Philadelphia adds to its giant MICE facilities


Roger St Pierre sends reports during an extended visit to some of the USA’s top conference destinations

Home of the Liberty Bell, Liberty Hall and the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia is the cradle of the American nation. Steeped in history, ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ is at the same time cutting edge modern. It even boasts a skyscraper shaped to resemble a computer memory stick.
Nowhere is this bustling metropolis more state-of-the-art than at the lavishly refurbished and expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center, a whopping US$786m project that’s been five years in the making.

Set across 20 acres of prime central Philadelphia real estate, this biggest ever single public works project in ‘The Quaker State’s’ history brings the centre’s facilities’ portfolio up to a staggering 2.3m sqft.

It’s not just big, it’s breathtakingly lavish, with a stunning light-filled glass atrium that soars up more than 100 feet; a vast 55,408 sq ft ballroom, the size of a football field, that can hold 6,000 attendees at a time, and an elevated second-level loading dock that allows the largest of articulated lorries to drive straight in off the city streets onto the exhibition floor level. Exquisite aesthetics throughout include custom-designed carpeting in no fewer than 15 different geometric patterns.

The facility has seven main halls and 79 high-tech meeting rooms. More than 10,000 hotel rooms can be found within walking distance of this venue, as well as hundreds of restaurants, shops and cultural attractions. This convenient walk-ability helps organisers save dramatically on transportation costs.

A newly added second entrance on North Broad Street gives direct access to the superb Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and its new outdoor Lenfest Plaza pedestrian court, which has at its centre ‘The Paint Torch’, a dramatic 51-ft Claes Oldenburg sculpture.

Memorable events can be staged at the city’s many fine museums and galleries – including the Rodin Museum, the new Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, whose iconic monumental steps not only furnish a wonderful overview of the city skyline but will instantly be recognised by anyone who has seen the ‘Rocky’ movie.

Philadelphia has a wide range of alternative high quality venues, including The College of Physicians, with 8,000 sqft of meeting space; the 87,000 sqft and 13 meeting rooms of the Chase Center On The Waterfront; the 5,000 sqft Helium Comedy Club; the 2,348 capacity Liberty View Ballroom; the Chemical Heritage Foundation Conference Center At CHF; the Franklin Institute, with its romantic planetarium, and, cruising the river, the Spirit of Philadelphia dining boat. It’s no surprise that so many major American and international hotel brands have properties in such an important city.

During my stay, I enjoyed a breakfast feast – eggs Benedict, anyone? – at the classy Chez Colette restaurant, within the centrally located Sofitel Hotel that was matched by an equally lavish spread at the close-by Hotel Palomar next morning, a favoured meeting place for the local movers and shakers.

Lunches were taken at the popular Milk & Honey Café and on the hoof at the atmospheric old Reading Terminal Market, where I managed to resist the notorious Philly steak sandwich belly-buster and opted instead for Chinese noodles, straight from the wok and eaten at one of the myriad counters in this culinary melting pot – where you can sample the ethnic foods of a couple of dozen or more nations.

Of an evening, I sampled Michelin-standard food in the stylishly chic restaurant of the recently opened Monaco boutique hotel and thoroughly enjoyed the creativity of Garces Trading Company, a combination of upmarket deli and classy restaurant using only the freshest of produce to create a menu redolent with Italian, Spanish and South American influences. There are superb set menus and for simpler fayre the pizzas and tapas style presentations are sensational.

My accommodation in Philly was at the 139-guestroom modern boutique Latham Hotel, set at the heart of things on the corner of 17th and Walnut Street, next to Rittenhouse Square. This friendly address provides a seamless blend of Old and New World charm. Both an architectural and a historic landmark, The Latham was first erected as a 14-story apartment house in 1907, on the original site of the home of William Bucknell, a globally recognized philanthropist as well as founder of Bucknell University. The building continued to serve as multi-tenant rental housing for locals of the area for the next several decades before being converted into a hotel in 1970 and being modernised very recently.

Set in the middle of the county’s populous Northeast Corridor, Philadelphia is within a day’s drive of 40% of the US population. Significantly, the city’s conveniently located airport means it is just seven or eight hours away from the key European conference and incentive markets.

As many as 28 airlines, of which three are low-fare, currently operate 600 daily non-stop flights to Philadelphia International from 120 cities. This includes 60 daily and seasonal flights from 36 international destinations. Usefully, the airport is just a 30-minute cab ride from downtown while the Regional High Speed Airport Line trains will get you there in 20 minutes. Philly is also just a 90-minute drive on I-95 from New York, with Washington DC located within 2.5 hours.