Originally created 04/03/00

Convention, meeting facilities grow



Finding a place to have a meeting, conference or reception in Augusta was simple a decade ago because there were few choices.

But now, with construction of major convention facilities and continued development of private meeting halls, corporate event planners can afford to be picky.

"The direction the city has taken in the past 10 years has changed the market tremendously," said Barry White, executive director of the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Construction of the Sheraton Augusta in 1990 and the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta in 1992 gave the city much-needed large-scale meeting facilities.

And development of smaller venues such as Savannah Rapids Pavilion, Peter Knox Conference Center and, most recently, Marion Hatcher Center give civic clubs and other groups a selection of more intimate gathering places.

The Hatcher facility, a memorial to the late wife of MAU Inc. President Bill Hatcher Sr., has undergone more than three years of renovations. It has played host to weddings, parties and events for organizations such as United Way of the Central Savannah River Area, Walton Rehabilitation Hospital and Augusta Ballet.

"There's not a bride to be that we know of that hasn't wanted to be married there after seeing it," Mr. Hatcher said.

The past few years have also seen renovation of Julian Smith Casino, Old Government House and the Old Medical College building, and the creation of Boathouse Community Center.

"Local meeting competition is increasing," Mr. White said. "The plus side is there is a lot of variety."

A list of private, public and hotel convention and meeting facilities in Augusta can be found at the Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site at www.augustaga.org/amcvb.

Augusta is becoming more cosmopolitan about its corporate event functions, said Terry Wick, owner of Terry Wick Events and More, a catering company that has exclusive use of The Clubhouse meeting facility on Washington Road.

Event planners and executives bring ideas and menus from the places they hail from, which gives caterers a pleasant respite from the "canned events" they are usually paid to do.

"Many clients have the same expectations for events here as they did in Dallas or Chicago or wherever they came from," said Mr. Wick, who has catered events in Augusta for 20 years.

Despite the growth in meeting facilities and convention space, some in the industry say Augusta is still not overbuilt.

Facilities vary greatly and appeal to very different types of events, said Micki Davis, general manager of Pullman Hall, one of the city's older meeting halls.

A small civic club, for example, has requirements different from a company planning an office Christmas party. Ms. Davis' facility, which has on-site catering capabilities and a full-size ballroom, mostly handles large events with formal dinners.

"All (locations) are different from one another," she said. "It all depends on what the customer is looking for."

About the only thing missing from Augusta's meeting market is flat-floor exhibition space connected to a hotel, Mr. White said.

It's the kind of space that organizers of trade shows and large regional conventions covet because it gives attendants a single place to eat, sleep, park their cars and set up booths.

The current 38,000-square-foot expansion of the Radisson Riverfront Hotel's convention facility will help make Augusta more attractive to large conventions, but even more space will be needed to compete with other Southeastern cities.

"If they can't come to a place that keeps their exhibitors happy, there's plenty of other places they can go," Mr. White said.

Booking space

Know what you need: Will meals be served? Will you need a lectern or audio/visual hookups? Facility managers and caterers will need to know everything you require.

Book adequate space: Find out attendance to know what size facility you need. A good rule is to allot 8-10 square feet per person, slightly more if the event is a party with dancing. For parking space requirements, divide the total number of attendants by two.

Set a budget: Know what you can spend before you start comparison shopping. And make sure whoever plans the event has authority. "One of the worst things to do is spend 10 hours planning an event and have the company president come up and say, `We're not going to spend that much money,"' local caterer Terry Wick said.

Start shopping early: Contact event contractors as soon as possible to ensure their availability, particularly around holidays.

Consider the unique: Hotel ballrooms and community centers are usually the first facilities that pop into an event planner's head. But many other types of locations -- indoor and outdoor -- can provide a one-of-a-kind experience. Check with museums, cultural centers and other nontraditional gathering spots.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.