On Location: Fresh Convention, Culinary + Cultural Spaces Shine in Philadelphia

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The newly expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center
The newly expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center

During a visit in October to the City of Brotherly Love, the Philadelphia CVB showcased its best and brightest culinary options and cultural pursuits, along with the shiny new convention center addition. Historically overlooked by its big brother bookends–New York and Washington, DC–the city has gone to great lengths to build a strong infrastructure catering to large groups among all budget ranges.

The main purpose of this trip was to check out the $787 million expansion of Pennsylvania Convention Center (PCC), over five years in the making. Located smack dab in the middle of Center City, the 2.3 million-sf facility now offers over one million sf of sellable space and it recently obtained a GOLD LEED certification. In 2016, it’s scheduled to host MPI’s World Education Congress (WEC).

The building is now the 14th largest convention center in the country with the largest ballroom and contiguous exhibit space on the East Coast. The historic Reading Terminal Station Headhouse serves as the main entrance to the Center and the trainshed–which became the Center’s Grand Hall and ballroom in the 1990s–is the world’s oldest such structure and the only one left in the United States.

“Expansion space was necessary for groups requiring exhibition space,” says Raymond L. McCullough, PCC spokesperson. “We wanted to be able to hold two conventions at the same time, and the terrace ballroom is the size of a football field.”

There are more than 11,000 rooms within walking distance of the Convention Center. Plans are in progress to create even more, hoping to attract larger groups into town for business. During our tour of the massive center, McCullough emphasizes how similar the original and expanded sections are.

“It’s designed to be seamless, so once you’re in here you can’t tell the difference,” he says. “We don’t try to sell the existing against the expansion. Instead we offer it as a whole, taking into consideration where a group fits best.”

Our trip started off with a bang at the super stylish R2L Restaurant & Lounge with a view of the city stretching for more than 40 miles. Located on the 37th floor in downtown Philly’s Two Liberty Place tower, the upscale space offers a wide variety of semi-private and private dining rooms, the largest hosting up to 150 pax.

Chef Daniel Stern whips up his 6-course tasting flight option, paired with a stellar array of international wines, like the San Huberto Malbec Rose complementing our pork in lentil-miso sauce. My favorite dish is the truffle flatbread with fontina, aged cheddar and arugula.

For dessert, pastry chef Peter Scarola brings us a plate filled with chocolate ganache, french toast sticks and doughnut ice cream. I had to ask Scarola how he came up with the idea to make doughnut ice cream.

“There’s a Krispy Kreme shop around the corner and we decided to start playing around with the doughnuts and we made the decision to puree them,” he says. “It just sort of happened.”

What a wonderful experiment that turned out to be.

“Everyone should do a food tour of Philadelphia,” says Kimberly Hallman, PR rep for the restaurant, who’s dining with us. “We’ve really come to see ourselves as a foodie town. We’re proud that we have a good number of celebrity chefs from channels like the Food Network and Bravo.”

For more casual F&B events, the historic Reading Terminal Market–known by generations as Monopoly’s Reading Railroad spot–is a fantastic place to feed attendees their first authentic Philly cheese steak from Spataro’s Cheesesteaks. With over 70 food vendors inside the Market, it was hard to decide where to go so we turned to tour guide Carolyn Wyman for a few expert tips.

“They’re all traditional markets, there are no fast food stands,” says Wyman. “No more than 40% of the stands can have ready-to-eat food.”

Reading Terminal has enjoyed outstanding success over the last few years, welcoming 6.1 million visitors last year, up 25% in the last eight years. For 2011, over $3.5 million was pumped in to update the market, adding a demonstration kitchen and the Rick Nichols multi-purpose room for cooking classes and private events. La Cucina also offers private cooking, wine and mixology classes for up to 60 pax.

Reading Terminal Market
Reading Terminal Market

Aside from the fabulous food offerings, Philadelphia also offers an impressive list of historical and cultural venues. The 45-acre Independence National Historical Park is regarded as “the most historic mile in America” by locals and visitors alike. Once inside the park, we take a peek at the Liberty Bell and tour the new National Museum of American Jewish History. Philly’s newest iconic architectural landmark, groups up to 1,000 pax can rent out the venues inside the 5-story museum and treat attendees to expansive views of Independence Mall and over 20,000 sf of meeting space.

A highlight of our trip, we showed up for the inauguration of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ new civic space: Lenfest Plaza. This outdoor pedestrian area was created to give groups more of a campus feel and to make it easier and more comfortable transferring between the Academy’s two buildings.

Upon entering the hallways of this historical art school, my inner artist peeks. We walk down hallways lined with cast imprints, paintings and sculptures, until we come to my favorite room. It’s a quiet space occupied by a cast collection that the school uses for a “cast drawing” class, where students come face-to-face with recreated sculptures of Venus de Milo, David and the Winged Victory.

Tours of the galleries can be arranged for groups, and onsite catering is provided by Jimmy Duffy & Sons. In addition, PAFA student artists are available for hire during the course of an event to lead group painting classes.

The elegant Historic Landmark Building and its galleries can host groups of up to 400 pax for a cocktail reception, or 180 pax for a seated dinner. The lofty Samuel MV Hamilton Building is more of a contemporary space, hosting up to 800 pax for cocktails, 380 seated.

We stayed at the 5-diamond 364-room Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, located about 15 minutes from PCC on Logan Square downtown. Outside my window is one of Philly’s most significant pieces of public art–the majestic Swann Memorial Fountain, also called the Fountain of Three Rivers. The architecture of the hotel draws from the Federal period, swimming in elegance with the classical period furnishings, fountains and graceful archways found throughout.

On this cool, autumn day it was a great surprise to find a cup of sweet, warm apple cider awaiting me in the lobby. The hotel’s cozy outdoor courtyard  and grand ballroom are among the hotel’s event spaces, providing more than 10,000 sf of meeting space.


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