Southern Finery

The Spa at Colonial Williamsburg
The Spa at Colonial Williamsburg

Alabama started attracting national groups with the birth of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Namesake golf course design guru Robert Trent Jones envisioned the Trail as his version of a Michelangelo masterpiece. The owners, PCH Hotels & Resorts, saw the 1992 opening of the first courses as a precursor to attracting corporate business. Both dreams came true. Today, the collection of links numbers 26 courses with 468 holes at 11 locations across Alabama, including eight full-service Marriott and Renaissance hotels located either directly on the Trail or just minutes away.

The PCH hotels range from 90 to over 400 guestrooms; they offer a variety of meeting space and fine dining restaurants; and most offer European-style spas. But as is common throughout the South, it’s the spectacular and affordable golf product that lures many a meeting professional.

Golf pro and events planner Pete Malphrus, owner of Industry Solutions, brought a group to the 4-diamond, 259-room Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa for just that combination of excellence. Consistently ranked high among guests for its world’s 4th longest golf course, upscale spa and amenities, the Renaissance Ross Bridge melds 1920’s styling with modern conveniences and 20,000 sf of meeting space.

“Over time, my groups have evolved to concentrate less on just golf to being at facilities that also have excellent accommodations, food and beverage, well-stocked pro shops for our shopping spree prize programs, and people willing to work with a non-traditional sized group for shotgun start events—64-72 instead of 96-144 players,” says Malphrus. He and his corporate partner for the past 20 years produce four regional golf events a year. “Ross Bridge has good meeting space, quality food service and the staff is as warm and friendly as any I’ve dealt with.”

His groups are typically 95% male owners of multiple convenience and grocery stores, tobacco shops and distribution chains; and, they’re golfers of every skill level. He first used Ross Bridge in May and it was the first time 100% of invitees attended. He believes the easy transfer from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport 20 minutes away and the fact that the annual PGA Senior Tour was held at Ross Bridge the week before were likely the impetus. “We think the average golfer wants to say he played on the same Robert Trent Jones course he’d just seen the pros play on TV,” says Malphrus.

Was it really all that?

“Every person I met there, from catering to registration to the golf staff who set up the event, I’d give them A’s across the board. It’s rare for us to return to a facility immediately, but we’ll be back in May.”

Golf was not on the agenda for the home décor/entertaining company, Willow House, and their direct sales group of 275 at Ross Bridge for an annual training session. Pam Scott, Director of Sales, said her group of 98% women wanted a “warm, hospitable resort feel and lots of time spent relaxing at the spa.”

They found it in the “lobby’s inviting fireplace, expansive terrace, and cut stone walls that make you feel like you’re in a Scottish castle,” she says. “There’s even a bagpiper who plays nightly.”

Did they enjoy the 12,000-sf spa with 14 softly lit treatment rooms lade in bamboo flooring? How about the unique Ross Bridge Combination Steam Table/Vichy Shower for the Mud Body Wrap and Seaweed Mineral treatments?

Let’s just say her “Aah!” means yes. She adds that a meeting planner needs “a staff who aids an event’s success. Willow House is about hospitality and the staff offered that. Chef’s food was phenomenal; Southern down-home wonderful. Not typical banquet fare. We’re definitely returning.”

PCH’s Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Point Clear, also along the RTJ Trail, has been known throughout the South as The Queen of Southern Resorts since 1847. The hotel salutes its history as a confederate hospital in the Civil War by maintaining a cemetery for 300 soldiers near the 18th tee of The Grand’s Azalea course, as well as a daily patriotic military salute and cannon firing. Golfers can also opt for the 7,620 yard, 72-par Dogwood course.

Within the 550 acres of the 4-diamond property, there are 405 guestrooms in five buildings, 37,000 sf of meeting space that includes 23 meeting rooms, and the 20,000-sf spa, ranked one of Marriott’s top spas for guest satisfaction in the country. For a tantalizing treatment, we like the Ahshiatsu Barefoot Massage.

“Aah,” is right.

Mississippi Magnolia Trail

A Golf Trail is not exclusive to Alabama. Next door in Mississippi, the Magnolia Golf Trail features 11 courses situated around the hotels and casinos along the Gulf Coast and up in Tunica.

“Every group I work with plays golf,” says Susan Gaffney, President of DMC Dynamic Events. “Mississippi has so many courses you could spend a week here and play a different one every day.” But since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region, she says, “Only two Biloxi resorts still have significant meeting space, one of which is the Beau Rivage with 50,000 sf of flexible space and where most of my clients book.”

Built exclusively for the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and designed by legendary golf architect Tom Fazio, Fallen Oak is a 510-acre, par-72 course that spans 7,438 yards from the back trees. The easy 20-minute drive has it nuzzling the Desoto National Forest.

“The course is gorgeous,” says Gaffney, describing wetlands, towering oaks, crisscrossing pecan orchards and magnolia groves, and multiple elevation changes. Her groups of 50-100 “enjoy the challenge of a course that hosts the annual Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a PGA Seniors Tour.”

For those whose idea of a fun work out is a day of being pampered in a genteel environment, the 20,000-sf Beau Rivage Spa & Salon offers innovative treatments. Gaffney recommends the Caviar & Pearl Facial. A soothing spa, a mint julep, refined ambience—that’s our kind of Southern hospitality.

The Beau Rivage has 1,740 guest rooms, 11 restaurants, four lounges, and a convention center that accommodates 1,800.

What is it about Scottish golf courses that Southern designers love to replicate? Another star golf designer, Hale Irwin, brought a Scottish flavor to The Links at Cottonwoods. Situated within 2,000 acres surrounding Harrah’s Tunica Hotel & Casino, The Links emulates Scotland’s rolling fairways, moguls and bunkering, wooden bridges, and landscaped cart paths. This is the highest ranked of the three courses in Tunica, about a half hour from Memphis International Airport. The other courses are Riverbend Links and Tunica National Golf & Tennis Club.

Harrah’s Tunica features three elegantly diverse hotels and the 45,000-sf Mid-South Convention Center, all surrounding The Links at Cottonwoods. The golf course may be the star attraction for golfers, but it takes the 2,400-seat event center, 140,000-sf casino and 40,000 sf of meeting space to bring in the corporate business. The three hotels include the Casino (188 rooms), the Veranda (directly overlooking The Links at Cottonwoods), and the 600-room Terrace, which contains the 16,000-sf Bellissimo Spa & Salon.

At The Bellissimo, coffee isn’t just served steaming in a mug. The grounds are also used as an exfoliant to awaken dead skin cells before a moisturizing blend of vitamin-rich lotions are massaged in. That jolt of caffeine increases the circulation and reduces cellulite. They call it the Caffeine Body Buzz.

Callaway Gardens, GA

Nestled in Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains, Callaway Gardens is home to two world-class golf courses that beckon corporate groups looking for fresh air, spectacular elevated views and challenging fairways. Located in Pine Mountain about one hour southwest of Atlanta, the 13,000-acre resort is home to the world’s largest azalea display, one of the largest butterfly conservatories in the country, and a vegetable garden so spectacular that PBS’ show Victory Garden films there.

Yet golf is still the most requested activity for visiting corporate groups. Maybe it’s the fact that a certified professional golf staff is on hand to devise competitions for any size group on either of the two challenging courses, which recently underwent $2.7 million in renovations.

The Lake View Golf Course added a computerized irrigation system, rebuilt bunkers and TifEagle Bermuda grass. The Mountain View Golf Course has new championship tees and concrete cart paths with curbing around the tees and greens.

Corporate clients also clamor for the relaxing therapies inside the new 13,000-sf Spa Prunifolia, a tranquil setting amid the delicate gardens. Spa products are cultivated onsite for treatments like the Lemon Verbena body polish and organic Irish Moss detox massage. Prunifolia houses 13 treatment rooms.

The Lodge at Callaway Gardens is the embodiment of Southern hospitality. Private balconies jut from the 150 rooms reflective of a country home, affording one time to breathe, relax and refresh. The Lodge Conference Center, adjacent to the Lodge & Spa, can accommodate 1,100 with 22,000 sf of flexible meeting space and 12,000 sf of landscaped terraces and lawns, perfect for evening soirees.

Colonial Williamsburg

Stir a heavy dose of history into the pot of modern corporate meeting options for a winning dish in Colonial Williamsburg. From the time George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry debated American independence in the Apollo Room at the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg has hosted meetings.

Today’s selections range from the 9,000-sf Regency-style Williamsburg Inn to an executive board room in Providence Hall, a secluded 18th century preserved home. The folk-art inspired Williamsburg Lodge contains 45,000 sf of versatile function space, including two ballrooms, 28 meeting rooms and four outdoor event areas. Nature lovers flock to the 300-room Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites, with 12,800 sf of event space overlooking a serene stream and waterfall.

Williamsburg’s three golf courses challenge a wide range of skills while providing a quiet environment for conducting business. Robert Trent Jones Sr. called the 6,817-yard Gold Course his “finest design” when first opened. His son Rees Jones created the first father-son tandem Green Course next door. The Spotswood Course, an update of Williamsburg Inn’s original 1947 course, is a pretty 9-hole practice layout.

Over at The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, a recent executive level corporate group partook in a wide variety of signature massages within the 20,000-sf facility. Then they conducted their meeting while still wearing spa robes in the Wisteria Lounge.

“It’s a comfortable space for 12 that invites camaraderie and teamwork,” says Spa Director Kate Mearns.

This spa is special because it offers healing therapies developed over five centuries by colonial, African and Native American cultures. The experience begins as soon as guests walk through a wisteria-draped pathway beside a fountain and formal garden to enter the Georgian Revival building.

The 2-hour signature services, meanwhile, are designed to parallel certain centuries.

“For instance, someone wanting a detoxifying, relaxing service may select the 17th century signature service rather than the more rejuvenating 21st century service,” says Mearns. “Clients first choose the service’s benefits; then pair it to the century with the services they want to receive.”

The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg’s coolest experience is the option of aligning tea and luncheon selections to each century’s signature service. For example, in the colonial days, doctors were just beginning to connect cleanliness with overall wellness. Orange and ginger, used by the apothecary for various remedies, were essential imports. Mearns explains that when a client requests the 18th century signature service that includes an orange and ginger body scrub and massage, “we’ll suggest the accompanying orange and ginger-glazed grilled chicken breast atop 12 grain bread garnished with herbal mustard, a sprinkling of almonds and spread of goat cheese.”