The Richmond, Va.-based Virginia Society of Association Executives brought its annual conference to Norfolk, Va., early May 2018 for three days of premier education and other programs. Attracting nearly 200 attendees from across the Commonwealth, including association executives, meeting planners, hoteliers and other suppliers to the association management industry, the 2018 conference is themed on “Ideas That Work.”

That’s an apt premise for Coastal Virginia as a whole. Encompassing the nine cities and six counties of the Hampton Roads region on southeastern Virginia’s Lower Peninsula, the region opened the book on the American experience with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and has contributed major chapters ever since.

At the forefront of inspiration and discovery, from land and sea to outer space, the area’s dynamic destinations inspire expanded thinking and new directions.

Shining Lights

Another 2018 win for Norfolk was the return of the Norfolk Botanical Garden’s LanternAsia exhibition. Created by Chinese firm Tianyu Culture Communication, this wondrous global traveling display of 36 colossal handcrafted works of art, illuminated at night and representing Asia’s 2,000-year lantern tradition, chose Norfolk in 2016 as one of its inaugural U.S. destinations.

As Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones noted of the original event: “Norfolk’s selection as the location for this unique exhibit is a testament to the city’s ability to attract not only global companies, but talent and culture from all over the world.”

Norfolk’s overall appeal is blooming, as Donna Allen, VisitNorfolk’s vice president of sales and marketing, explained.

“In a hometown survey, Travel + Leisure’s readers voted Norfolk ‘Favorite American City’ for 2018, with the publication selecting the city as one of the ‘Top 50 Places to Travel’ in 2017,” Allen said. “First-time visitors think of Norfolk as a traditional military town, but we are much more than that, evolving into a great place to visit and live over the last several years.

“Embracing our public art and creativity, the city uniquely combines the Southern touch with a healthy dose of edginess and surprising international vibe,” she added. “Groups have great meeting venues, and with our hotels, restaurants and attractions all close to each other, the ability to easily maneuver about the city.”

The Norfolk Botanical Garden, 80 this year, is an illuminating year-round option for groups, with a moving story of its foundation. In 1938, the Works Progress Administration hired some 220 African-Americans, mostly women, to clear the land and begin planting the garden.

Honoring their arduous labors, the WPA Memorial Garden, featuring the commemorative Breaking Ground sculpture, is one of 53 themed gardens within the 175-acre oasis. The workers are also remembered each April on WPA Garden Heritage Day. With facilities including the signature Rose Garden Hall, the venue flexibly hosts indoor and outdoor events for up to 400.

Shining bright, too, is the NEON (New Energy Of Norfolk) District, the city’s first official arts district. The neighborhood is anchored by the event-capable Chrysler Museum of Art, where groups can take classes at the Chrysler Glass Studio; Harrison Opera House, regional home of ther Virginia Opera; and 2,500-seat Chrysler Hall, the area’s premier performing arts center. There are also restaurants, galleries and splashy outdoor murals.

Easily accommodating mid- to large-size groups, other inspiring venues include the Harbor Club, overlooking the Elizabeth River as part of the emerging Waterside District.

Home to the retired battleship USS Wisconsin, which earned five battle stars in WWII, the contemporary Nauticus museum also features the Decker Half Moone Center, hosting 1,200 attendees in its Grand Rotunda & Promenade Deck.

Nearby Portsmouth, with its own seafaring tradition and inviting Olde Towne, offers voyages of discovery at venues including the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, Lightship Portsmouth Museum and the Railroad Museum of Virginia.

Arrival Times

Hampton, at the geographic center of Coastal Virginia, is surging ahead. Consistent visitor growth contributed to a 7.1 percent RevPAR increase in 2017, spurring demand-driven development of three new select-service hotels close to major event venues including the Hampton Roads Convention Center and famed Hampton Coliseum.

Heritage venues and events are also creating major buzz in this historically significant American center.

“From the first settlers that arrived on our shores in 1607, before sailing up river to Jamestown, to America’s first astronauts—the Mercury Seven—who trained here, Hampton is known as a City of Firsts,” said Hampton CVB Director Mary Fugere. “Other milestones include the first documented arrival of Africans in English North America, in 1619, which we are commemorating next year.”

The arrival took place at Point Comfort, today the site of Fort Monroe. Scheduled for August 2019, the weekend-long event will include living history tours, live entertainment, keynote addresses and special exhibits.

Declared a national monument in 2011, moat-encircled Fort Monroe offers a powerful option for off-site events.

Downtown, the Hampton History Museum showcases Hampton’s remarkable heritage as the nation’s oldest continuous English-speaking settlement (Jamestown, 1607, was short-lived; English colonists settled the future Hampton in 1610).

Installed in March 2018, the museum’s new NASA: Hampton Takes Flight exhibition celebrates Hampton’s pioneering role in aeronautics and space exploration. Hampton’s legacy as NASA’s founding site is also showcased at the Virginia Air & Space Center, visitor facility for NASA’s Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, where event options include banquets next to the Apollo 12 Command Module.

Founded in 1868, the event-capable Hampton University Museum, 150 this year along with the school, is the nation’s oldest African-American museum and among Virginia’s oldest museums.

Hampton hot spots include Buckroe Beach and the breweries behind the city’s frothy craft beer scene. Group-capable choices include Bull Island Brewing Co., offering private event space on the downtown waterfront, and the brand-new Vanguard Brewpub & Distillery, accommodating 27 guests in each of two meeting spaces.

In March 2018, Hampton’s peninsular neighbor, Newport News, hosted The Virginia Tourism Corporation’s annual Visitor Centers Seminar. The two-day conference was attended by Virginia State Welcome Center professionals and 100-plus travel counselors from visitor centers throughout Virginia.

Some 75 early arrivals gathered at the host hotel, the Newport News Marriott, for a group painting session led by the local outpost of national paint-and-sip franchise Wine and Design.

Together, they created a Virginia-themed work of art, each placing a heart from their place within the state. Later, the group broke into teams for a City Center scavenger hunt.

“It’s important for us to always find ways to wow our conferees with experiences they’ll remember about our destination,” said Cindy Brouillard, director of newly rebranded Newport News Tourism. “We want their time here to become the fun stories they’ll share when returning to the office.”

These ready agenda—and conversation—starters include walking among dinosaurs at the event-capable Virginia Living Museum. Created in 2016 as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration, the permanent outdoor Dinosaur Discovery Trail showcases 16 realistic one-third to full-size animals from the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras.

The city’s maritime heritage comes alive at the event-ready Mariners’ Museum & Park.  “America’s National Maritime Museum” features the USS Monitor Center, the official repository for 200-plus tons of priceless artifacts recovered from the iconic Civil War ironclad. Ironclad Distillery, the city’s brand-new first bourbon micro-distillery, is partnering with the museum on telling the ironclad story.

Delegates can also turn to Tradition Brewing Company for tours, tastings and private events.  

Better at the Beach

In April 1607, three Virginia Company of London ships carrying 104 men and boys landed at Cape Henry, before navigating the James River inland to Jamestown Island and creating the first permanent English colony in the future America.

Their “First Landing” site today is part of Virginia Beach, now as then offering compelling first-hand experiences.

“Virginia Beach offers a new perspective on meetings with diverse out-of-the-boardroom experiences that allow attendees to immerse themselves in our coastal culture,” said Todd Bertka, vice president of convention sales and marketing at the Virginia Beach CVB. “With unique settings ranging from venues overlooking the ocean to performance centers and museums, coupled with our flourishing culinary and emerging craft beer scene, meetings are better at the beach.”

Group beacons include the Cape Henry Lighthouse. Authorized by George Washington and overseen by Alexander Hamilton, its construction in 1792 was one of the first acts of the newly formed Federal government. Replaced a century later, it remains one of the nation’s oldest surviving lighthouses.

Located near the First Landing spot at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, the tower and surrounding dune are available for self-guided tours and 75-person events (access is via active Fort Story, checkpoint included).

From intimate 20-person dinners overlooking salt marshes to 2,000-attendee cocktail receptions amid sea turtles and sharks, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, featuring 800,000-plus gallons of aquatic environments, provides an ocean-themed backdrop for events.

Flanked by grand staircases and illuminated by a chandelier, the three-story lobby at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts is another exquisite setting for banquets and receptions, along with the 1,300-seat performance hall and 400-capacity outdoor performance plaza.

Scenically backed by Chesapeake Bay, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s new fully sustainable Brock Environmental Center, designed for LEED Platinum-certification, offers a large conference room. Nearby, groups can take guided boat tours of the famed oyster farms along the Lynnhaven River.

Featuring legendary warbirds such as the Spitfire and Mustang, the preeminent Military Aviation Museum rents spaces that include a 12,000-square-foot WWI hanger and grassy lawn accommodating 5,000 people with staging and tents. Groups can also request flybys or private airshows.

The architecturally acclaimed Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art flexibly hosts up to 350 people in dramatic spaces including the Atrium, which features a vaulted ceiling, skylight and live trees. 

Following Footsteps

Jamestown, where attractions include boarding replicas of the three Virginia Company of London ships, forms “America’s Historic Triangle” along with Yorktown and perennial conferencing favorite Williamsburg.

“Greater Williamsburg is a unique, authentic and enlightening destination where meeting attendees can have fun while absorbing the living past throughout the Historic Triangle,” said Dominique Holt, associate director, conference sales and marketing for the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance.

Colonial Williamsburg offers 48 meeting rooms and 67,000 square feet of function space, plus outdoor venues, for all group sizes and budgets. Crowning the collection is the historic 62-room Williamsburg Inn, which earned the prestigious AAA Five Diamond rating last year and features event spaces such as restored 18th century Providence Hall House. Other venues include Kingsmill Resort, overlooking the James River and offering IACC-certified conference space for 450 delegates.

Diverse off-agenda options include the Williamsburg Tasting Trail and Freedom Park. Dating to the 1650s, this 600-acre expanse preserves historic sites including one of America’s first free Black settlements, from 1803. Groups also have biking trails and a treetop zipline course that is ideal for teambuilding.



Located diagonally across from the campus of Hampton Roads Convention Center and the Hampton Coliseum, a new 109-suite Hyatt Place is aiming for completion this year.

Another anticipated 2018 debut is the 173-room Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel, which is among the first properties approved for conversion to Hilton's Tapestry Collection boutique brand.

Plans have been announced for an Element Hotel on the site of the former Macy’s at Peninsula Town Center. The extended stay property will reportedly offer a minimum of 120 rooms and 1,000 square feet of meeting space.


The 183-room Holiday Inn Newport News at City Center opened in April 2018. Formerly flying Omni and Magnuson flags, the completely renovated full-service property offers 10 meetings rooms and 11,000 square feet of space. Highlights include the 5,800-square-foot Virginia Ballroom, accommodating banquets for 450 people, and 1,500-square-foot state-of-the-art auditorium. Newport News International Airport is minutes away.

Offering five meeting rooms and 20,659 square feet of total space, Newport News Marriott at City Center recently renovated all 256 guest rooms, including extensive upgrades to the presidential and junior suites.


Targeting completion by end 2018, Norfolk Waterside Marriott has commenced a $25 million renovation project that includes a modern refresh of all 405 guest rooms. The property offers 26 meeting rooms and nearly 69,000 square feet of total space.

Targeting a possible 2019 opening, plans have been announced for the transformation of the historic 1912 Royster Building into a glass-art-themed boutique hotel with 120 rooms. The property, slated to be part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, will reportedly feature gallery and event space, and rooftop bar with waterfront views.

Offering 46,000 square feet of flexible space, the 468-room Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel is slated to complete a comprehensive $12 million phased refresh this spring, including guest rooms, lobby, restaurant, fitness center and meeting space. 


Historic Cavalier Hotel, from 1927, has reopened following an extensive $75 million renovation. With 85 guest rooms, the Autograph Collection property offers 4,721 square feet of oceanfront group space for 20 to 125 guests. Venues include the ornate Grand Ballroom, prefunction hall and two meeting rooms. Other amenities include three restaurants, on-site distillery, spa and the Cavalier Beach Club.


Chesapeake Parks, Recreation and Tourism

City of Portsmouth

Hampton CVB

Newport News Tourism

Suffolk Division of Tourism

Virginia Beach CVB


Williamsburg Destination Marketing Committee