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Big Returns in Small Towns

There’s more to small towns than low prices.

In tourism, big cities and popular destinations tend to attract a lot of attention. And although high-profile places have plenty to offer, some travel benefits are found more often in smaller places.

Smaller destinations often offer savings, with hotel rates and restaurant prices substantially less than those found in top-tier cities. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In smaller towns and cities around the United States, group travelers can find cultural encounters, natural attractions, extraordinary experiences, VIP access and other benefits that larger places can’t match.

Read on to learn more about the benefits smaller destinations offer, and some places that exemplify them.

Cultural Encounters: Lafayette, Louisiana

Louisiana is legendary for its Cajun and creole cultures. And while many people travel to New Orleans in search of Cajun encounters, the more historic and authentic representations of Cajun culture are rooted in Lafayette, a city of about 121,000 residents located 130 miles west of New Orleans.

“We are Cajun, which is short for Acadian,” said Eugenie Mitchell, vice president of tourism sales for Lafayette Travel. “The Acadians settled in south Louisiana in the mid-1700s, and the largest population settled in the Lafayette area. We are still a French-speaking community today. We have the Cajun food, music and culture. Culturally, we’re very diverse and very rich.”

Groups can begin their Cajun immersion at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, where the Acadian Cultural Center tells stories of the Acadian people, their dialects, their music, their food and more. Another popular site nearby is Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folk Life Park. Dozens of buildings from the time of the French Acadians are preserved at this historic site, and historic interpreters help visitors understand the Cajun lifestyle and how they interacted with the Native Americans who lived in the area.

From there, the immersive experience can take a tasty, tuneful turn with authentic Cajun culinary and musical experiences like crawfish tours, cooking classes and live Cajun and zydeco music.

“From Wednesday through Sunday, there are free concerts in the street, or you can go downtown on Friday nights and hear some great Cajun music,” Mitchell said. “Groups can also do Cajun and zydeco dance lessons. It’s a great way to learn about the culture, and then you can feel confident to step out on the dance floor after you have learned a little more.”

Unique Experiences: Gahanna, Ohio

Gahanna, Ohio, is a 10-minute drive from downtown Columbus, but its vibe couldn’t be more different. Quaint and colorful, Gahanna is a peaceful and welcoming place. It’s fragrant too, because this town of 37,000 is the Herb Capital of Ohio.

That’s not just a marketing ploy. The state legislature awarded Gahanna the designation in 1976, after a group of ladies from the local historical society developed a reputation for educating locals and visitors alike about how to cultivate, harvest and cook with herbs. The designation took hold, and now herbs are at the center of Gahanna’s identity.

“A lot of our parks have herbs, and around our Ohio Herb Center herbs are planted everywhere,” said Lori Kappes, executive director of Visit Gahanna. “People love to walk around and see the beauty of the herbs. A lot of people don’t realize how beautiful they are.”

Groups visiting Gahanna almost always stop at the Ohio Herb Center, where in addition to browsing exhibits and merchandise they can arrange to have lessons and hands-on experiences in the historic Nafzger-Miller House.

“They’re taking in a lecture in our parlor and getting a tour of our grounds and gardens,” said Ohio Herb Center coordinator Amanda Ferguson. “They’re learning everything to do with herbs, like harvesting them, preserving them and making tea and food. We had a mystery tour this year where people got to learn about using herbs in old folk remedies.”

Groups can also plan to visit during the annual Herb Day each May or stop in at one of nine local restaurants with specialty drinks listed on the city’s Herbal Cocktail Trail.

Authenticity and Access: Georgetown, Kentucky

There are innumerable reasons to visit Kentucky, but for many visitors, the top three are horses, bourbon and the outdoors. And although the state’s larger cities offer some elements of each, indulging in all three requires spending time in one of the state’s smaller destinations.

That’s why Georgetown, a town of about 37,000 located 12 miles north of downtown Lexington, is perennially popular with groups.

“We have something in all of the key attraction categories,” said Lori Saunders, executive director of Visit Georgetown. “You can experience Kentucky fully right here in our destination. And we can arrange some hands-on things at our venues that you can’t get at other places around the state.”

Those VIP experiences include the chance to feed a champion thoroughbred at Old Friends, a retirement farm for racehorses, or to tour the cider mill at Evans Orchard and see how cider is pressed using vintage equipment.

And then, there’s bourbon.

“We arrange bourbon tastings that aren’t your normal bourbon tastings,” Saunders said. “I can do one right downtown in the middle of the street in a beautiful Victorian setting. Or we can do one in the gardens of Ward Hall, our beautiful Greek antebellum home.”

Like many other small towns, the tourism staff at Visit Georgetown can handle these arrangements directly, so there’s no need for tour planners to work through a receptive operator or other third party. Saunders and staff know who to call for the best group experiences.

“We have a couple of chefs who can teach you to create some Kentucky foods,” Saunders said. “They can do everybody’s favorite, the Hot Brown, and we have one who makes an absolutely amazing Kentucky mac and cheese.”

Natural Appeal: St. George, Utah

In the southwest corner of Utah, St. George is home to just under 100,000 people. But the city, along with the smaller towns that surround it, attracts visitors from far and wide to see stunning natural surroundings, including Zion National Park.

“Zion gets about 4 million visitors a year,” said Leslie Fonger, destination development manager for the Greater Zion Convention and Tourist Office, which represents St. George and numerous nearby towns. “You have canyons, powerful rocks in white, pink and gray. The Virgin River runs through it. People in the canyoneering community come a very long way to do various hikes through Zion.”

Exploring Zion is just one of the options for groups that want to make the most of southwest Utah’s beauty. Four state parks accessible from St. George have their own scenic sites, including Snow Canyon State Park, with its slot canyons and lava dunes. A variety of outfitters can provide everything from e-bikes to horseback rides, guided hikes and more, so even the least-experienced traveler in the pack can have a great time.

And although there are plenty of traditional hotels, some of the most memorable overnights aren’t spent indoors.

“There are a number of outfits that do glamping,” Fonger said. “You can glamp in a covered wagon, in a teepee or in an Airstream trailer. We have lots of star-watching options. And some of the camps have chefs that come in and do the cooking for your group.”

Focus on Fun: Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, has more hotel rooms than residents. That’s because this town of 6,500 is focused on fun.

It all started in the late 1800s when a landscape photographer named H.H. Bennett began distributing photos he had taken of the dells, or sandstone bluffs, along the Wisconsin River. The photos became so popular that visitors from Chicago and beyond started traveling to the area to see the Wisconsin Dells for themselves.

From there, the destination ballooned in popularity.

“We’ve become the quintessential road trip destination,” said Leah Hauck-Mills, communications manager at the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. “Many generations have come to Wisconsin Dells for their honeymoons, all the way now to bringing their kids, grandkids and great grandkids.”

The families — and groups — that come to this central Wisconsin town will find an abundance of fun things to do. The river and its sandstone bluffs are still a prime attraction, showcased on boat excursions that range from leisurely sunset cruises to adrenaline-pumping jet boat tours.

And the area’s man-made attractions have proven even more popular.

“We are the waterpark capital of the world,” Hauck-Mills said. “There are over 200 water slides in the area. We have America’s largest outdoor waterpark, Noah’s Ark Waterpark, and Wisconsin’s largest indoor waterpark, Kalahari Resorts and Conventions. And we were just certified with America’s largest natural waterpark at Land of Natura.”

Groups that would rather stay dry can choose more leisurely activities, including magic shows, circus performances and horse-drawn tours through the Lost Canyon.