The New Urbanists

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Goodbye suburban sprawl; hello urban revival. These days, cities all over the country are beefing up their downtown regions, which is good news for meeting planners. Renting shuttles for conventioneers is now a thing of the past in many destinations thanks to new and improved convention districts offering everything from hotels and restaurants to high-end boutiques, attractions and meeting spaces—all within walking distance.

This helps cut down on transportation costs, lessens environmental impact, emphasizes the importance of exercise and gives each destination more of a neighborhood feel. We spoke with three meeting hot spots—Tampa, Baltimore and Portland—to learn why they’re shining examples of cities riding the walkability wave.

TAMPA BAY

Inside the last five years, Tampa has undergone serious revitalization efforts and today offers a convenient meeting package with a variety of attractions, restaurants and hotels close to the Tampa Convention Center.

“Over the last several years, Tampa has become a lot more walkable,” says Steve Hayes, executive vp for Tampa Bay & Company, the city’s CVB. “One of the most exciting developments is the new Tampa Riverwalk. It gives the visitors the opportunity to get out and explore versus several years ago when you had to take taxis to get around.”

Located along the downtown riverfront, the riverwalk connects the convention center to a variety of shops, restaurants and attractions such as the Tampa Museum of Art, which opened in February, The Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay History Center. Just a short jaunt away is Channelside Bay Plaza, an entertainment hub with restaurants and live music venues like Howl at the Moon.

“Also in that area, we have five hotels within walking distance of each other: the Westin, Marriott, Embassy Suites, Hyatt and Sheraton,” says Hayes, adding that last year, the Marriott, Hyatt and Sheraton hotels all completed large-scale upgrades.

Located just across the channel from the riverwalk, visitors can savor some of the city’s best food at Jackson’s Bistro. The Japanese restaurant specializes in fresh seafood with picture perfect water views from its private banquet rooms. Capacity is 140 pax.

And here’s a fun Tampa-style group activity. Check out the 131-ft Yacht StarShip, which offers dinner cruises on Tampa Bay departing right from the docks at Channelside Bay Plaza.

BALTIMORE

When planning to attend a meeting in Baltimore, leave your car keys at home and bring comfy shoes.

“Once you get to Baltimore, you will not be driving around town, you’ll be walking,” says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, adding that the city is a meeting planner’s dream come true. “Let’s say you wanted to plan a convention from scratch. You’d want to put it on the water and then surround it with hotels, restaurants, attractions and accessible transportation. That is what we have here in Baltimore.”

The city’s Inner Harbor, a historic seaport and Baltimore’s main, happening neighborhood, offers a bevy of meeting-friendly spots located only feet from each other, starting with the Baltimore Convention Center.

Nearby, visitors will find Oriole Park, Pier Six Concert Pavilion, the National Aquarium, Baltimore Museum of Industry, Baltimore Maritime Museum and the Maryland Science Center. Also in close range is the Hilton, which opened in 2008 adjacent to the convention center; the Sheraton, renovated in 2007; and the Hyatt, renovated in 2008 and connected to the convention center.

According to Noonan, the city can accommodate groups of various sizes thanks to “the addition of 2,500 hotel rooms to the market in the past two years. Now we’re doing 5,500 city-wides easily and everyone is walking. Some of our new hotels include a Kimpton and a Fairfield Inn & Suites.”

In addition to its hotel offerings, Noonan says the city’s restaurant scene has changed dramatically in recent years.

“We’re seeing a lot of high-end dining,” he says. “There really is an emerging culinary scene here. If you watch culinary shows, a lot of the chefs are from Baltimore.”

One of the city’s top eateries is Charleston Restaurant, run by award-winning chef Cindy Wolf. Located right in Inner Harbor and famous for its buffalo tenderloin and wild rockfish, the spot also offers two private dining rooms. Capacity is 100 pax.

Groups looking for a fun break from their meetings can check out the new Seadog Cruises, which takes off from the Inner Harbor. The 50-minute cruise requires seatbelts as its glides slowly through the harbor for a historic tour and then speeds out into the Patapsco River for a fun and zippy thrill ride.

For those with an interest in exploring neighborhoods outside the Inner Harbor, this year the city introduced the Charm City Circulator, a free hybrid bus system that takes travelers everywhere from Federal Hill and Mt. Vernon to Penn Station and Fell’s Point.

“It runs every 10 minutes,” Noonan says. “You can even put an application on your phone that will tell you when another bus is scheduled to stop. It’s a great alternative to taking a cab or a water taxi.”

PORTLAND

Famous for its chill, easygoing vibe where delegates wear Birkenstocks, Portland is a great example of a walkable destination.

“Portland’s physical makeup is kind of unique,” says Mike Smith, CDMP, vp of convention sales for Travel Portland. “Our city blocks are very short and we don’t have any alleys. Also, everything on the ground level is required to be pedestrian friendly, so you won’t find any parking garages on the ground floor of buildings. Instead you will only find galleries, restaurants and shops.”

Portland is a collection of eclectic neighborhoods but if visitors would rather not walk from place to place, they can easily hop on the free MAX Light Rail for a quick trip to anywhere downtown.

“People can walk a block from their hotel, hop on the light rail system that runs every five to eight minutes and get to the convention center for free,” Smith says. “We’re talking about a 5-minute ride. In Portland, everything is close. Most of our groups do not implement busing programs because of our light rail system and the fact that most hotels are walking distance to everything.”

Portland is well known as a microbeer-loving city so planners should take a look at BridgePort Brewpub. Known as the state’s oldest craft brewery, groups can enjoy food favorites such as shepherd’s pie and pulled pork in the private dining areas upstairs seating 140.

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