The True Nature of Georgia

Many planners are well-aware that Georgia features intriguing cities with great hotels, restaurants and entertainment options, but fewer know of the outstanding outdoor meeting spaces and activities for groups.

“Our temperate climate allows for outdoor adventure year-round and provides the perfect backdrop for thrill seekers and nature lovers,” says Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner of Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Whether hiking the Appalachian Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain, biking across Jekyll Island or white-water rafting down the Chattahoochee River, Georgia’s natural wonders get visitors outside and back to nature.”

Atlanta offers its share of outdoor offerings for meetings and team-building activities, as well as off-site entertainment and recreation. Atlanta Botanical Garden and elaborate public parks are prime areas, with exceptional green space, and Georgia World Congress Center has 3.9 million sq. ft. of function space.

Water remains the central element to outings in Augusta, with the scenic Savannah River and Augusta Canal serving as beautiful hosting locations. Boat tours, nature hikes and a temperate climate are as welcoming as the Forks Area Trail System mountain biking trail and world-class golf courses.

Named to the Top Ten Places to Visit in North America by Travel & Leisure, Savannah also promotes waterside adventures against a setting of historic architecture, Southern charm and fresh coastal cuisine that’s always a crowd pleaser. Adding to the allure is the striking 330,000-square-foot Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.

Downtown Athens has the award-winning Classic Center, a quaint and sophisticated venue that can accommodate more than 6,000 attendees for conferences in the convention center and performing arts theater. Two rivers merge nearby, so outdoor gatherings are as popular as the statues of the University of Georgia’s mascot—the bulldog—scattered about the city.

Fresh air, open spaces and blue skies are the elements of a great meeting in Georgia. Add a local signature dessert after a day outdoors and your group may never want to leave the Peach State.

Atlanta’s Parks and Gardens

Meeting space at Hampton Inn & Suites Atlanta Buckhead Place

Renowned for its sophistication and elevated lifestyles, natural beauty and green space are just as prominent here.

“Atlanta is known as ‘the city in the forest’ with one of the largest urban tree canopies in the country, complementing the city’s many parks and green spaces,” says Kristin Delahunt, director of convention services for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Locations such as Piedmont Park, Centennial Olympic Park and Atlanta BeltLine offer amenities to groups of all sizes looking to take a break during a meeting, get some fresh air and see a different side of the city.”

Who wouldn’t enjoy meetings at Atlanta Botanical Garden? Located in Midtown Atlanta on 30 acres adjacent to Piedmont Park, the garden has become a destination with impressive art exhibitions, celebrations and social events. The property has at least 16 designated private event areas, including rose gardens, waterfalls and overlooks, conservatories and a 600-foot Canopy Walk in the treetops. The newly updated Day Hall, with floor to ceiling windows, can accommodate up to 300 seated guests and 500 for receptions while the Robinson/Gazebo Skyline Garden offers incredible city views among cacti and succulents for 100 seated and 150 standing.

The Gardenhouse overlooks Mediterranean theme gardens and can host 60 to 80 people, while conference rooms are available for as few as eight. The Edible Garden Outdoor Kitchen, surrounded by fruits, vegetables and herbs, is a preferred event space for cooking demonstrations and intimate dinners with up to 100 guests.

For a team-building paradise, Stone Mountain Park is set on 3,200 acres of unspoiled beauty. Groups can meet in a 4D theater or tackle team-building exercises such as a hike to the summit, rope courses and scavenger hunts. Plan to spend an entire day to enjoy a catered picnic at the park, followed by Lasershow Spectacular’s amazing lights, music, lasers and fireworks.

A unique 22-mile linear expanse in the making, Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum projects interweave communities through horticulture while featuring their distinct attributes. The arboretum is a perpetual natural space with a conceptual plan that included installing several thousand trees. Groups can explore and better understand the gravity of this rail-to-trail development by walking the projected site on tours conducted by Trees Atlanta docents.

For an afternoon pick-me-up or an evening dessert, indulge in the Wall of Chocolate from Sear at Atlanta Marriott Marquis in Downtown. This decadent creation is prepared with 15 layers of chocolate cake, fudge icing and chocolate chip ice cream. Sublime Doughnuts is another sugary option, with flavors such as A-Town Mocha, sweet potato, and salt and vinegar. Step it up with a “burger” made with doughnut buns topped with ice cream and a list of toppings. At West Egg Cafe, the bakery includes Atlanta’s favorite beverage, Coca-Cola, in its cupcakes.

Meet and Sleep

Just minutes from Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square malls, Hampton Inn & Suites Atlanta Buckhead Place opened in July with 186 guest rooms and 3,883 sq. ft. of meeting space that includes a 1,952-square-foot ballroom for up to 75 guests. Works by local artists are showcased throughout the facility.

In August, Hyatt Hotels assumed management and rebranded a local property between Piedmont Park and renowned Peachtree Street towers as Hyatt Centric Midtown Atlanta. The Forbes Four Star boutique property has 194 guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and 3,343 sq. ft. of luxurious event space.

Atlanta recently welcomed Canopy by Hilton Atlanta Midtown, situated near cultural destinations and boasting 176 guest rooms, 3,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space and a hoisted outdoor terrace. The lifestyle hotel offers perks including filtered spring water stations on each floor, extra robes and socks and artisanal cuisine.

Also coming in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood at year’s end is the dual-branded AC Hotel by Marriott and Moxy property, with 288 guest rooms, a rooftop bar and pool, and deck-top amenity space. A pedestrian connector makes for easy access to Midtown Arts District.

State Farm Arena, home to the NBA Atlanta Hawks and WNBA Atlanta Dream teams, just completed a $192.5 million renovation. Positioned as a “next-generation venue” with a focus on the total visitor experience, the arena confirms its flexibility by hosting more than 200 annual events.

Augusta’s Canal, Swamp and River Adventures

Guestroom at Hyatt House Augusta/Downtown

“Located along the banks of the Savannah River, Augusta has something for every outdoor adventurer,” says Iman Johnson, manager of guest experiences for Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “From cycling along the Augusta Canal to riverboat rides and everything in between, Augusta’s idyllic weather and abundant natural resources are an outdoorsman’s dream.”

Kayak at Betty’s Branch with Cole Watkins Tours, a local favorite, or explore the night sky at Dupont Planetarium. Take a guided horseback trail ride at Almost Heaven Stables.

“It’s such a warm, welcoming and spectator friendly city. We love Augusta,” Alyssa Updegrave, director of Ironman 70.3 Race, which is held annually in the city.

The Augusta Canal Petersburg Boat Tour can entertain up to 40 passengers on open-air boats as a well-versed narrator identifies sites such as 19th-century textile mills and Confederate Powder Works. Your group will also drift by the only two remaining houses in Georgia from the 18th century and probably see an alligator. Consider a music cruise along the Augusta Canal with a picnic dinner and adult beverage while being serenaded.

Just steps from Augusta Marriott at Convention Center is Augusta Riverwalk, spanning some five city blocks along beautiful Savannah River. Strategically tucked between lush gardens are several restaurants, Augusta Museum of History, the boyhood home of President Woodrow Wilson and Jessye Norman Amphitheater. The riverwalk is idyllic for a short stroll between meetings or to get a feel for the city.

Near downtown Augusta is Phinizy Center for Water Sciences, where the focus is on providing leadership for sustainable watersheds and economic vitality. Its efforts to link people with nature, investigation and education has greatly benefited the water sciences. The scenic environment is well-equipped for meetings of most any size with the large Education Meeting Room and Deck as well as Outdoor Nature Park Classrooms and Deck. Several outdoor pavilions and classrooms, and the Conference Room, overlooking the Rain Garden Pond, are other options. Private, guided hikes, including a moonlight hike reflecting off the swamp, are available.

For an afternoon treat, Boll Weevil Cafe, near Augusta Riverwalk Park and Amphitheatre, has more than 30 homemade desserts and has been featured in Southern Living and Cooking with Paula Deen. The restaurant is in an 1870s cotton warehouse and has earned its strong reputation for award-winning desserts such as 7th Heaven—decadent layered chocolate cake with buttercream icing and white chocolate cheesecake drizzled with chocolate ganache. Homemade Cappuccino Tiramisu with amaretto is another crowd pleaser, as is the variety of cheesecakes.

Another worthy stop is Fuse, for homemade ice cream. Employees encourage you to “ReFuse boring food. ReFuse bad booze.” And Farmhaus is ideal for a boozy milkshake.

Meet and Sleep

Hyatt House Augusta/Downtown was scheduled to open in late November with 100 one- and two-bedroom guest suites and studios, all with kitchens. The facility offers more than 4,000 sq. ft. of event space and is just a short distance from Augusta Riverwalk, sophisticated restaurants and cultural attractions.

Spring 2018 kicked off the inaugural season for SRP Park, the $40 million minor-league baseball park in North Augusta, South Carolina, which is part of the Augusta, Georgia, metropolitan area. The park can seat 4,782 people and has several options for private events that include a picnic patio, and both covered open-air and enclosed suites with flexible offerings.

Savannah’s Riverside Charm and Beachy Isles

Guestroom at The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa

“Savannah has incredible outdoor options for groups of all sizes and our National Landmark Historic District is known for its easily walkable venues,” says Jeff Hewitt, senior vice president of Visit Savannah. “We can help you plan beach parties, concerts in the park or riverboat cruises. We can even put you in a Civil War fortress with bonfires and freshly roasted local oysters.”

“Whatever you’re looking for, Visit Savannah can help you find the open-air opportunity that will provide your attendees with unique and authentic experiences that create lasting memories.”

A group favorite is a ride on Georgia Queen with Savannah Riverboat Cruises. Guests will enjoy floating through history along the beautiful Savannah River while feasting on a fully catered lunch or dinner cruise with on-board entertainment. This mock-paddleboat can accommodate up to 1,000 guests.

The temperate climate of Savannah is also ideal for outdoor adventures, such as water tours with Aqua Dawg Kayak Company. It can manage groups of up to 35 gliding through salt marshes, coastal inlets and back rivers, with side trips to remote beaches.

Outside of the lush, pedestrian-friendly National Landmark Historic District is Tybee Island’s sand dunes, speckled with sea oats and 22 historic squares beneath moss-draped live oaks. The barrier island is just a few miles east, on US-80, and offers beach and marsh panoramas as well as kayaking, dolphin tours, parasailing and stand-up paddleboarding.

Southeast of the Historic District is Skidaway Island, home to Skidaway Island State Park. Trails for hiking and biking ramble through the park along marshes and through the forest. Be sure to watch for loggerhead turtles and wood storks as well as migratory birds. Don’t miss the pictorial Wormsloe State Historic Site, which claims the ruins of one of Georgia’s earliest plantations and offers a respite for exploration.

Nothing compares to homemade ice cream for an afternoon treat, and Leopold’s Ice Cream has been satisfying locals and visitors in Savannah since 1919. Lulu’s Chocolate Bar tempts with dozens of decadent chocolate martinis and an array of confections, including homemade chocolate cake and luscious cheesecake. For a twist, Pie Society is a traditional British bakery where you’ll find sausage and apple hand pies (turnovers) for breakfast or a Victoria sponge cake for dessert.

“You will not find a better group of people to work with for your convention,” says Randy Hardy of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. “Savannah has the most accommodating group of people. We are so glad this is now part of our rotation of shows to attend.”

Meet and Sleep

While Savannah International Trade & Convention Center is experiencing a rebrand as Savannah Convention Center, four major convention properties underwent extensive renovations. These include the contemporary Savannah Marriott Riverfront, with 387 guest rooms along the riverwalk and 33,556 sq. ft. of meeting space; and The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, located on Savannah River, with 403 classic guest rooms and 22,233 sq. ft. of event space.

Exuding charm in the Historic District is The DeSoto Hotel (formerly Hilton DeSoto) with 246 recently renovated guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of updated event space. The elegantly redesigned waterfront Hyatt Regency Savannah provides 351 guest rooms and 33,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The posh Perry Lane Hotel opened in 2018 with 167 guest rooms and 9,195 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space, including a rooftop glass ballroom. Guests will relish The Emporium Kitchen & Wine Market, with a coffee bar, antique furnishings and enchanting seating areas.

Named for Savannah entrepreneur and preservationist Alida Harper Fowlkes, The Alida is a riverfront that opened in October with 173 uniquely designed guest rooms and suites, and three meeting/private function rooms for 20–200 guests.

In summer 2019, the luxurious JW Marriott at Plant Riverside District (from the Kessler Collection) is scheduled to open with 490 elaborate guest rooms across three unique structures. The grand hotel will seamlessly transform into a vivacious entertainment destination with a 500-seat venue. Amenities will include 12 dining options, three rooftop bars and 2 acres of public parks.

Athens Unleashed

“Event attendees don’t have to go far to explore the outdoors while in Athens,” says Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications for Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The North Oconee and Middle Oconee rivers converge in downtown Athens just behind The Classic Center, making the North Oconee River Greenway super-convenient for visitors and residents alike to walk, bike or paddle. Additionally, there are a number of parks along the Greenway where you can take a break to enjoy the river.”

One of the most popular attractions is State Botanical Garden of Georgia, along the Middle Oconee River. The 313-acre preserve has 5 miles of nature trails and several display sites, such as Heritage Garden and International Garden. State Botanical Garden is an All-American Selections Garden, Southeastern Conifer Society Reference Garden, American Daffodil Society Display Garden and Audubon Society Important Bird Area. Tours are available for groups of any size. The garden offers a serene setting for events for up to 200 seated and 300 for receptions.

If your group simply can’t resist the water, head to Middle Oconee River for a sit-on-top kayak experience with Big Dogs on the River. Let guides shuttle you upstream in a 44-passenger air-conditioned bus so you can float back at your own pace to the landing, with a cabana furnished with picnic tables and grills, satellite TV, volleyball and other games, and occasionally live music.

Mike Callinan, local host of the First Tech Challenge South Super-Regional Robotics Competition, says, “Attendees of the Athens event told me that they preferred [the Athens super-regional competition] to the world event. The venue and feel just really impressed them. Some had concerns about [the 80 miles] travel from the Atlanta airport to Athens, but found it to be super easy and told me it was ‘totally worth it.’”

Ready for some serious downtime? Sandy Creek Park wraps around 260-acre Lake Chapman, where outdoor adventure awaits. Take the 7-mile path around the lake or canoe, kayak or paddleboard the waters. An amphitheater and pavilion can manage up to 150 guests for events.

After meetings, when that sweet tooth calls, Condor Chocolates is the answer. It produces bean-to-bar Ecuadorian chocolates, blended with local products including Georgia pecans and local chili peppers. This specialty shop is all about chocolate, from truffles, toffee and pastry items to an avant-garde sipping chocolate that will imprint your senses. For sharable desserts, try the incredible selection of towering three-layer cakes, cheesecakes and pies at Last Resort Grill that pairs well with its fine coffee service.

“The team in Athens has consistently made a complicated thing uncomplicated,” says Steve Price, executive director of Georgia Technology Students Association. “From my many years of experience holding my conference in Athens, it is very obvious that the businesses, hotels, The Classic Center and the Athens CVB genuinely work as a team.

“I produce or am involved in the production of five conferences every year. I have the fewest complaints and the fewest problems with the largest of them all (more than 2,700), which is in Athens. The on-line housing bureau is a great addition this year.”

Meet and Sleep

In the last year, Athens has added 574 new hotel rooms downtown. By end of 2018, downtown guest rooms are projected to have increased by 41 percent, to 2,898.

Hyatt Place Athens opened at the end of 2017 with 190 well-planned rooms and approximately 4,000 sq. ft. of event space, while Best Western Athens added a new 54-room tower earlier this year.

A studio-suites hotel spanning seven floors, Springhill Suites Athens Downtown/University Area opened in July with 200 guest rooms and 2,748 sq. ft. of meeting space. The new hotel adjoins the University of Georgia in Athens.

Homewood Suites by Hilton is on schedule to open at year’s end with 130 guest rooms and 936 sq. ft. of meeting space. It’s located a half-block behind The Classic Center.

Historic Exploration at St. Simons Island

Guestroom at The King and Prince Golf & Beach Resort

Just east of Sea Island, across the largest salt marsh on the eastern seaboard, is St. Simons Island, recently named one of the Best Coastal Small Towns by USA Today readers.

Dating back to the 16th century, St. Simons Island is an historical goldmine with epic battle sites and plantation homes amid massive oaks. The natural beauty of the island continues with a momentous striped lighthouse and fishing pier that calls for a visit to the scenic shoreline.

Among the sandy beaches is The King and Prince Golf & Beach Resort, circa 1935. Initially serving as a dance club before coming into its own in 1941, the Mission Revival-style property—which offers 194 guest rooms and 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space—is a member of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Of course, you could lounge on the beach or by the pool but there’s so much to take in on St. Simons Island. Hop on a trolley tour around the island or climb aboard a working shrimp boat and take to the marshes, all the while keeping an eye out for dolphins and pelicans. Visit historic sites such as the ruins of Fort Frederica and the 19th-century plantation era at Cannon’s Point Preserve.

Go for a guided beach walk to learn about life along the Georgia shore. Charter a fishing boat or sail the seas with a professional skipper. To experience the largest swampland in North America, head to the Great Okefenokee Swamp, which encompasses about 700 square miles.

After such amazing outdoor entertainment, stroll the streets for great shopping and dining adventures as St. Simons Island settles in your soul.

Classic Refinement at Sea Island

The Spa at Sea Island

A mere 86 miles south of Savannah, Sea Island beckons with exclusive and luxurious accommodations, including 5 miles of pristine beaches for seamless indoor-outdoor entertainment. Sea Island is the only resort worldwide to secure four Forbes Five-Stars in 10 consecutive years with The Cloister, The Lodge, the Georgian Room restaurant and The Spa at Sea Island.

Guests can enjoy a range of coastal activities, from fishing, kayaking and paddleboarding to nature walks and boat rides through the marsh. Go beachside crabbing or shelling, horseback riding along the shore, or sailing on the high seas. Nature viewing opportunities are abundant on the island, especially for bird-watchers as well as when sea turtles nest and hatch, from mid-May to early October.

Sea Island is home to three championship golf courses and hosts PGA Tour’s RSM Classic. Expect to see a new 18-hole putting course and the innovative 17,000-square-foot Golf Performance Center in early 2019. There’s also the Yacht Club, Beach Club and Shooting School, as well as tennis and squash courts, and plenty of team-building activities.

After a full day of seaside adventure, book some downtime at the award-winning spa before experiencing alfresco dining at its finest—oceanside, beneath the stars.

Sea Island first captured attention in 1928 with the construction of The Cloister, the legendary resort that raised the bar for island getaways. It has all the makings of a world-class conference destination, with plenty of exceptional spaces, gracious service and undeniable charm.

Mona L. Hayden is an independent writer and an award-winning photographer. She publishes Louisiana Road Trips magazine.