Hitting the road for work needn't be a loathsome chore. Our picks for the best cities for business travel have it all--entrepreneurial culture, stylish hotels, great eats and the elusive "fun" factor. Put these destinations on your itinerary, and you just may not want to go home.
How do you identify the best destinations for business travel? We've all heard friends and colleagues detail their plans: "I need to go to Albany," they might say, "but next week I get to go to Portland." Clearly, some cities are more desirable than others.
Part of it is the ease of doing business. Is the airport accessible from other cities and close to downtown? Are companies and meeting spaces within easy reach from the best hotels?
It also has to do with the entrepreneurial mindset of a place, a sense that innovation is in the air. The best place to go for business, many entrepreneurs will tell you, is the one where they're likely to come away with a new idea or a new client.
Then there's the "fun" factor, cities that tempt you to stay the weekend. As Mark Ehrnstein, a vice president at Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, says about his city: "None of our team members need to be talked into making a trip here." Indeed, Austin is one of our selections for the best cities for business travel. We've picked three, based on metro-area population: large (2 million-plus), medium (1 million to 2 million) and small (fewer than 1 million).
Schedule meetings and retreats where logic dictates. But if a trip comes up to one of these places, don't let your VP or regional rep take it instead--they may never come back.
Large City: Boston
The best part about doing business in Boston? The business. The most visible companies, such as Zipcar, Daktari Diagnostics and Preserve, are only the tip of the iceberg. The convention center, opened in 2004, has livened up the previously moribund South Boston, and after two decades in exile in the suburbs around Route 128, startups and thriving small businesses can again be found in the city.
Apart from the occasional winter nor'easter, which can close things down for days at a time, business travel to Boston is a treat. The city wouldn't have been considered for this award before the Big Dig--the largest public works project in American history--invested nearly $15 billion into underground infrastructure. Now, the Ted Williams Tunnel has cut travel time from the Financial District to Logan Airport from an hour to as little as 15 minutes.
(There's even a water taxi from downtown.) Plenty of cabs and one of the finest urban rail systems on the continent make traversing the city far easier than getting around San Francisco, Los Angeles or even New York.
Boston has always had good hotels, but a dozen intriguing properties have sprung up in the past decade. Many are in the Back Bay, within walking distance of most meetings, top restaurants and cultural attractions. "In a day, you can do an awful lot," says Craig LaRosa of local design firm Continuum, whose clients visit from around the world. "That mix of business, entertainment, food and culture within a very small geographic area is enticing."
A visit isn't complete without a trip to the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame just outside the MIT campus. In what other city can you find homage to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs actually etched in stone?
Where to stay: The Liberty Hotel. This is a business hotel with a raucous party vibe. Cava is offered on arrival; the weeknight bar crowd spills out into the atrium lobby; and there are cooking demonstrations, art exhibitions and fashion shows. It's a one-stop social life for the road warrior. But 6,000 square feet of meeting space and a staff attuned to business needs also make it an ideal base for a week of meetings--if you can handle the clamor. Set in a retrofitted granite-block jail, the hotel is perfectly situated on the edge of Beacon Hill, one stop on the MBTA from MIT's Entrepreneurship Center and accessible to Copley Square and the North End. (215 Charles St.; libertyhotel.com)
Where to eat lunch: Coppa. The rejuvenated neighborhood around Tremont Street is dotted with boutiques, graphic design firms, ad shops and other small businesses. Coppa, a 40-seat sliver of a restaurant owned by high-profile Boston chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, serves as the canteen for nearby creative types, while attracting chowhounds from around the city. They come for wood-fired pizzas, Italian small plates and creatively authentic pastas, such as house-made chestnut tagliatelle with wild-boar ragù. Though the room has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood bar, you won't be out of place in a business suit. There's a well-priced, carefully chosen wine list for that clinch-the-sale celebration. (253 Shawmut Ave.; coppaboston.com)
Where to eat dinner: Craigie on Main. At his bustling French-inflected restaurant on the Cambridge side of the Charles, Tony Maws turns out intellectual food you don't need to think about to enjoy. These are hearty dishes--a pork sampler with four preparations; crispy Vermont pheasant; house-cured sardines--presented in sophisticated fashion. The room hums with professionals in animated conversation over beer or wine. It's the perfect spot to impress a discerning client. (853 Main St., Cambridge; craigieonmain.com)
Where to meet for drinks: Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks. Don't be put off by décor that looks like a national chain waiting to be rolled out. The cocktails at this brasserie around the corner from Fenway Park are rivaled only by those at the obsessively original Drink in South Boston. The wine list is a hidden gem, and the food isn't half bad, either. The exuberance of the Kenmore Square clientele gives Eastern Standard a post-game feel even in the dead of winter. Best of all, it's echt Boston, an ideal spot to gather a group of outside suppliers or regional managers.
(528 Commonwealth Ave.; easternstandardboston.com)
Three extra hours: The $345 million Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, designed by Sir Norman Foster, has transformed what already ranked as a premier museum into arguably the most compelling in America. If it's nice out, consider a Boston Duck Tour, which canvasses the area's historical and cultural sites from a World War II amphibious landing vehicle. Even Yankees fans will want to catch a glimpse of Fenway Park in its 100th anniversary year. Tickets to Red Sox games are hard (but not impossible) to acquire, but stadium tours are offered year-round.
Midsize City: Austin, Texas
Midsize City: Austin, Texas
It starts at the airport: Instead of Starbucks and Cinnabon, you'll find Austin Java, Amy's Ice Cream and Waterloo Records. Most vendors on the concourse are based in or near Austin, a reflection of a community that takes pride in its ingenuity.
"There's a unique spirit of independence here, and a pride in locally owned and locally run things," says Hugh Forrest, event director for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, which draws internet and communications trendsetters to the city each March. "We've been branded as this place where creative people come together, brainstorm and create new ideas."
For years, Austin was known for its state government and the University of Texas. These days, talk is of those SXSW conferences (music, film and interactive); homegrown companies such as Dell and Whole Foods; and the Formula 1 Grand Prix, which debuts in November. On top of it all is America's most vibrant live music scene, with hundreds of venues, even at the airport.
The result is a business destination like no other. Over the past four decades, Austin's population has tripled. Yet unlike many Sun Belt cities, which have become increasingly homogeneous, it has retained its singular feel. The "Keep Austin Weird" movement characterizes a city that has distinguished itself with its distinctiveness and is attracting a wide range of talent as a result. "There are a ton of really smart people here," says attorney Bill Garrison. "You'll find entrepreneurial, original people everywhere you go. That creates a great business climate."
So do one-of-a-kind venues such as the new Austin City Limits Live concert hall, which has rented space to companies--including Microsoft, Dell, AT&T and Tito's Handmade Vodka--for meetings ranging from 10 to 300 attendees. And a laid-back professional culture: It's typical to see executives finishing the day with a long run or bike ride, then watching the sun set from one of the city's innumerable outdoor terraces while sipping a draft beer--brewed locally, of course.
Where to stay: Hotel Saint Cecilia. Set in a residential neighborhood two blocks from the funky shops and bars of South Congress, this 14-room property is named after the patron saint of music. Like the storied Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, there's a sense of exclusivity, and celebrity sightings are common. Companies (and bands) have been known to rent out the hotel for a week or two to brainstorm, commune or just unwind. There's no fitness center, but there is a lap pool and a vast library of albums to play on your in-room turntable. (112 Academy Drive; hotelstcecilia.com)
Where to eat lunch: La Condesa. There are more than 400 Mexican restaurants in Austin, but La Condesa is likely the only one playing Talking Heads. Located across the street from City Hall, it offers executives pushing through a day of downtown meetings a polished but authentic take on tacos, ceviches, tostadas and other staples. If you don't want to indulge in the signature margarita at lunch, the fresh-squeezed lemonade offers a similar tang. (400A W. Second St.; lacondesaaustin.com)
Where to eat dinner: Uchiko. The Japanese food at this busy spinoff of Austin's best sushi bar is smart and soulful. Texas-born Tyson Cole, a James Beard Award winner as the Southwest's best chef, uses his impeccable technique to make rarefied ingredients like sea urchin, abalone and pickled turnip gloriously accessible. You won't find anything like it no matter where your travel schedule takes you. Add a healthy dollop of Top Chef buzz--executive chef Paul Qui won the most recent season--and you can see why it's one of the city's most coveted reservations. (4200 N. Lamar Blvd.; uchiaustin.com)
Where to meet for drinks: Trio. Its outdoor terrace--which fronts Lady Bird Lake below the Four Seasons hotel's mission-style lobby--is a convivial gathering place year-round. Amid an all-local soundtrack, the city's business community wanders by to enjoy moist pulled-pork sliders at happy hour or wine from a sophisticated selection. (98 San Jacinto Blvd.; triorestaurantaustin.com)
Three extra hours: As might be expected in Texas, the state capitol is the nation's largest; tours run throughout the day. The 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods flagship is also worth a visit, with a seafood bar, raw food/vegan counter, local beers on tap, house-smoked barbecue and rooftop movies. The 20-block South Congress strip has dozens of food trailers and one-of-a-kind shops.
Small City: Greensboro/Winston-Salem, N.C.
Small City: Greensboro/Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Proximity Hotel is just off the highway in Greensboro, but if you came across it in, say, San Francisco or London, you'd be equally thrilled. With its house-made duck-confit hash, social areas on each floor and artist-in-residence program, it's a property that plays far bigger than its market size.
So, too, does Greensboro/Winston-Salem. The area combines a rich commercial history with a broad-based economy. Vicks VapoRub and Krispy Kreme donuts were conceived here, as were Wachovia and Hanes. Local biopharmaceutical firm Targacept is developing medications to help treat Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
"I came from New York and thought, I'm coming to a sleepy place, but I found out that it's anything but sleepy," says John Ryan, president of Greensboro's Center of Creative Leadership. "People spend time with us, experience the area and say, 'I need to look at this place more closely.'"
The sophisticated work force supports culture that's unparalleled for a market of this size. A visitor might choose from an original production at the Triad Stage; a gallery opening on Winston-Salem's Trade Street; or a Wake Forest basketball game. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts fills the calendar with shows and recitals, while the biennial National Black Theatre Festival attracts more than 60,000 visitors.
Challenging golf courses dot the leafy landscape. The restaurant scene is thriving. And flying out of the tranquil Piedmont Triad International--perhaps on a nonstop to Chicago, New York, Dallas or Miami--feels like having access to a private terminal.
Where to stay: Proximity Hotel. A first-class staff is eager to cater to business travelers at this 147-room property, well-positioned between downtown Greensboro and the airport. Power breakfasts at the Print Works Bistro are a local staple. (704 Green Valley Road, Greensboro; proximityhotel.com)
Where to eat lunch: Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen. Who says delicious Southern food can't be served in an upscale setting? Lucky 32 has been doing it for two decades, pan-frying chicken and sautéing fresh collard greens for the business crowd. If you want to cross paths with one of Greensboro's corporate honchos, this is your place. (1421 Westover Terrace, Greensboro; lucky32.com)
Where to eat dinner: Meridian. With white tablecloths and a painted cement floor, Meridian is both uptown chic and downtown cool. The menu of locally sourced ingredients, such as duck with mashed sweet potatoes, changes daily. Want your local contacts to know you've done your homework? Bring them here. (411 S. Marshall St., Winston-Salem; meridianws.com)
Where to meet for drinks: 1618 Wine Lounge. In just over a year, this sophisticated bar on the edge of the manicured Old Irving Park neighborhood has become a gathering place for an influential group of Greensboro professionals. They come for the quirky wine list and craft beers, solicitous service and acoustics that allow for quiet conversation on even the busiest night. (1724 Battleground Ave., Ste. 105, Greensboro; 1618concepts.com)
Three extra hours: At Old Salem, an 18th-century Moravian village is populated by performers re-creating colonial life. The Guilford Courthouse National Military Park immortalizes a major British victory in the Revolutionary War. Greensboro's International Civil Rights Center & Museum has transformed the site of the 1960 Woolworth lunch-counter protests into a series of interactive displays; lecture halls and a range of smaller spaces make it an ideal site for corporate seminars, board meetings and diversity training.