The major markets in East Tennessee have in a lot in common, but two items that are relevant to meeting planners include easy accessibility with their central locations and a smaller city feel with most of the same amenities that can be found in larger destinations.
In the age of coronavirus, the former has become even more of an asset, as has the region’s plethora of outdoor venues suitable for groups. In Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains are the perfect backdrop, while the Tennessee River is within view at many venues in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Below, we break down some of the most popular outdoor venues—including not one but two pedestrian bridges—for meetings and events in these three locales.
Located in the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is less than a day’s drive from many major cities. And if attendees do indeed drive, overnight guest parking is free.
“One of the ‘hidden costs’ that gets overlooked when evaluating a city for an event is the nightly parking charges that most hotels charge in most cities,” said Dave Esslinger, director of sales and marketing for the Gatlinburg CVB. “Gatlinburg hotels do not charge for overnight guest parking. This is a cost savings for attendees that drive in to Gatlinburg that typically isn’t found in most cities.”
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When there, attendees will surely want to catch a good view or two of the scenic Smoky Mountains. Planners should look to the Gatlinburg SkyBridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, clocking it at about 700 feet in length with a height of 140 feet at its midpoint.
Skybridge Private Room, Gatlinburg; Credit: Gatlinburg CVB
“[It’s] an incredible but easily attainable experience that provides memories for a lifetime—especially as you cross the glass floor panels in the middle of the span,” Esslinger said.
At the SkyBridge, planners can utilize not only the observation area and bar, but also a private room with a balcony that can accommodate up to 150 guests.
For even more views of the mountains, attendees can take a chairlift, closed gondola or a Ridge Rambler from downtown Gatlinburg up to . There, they’ll be able to get 270-degree views of the Smoky Mountains and the city itself.
Anakeesta is a 70-plus acre, treehouse-style adventure park, and its restaurant can accommodate private dining for groups of up to 100 people in the main dining area. Full buyouts that utilize the patio can accommodate up to 300 people.
Along with its accessibility and affordability, Knoxville is an inherently walkable destination. There are, after all, more than 2,000 hotel rooms within one square mile of the Knoxville Convention Center. It doesn’t take long to reach the great outdoors, either.
“Another big draw is that we are about 40 minutes away from the Great Smoky Mountains,” said Sarah Rowan, senior director of convention sales and marketing for Visit Knoxville. “And in our backyard we have what we call Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, which is about five miles south of downtown, and it’s over 1,000 protected acres with trails and different waterways.”
If planners want to keep their meetings and events outdoors as well, World’s Fair Park, located adjacent to the convention center, boasts plenty of wide-open space—and even some fascinating history. The park was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, and two original structures from the event remain on the grounds.
The Sunsphere is one of those structures, and it’s become an iconic symbol for the city and its skyline. Towering over the park at 266 feet high, the top of the Sunsphere is a 24-karat gold-dust-filled, glass-paneled ball that measures 75 feet in diameter.
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The park also boasts an expansive Performance Lawn and the Tennessee Amphitheater (the other original World’s Fair structure), which can seat around 1,250.
“We’ve set up rounds and other types of seating on the stage, which provides a pretty unique backdrop because you’ve got a waterway behind you,” said Kelli Gibson, senior director of convention services for Visit Knoxville.
Volunteer Landing, Knoxville; Credit: Courtesy Visit Knoxville
For a riverfront view, planners should look to Volunteer Landing, a public park and greenway nestled along the Tennessee River, where on any given day bikers and joggers can be seen making their way through. But planners can utilize the park for a small- to medium-sized event. The park even annually hosts popular events like Bike Boat Brew & Bark and the wine and arts festival Wine on the Water.
Being a two-hour drive from major cities like Atlanta and Nashville makes Chattanooga an ideal destination, especially in a time when attendees might feel most comfortable driving to a meeting or event. At the time of this writing, Hamilton County had also enacted a mask mandate as a precaution for COVID-19.
Walnut Street Bridge, Chattanooga; Credit: gnagel (iStock)
“We support that as an organization,” said Brian Murphy, vice president of sales for Chattanooga Tourism Co. “From attractions to hotels and restaurants, everybody here is really trying to be safe and considerate.
For plenty of fresh air for a meeting or event, planners can take advantage of some of Chattanooga’s prime outdoor venues, including Miller Park, located in the heart of the city’s downtown. In 2018, the park completed a $10 million renovation that introduced a new greenspace and stage for events. Planners can host up to 200 guests here.
For something even more out of the box in Chattanooga, look no further than the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, which crosses over the Tennessee River and hosts some of the city’s most popular festivals, including the Wine Over Water wine-tasting event. The bridge is ideal for smaller groups of around 50 or so guests.
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Chattanooga Tourism Co.