Hartford, I hardly knew you

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If you’ve never done a fam in your home town, I highly recommend it. Last week I spent a couple of days in Hartford, Conn., and it was an eye-opener (I grew up in West Hartford, a close-in suburb). I had taken art classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum as a kid, my high school graduation was at the Bushnell Theater, and I entered a five-legged frog (don’t ask! And no, he didn’t win) at the annual frog-jumping contest at the Mark Twain House one memorable summer.


But I really haven’t spent any time in the city since the early 1980s, when I worked at the restaurant in the beautiful old Goodwin Hotel. And I had never, apologies to the CVB, thought of it much as a convention city.


I knew they had just built a new 540,000-square-foot convention center, with a new Marriott attached to it, and had a newly gutted and totally redone Hilton. Not to mention a totally revamped highway system that makes getting around the city a whole lot easier, and a new sports stadium across the Connecticut River from downtown. Still, it was with some trepidation that I pulled into the convention center parking lot. What if, despite all the new stuff, Hartford was still that kind of boring little city that could, but really hadn’t yet, become a player?


Now that I’ve experienced the new Hartford, I’m even more glad Connecticut didn’t steal the New England Patriots away from us Massachusetts folks. Instead of a sports stadium, the area of Hartford slated for renovation now is home to a new riverfront district called Adriaen’s Landing, which includes the Connecticut Convention Center. The center, with 140,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, and 25,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, reminds me a little of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in its use of natural light and soaring spaces. Katie Blint, the center staffer who took us around, said they were aiming for a conference center feel with a convention center’s expo space, and I’d say they hit it on the head. This place has all the modern conveniences, including 20 loading docks (two that are drive-in) and some funky ceilings in the meeting spaces that allow easy access to rigging points. But it also feels more intimate than your average convention center, not to mention more elegant (check out the ladies rooms—I’ve never seen anything remotely like them in a convention center.) Still to come for Adriaen’s Landing are retail and residential developments, though they already have some cool streetlights up. Oh, and did I mention that the center overlooks the Connecticut River? Gorgeous views of both the river and the city.


I’ll try not to go on and on here, but the 409-room Marriott Downtown Hartford, where we stayed, is magnificent. It’s funky yet elegant, luxurious yet homey, and I hear the spa treatments are beyond relaxing. The 13,500 square feet of meeting space, including the largest ballroom in Hartford (at more than 8,300 square feet), is beautifully appointed, and both indoor and outdoor walkways connecting the space to the center make it easy for attendees to go back and forth. Another plus is the technology, which in addition to full AV, includes wireless connectivity throughout, and a cool thing they call a “Wired for Business” package that gives you high-speed Internet access, unlimited local and long-distance calls, for $10.95 for a 24-hour period. Very cool too is a Internet TV interface, where you can use the supplied keyboard to get basic Web access to pre-selected sites for free, and full access for a fee. And the food! I’m recommending to my parents that they check out Vivo, where we had a most excellent Italian-American feast.


In the business district, the newly refurbished, redone, and utterly fab 392-room Hilton Hartford, which is connected to the Civic Center, also has some 15,000 square feet of great, if more traditional, meeting space, with all the techie bells and whistles. While the idea of a combination deli/Chinese restaurant may sound weird, we had a delicious dinner at the Hilton's Morty and Ming's restaurant (I'd recommend picking one or the other instead of a combo, though. Chopped liver and fried rice are better appreciated separately). The convention center, the Marriott, and the Hilton are all managed by the Waterford Group, which from what I've seen is doing some great things for the city.


OK, I’ll stop soon. But if you’re looking for small meeting venues, or just really interesting spaces for events in Hartford, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Mark Twain House, and the Bushnell (which now has two theaters, and meeting space I never knew existed) also have some cool spots to bring groups that like art, history, a good quote, and something different. And while it wasn’t on our whirlwind tour, I have to get a plug in for West Hartford Center as a great place for off-site dine-arounds and shopping.


So yes, you can go home again. But it may not be the same home you knew. And in this case, that’s a good thing. Now if Hartford could just get the Whalers hockey team back from Raleigh…

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