Southern cuisine is having a moment, and Columbia is leveraging its appeal, particularly when it comes to attracting groups. Case in point: Last week, on April 20, the state capital hosted the SC Commission for Minority Affairs’ “Working Together Works” Conference. The commission chose Columbia specifically because its members were so impressed by the quality and creativity of the food offered at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center’s Spring Invitational and Open House last year.
Anchoring the city’s growing number of innovative food and beverage options is Farm to Table Event Co., whose expansion since it debuted five years ago has enabled Columbia to appeal to an entirely different set of meeting planners, those who prioritize dining options right alongside meeting spaces. Farm to Table’s mobile operation allows it to set up shop pretty much anywhere within reason — including many of the city’s unique event spaces like the Lipscomb Gallery inside the South Carolina State Museum, which recently hosted a “farm to gallery” dinner.
Farm to Table was instrumental in attracting the prestigious James Beard Foundation to Columbia earlier this month, when the James Beard Foundation’s Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner was held for 250 foodies at City Roots, an in-town urban farm venue. The culinary arts organization recognized the city’s potential to host the fundraising dinner during a South Carolina event held at the James Beard House in New York City last August.
Giving groups a taste of the meeting location is “something that the community is latching onto,” Kelly Barbrey, vice president of sales and marketing for Experience Columbia SC, said. “Groups today are becoming more savvy and they want to be able to experience the destination they’re meeting in rather than feeling like they’re going from hotel to ballroom and not seeing the light of day. They’re wanting to really experience the uniqueness of our culture.”
That’s not to say that delegates need to leave the convention center to enjoy a distinctive food and beverage program. Resident chef Tom Kasperski fuses recipes from his childhood with local ingredients to create highly tailored Southern meals for varying groups; he customizes more than 80 percent of the center’s menus to meld together local products with clients’ tastes and budgets. Last year, Experience Columbia SC played to its local strengths by sending convention planners a promotional mailer that contained the chef’s specialty strawberry jam, and Chef Kasperski’s ability to match his offerings to a particular group was on display when American Chemical Society held its conference at the convention center in last October. Kasperski constructed a liquid nitrogen “mad scientist” ice-cream bar, where he created ice-cream treats for the group’s entertainment while wearing chemistry safety glasses.
Within walking distance of the convention center, the new Aloft Columbia Downtown has sprung up, and a 41-room boutique property, Hotel Trundle, is opening this fall. In addition to new lodging options, expanded spaces at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, like the Sea Lion Landing, provide more choices for unique outdoor event venues.
For convention-goers who like to spend their downtime roaming, there are plenty of places to discover. Columbia went from zero to four breweries in a matter of three years — and there are a few more in the pipeline. It also boasts a pair of distilleries. Columbia Brew Bus has launched a chauffeured service that transports groups from one brewery to the next, and also offers the option for groups to customize their own tours. Those groups that prefer to explore on foot — like Engineering Design and Testing and the South Carolina Association of School Librarians — have gravitated toward Two Gals and a Fork’s walking food tours, led by knowledgeable tour guides.
For more information about Columbia, visit ExperienceColumbiaSC.com.
Sponsored by Experience Columbia SC