They say variety is the spice of life, and there’s nothing truer about the myriad cultures, atmospheres, and things to do flavoring destinations across America.
At this year’s Select Traveler Conference, we asked our travel planner attendees to name destinations they plan to visit with their groups in the coming years. Their answers read like a list of America’s greatest hits, from New Orleans in the South to Anchorage in the North and many other popular places in between.
Read on to discover the one-of-a-kind experiences, group-friendly attractions and new offerings in five of our readers’ favorite destinations.
The greatest two minutes in sports may belong to Churchill Downs, but Louisville’s draw for groups is practically endless. Bourbon City invites visitors to make their way through town with winning food, drinks and attractions.
Whet your whistle downtown, where an abundance of bourbon tours, experiences and bars have turned Main Street into the Wall Street of Whiskey.
There are plenty of things to enjoy even if your group isn’t interested in spirits-soaked attractions.
The city’s second draw is culinary: Louisville chefs have developed their own canon of food with ethnic and Southern fusion offerings. Local favorites like eggs benedict, Derby pie and pimento pizza grace plenty of menus, but expect mashups like collard greens topped with kimchi, too.
As for attractions, many groups visit Churchill Downs. The track is connected to the Kentucky Derby Museum, which gives visitors a look at the legacy and tradition of Thoroughbred racing.
Another signature experience awaits at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. Visitors can immerse themselves in America’s favorite pastime by admiring Babe Ruth’s bat and testing their pitching speed.
Top off your group’s time in town with a pilgrimage to the Muhammad Ali Center, which honors the Louisville-native boxing champion.
Looking for new things to do in Derby City? Louisville is known for its authentic steamboat, the Belle of Louisville. Joining her ranks is a sister steamer the Mary Miller, whose name nods to America’s first female steamboat captain, also from Louisville. Board either cruise for great food, drink and storytelling, like ghost story tours that will spook the bowtie right off your neck.
Life’s always a party in New Orleans.
With French, Spanish, African and American influences seasoning the city’s culture, the Big Easy is as varied as the gumbo it’s known for. Music, sports, a vibrant art scenes, festivals and food, food, food — this rowdy, sophisticated and cosmopolitan town is a place like no other.
It would be a disservice to this culinary paradise to start a trip in the land of jambalaya and etouffee without a feast. Don’t miss a French Quarter beef po-boy sopping with au jus, or try a larger-than-your-stomach seafood platter. Finish off with a beignet and chicory coffee at the Cafe du Monde by Jackson Square.
As for attractions, group favorites are everywhere. Try riding the streetcar or booking specialty walking tours. The Crescent City is home to one of the finest museums in the country: The National World War II Museum. And while there’s nothing quite like the raucous evenings of Mardi Gras, there are celebrations all year like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Speaking of music, the Birthplace of Jazz boasts some impressive clubs. Trumpets, clarinets and trombones serenade crowds on just about any corner, but your ears will be in for a treat at Preservation Hall. The treasured jazz venue has remained mostly unchanged since the 1960s.
It’s simple to get outdoors in the Big Easy, too. Fly over the bayou on an airboat tour or roar with the crowd at a Saints game. And City Park is ready to explore. It’s home to Botanic and Sculpture Gardens, the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art and plenty of other things to see and do.
The city’s latest attraction is Vue Orleans, a rooftop observatory offering a 360-degree view of the city.
If you’re not blown away by a trip to Branson, you’ve gone to the wrong one. The Live Entertainment Capital of the World is a vacationer’s dream destination that puts group interests center stage with more than 100 live entertainment venues, not to mention outdoor adventures and family-friendly attractions.
Pyrotechnics, LED lights, acrobatics and dozens of instruments — that’s not a sampling of features from multiple shows, it’s a glimpse of one of most popular shows in Branson: The Haygoods. Six talented siblings have thrilled audiences in this family show for three decades, with no sign of slowing down.
Sight and Sound Theatre brings entertainment of Biblical proportions to audiences during every show. The faith-based company performance Old Testament and New Testament stories on a bigger-than-Broadway stage. Computerized graphics, 40-foot sets and live trained animals are just a few of the elements groups can expect at a Sight and Sound show.
At Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater, audiences are wowed by pitch-perfect tribute artists during the Legends in Concert show. Where else can you see Sinatra, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin?
Shows may get your group’s blood pumping, but it’s the call of the outdoors that will fuel them with adrenaline. Branson is in Missouri’s Ozark region, where the verdant scenery is replete with springs, waterfalls, caves and the Lake of the Ozarks. Fishing, ziplines, boating and go-karts are options too.
“Groups are coming back to Branson in a big way to enjoy our soft adventure options with Dogwood Canyon at the top of the list,” said Lenni Neimeyer, director of leisure group sales for the Branson Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Other attractions frequently found on Branson group itineraries are Titanic Museum Attraction, Showboat Branson Belle and the new Aquarium at the Boardwalk.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
The only indication of time passing on the Jewel of the Great Lakes is the coming and going of horse-drawn carriages. Accessible only by ferry (a fun pilgrimage in its own right), Mackinac Island, Michigan, seems happily stuck in time. The town promises the perfect atmosphere to unplug and unwind. That’s because on this island, which is 80% state park, there are no cars, no chain hotels and no modern-day worries. Instead, your guests will enjoy serene sailboat-dotted vistas, friendly hospitality and fudge made the old-fashioned way.
“Groups love coming to the island and taking advantage of our horse-drawn lifestyle,” said Tim Hygh, CEO of the Mackinac Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Cars have not been allowed on the island since 1895, so horses and bicycles are our preferred modes of transportation.”
Most visitors spend their time hiking, biking, playing golf and shopping. Trek to Fort Mackinac, a military garrison built in 1782 with a fascinating history, and explore other treasures within the state park. Rental shops abound to outfit visitors to bike the island’s more than 70 miles of trails. Golfers can tee off at the Jewel Golf Course, and the island is brimming with shops downtown, on Market Street and at Surrey Hill.
Some of the more popular things for groups to do are the famous narrated carriage tour of the island, Mission Point Resort, a butterfly house and the iconic Mackinac Island Lilac Festival.
On an island where time stops, “newness” is a bit antithetical to their culture. But hoteliers are always creating new packages for visitors to enjoy, like daycations offered by local resorts.
Take a walk on the wild side in Anchorage, Alaska.
The largest city in the largest state features a union of natural splendor and vibrant urban life. Accessible via direct flight from a dozen major airports, the city delivers scenery, culture and modern amenities.
An undeniable draw to the southern Alaska city is the chance — nay, guarantee — to encounter wildlife and nature. Moose amble around city bike paths, beluga whales swim along the Cook Inlet coast and black bears mosey through hillside berry patches. Groups enjoy the Alaska Zoo (the only one in the state) or the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
To experience the mountains and stunning scenery only found in the Last Frontier, book tickets to ride the Alaska Railroad. Plus, nowhere else in America do you get this close to glaciers. Charter tours by floatplane, on a cruise or via ATV. If you’re not feeling a glacier landing, try a fishing trip, summer dog sledding or bear viewing.
Culturally, Alaska is home to a rich legacy of Native American peoples. Anchorage’s Alaska Native Heritage Center shares their stories through exhibits, dance and more. Travel planners can arrange private tours to explore authentic Native dwellings. The Anchorage Museum is a hit for art and culture aficionados. On display are masterworks of Alaska Native art and designs. Private group tours, guided by a docent, can be arranged.
As for recently added offerings in Anchorage, new or reopened hotels provide upgraded rooms and signature amenities for guests to enjoy. The Westmark Anchorage now features balconies with views of the Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet for every room. And Alaska’s first-ever Nordic Spa at Alyeska Resort is open. It features indoor and outdoor hydrotherapy pools and a Scandinavian-style sauna.