• Brock Whitfield

Small Meetings and Retreats

Destinations throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region are thinking big by going after small. Small meeting groups, that is.

A diverse market, smaller meetings are held by companies of all sizes and across a wide range of industries. These can be for off-site training, high level executive retreats, departmental meetings, brainstorming sessions, team building functions and more.

There is great value to be had in attracting these meetings to a destination. The collective room nights and patronage of local businesses can have a tremendous cumulative economic impact. The value they represent has not gone unnoticed, as a wide range of properties and locales go to great lengths to demonstrate their appeal to planners of smaller meetings.

Jessica Bittmann, CMP, director of sales for the Greater Wilmington, Delaware Convention and Visitors Bureau (GWCVB), notes that while large conventions leave a big impression on people and offer opportunities for grand events and major enhancements, smaller meetings boast a different type of value.

“Attendees can get to know each other on a more intimate level when fewer people are in attendance,” she explains. “They also really can connect with their peers and often can engage more openly during sessions.”

It’s not just the meetings. Smaller retreats are very valuable, too. In fact, Bittman says that the GWCVB team holds a small retreat each year that serves as a great opportunity for team building and brainstorming. “Getting off-site for a day or two really helps to press the ‘reset button’ and add a little energy and momentum to your group.”

Hotels in the Greater Wilmington area offer, on average, around 200 overnight rooms with the largest property home to 300 guestrooms. “This is a great benefit for smaller meetings that may feel lost in a big city or at a large property,” Bittman observes. “They really can take over a hotel and have their event be the largest one at the property, rather than sharing the space with a bigger group.”

Bittman adds that many attendees find the city of Wilmington easy to navigate, whether they are staying downtown, along the riverfront, near the University of Delaware campus, or even in the nearby Brandywine Valley.

As for how these groups might differ from their larger counterparts, she says that many of them have similar needs, only on a smaller scale. The budget for audio-visual tends to be lower, she notes, as fewer speakers and screens are typically needed when hosting a smaller audience. These smaller groups also have more opportunities to engage in exciting off-site events and can be creative in the use of smaller and more unique spaces, Bittman adds.

According to Bittman, “Our city stands out by being a central, yet affordable, option to the larger cities along the Northeast Corridor. We also offer tax-free shopping, dining and entertainment, as well as tax-free room rentals, AV, and food and beverage, which can translate to significant savings for groups with smaller budgets.”

The GWCVB can add to the city’s attractiveness through an incentive program, she explains. “Depending on the size of the meeting, we offer an Incentive+ program where groups with 100 or more room nights are eligible for $8 per room night in credit with one of our local service providers. It’s a nice way to help offset the overall meeting costs.”

In Southeastern, Pennsylvania, Bucks County has much to offer for small meeting groups. Planners will be impressed with the many offerings available throughout the county.

"Although meetings always mean business, smaller meeting groups provide for an intimate and interactive setting,” observes Paul Bencivengo, president and COO for Visit Bucks County, the local convention and visitors bureau (CVB).

“Bucks County excels and specializes in small- to mid-size meeting and event spaces for groups. Castles, wineries, breweries and farmhouses are just a few examples of the unique function spaces that dot the Bucks County countryside."

In addition, he notes, Bucks County offers a wide-range of professional services in a rustic region that make it a perfect place for hosting a retreat.

“The central location and proximity to major cities on the East Coast have always made it an ideal destination for creative minds and innovative thinkers that are seeking a peaceful escape," he explains.

"Bucks County is the perfect destination for a group retreat of any size,” he continues. “Organizations can hold meetings in historic spaces and picturesque farmhouses that also offer lodging and in-house catering services. Located just 25 miles from Philadelphia and 75 miles from New York City, Bucks County has a long history as an artist’s retreat and previously welcomed great minds like Oscar Hammerstein, Pearl S. Buck, James A. Michener and more. Today, that spirit remains as visitors and groups come here to be inspired and connect."

Whether guests are looking for a secluded stay or an itinerary-packed adventure, Bucks County is well suited to host a retreat. From historic sites, museums, wineries and breweries to newly renovated properties, rustic B&Bs or full-service hotels, there is something for everyone here.

Bencivengo adds that groups certainly can take advantage of the Bucks County Wine and Ale Trails, but also notes that there is an abundance of team building activities available locally, as well, including: bike tours on the scenic Delaware River Canal Path; cooking classes that utilize seasonal and local ingredients; plus DIY workshops like knitting and jewelry stamping with instruction from fine artisans.

Citing Bucks County’s array of historical sites, such as Washington Crossing Historic Park, Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum, Bencivengo observes that they offer “an inspiring look at our nation’s past."

He also says that the CVB provides planners of meetings, retreats and other functions with numerous resources to assist them. Visit Bucks County offers a wide range of complimentary services as the county’s destination expert. They can assist with everything from event planning or helping with finding an event venue, seeking out team building services, providing Bucks County collateral materials or welcome bags, and even with booking overnight accommodations or room blocks for groups.

Another regional destination that’s a haven for smaller group meetings and retreats is Cooperstown, NY, where Cassandra Harrington, executive director for the Destination Marketing Corporation for Otsego County, discusses her community’s appeal to this market.

"We value our small meetings and retreat groups that visit Cooperstown,” explains Harrington. “This is an opportunity for us to showcase what Cooperstown has to offer to a visitor. That same visitor then has the potential to share, by word of mouth, how much they enjoyed their visit. It’s likely that they could become a return visitor, and oftentimes return with additional first-time visitors. It’s cyclical in the most efficient way, for word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of promotion.”

Cooperstown’s landscape alone is something to be desired, Harrington notes, with its lakefront properties and all major tourist attractions within walking distance or just a 5-minute drive away.

Small meetings, conferences and retreats are much more experience-focused than meeting focused, she observes. “Usually, these corporate retreats are interested in connecting with one another and the overall destination experience comes into play much more than the functionality of the meeting space itself.”

She adds that attendees of most small meeting groups here will be focused on their agenda, and while they likely will incorporate time into their itinerary to visit the highlights of the village, such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum, many will not have time enough to explore all of the local attractions and activities, thus fostering a desire to return and see more.

Small groups come to Cooperstown to conduct serious meetings, but they almost always include some downtime, as well, and that is where its world-class museums and national attractions come in, Harrington asserts. “Cooperstown small meetings are much more intimate and are often used as a reward for performance, making it a perfect location to boost employee morale."

"Visitors come to Cooperstown to sample Americana, to experience America’s pastime and immerse themselves in America’s past,” she continues. “With our 110-year-old resort and golf course that have been family owned and operated the whole time, our wide array of attractions to suit all interests, impeccable food options and serene setting, it’s no wonder Cooperstown is known as America’s most perfect village."

The Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown recently was named by Condé Nast Traveler as the #1 Resort in the Mid-Atlantic via its Readers’ Choice Awards. “This is our most popular small- and mid-sized meeting space, located on the southern short of Otsego Lake and within walking distance of The Farmers’ Museum, Fenimore Art Museum, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and all of Main Street Cooperstown,” says Harrington.

“Parking is free at the resort, which boasts 30,000-square feet of indoor and outdoor venues, including 14 flexible meeting rooms along with on-site catering,” she continues. “The Otesaga also is home to the Leatherstocking Golf Course, one of the most scenic and challenging resort golf courses on the East Coast... great for small group bonding and employee development.”

Utilizing the community’s resources, many small meetings choose to host dinners inside the Hall of Plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame, or enjoy a cocktail reception overlooking the lake in the gardens of the Fenimore Art Museum - experiences that only can be had in Cooperstown.

Others may choose to offer their guests a chartered fishing trip for lake trout or walleye, or go on an adventure on the high ropes course at the Clark Sports Center, or take a guided hike instead along one of many local trails.

The Destination Marketing Corporation for Otsego County offers meeting planners itinerary assistance and often serves as a liaison between local businesses to streamline the reservation process.

“The entire experience that Cooperstown offers small meeting planners is next-to-none," Harrington asserts. Each of these destinations provides outstanding meeting venues, opportunities for team bonding, local attractions and off-site spaces for group outings and events. The local convention and visitors bureaus are available, too, to provide an assortment of complimentary services, along with guidance and planning assistance.

Smaller meeting and retreat planners will appreciate these offerings and their attendees will, as well.

Outstanding experiences await groups who choose these and other regional destinations that cater to the smaller meeting and retreat markets.

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