Convene On Site

Southern Charms in Virginia Beach

My first glimpse of Virginia Beach’s legendary warmth didn’t come from the weather — which was balmy in mid-April, the first day of a fam trip hosted by Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau — but during the 20-minute ride from Norfolk International Airport to the shore, as our driver patiently described what we saw along the way.


After he dropped us off at The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center, our host hotel, we were showered with even more sincere greetings from the CVB folks. And soon  we were headed straight for the destination’s pride and joy, the beach.

When we arrived at Waterman’s Surfside Grille, right on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, the staff handed us the eatery’s signature drink, Orange Crush. A smooth blend of vodka, triple sec, fresh-squeezed citrus, and Sprite, the cocktail eased conversation between the hodgepodge of meeting planners, sports-event marketers, and writers who made up our group. We nibbled on tacos as we drank in the ocean view during sunset. Although Waterman’s patio is difficult to reserve during the summer, there’s a second-floor event space than can fit 100 people for a dinner or 150 for a reception.

Eventually it was time to return to the Westin, which at 38 floors — the tallest building in Virginia — poked from the horizon as we drew near. The hotel is one of the anchors of Town Center of Virginia Beach, a newish neighborhood of shops, restaurants, plazas, and offices that includes the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. We learned that the sleek Westin is the hotel of choice for visiting celebrities, and true to form, the hotel’s lobby was still abuzz as we returned from after-dinner drinks at Twist, the lounge next door.

While it might seem anticlimactic to spend the day inside a convention center after an evening on the beach, the soaring, LEED Gold–certified Virginia Beach Convention Center is dramatic and inviting. The center’s design mimics a ship’s mast, and its soaring, glass-lined prefunction space filters in the city’s relaxed vibe and bright skies.

City Councilman M. Ben Davenport welcomed us over breakfast, telling us about new developments — including hotels and a proposed arena — before we settled in for the morning’s main attraction: social-media consultant Crystal Washington, whose high-energy talk on “Creating an Interactive Meeting With Cross-Generational Appeal” shook off any lingering morning fuzziness. “Social media is not all fluffy butterflies,” Washington said, before sending us out onto the convention center’s concourses to snap creative group selfies.

There were lots of spaces to explore in the 516,000-square-foot center, and we toured many of them — the 150,000-square-foot, column-free exhibition space (with etched floors for easy delineation), the meeting rooms, the kitchen, and even an outdoor garden — as part of a “progressive lunch” during which we were greeted at various junctures by staff handing out salmon tempura and other morsels. As we drifted through the kitchen, executive chef Paul Benson of Distinctive Gourmet mandolined some cucumbers for dramatic-looking Greek salads.

Soon, we were headed back to the beach, a mere seven blocks away. Most of Virginia Beach’s 90 hotels are clustered there, from vintage-style motels with retro looks to ultra-modern properties such as the 289-room Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront — vividly decorated, with 12,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 7,100-square-foot oceanfront ballroom. Nearby, one of Virginia Beach’s most iconic hotels, The Cavalier, is undergoing a dramatic facelift and next year will open as a boutique hotel with on-site distillery.

The oceanic theme spilled over to dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s, a popular seafood spot where we noshed on flounder before decamping to the Sandler Center for the night’s entertainment: a raucous, live stage version of “The Price Is Right,” complete with screaming fans.

Before leaving the next day, we were able to choose between a few local activities — shopping, site visits, and simulated flying among them. I opted to harness up at Virginia Beach Adventure Park, a treetop maze of rope ladders and ziplines that doubles as a high-energy  setting for corporate team-building.

When I arrived back at the airport, I didn’t have enough time to duck into the adjacent Norfolk Botanical Garden — but I was still calm and mellow from three days spent in this laid-back town. I thought about what Virginia Beach CVB Director Jim Ricketts told us over breakfast the previous day: that Virginia Beach is “on the cusp of some major, major changes.” Hopefully one thing that never changes is the city’s unflagging hospitality.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.