Detroit Opera House Second-tier cities provide great value and extra-special services for meeting groups. Planners will also find wonderful and unusual venues for hosting receptions and private parties of all kinds. Here's just a sampling.
Louisville Slugger Museum and Bat Factory, Louisville, Kentucky
Sports fans will get in the mood the minute they enter the building and see the world's tallest bat, a 120-foot bat designed to look exactly like the one used by Babe Ruth. Inside, planners hit a home run with dinners in the main exhibit room (oval-shaped to look like the bat's famous trademark) or with receptions for 500 throughout the entire 14,000-square-foot museum. Highlights within the museum include an underground locker room, a full-size dugout, and a playing field featuring a collection of rare photographs, artifacts, and other displays. A special group option is to have a "bat turner" at the factory demonstrate the process of creating a bat by hand.
Contact: Ashley Brooks, special events coordinator, (502) 588-7212; fax: (502) 585-1179; www.slugger.com/museum
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, California The most visited interpretative railroad museum in the country, the museum has a collection of more than 100 locomotives and cars in exhibits that depict the important role of the railroad in our nation's history. For group functions, the most dramatic and glamorous space is the circular Roundhouse, which houses some of the trains and can accommodate 500 for a sit-down dinner or 700 for a reception (the trains can be moved out if necessary). Several other options include two theaters, a reconstructed passenger station, and the "1849 Scene" in Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Smaller groups (up to 48) can also take over the Sacramento Southern Dinner Train for dining during an excursion along the Sacramento River.
Contact: Cheryl Meyer, special events, (916) 323-9274; fax: (916) 445-5982; www.csrmf.org
Old Tucson Studios, Tucson, Arizona Known as "Hollywood in the Desert," Old Tucson Studios is both an active film location and a Wild West entertainment park, complete with shoot-outs in the street, country-and-western bands, song and dance shows, and Western characters wandering the streets and causing mayhem. Groups of almost any size can arrange for banquets, picnics, and special entertainment in indoor and outdoor sites that range from the town square to tented areas. Larger groups can take over the whole park at night, with options such as stagecoach and wagon rides, Old West carnival games, or shooting a film on location. An additional bonus for large groups: "Speed-line" meal service ensures that groups are served quickly (during a recent event, 900 people were served in exactly 19 minutes!).
Contact: Lisa Gongora, general sales manager, (520) 883-0100, ext. 269; fax: (520) 578-1269; www.oldtucson.com
Detroit Opera House, Detroit, Michigan After being abandoned for more than a decade, the Detroit Opera House was reopened in 1996, following a $28 million renovation that restored it to its original 1922 grandeur. The opera house has a massive, highly detailed proscenium arch, Czechoslovakian glass chandeliers, hand-painted canvas panels, and other sumptuous details in royal blues, rich creams, warm gold, and "Old Italian Rose." Opened by none other than Luciano Pavarotti and now home to the Michigan Opera Theater, the opera house can be used in its entirety for large events (total seating for 2,755) or in part for smaller events. For example, the main auditorium lobby, suitable for receptions, is 4,128 square feet in area, while two function rooms can be used for banquets or receptions (one is 1,500 square feet in area; the other is 1,000 square feet).
Opera House Contact: Jennifer Turner, director of events, (313) 237-3281; fax: (313) 237-3412; www.motopera.org
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina When built as a country retreat by George Vanderbilt in 1895, the 250-room French Renaissance style chateau was the largest private residence in the country. Today, the National Historic Landmark--complete with 70,000 objects collected from all over Europe--can be used for group functions of up to 2,000 outdoors in the courtyard or gardens, or 600 indoors (using all three of the estate's restaurants). Added group features include a guided candlelight tour of the house, garden or architecture tours, and wine tastings at the estate winery.
Contact: Peggy Dalman, group sales manager, (828) 274-6230; fax: (828) 274-6219; www.biltmore.com
Billy Bob's Texas, Fort Worth, Texas Touted as the "world's largest honky-tonk," Billy Bob's can host groups of up to 6,000 in its 100,000 square feet, or groups can take over one or more sections of the entertainment center. Options include 40 bars, a Texas-size dance floor, and live pro bull riding nightly in the arena (Billy Bob's is the only nightclub in the country with an indoor arena). There's entertainment every night of the week, with weekends set aside for the biggest stars in country music and other performers ranging from Steppenwolf to Bob Hope (the show room seats 1,800). While groups can't ride any of the real bulls, they can fool the folks at home with photos taken on the stuffed bucking bull set against an authentic-looking backdrop.
Contact: Carolyn Snyder, group sales director, (817) 624-7117; fax: (817) 626-2340; www.billybobstexas.com
Track Attack Racing School, Indianapolis, Indiana Attendees can fulfill the dream of being a race-car driver at Track Attack, where they first learn the fundamentals of racing and then get to put the pedal to the metal. In Indianapolis, the company has its own Track Tech Race Course--a "road course" with left and right turns--but they'll also take their program on the road across the country, using street courses, oval tracks, and even large parking lots. Programs are generally for 10 to 300 people, but can be customized to accommodate more, with videotapes of the adventures for attendees to take home.
Contact: Adam Borgens; sales and marketing manager, (317) 870-7223; fax: (317) 542-5240; www.trackattack.com
Camp Snoopy, Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota Named as a reason to select the Twin Cities as a meeting site by more than one-third of planners surveyed, the nation's largest retail and entertainment complex is also the home of Camp Snoopy, the largest indoor theme park in the country. After regular park hours, groups of 1,000 or more (up to more than 3,000) can take over all seven acres, which includes 23 rides and attractions, thousands of trees and plants, shops, and food outlets. Special food and catered packages can be arranged as well as promotional materials. For smaller groups, the Peanuts Party Garden, an open-air facility overlooking Camp Snoopy, provides informal dining for up to 250, and the Playhouse Theater can accommodate 280 for a buffet or 500 theater-style. The mall itself has several meeting rooms, and other stores and restaurants within the mall can also host special events.
Contact: Group sales department, (612) 883-8799; fax: (612) 883-8683; www.campsnoopy.com
Botanical Gardens, Birmingham, Alabama Nearly 70 acres of rhododendrons, wildflowers, bonsai plants, roses, desert flowers, and even an outdoor sculpture collection and Japanese garden set a tone of refined elegance for outdoor gatherings. Several outdoor and indoor facilities can be used for group events, including the outdoor Hill Garden, designed for functions of up to 400, and the connecting indoor facility, which can accommodate 300 for receptions. There are also several smaller rooms that can seat from 10 to 300, and this June a new educational complex opened with a theater seating 280. Docent tours of the gardens are available for groups of 10 or more.
Contact: Alicia Andrews, group sales, (205) 879-1227; fax: (205) 879-3751; www.bb.gardens.org
Six Flags, St. Louis, Missouri For small groups, the easiest way to use the mega-amusement park is to simply buy group tickets (for more than 15) and let attendees free to play on the 110-foot wooden roller coaster, the giant Ferris wheel, the log flume, Go-Karts, and other rides and shows, including the connected $17 million water park, Hurricane Harbor. Special discounted "meal deals" with pre-paid vouchers can be used at several of the park restaurants. Large groups--from 100 to 10,000--can also take over all or part of the new World's Fair Catering Grove for picnics, banquets, elegant sit-down dinners, and other catered and themed events (includes unlimited admission to all rides and shows).
Contact: Group sales, (314) 938-5300, ext. 294; fax: (314) 938-5300; www.sixflags.com/stlouis
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, Ohio Groups can rock around the clock with memorabilia from favorite rock icons of all eras, be it Elvis, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or hundreds of other stars. For actual meetings, there's a small meeting room for 35, while up to 100 can start the day with breakfast on the Cafe Bridge. After hours, groups of as many as 300 can boogie down in two memorabilia-filled lobbies, or larger groups of about 1,000 can take it to limit in the entire I.M. Pei designed museum, partying among such highlights as John Lennon's Sergeant Pepper's uniform, or Buddy Holly's tenor banjo, stage props from Pink Floyd's The Wall, plus thousands of other displays chronicling the evolution of rock. To set the tone for your event, consider actors playing favorite musicians, or a live rock band.
Contact: Lorna Jenne, special events manager, (216) 515-1933; fax: (216) 781-7640; www.rockhall.org
African Lodge, Toledo Zoo, Toledo, Ohio A state-of-the-art banquet and conference facility, the lodge is available day and night, providing a dramatic safari backdrop for meals for 150 or receptions for 250. The lodge is adjacent to the zoo's new Primate Forest, allowing groups to turn their events into a true safari adventure; other special options include a scavenger hunt, small-animal demonstrations, and meals themed to the wilds of Africa. The zoo features several other special events sites, including the aquarium.
Contact: Kristin Meyer, (419) 385-5721; fax: (419) 389-8670; www.toledozoo.org *