NTHP Savannah 2014: A Location Review

A street near Forsyth Park: porches, brick sidewalk, mature trees.

A street near Forsyth Park: porches, brick sidewalk, mature trees.

Savannah, Georgia: a perfect setting for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference (or “PastForward” as we call it these days). Historic homes and live oaks draped with spanish moss line the gridded streets and monumental squares of Savannah, planned in the manner of the Ogelthorpe Plan. Everywhere you look, the architecture is beautiful and photo-worthy. It’s a photogenic city in every sense of the word (and we preservationists love our photographic documentation). The Savannah Historic District is a National Historic Landmark District designated in 1966. The Historic Savannah Foundation is active in restoration, stewardship, and community involvement to achieve its mission of preserving and protecting Savannah’s heritage. Students of the Savannah College of Art & Design benefit from having Savannah as a living, learning lab. Historic preservation and heritage are common conversations in Savannah (not to imply that it is always easy). You can understand why preservationists were excited for a conference in Savannah. After attending the conference, I can say that my excitement for Savannah was well worth it. The National Trust has always put together great conferences, too.

However, I am interested in discussing the location in more detail. Anyone up for it? Let me explain. Many of the conference sessions were held at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center located on Hutchinson Island, which is across the river from the city of Savannah. It’s a short drive over the bridge or a free ferry ride across the river, which wasn’t really a big deal. The issue that I found (and discussed and overheard many times) related to the fact that the convention center felt so far removed from downtown Savannah.

Looking at Hutchinson Island, waiting for the ferry from the Savannah side.

Looking at Hutchinson Island, waiting for the ferry from the Savannah side.

Why did it feel so far removed? The only places on the island were the convention center and a Westin hotel. This meant that there were no local businesses to support on the island. Your break between sessions, if any break, could not be spent wandering the street to another session and passing by the local stores or cafes. Speaking of cafes, there was no place to buy a cup of coffee or a snack or lunch on the island, unless you wanted to spend an arm and a leg at the corporate hotel next door. If you took time to catch the ferry and head back to the city side, you would miss sessions, probably those lunch time sessions! That was not convenient.

In such a large convention center, there was definitely space to contract with a few local cafes or caterers to sell coffee, lunch, or snacks. If contracts limited that option, perhaps that was not the best location. On Thursday and Friday there were “nosh and network” breaks in the preservation studio, but it didn’t quite fit the bill. Most people eat and drink coffee on different schedules. This seemed like a major oversight.

In a city so large with so many hotels located in the downtown historic district, it would seem that session locations could be spread out and attendees could walk from one to another or easily slip outside for a coffee before catching the next session. Spending most of the day in a convention center, only staring at the historic district across the river, felt odd to a preservationist, particularly to one attending a historic preservation conference.

Perhaps there were perfectly good reasons to site the conference across the river. It should be noted that field sessions, TrustLive and other events were located on the city side of the river, but many sessions were held at the convention center. I’d be interested to know why. And I’d recommend to the National Trust that the next conference be sited more in line with preservation practices.

In summary: great conference content, great overall location, poor conference HQ choice.

What do you think?


7 thoughts on “NTHP Savannah 2014: A Location Review

  1. jane says:

    your comments are polite. I am thoroughly annoyed that the National Trust is so clueless. I stopped being a member several years ago because of this disconnect.

  2. ascousins says:

    I share your impression. The ferry ride was convenient and it was fun to be on the water…but it took time away from the conference and the conference hall felt massive–out of scale which accentuated the limited number of vendors relative to past years.

  3. lauren.e.mauldin says:

    I completely agree about the inconvenience of trying to grab a bite to eat or coffee while at the convention center (practically impossible). I think having, like you suggested, sessions throughout the city or having vendors set up at the conference center would have been better. Granted, the ferry was nice, but you had to catch it at the right time. It was interesting, though, to see a view of the Savannah skyline from across the river.

  4. Daniel says:

    “Your break between sessions, if any break, could not be spent wandering the street to another session and passing by the local stores or cafes.” I didn’t make it this year, but one of my favorite things about the conference in Buffalo back in 2011 was the ability to do just that, and really fall in love with the city that the conference is in. I have a hunch that maybe that location was the only one that would work for the live-streaming that they wanted to do this year, maybe?

  5. Chad says:

    I agree. This makes no sense. It must be cost? Would hate to be banished to an island in a souless convention center when the downtown is so awesome.

  6. Chase genealogist says:

    Hutchinson Island for years was known as the dump site for Savannah’s trash. When I was there you could still see remnants of the dump/homeless community beyond the new golf course.

    I think the conference may have been located there due to the number of attendees. They’ve been advocating that area for a long time trying to drum up business. The other large hotel, the Hyatt along River St was very controversial for Savannah due to its size and design. I know another hotel is being planned for River Street on the far east side which may have similar controversies.

  7. Adrienne says:

    Absolutely spot on! Share the same sentiments and heard it from many fellow attendees too. Also, it was hard to make sessions if you needed a break or snack since they only left 15 minutes between panels….and there wasn’t anywhere close to go! The live streamed sessions were in the morning at the historic Lucas Theatre, so the conference center couldnt have been related to that. I do wish more had been downtown. The exhibit hall felt awkward and empty. The sessions were good and I enjoyed it overall, but I didn’t feel the energy and excitement I felt at the other NTHP conference I went to (way back in 2006).

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