A new take on Southern comfort in Georgia
Georgia has a rich history of serving up Southern comfort food—crispy fried chicken, briny oyster stews and sweet tea come to mind—but a new generation of chefs is bringing a fresh take on the agricultural charm of the region. “Georgia is one of the quintessential places of amazing bounty,” says Top Chef Judge Hugh Acheson about his home state, in a Georgia Association of Convention and Visitors’ Bureaus interview. “From coastal shrimp, clams and fish to apple orchards in north Georgia, to olive oil production in Lakeland, to peanuts and grits and every vegetable under the sun, we have an agrarian history that we are reclaiming.”
Celebrity chefs from all over the state have jolted the regional cuisine scene and, in the process, impacted what shows up on plates at events. Cookbook author and former television host Paula Deen started whipping up her buttery biscuits and grits at her first restaurant in a Best Western in Savannah. Top Chef contestant and cookbook author Kevin Gillespie’s pork-rich sensibilities on television found a home at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. And James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock is bringing his Husk restaurant and its take on “the reality of Southern food,” to Savannah.
Groups are finding that the infusion of lighter, more ingredient-focused comfort food in Atlanta and Savannah pairs perfectly with the way people meet today. Following is your taste of this distinctive approach to comfort.
As soon as visitors deplane at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), it is clear they are not in Kansas. The world’s busiest airport is in the midst of a 20-year reimagining that will build on the award-winning food already offered by more than 300 outlets in the terminals. Singer Ludacris’ long-awaited restaurant, Chicken-Beer, recently opened in Atlanta’s airport after years of buzz. In addition to the required birds and suds, the menu offers Cajun boiled peanut hummus. Another reason to linger near the gate is James Beard Award-winning One Flew West, which offers what it calls “southernational” food.
The biggest buzz in A-Town recently, according to Mark Vaughan, executive vice president and chief sales officer of Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, was the opening of Atlanta Mercedes-Benz Stadium over Labor Day weekend. The modern event facility includes an oculus roof that can close in seven minutes and lots of room for private events.
The new Southern cuisine approach is firmly planted at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Along with the aforementioned Gillespie’s game-changer restaurant, local favorite Delia Champion is serving up hot messes—chicken sausage, chili, cheddar cheese, pickled jalapenos and comeback sauce on a bun. And NFL Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is welcoming groups to Molly B’s Cookhouse, which he describes as a Southern-style chophouse with a modern twist.
“The dance card is already filling up,” Vaughan says of bookings for the stadium’s event spaces, including activities on the actual field where the Falcons and MLS Atlanta United FC play. One big event on the calendar is Super Bowl LIII in 2019.
Natalee Anderson, director of private events and tours at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, says initial plans were to host 150 nonsports events during the year, but with the shiny new thing, they are on track to do much more than that. One company brought in a coach to do a “chalk talk” sports-themed team-building activity that ended with a behind-the-scenes tour of the locker room.
“Everyone wants to get that selfie on the 50-yard line, with the company logo larger than life in the background on the halo screen,” she says.
Margaret O’Connor, senior manager for meetings services at Chicago-based Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, recently brought 2,700 people to Georgia World Congress Center, College Football Hall of Fame and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The food and service were excellent,” she raves. “Whether you are a sports fan or not, you cannot [help] but enjoy the atmosphere and fun each has to offer. Plus, each allows plenty of comfortable space to network.”
Mercedes-Benz is in the middle of a cluster of iconic meetings spaces downtown that seem to be growing by the month. Centennial Olympic Park is in the midst of a renovation that will result in an expanded amphitheater. Meanwhile, Georgia World Congress Center is embarking on its own $55 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion that will leave it with 1 million sq. ft. of contiguous event space in 2019. Also in the mix: College Football Hall of Fame, Center for Civil and Human Rights, World of Coca-Cola and Georgia Aquarium. “There is something for groups of all shapes and sizes,” Vaughan says.
Ten miles away, near 41,000-seat SunTrust Park, home of MLB’s Atlanta Braves, is a brand-new way to bring people together. The 264-guest room Omni Hotel at the Battery Atlanta opened this year with 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, an elevated pool deck bar and rooftop hospitality suites.
In October, another long-awaited meeting and culinary “first” happened with the opening of Solis Two Porsche Drive, the first Solis Hotels and Resorts destination in the United States. In addition to 214 guest rooms and 6,100 sq. ft. of meeting space, it includes two innovative—you guessed it—restaurants. Planners can rent out Overdrive, a fun, rooftop experience with signature cocktails and panoramic views of Porsche Experience Center driver development track. General Manager Mike Sutter promises “personalized hospitality” with local flair.
“There is a lot of positive momentum in Atlanta, but we never lost our Southern hospitality,” Vaughan says.
Plan for Move to Atlanta Was a Win For Public Transportation Association
Lenay Gore, senior director of meetings and trade shows for American Public Transportation Association, brought 13,000 people to the largest public transportation Expo in the world, held at Georgia World Congress Center and nearby hotels in October, after staging the event in Houston, New Orleans and San Diego in previous years. In addition to more than 300,000 sq. ft. of exhibits, the show floor featured learning zones with free educational opportunities, as well as areas for Automated Vehicle demonstrations.
“Atlanta was a great destination for us,” Gore says. “The ease of access to the area hotels via MARTA [public transit] was a key factor. Additionally, the number of large convention hotels offered a tight hotel package. The size of the center and the diverse hotel properties in the downtown area for all budgets and tastes make Atlanta a desirable destination.”
While the massive number of offsite entertainment events nearby was part of the draw, Gore suggested groups work with the CVB and book those venues in advance. “There was high demand for the larger spaces, and some were disappointed that their first choice was not available,” Gore says.
Atlanta Convention Center at AmericasMart
500,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 100,000 sq. ft. of contiguous space; 45 breakout rooms; VIP wholesale shopping at AmericasMart.
Atlanta Marriott Marquis
Near Georgia Dome; skybridge connects to Hilton Atlanta and Hyatt Regency Atlanta; 1,569 guest rooms; 169,435 sq. ft. of meeting space; four restaurants and bars, including popular Sear steakhouse.
Georgia International Convention Center
400,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; 150,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space; 40,000-square-foot ballroom; adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport; Marriott Atlanta Airport Gateway hotel on campus.
Georgia World Congress Center
200-acre campus includes Georgia Dome and Centennial Olympic Park; 3.9 million sq. ft.; 12 exhibit halls; 106 meeting rooms; five auditoriums; two ballrooms.
Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead
Walking distance to Lenox Square; 439 guest rooms; 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Cassis restaurant overlooks Zen waterfall.
Downtown property; 1,242 guest rooms; 129,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; AAA Four Diamond Nikolai’s Roof restaurant offers panoramic views of Atlanta skyline.
Hilton Atlanta Airport
Five minutes from airport; 507 guest rooms; 34,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; four restaurants, including Finish Line Sports Bar.
Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Downtown property in walking distance of Georgia World Congress Center; 1,260 guest rooms; 180,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; three restaurants, including Polaris, with inspiring views.
Loews Atlanta Hotel
Midtown property near Piedmont Park; 414 guest rooms; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space with lots of natural light; Saltwood charcuterie.
Opened in August; 100,000 sq. ft. of climate-controlled club and premium areas; 15 event spaces; dedicated event staff; customizable marquis; dining and catering options include Molly B’s Cookhouse.
Omni Hotel at Battery Atlanta
Brand-new; 264 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; near SunTrust Park; Achie’s Southern-inspired cuisine.
Omni Hotel at CNN Center
Next to Centennial Olympic Park and linked to Georgia World Congress Center; 1,059 guest rooms; 120,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Prime Meridian American cuisine.
Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport Hotel
Near airport and Georgia International Convention Center; 387 guest rooms, many with private balconies; 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Concorde Grill offers Southern food with runway views.
Solis Two Porsche Drive
Adjacent to airport and Porsche Experience Center; 214 guest rooms; 6,100 sq. ft. of meeting space; two restaurants, including Apron seasonal dining.
The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead
Near high-end dining and shopping; 510 guest rooms; 23,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The Westin Peachtree Plaza, Atlanta
Second-tallest hotel in North America; 1,073 guest rooms; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Sun Dial rooftop restaurant has 360-degree views.
For those scheduling meetings closer to the shore, Savannah is undergoing a hotel reboot. “It’s a domino thing,” explains Jeff Hewitt, vice president of sales for Visit Savannah. “Once one hotel renovates, the others follow.”
One of the first conversions was the landmark Mulberry Inn, which was purchased by Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group. The property with 145 guest rooms and 6,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space is now called The Kimpton Brice and compared to a classic Southern belle—“beautiful and poised on the outside, a bit sassy and rebellious on the inside.” That juxtaposition of styles carries over to the restaurant, where Pacci mixes Southern fare and Italian cooking.
Another standard that changed hands and dramatically upgraded its style is a building known as Grand Lady on the Bay. Hotel Indigo Savannah Historic District on Ellis Square offers 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Also rejuvenated is Hyatt Regency Savannah, with its 33,000 sq. ft. of waterfront view meeting space. The approach to dining is described as “exquisite cuisines from around the world collide with Southern comfort classics.”
As part of an $8 million renovation, Hilton Savannah DeSoto transitioned to a Preferred Hotel and Resorts property, simplified its name to The DeSoto and updated its 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space with access to historic Madison Square. Meanwhile, all 24,500 sq. ft. of meeting space at Savannah Marriott Riverfront has been redesigned to take advantage of the waterfront vibe.
Fifteen minutes from Savannah International Airport (SAV), the circa-1928 Cloister at Sea Island just received a $40 million expansion, including a 5,000-square-foot ballroom.
A host of new properties are also coming on the market, including one of the first hotel properties from the home accessory retailer West Elm, which plans to open 150 guest rooms in the historic city by early 2019. Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ new Aloft hotel could open as soon as summer of 2018. The pet-friendly property will include a dog park and WXYZ bar and lounge.
Perry Lane Hotel, a 170-room, high-end boutique property is scheduled to open in March 2018 with 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Think porches and parlors, fireplaces and antiques. These properties have unique personalities inside and outside the meeting and dining rooms.
“We are blessed to have strong demand,” says Hewitt, who describes himself as a Savannahian by choice. Some 14 million visitors arrive each year to explore the community of 145,000 people. He points to the Spanish moss-draped trees shading wide streets, and beautifully preserved buildings sheltering historic treasures, such as the Prohibition Museum and the period bar at the end of the tour that serves signature cocktails from the 1920s as illustrations of the unique character.
“This is a place that overwhelms all five senses,” Hewitt says.
Hotel Indigo Savannah Historic District
Built in 1850s and newly reinvented; 252 guest rooms; 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; locally sources Southern cuisine and Georgia brews at Five Oaks Taproom.
Mansion on Forsyth Park
Victorian Romanesque mansion with 125 guest rooms; art collection includes more than 400 original artworks; more than 13,000 sq. ft. of flexible function spaces.
Savannah International Trade & Conference Center
Located on the Savannah River; 100,000 sq. ft. of divisible exhibit space; 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 25,000-square-foot ballroom; 367-seat auditorium.
Fobes Five-Star resort offers a range of accommodations; 390 guest rooms; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; eight restaurants, including Georgian Room at The Cloister.
Madison Square hotel; 246 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; three new restaurants serve Southern coastal cuisine.
The Kimpton Brice
Centrally located in the historic district; 145 guest rooms; 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 1,700-square-foot Secret Garden courtyard; a private dining room or restaurant buyout at Pacci Italian Kitchen and Bar is available.
The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa
Accessible by complimentary water ferry service; 403 guest rooms; 36,261 sq. ft. of meeting space; 18-hole PGA golf course.
Delta, American Airlines, JetBlue, and United all report a return to profitability in the third quarter of 2022.