Occasionally, in my search for different, affordable, and not-so-mainstream meeting destinations, I come across a gem.
This happened when I visited Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf Coast, an unexpectedly inviting, friendly and downright pretty city where residents routinely ask, “How y’all doin’?” and extend genuine southern hospitality to visitors and locals alike.
After a few days of poking around Mobile, the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay and the Five Rivers Delta area at the head of the Bay, I came to an easy conclusion.
This, I thought, is an excellent destination for companies looking to hold a quality meeting with a strong value factor, diverse accommodations, and enough “wow” to make the event memorable.
The city of Mobile (pronounced “mo-BEEL”) has been around a long time, a fact that is evident in its fine architecture, long-held traditions, eclectic cuisine reflecting several international influences, and its annual family-friendly Mardi Gras extravaganza that has been going strong decades longer than its second cousin in New Orleans.
A city of about 200,000, Mobile rests on the western shore of Mobile Bay which in turn looms over the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring beautiful vistas and moderate weather during most months of the year.
While long-suffering northerners are schlepping through another dreary winter, Mobile is enjoying pleasant (though not tropical) temperatures during most winter months.
Weather, meeting space, accommodations, value for the meeting dollar, area cuisine and after-meeting activity options all rate good marks on the Mobile meeting planner check-list. And did I mention it’s a very pretty city?
Take the months of March and April, for example. Mobile, “The Azalea City,” comes to life with stunning displays of white, pale pink, red and translucent lavender azalea blossoms.
The flowers provide a real “wow” factor at showplaces like Bellingrath Gardens and Home, and there’s the opportunity to visit several area festivals celebrating a dazzling explosion of color. The city’s annual Festival of Flowers, a mainstay for 17 years, invites visitors to stroll through lavish displays of the Gulf Coast’s finest garden designers and landscapers.
With all this beautiful greenery, I’d be remiss not to alert meeting planners looking for after-session and post-conference options to the glowing accolades showered on area golf courses, which, by the way, are open year-round.
The Magnolia Grove Crossings Course in Mobile and the Lakewood Golf Club across Mobile Bay in charming Point Clear are two southern points on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a golfer’s dream collection of courses—468 holes and 11 courses–that winds northward through the state.
The Trail has been touted by the New York Times as “some of the best public golf on Earth,” (add to that “among the cheapest”—-greens fees are very affordable), a credit to the inspired effort by Dr. David G. Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama who conceived the Trail to boost tourism and the Alabama state economy.
Magnolia Grove has hosted the LPGA Tournament of Champions since 1999 and was named by Golf Digest as a “Great Value” and one of America’s Top 50 most affordable courses. The Lakewood course, adjacent to the venerable Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa is open to Lakewood members and resort guests.
Speaking of accommodations, the legendary Grand Marriott, known locally as “The Grand,” is an excellent choice for a business meeting. Fully self-contained on the lush Point Clear Peninsula across Mobile Bay from the city, the 550-acre resort offers sweeping views of the bay and marina, 371 rooms and 34 suites, 37,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, an elegant spa, the afore-mentioned golf opportunities and several special event and dining options.
In Mobile’s downtown, the historic Battle House has been beautifully restored and reflagged as a Renaissance hotel (thanks again to the efforts of Dr. Bronner and the Retirement Systems of Alabama) and that in turn is serving as a catalyst to the rebirth of Mobile’s downtown.
Once known as “Mobile’s living room,” the elegant Battle House was a favorite of American presidents, high society and high-powered business giants until 1974 when it closed and fell into disrepair.
Reopened in 2007 as the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa, its elegant ballrooms and meeting space offer plenty of flexibility for business sessions. Guest rooms, reasonably-priced for groups, are European-luxurious, and the AAA Four Star Trellis Dining Room is a first-class option for a gala dinner event.
Another Renaissance hotel (also funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama) is the Renaissance Riverview Plaza, a bold and colorful property with a nautical motif. The Riverview Plaza is located in the heart of downtown, close to restaurants, shops and museums, and is connected by skywalks to the waterfront Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center, a Mobile showplace.
The Holiday Inn Downtown Historic District is a worthy option for reasonably-priced rooms and good meeting space too. Recently renovated and streamlined with the latest technologies and cushy bedding, the hotel is within walking distance of the Convention and Civic Centers and other downtown attractions. The city and harbor view from the seventeenth floor Sky View Lounge is a real show-stopper.
Meeting planners will be equally impressed by food options in this Gulf Coast location. What’s not to love about cuisine that features the freshest gulf seafood tossed with a touch of Creole spice or simmered in a savory gumbo, a big platter of barbecued ribs with a “secret sauce,” or fresh-daily oysters “fried, stewed or nude” like they serve them at the venerable Wintzell’s Oyster House, first opened in 1938 on Dauphine Street in the historic downtown.
There’s sophistication in Mobile’s cuisine too. A popular Mobile restaurant named “True Midtown Kitchen” has an enthusiastic following thanks to the chef-owner Wesley True, a Mobile native who returned after seven years at top restaurants in New York City.
Selections at Midtown Kitchen are eclectic and delicious, and the setting, originally a century-old bakery with brick walls and long wooden tables makes it a popular stop for locals and visitors. Wes is a two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist for “Best Chef in the South” and has received widespread recognition for his participation in national food events alongside the country’s best chefs.
I haven’t even touched on the many options on Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore, where the charming artsy towns of Spanish Fort, Daphne, and Fairhope make for excellent day trips from Mobile proper.
The vast Five Rivers Delta region at the top of Mobile Bay where the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee and Blakely rivers come together and flow into the bay is an appealing alternative for meetings in the heart of nature. Blakely Hall at the Shellbank Visitors Center there offers a handsome facility that can accommodate up to 100, with spectacular scenic views.
If you’re looking for a meeting destination that offers value, excellent accommodations and meeting facilities, plenty of history as well as after-hours options, I suggest you look at Mobile and the Mobile Bay area for a future meeting.
I believe y’all will be pleased as can be with what you’ll find.