Meetings That Make History

By: Jeff Waddle

History isn't just on the books—it's in the cities where associations hold meetings. A touch of history at your conference can give your members a reprieve from modern-day hustle or inspire new perspectives on today's problems. Here, take a brief tour of five history-laced southeastern cities with association executives who've been there. [Titled "Blast from the Past" in the print edition.]

What gives the South its signature charm? One key ingredient is the region's rich history. Seemingly everywhere you turn in the Southeast, you'll discover a genteel place steeped in the past where hospitality is genuine and the setting is spectacular.

From authentic colonial villages and quaint seaside communities to bustling river cities with a unique mix of food, music, and culture, the Southeast's historical appeal makes it a great destination for association conferences.

"We all really try to make themes out of all of our conferences, and sometimes it can get a little cheesy," says Kim Schardin, CAE, executive director of the American College of Mohs Surgery. "But when it's history, it keeps it kind of elegant, and everybody buys into it right away."

Although associations have plenty of 21st-century business to conduct, weaving a bit of history into your conference—whether it provides a backdrop or is built into your programming—can give attendees a memorable experience. Here are five cities where association meeting planners made it happen.

Colonial Williamsburg: American Roots

When Schardin was the meeting planner for the American Association of Medical Society Executives in 2007, the organization tapped into the rich history of Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg to boost attendance at its 300-person annual conference there.

Colonial Williamsburg Fast Facts

Hotel rooms: 14,584

Meeting space: 91,000 square feet

Distance from Newport News/Williamsburg Airport: 18 miles

"It really helped solidify the entire theme of our conference; we just had to put our own spin on it," she says. AAMSE connected America's past and present: The meeting tied government's historic role in society to that year's hot topic, healthcare reform. "Our committee even titled some of the sessions differently to reflect colonial times. It really helped. It was the perfect year for a theme like that."

AASME took advantage of Colonial Williamsburg's deep American roots in several fun and colorful ways. A fife and drum corps escorted members to the gala, where everyone got a pleasant surprise when the association's president and his wife arrived dressed in colonial costumes. "I certainly recommend [incorporating history into a meeting] because it worked out so well for us," Schardin says.

Memphis: Hometown Flavor

For the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science, its hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, was a natural choice for its annual leadership summit.

Memphis Fast Facts

Hotel rooms:20,000

Convention center square footage: 330,000

Distance from airport to downtown: 9 miles

The city's historical ambiance "helps bond the leaders to the city and helps them appreciate its culture," says AALAS Executive Director Ann Turner, Ph.D., FASAE, CAE. The summit includes evening events at the city's popular cultural attractions. "When you're in a venue like the Rock 'n' Soul Museum or Graceland, you get the opportunity to not only learn the history of that town, but it also is an icebreaker with the other people who are involved in that meeting. You walk around and talk with people about something other than business, so you get to know them."

Memphis has the added advantage of convenience, Turner says. "There are many things to do in Memphis that don't take a lot of time out of your program because they're all close to the convention center," she says. "You can incorporate a trip to Mud Island and walk the entire Mississippi River in about a half hour [via a miniature layout], see the ducks parade at the Peabody Hotel, or go to Beale Street, Graceland, or the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Its history is very old and rich."

Savannah: Something Different

When something works, it makes sense to repeat it. That's why the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine is bringing its 1,200-attendee annual conference back to Savannah, Georgia, in 2014 after a successful event there in 2004.

Savannah Fast Facts

Hotel rooms: 22,671

Convention center square footage: 150,000

Distance from airport to downtown: 16 miles

"My attendees are well read and well educated, and seeing things that offer interesting historical options appeals to them greatly," says Kathy Smith, director of meetings for AANEM. "They tend to be a group that enjoys a location that offers those things that they would not necessarily see on every street corner of every town in the U.S."

Smith says convenience was a key factor in the decision to return. "That's important because, as is the case with most medical meetings, they start early in the morning and go to late at night, so the opportunity to see a destination is in short snatches," she says. Attendees "found Savannah had exactly what they needed. They could get outside to see one of the old public squares and historic buildings without spending a lot of time doing it. The charm and ambiance was perfect for our meeting."

Smith adds that AANEM helped familiarize attendees with Savannah by holding a social event at a historic mansion and by offering formal city tours, including its popular ghost tours.

"We all like to know where did we come from, where did we start, and Savannah has great history and a wonderful feeling without being stuffy," she says.

Charleston: Hands-On Experience

The preservationists, architects, craftspeople, and other members of the Association for Preservation Technology International naturally feel at home in historical settings. And when they get an opportunity to explore the past, they want to get their hands on it—literally.

Charleston Fast Facts

Hotel rooms: 6,000

Convention center square footage: 150,000

Distance from airport to downtown: 16 miles

"Our short mission statement is we save buildings, so we gather in places where we can explore the city from a preservation perspective," says Dana Saal, CMP, CAE, conference manager for APT. That made Charleston, South Carolina, a perfect host for the association's 525-person annual conference in 2012. APT worked with local experts to create a program that had members visiting Charleston's numerous historic sites for hands-on "field sessions."

"We used the city as our laboratory," says Saal. "We had a metal-corrosion-mitigation session at the submarine [USS Clamagore] outside Charleston, and we went to the Aiken-Rhett House [circa 1820] for a session on how they and other places restored wall coverings. So all we had to do was walk outside and there were wall coverings to examine and to be used as our laboratory. Literally, they were walking down the street and touching walls."

To take advantage of a city's historic attributes for themes, marketing, and overall appeal, Saal suggests tapping the people who know area history best.

"Use locals; leverage their passion. And it doesn't have to be official tour guides," says Saal, who enlisted long-time preservation advocate and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. as APT's conference keynote speaker. "It could be the president of the local historical society, or if there's a local college with a history program, maybe it's graduate students or professors. By digging around, you may be able to develop a theme that plays up the history of where you're going."

New Orleans: Time to Explore

APT's "living laboratory" concept translates well to the National Trust Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mary de la Fe, Main Street's program manager for conferences, says the organization held its 1,300-person annual conference in New Orleans in April partly because members wanted to see how the city had recovered since it last met there in 2006, shortly after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Crescent City.

New Orleans Fast Facts

Hotel room: 38,800

Concention center square footage: 3.1 million

Distance from airport to downtown: 11 miles

"A fairly significant portion of our educational content is what we call field sessions or mobile workshops. A city like New Orleans has an abundance," says de la Fe, noting that historic preservation is embedded in the city's culture. During Main Street's conference, programs were conducted throughout New Orleans and extended into bayou communities and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Since its members have a passion for exploring cities, Main Street builds ample free time into the agenda.

"We generally give them extended lunch periods so they can really explore outside the immediate vicinity, and we've used social media in recent years to get locals to suggest places to go that aren't necessarily on all the tourist maps," she says. "And, if you really want to experience a city, look at where your meeting facilities are located. If they're outside the city core, you may not get the feel and culture of the downtown of the city."

Jared Cohen, manager of convention and meeting services for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the historic appeal of New Orleans helped boost attendance at the group's 12,000-delegate annual conference, especially for its family program. "You might not associate family friendly and New Orleans, but we actually had our highest family attendance in our history at this meeting," he says.

The Academy's 2012 conference included a popular evening social event at Mardi Gras World, where many of the city's famous carnival parade floats are made and stored. "Just to get close to these enormous structures that are a lot larger than you'd think in real life was a great experience for our members," he says. "The atmosphere really lends itself to not only a great party but to the history and culture of New Orleans."

Cohen says the enduring historic appeal of New Orleans and other destinations in the Southeast is a perfect complement to educational programming. All you have to do is ask for help.

"A lot of cities offer some type of historic aspect, especially in the South, but you have to ask the right questions," he says.

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]