Planner’s Pick: On the Waterfront in Wilmington

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Wilmington, North Carolina’s evolving River District encourages repeat business for at least one local association.

The North Carolina Healthcare Engineers Association (NCHEA) is no stranger to Wilmington, N.C. Prior to the opening of the Wilmington Convention Center nearly 10 years ago, the local group had been rotating every other year between meeting closer to the mountains in Pinehurst, N.C., and meeting near the sea, which previously meant they had to meet in South Carolina to find space large enough to host them. That is until Wilmington approached them with plans for a new convention center along the Cape Fear River and surrounding hotel openings that would follow suit. NCHEA was so excited that it was one of the first groups to sign a contract with the convention center, literally signing on dirt at the ground breaking for future events that went through 2018.

Fast-forward a few years and the NCHAE’s 66th Annual Conference & Exhibition will be held in Wilmington this August, with 450 attending the educational sessions in addition to suppliers and attendee guests. The 107,000-sf convention center and 12,000-sf event lawn will host most of the group’s events. The 186-room Embassy Suites by Hilton Wilmington Riverfront, which opened adjacent to the convention center last year, is one of the five hotels that Noblett contracted for this year’s conference. The others include the 272-room Hotel Ballast Wilmington (formerly the Hilton Wilmington Riverside), Courtyard Wilmington Downtown/Historic District, the new Hampton Inn Downtown and beach-adjacent Blockade Runner Beach Resort.

Exploring the Riverwalk

While the new meetings infrastructure is certainly a draw for groups, it’s the city’s continually evolving River District, connected by an about two-mile scenic Riverwalk, that add to Wilmington’s appeal for meetings. Pier 33, for instance, provides additional waterfront venue space for private events up to 4,000 attendees, with a location at the 204-slip Port City Marina. Additional work on Riverfront Park continues to expand meetings possibilities, and a major redesign of North Waterfront Park will bring an amphitheater and more green space to the city’s meeting scene, with construction scheduled to begin later this year.

“The marina is gorgeous, lining one whole side of the Riverwalk, and is just lovely with all the boats,” says Dona Noblett, NCHEA event coordinator. “The Hotel Ballast is just a few blocks away, and attendees really enjoy walking the Riverwalk in the morning to the convention center. It’s a nice stroll at the end of the day, too.”

Attendees Roll Up Their Sleeves

Before the NCHEA conference begins, a golf tournament at Cape Fear National Golf Course is scheduled, while a fishing charter on the Atlantic Ocean will be available for non-golfers in the group. This year, attendee guests will also get the option to take a class at DIY studio, Anders Ruff (AR) Workshop Wilmington.

Past conference activities included renting out the USS North Carolina World War II battleship, or hiring a local caterer to come and demonstrate how to make the perfect cupcake swirl and then the best way to eat it.

“I look for things that attract not only my engineers, but also their guests,” says Noblett, adding that one of the most important things for the group was finding a seaside location to gather and give back. This year, the group will encourage students to work in healthcare engineering by offering a scholarship to attend Cape Fear Community College.

“We’re giving them $10,000, which is essentially a full ride for two students,” says Noblett. “We already met with the college, and it was really fun going there because they had a lot of things to show us about the future of engineering.”

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