transformed into unexpected event venues, like the one-of-a-kind Stanley Marketplace, a historic aviation factory now home to a bustling market with restaurants, shops and a popular beer garden. Arrange team building on the pristine white-sand shores of the beautiful Aurora Reservoir with views of the Rockies in the distance. In addition, Aurora boasts eight breweries, 11 championship golf courses, and best of all, 300 days of sunshine. Aurora is also close to some of east Denver’s best attractions, like the Museum of Nature & Science and the Denver Zoo.
Guest rooms: 1,500
Since its debut in late 2018, this long-awaited Aurora conference resort boasts 1,500 luxury guest rooms and 485,000 square feet of conference space, ranking as the largest conference hotel in Colorado. The sheer size of its meeting, exhibition, pre-function and outdoor event spaces offers corporate event planners and meeting professionals flexible options and room to be creative with their programs. The resort was built as a grand alpine chalet, featuring spectacular Rocky Mountain views from its grand lodge, eight dining outlets, walking trails, putting greens, an indoor/outdoor pool complex with a lazy river and water slides, outdoor tennis and basketball courts, the Relâche Spa and Salon, and a modern fitness center.
With its close proximity to San Francisco and central perch in Silicon Valley, San Jose is an appealing alternative to California’s more popular — and more expensive — meeting destinations, including their neighboring cities and San Diego in the southern part of the state. San Jose offers 2,200 committable hotel rooms on peak in their downtown and 4,000 committable rooms on peak citywide.
Besides the lower room rates, San Jose is also considered one of the most accessible meeting destinations given that the San Jose International Airport is less than four miles from downtown San Jose. Attendees can also choose to fly into the San Francisco or Oakland airports, each only a 30-45 minute drive away. San Jose doesn’t succumb to the gray, chilly days that tend to plague San Francisco. Instead, San Jose is one of the sunniest cities in the nation with an average of 257 sunny days a year.
Their post-meeting scene is also a hit. Silicon Valley’s prosperity has transformed this formerly sleepy city into a thriving network of shops, more than 100 dining and nightlife options, a state-of-the-art light-rail system, and a buzzing arts and culture scene.
Attendee perk: Being in the heart of Silicon Valley has its benefits, mainly complimentary and blazing fast Wi-Fi (up to 4x faster than internet around the country) throughout the entire downtown.
Guest rooms: 805
Offering 65,000 square feet of function space, the Fairmont San Jose can host groups of all sizes, from a 200-person reception to a theater presentation for 3,000. Meeting rooms include the classically beautiful Crystal Room (2,000 square feet) and the Imperial Ballroom (13,000 square feet). This property is known especially for their food, with a culinary staff that hails from around the globe, and offers groups innovative European, Mexican, Persian, Chinese and American banquet options.
Fort Myers & Marco Island, Florida
Southwest Florida is worlds away from the nightlife and theme parks of Orlando and Miami. Instead, the charm lies in basking in its tranquil island atmosphere, strolling along miles of sugary sand beaches, paddling in the Everglades, and sampling local seafood freshly caught from the Gulf of Mexico — all at a fraction of the cost of a big-city meeting.
Located just 17 miles from the Southwest Florida International Airport, Fort Myers offers the biggest concentration of meeting-oriented venues, all under the shade of royal palm trees and pristine blue skies. It also appeals to groups with its year-round gorgeous weather, easy access to Gulf shores, golf, dining, museums and open-air shopping. There’s nothing quite like a seaside meeting, so expect attendees to extend their stays and spend after-hours outdoors, playing tennis or golf, sunning, swimming, fishing, boating and beach combing.
About 45 minutes from the Southwest Florida International Airport, Marco Island is the largest in a chain of islands along the Gulf of Mexico, an area billed as the Paradise Coast. Even among these calm islands, it stands out as one of the most tranquil with the tropical essence of the Caribbean. Expect sweeping ocean views, acres of wildlife preserves, sparkling beaches, upscale resorts, sun-drenched golf courses, island activities and opportunities for dolphin and tropical bird spotting.
Guest rooms: 810
This grandiose hilltop resort sits seaside and is the first-ever JW Marriott on the beach in the continental U.S. After a $300 million makeover, the property added the adults-only Lanai Tower, expanding its room count to 810 guest rooms and suites and its meeting space to 100,000 square feet. The new Lanai Tower features a rooftop restaurant and meeting space on its first three floors, including the 30,000 square foot Calusa Grand Ballroom with wall-to-wall windows, views of the Gulf of Mexico, five outdoor terraces and 24-foot ceilings. Attendees will be drawn to its villa-like suites, four swimming pools, two championship golf courses, and the resort’s three miles of white sandy beach. Group activities include WaveRunner tours that bring them up close to regional wildlife and into secret back bays, local rum tastings, fish-grilling classes, and private beachfront receptions.
Despite being considered Texas’ most atmospheric and charming city, San Antonio is often overshadowed by Dallas, Houston and Austin as a meeting destination. But not for its lack of convention-worthy assets, such as lower room rates, consistent warm weather, famed Tex-Mex cuisine, historic sites, and the world-famous River Walk.
The city’s best meeting asset is its accessibility — the San Antonio International Airport is only 15 minutes from downtown. Meeting planners looking to save on transportation costs will be attracted to San Antonio’s walkability. The 14,000 hotel rooms downtown are all within walking distance to the convention center and the River Walk’s exuberant collection of restaurants, shops and entertainment. Attendees will want to spend hours strolling the 15 miles of this festive waterway, surrounded by cypress trees, the scent of zesty Mexican and South Texas dishes, and lively sounds of mariachis.
From there, attendees can walk to the historic Alamo, one of Texas’ most treasured icons, more centuries-old Spanish missions, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and Hemisfair Park. Farther out from downtown, groups can explore 40 golf courses, SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.
Guest rooms: 485
Located just across from the San Antonio Convention Center, the Hilton Palacio del Rio offers more than 27,000 square feet of event space, including 25 meeting rooms, two rooftop ballrooms, the historic and elegant Pavilion by Hilton in Hemisfair Park, and the Stetson Ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the River Walk.
This hacienda-hotel sits right on the banks of the San Antonio River and in the middle of River Walk.
Another great attendee perk: Every room comes with a private balcony that overlooks the River Walk or the city. Attendees can hop on river boat tours that load just outside the hotel or simply step out their front doors to walk the quaint pathways to the Alamo, just two blocks away.