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Massive Raleigh Convention Expansion Sets City Up For Success

Downtown Raleigh skyline

Kerry Painter has made a career of opening new convention and event venues. 

In the late ‘90s, as general manager of San Francisco City Hall, she oversaw the $293 million renovation of the Beaux Arts landmark and created an events department that hosts some 200 gatherings annually. In 2011, Painter led the construction and opening of the Scotiabank Convention Centre and Fallsview Theatre in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Two years later, she managed the $55 million transformation of the historic Tulsa Convention Center into The Cox Business Center, featuring an 8,900-seat arena and Oklahoma’s largest ballroom.

Reflecting on these and other successes, she is as motivated and excited as ever about her latest infrastructure project as director and general manager of the Raleigh Convention and Performing Arts Complex, which incorporates the Raleigh Convention Center (RCC), Red Hat Amphitheater, Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts and Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek.

“Big changes are coming,” said Painter as we overlooked the Red Hat Amphitheater concert venue from the outdoor balcony of her office at the RCC. “Four-plus years from now, conventioneers and visitors won’t recognize downtown Raleigh.”

Centered on a dramatic expansion of the convention center that will encompass an entire city block, the investment in Raleigh’s business events future is being propelled by the city’s expanding technology base, corporate relocations and growing demand from a robust group mix.

“We are bursting at the seams,” Painter said. “At the same time, there is growing local recognition and appreciation of meetings and conventions as economic drivers and generators that benefit all stakeholders across the hospitality and cultural communities. Everyone is moving in the same positive direction, including planners and organizers, who are already making booking inquiries. This is an optimistic and confident time for the Raleigh group market."

The expansion follows the RCC’s record-breaking fiscal success in 2023, with more than 100,000 hotel room nights booked from convention-related business in conjunction with the Greater Raleigh CVB. As other new growth takes root, the City of Oaks is branching out in all directions.

RCC Project Details and Raleigh Hotel News

Raleigh Convention Center main lobby
Raleigh Convention Center main lobby. Credit: RCC

The phased $425 million Complex project kicks off with shifting the 6,000-capacity Red Hat Amphitheater one block south from its present location, which was always envisioned as a temporary site for future expansion but became a local fixture due to the venue’s popularity with touring acts. Aiming to reopen for the spring 2026 season, the reconfigured Amphitheater will grow to 7,000 seats.

Taking its place will be the estimated $387.5 million, 300,000-square-foot expansion of the 500,000-square-foot RCC. Slated to open in 2028, the new venue will add approximately 80,000 square feet of flexible event space and 30 meeting rooms. The existing RCC building recently underwent a sweeping meeting space refresh, including new carpeting, fabrics, finishes and furniture. 

“Wanting to avoid the ‘old building-new building’ effect, the refresh ensures that the current building looks as beautiful and well maintained as the forthcoming expansion,” Painter said.

The third element of the expansion is a new 550-room Omni Hotel, which addresses recent findings that Raleigh lagged its national second-tier competitors in available hotel room blocks within walking distance of the RCC. Targeting a 2027 opening, the hotel, which will be built in a current parking lot between the RCC and the event-capable Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts, will reportedly offer 55,000 square feet of meeting space, several food and beverage outlets, rooftop pool, a signature Mokara spa and a fitness center.

“Normally it’s the chicken and the egg scenario,” Painter said. “You can’t build the convention center because you don’t have the rooms, and you can’t build the hotel because you don’t have the conventions. Pulling this off simultaneously, with the openings a year apart, is magic.”

Adding to current group anchors that include the 401-room, RCC-connected Raleigh Marriott City Center, which offers 15,000 -plus square feet of versatile space in six venues, and 353-room Raleigh Sheraton Hotel, with 20,000-plus square feet of space in 18 event rooms, the boost in downtown room inventory will assist in recruiting larger and more frequent conventions to the area.

With the added goal of retaining conventions as they grow, reversing a running trend of losing bigger shows to Charlotte, North Carolina, more rooms are coming into the convention area and beyond. Slated for a May 2024 debut, the dual-branded, 134-room Homewood Suites by Hilton Raleigh Downtown and 127-room Tempo by Hilton Raleigh Downtown will offer 3,900-plus square feet and 3,800-plus square feet of space, respectively, just two blocks away from the RCC.

Planners will have another 149 extended-stay rooms in the forthcoming Hyatt House hotel. Scheduled to open this year in the $500 million mixed-use Seaboard Station project, the property will reportedly feature the High Rail rooftop bar.

Opened in April 2023, the new 236-room Westin Raleigh-Durham Airport comes with seven meeting rooms and is one of several properties at the airport, which, perhaps surprising for its size,  offers direct airlift from international destinations including The Netherlands, London, Paris and Toronto.   

This June sees the end of downtown’s Holiday Inn, a circular-shaped local landmark from 1969, set to be replaced by Raleigh’s first Kimpton property in 2025.

[Related: What’s New, and What’s To Come, Across the Coastal Carolinas]

Unique Options in Raleigh for Expanding and Enhancing the Agenda

Melrose Knitting Mill group meeting inside
Melrose Knitting Mill group meeting. Credit: Derrick Bryant of Raleighwood Media Group

Encompassing galleries, studios, restaurants, nightlife venues and local businesses, the ongoing revitalization of Raleigh’s historic Warehouse District includes The Dillon, an apartment building named for and reviving the site of a historic supply company. 

The building’s 66-foot-tall facade features works from local photographer and printmaker Tim Lytvinenko, including Not what it is but how it came to be, a giant photo transfer with acrylic gel. Referencing “the changing face of Raleigh where thousands of small parts make up the larger whole,” the work speaks to the many intersecting venues, attractions and activities available to Raleigh groups. 

Across from The Dillon, Raleigh’s Union Station, with direct Amtrak service from all major Eastern and regional centers, doubles as a unique event venue with steel beams, gantry cranes and other decorative elements depicting Raleigh’s rail and industrial heritage. 

On the arts and cultural front, the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts, comprising the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Meymandi Concert Hall, A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater and Kennedy Theatre, is home to the Carolina Ballet, NC Opera, NC Symphony and PineCone. Hosting over 600 events each year, the center’s new Lounge is also available for private events. 

Raleigh is also home to three major state museums, each event-capable and admission-free. Facing each other across Bicentennial Plaza, the North Carolina Museum of History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences are about a mile from the convention district, while the North Carolina Museum of Art is about six miles to the west.

Within walking distance of the first two museums, the former Melrose Textile Mill manufactured underwear and bathing suits from 1900 to 1930. Featuring brick walls, exposed wooden beams, and ghost lettering, the well-preserved building lives on as the Melrose Knitting Factory event venue. 

Managing the venue is Jessica Tilton, owner of Southern Oak Events, who gave me a tour of the evocative space. Accommodating from 25 to 180-plus guests for corporate and social events, the space adjoins Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar. 

“Groups book Mulino separately, but Melrose clients can book the restaurant’s courtyard between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. or earlier, typically for hors d'oeuvres,” said Tilton, who also manages The Carolina Manor House outside of nearby Wake Forest, and offsite events as a preferred vendor at many area venues.

Ajja chef-owner Cheetie Kumar
Ajja chef-owner Cheetie Kumar Credit: Baxter Miller

Across the street from the Melrose, The Longleaf Hotel and Lounge is the groovy update of a 1965 motor lodge. Featuring original starshine breeze blocks, a vintage bar and outdoor patio, this modernized 56-room Mid  -Century gem hosts small events and is a popular overnight option for convention attendees.

Minutes away, the hopping Glenwood South neighborhood includes the Raleigh Beer Garden. Flexibly hosting events, the venue offers a world-record 386-plus draft beers, including 144 North Carolina brews on the first floor and 222 national and international taps on the second floor, plus 12 taps on the rooftop bar and another two dozen in the outdoor event space.

Raleigh’s sizzling culinary scene attracted four James Beard nominations this year. Classic neighborhood restaurant Crawford and Son from five-time Best Chef: Southeast semifinalist Scott Crawford is a 2024 finalist for Outstanding Hospitality. 

Another five-time Best Chef: Southeast nominee is Cheetie Kumar, who twice reached the final round. This year, the rock star chef-musician was a national Best New Restaurant semi-finalist for Ajja. Opened in June 2023, her triumphant latest venture features playful '70s-style decor and a flavor-packed menu that marries North Carolina ingredients with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Southwest Asian influences. Set on a hilltop in the historic Five Points neighborhood on the edge of downtown, the restaurant’s event spaces include a backyard with cityscape views.

[Related: Fun-Filled Teambuilding Activities in Three North Carolina Cities]

Plus: Q&A with Malinda Harrell, Director of Sales and Service, Greater Raleigh CVB

With the Greater Raleigh CVB for 18-plus years, Malinda Harrell has witnessed the evolution of Raleigh’s group landscape for nearly two decades. Over lunch at Beasley's Chicken + Honey, part of star chef-philanthropist Ashley Christensen’s portfolio of local James Beard and other award-winning restaurants, she shared her embrace of the city and the positive times ahead.

What do you like most about living and working in Raleigh?  

Malinda Harrell
Malinda Harrell

What I love most is the city’s all-encompassing diversity, from the people and ways of thinking to the culinary scene and more. Originally from North Carolina, I have called Raleigh home for the past 30 years. What keeps me here, among many reasons, is still being greeted by strangers on the streets, even as Raleigh continues to grow as a city.

How does that translate into group appeal?

Visitors are likewise drawn by that blend of large city amenities with a touch of small-town charm, along with Raleigh’s strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, which creates a rich, welcoming and rewarding environment for all visitors. 

What types of groups typically book Raleigh?

We attract a variety of groups in terms of size and scope. The influence of our Economic Development clusters, which include technology, life sciences and cleantech, is significant. Combined with the presence of prominent colleges and universities, these serve as a major catalyst for attracting meetings and events to our region.

What is the group outlook in the wake of the pandemic?

The coming expansion of the Raleigh Convention Center and adjacent new 550-room Omni Hotel, along with other hotel growth, will make it easier than ever to host high-caliber gatherings, from board meetings to sporting events and large conferences. 

Coupled with Raleigh's appeal as a leisure destination for foodies, festival-goers, nature-lovers, sports fans and history buffs, these investments make Raleigh a lively destination for meetings and conventions, both new and returning. Groups are already back in. Our current booking pace is strong for the future and we continue to see rising demand as we move in a positive direction to book more conventions.


Greater Raleigh CVB

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About the author
Jeff Heilman | Senior Contributor

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based independent journalist Jeff Heilman has been a Meetings Today contributor since 2004, including writing our annual Texas and Las Vegas supplements since inception. Jeff is also an accomplished ghostwriter specializing in legal, business and Diversity & Inclusion content.