Virginia Beach's claim to fame has always been its great location along the Atlantic Coast, adjoining Chesapeake Bay. Now, with the construction of the new Virginia Beach Convention Center, as well as new hotels and restaurants, the area is taking another step forward in its bid to become a major factor in the national meetings and conventions market.

Last fall, the 300,000-square-foot first phase of the new $202.5 million convention center opened with a 31,029-square-foot ballroom, 19,249 square feet of meeting space, a 56,516-square-foot exhibition hall (that will triple in size by the time the entire project is finished), and a 150-foot observation tower. When the center is complete in 2007, it will contain 516,522 square feet of space and have more than 2,000 free parking spaces.

Designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, the new facility evokes a nautical theme. A massive glass-curtain wall rises out of interior and exterior pools of water, and as I walked along the rail of the center's second level, I had the feeling I was taking a stroll along a cruise ship's promenade. The soaring observation tower, filled with meeting and function space with views of Virginia Beach's oceanfront, resembles an Atlantic Coast lighthouse.

The new convention center contains the latest in wired and wireless technologies, and designers also installed programmable LED lighting in the ballroom, giving planners more options for special effects.

One of the distinctive features of the huge exhibit hall is that it is column-free and designed with 10-foot-by-10-foot grids etched permanently in the floor to help make setup easier for exhibitors.

The new Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront provides the city with another full-service hotel, this one with panoramic ocean views and 12,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space, including a 7,130-square-foot ballroom overlooking the Atlantic. The hotel has 291 rooms, most with an ocean view. I had a room on the 18th floor, and its terrific views, as well as the steady sound of the breaking waves, made for an extremely relaxing stay.

The top three floors of the 21-story hotel are its executive level, the Empyrean Club, with concierge services, a private lounge, continental breakfast, and evening hors d'oeuvres. The hotel's 450-seat Catch 31 has already taken its place as one of the finest restaurants along the beachfront.

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