America’s South is rolling out the red carpet for tour groups.
From horse farms to distilleries, art museums and Shakespeare festivals, attractions throughout the Southeast celebrate the region’s unique heritage and culture. And though these places are popular among individuals, they offer some of their best experiences for groups. Behind-the-scenes tours, hands-on workshops and other special access allow group travelers to immerse themselves more deeply in the stories of the places they visit and come home with bragging rights their friends don’t have.
Here are six Southern attractions with distinctive tour options that will help your group travelers feel like VIPs.
Asheville, North Carolina
A trip to Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, America’s largest privately built home, takes travelers to a wonderful world of 19th-century extravagance. Built by George Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895, the elaborate French Renaissance-style mansion includes 35 bedrooms, 135,280 square feet of living space and an ornate collection of original furnishings and artwork still on display.
Though self-guided visits to Biltmore are the most popular activity for groups, planners that want a bit more in-depth insight into the property can opt to book a step-on guide that can meet the group at the estate’s entrance and offer more insight into the Biltmore.
“This affords groups with a very personal welcome and provides detailed information about Biltmore House and the vision of George W. Vanderbilt and his renowned design team,” said Tim Hill, the Biltmore’s director of sales.
Additionally, immersive, guided tours led by an interpretive host are an option for small groups of up to 12 guests that are able to traverse the mansion’s many staircases. The Rooftop Tour offers a rare view of the expansive Biltmore property from the mansion’s rooftop; the Biltmore House Backstairs Tour allows visitors to explore passages and areas previously reserved for George and Edith Vanderbilt’s guests and house staff.
A complimentary wine-tasting experience is included in the standard Biltmore ticket price, but the on-site Biltmore winery also offers VIP tour experiences. For example, the popular Vanderbilt Tasting and Guided Production Tour, for up to 30 guests, takes visitors into the production facility where the property’s wine is bottled and labeled.
For groups wishing to dine on property, the Stable Café can provide lunches for groups of at least 20. With 60 days’ notice through the group sales department, private breakfasts, lunches and dinners can also be arranged at select Biltmore event locations.
Biltmore’s group sales representatives can assist groups in setting up additional activities on the property and at nearby attractions, including guided hikes along the Biltmore’s many trails, a falconry experience and a guided raft float on the French Broad River.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival
Now celebrating its 50th season, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) has been delighting audiences with live theater in Montgomery for generations.
The ASF’s current building opened in 1985 and, since then, has been home to countless transformative theater experiences for locals and visitors alike.
The theater company’s upcoming season of performances includes a range of classics and audience favorites, from “Macbeth” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to the smash off-Broadway hit “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” which includes favorite musical hits of the 1950s and 1960s.
“We are a professional producing theater,” said Layne Holley, director of marketing and communications for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. “Almost everything you see on our stage is produced here by hand in our shops.”
While COVID-19 has dampened the breadth of behind-the-scenes tour options, ASF eventually hopes to re-establish backstage tour options for groups, since they are so popular.
“Groups love going back and seeing our shops and seeing behind the stages,” Holley said. “People are always fascinated by our scene shop and costume shop. Our prop shop is just amazing. We have rooms and rooms of things that our prop masters have built by hand over the years.”
Visiting groups should follow ASF’s social media channels for updates on upcoming special events, including a summer garden concert series featuring local chamber music groups and other performers.
If you travel to Kentucky but don’t see a horse, does your trip even count? Luckily, the folks at Horse Country make visiting a horse farm so simple that your groups will never have to worry about missing out on one of Kentucky’s signature experiences, complete with VIP access.
Through an easy-to-navigate online booking platform, you can quickly schedule any of Horse Country’s popular standard tours at sites such as Claiborne Farm, Mill Ridge Farm and Spendthrift Farm.
But if your group is looking for full VIP treatment, consider booking one of Horse Country’s growing list of expanded experiences. These include small-group breeding tours in the spring, where visitors will get to speak one-on-one with farm stallion management.
Small groups can also work with Horse Country to customize private tours at many of its partner sites.
“It’s possible to book private experiences at several of our locations — just for your group — and you can tailor the content of the experience to meet your group’s needs or interests,” said Anne Sabatino Hardy, Horse Country’s executive director.
Many groups particularly enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour options at Keeneland, a famed horse racing track in Lexington. The Behind the Racing tour offers insights into track operations, and Keeneland’s new, seasonal Behind the Sales tour offers a rare look into how its world-class Thoroughbred auctions and sales are run.
Need even more VIP treatment? With Keeneland’s new Owner’s Experience, visitors can watch races from premier, grandstand seating and go into the winner’s circle following races in April and October. “You can really see what it feels like to be a successful owner at the races,” said Hardy.
Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi
The William “Bill” Waller Craft Center in Ridgeland, Mississippi, home to the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, welcomes visitors from across the country who want to experience high-quality, handmade Southern arts and crafts.
The 20,000-square-foot facility includes an expansive retail gallery where artisans from across Mississippi can showcase and sell their work.
Visitors are sure to find something that captivates them, whether their tastes tend toward traditional folk items like quilts, handmade baskets and wood carved bowls and spoons, or more modern pieces like fused-glass ornaments, metal sculptures and handcrafted jewelry.
Every item sold comes with information on the artist who created it, so when you purchase an item, it’s like taking home a piece of Magnolia State culture.
The center offers special events throughout the year and frequently hosts workshops and classes led by the artisans themselves. Groups should check the site’s calendar to learn more about opportunities to learn skills in woodworking, pottery, quilt-making and more. During their visits, group leaders can also inquire about private workshops and artisan encounters.
Rollins Museum of Art
Winter Park, Florida
Situated on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, the Rollins Museum of Art invites visitors to surround themselves in world-class art — for free.
Admission is always free at the museum, which is open to the public daily except on Mondays.
“Accessibility is very important to us,” said Gisela Carbonell, the museum’s curator. “We don’t shy away from organizing exhibitions and collecting works that touch on serious topics or things that are being discussed in contemporary discourse.”
Current exhibits at the museum include “American Modernisms,” which reexamines the definition of the artistic style to include new, previously lesser-known perspectives. In the spring, an exhibit will celebrate Greek art from the so-called Geometric Period, c. 900-700 B.C..
Groups can spend hours on self-guided strolls through the museum’s expansive collections, some 6,000 pieces. Each art piece offers an opportunity for exploration, thanks to extensive information labels that provide context for the art and its artist; audio guides are also available.
Every Saturday at 1 p.m., the museum offers free docent-led highlights tours that spotlight different pieces each week. The museum also offers free specialized guided tours on various themes periodically throughout the season. Check the Events tab online for dates and times.
Groups that wish to immerse themselves in art may want to consider booking a stay at the Alfond Inn in Winter Park. This boutique hotel is owned by Rollins College, and its proceeds help support scholarships for students there. Currently, 112 art pieces from the Rollins Museum’s contemporary collection are on view at the hotel.
“Visitors can go in and see work from renowned American artists like Jennifer Bartlett,” said Carbonell. “It’s a high-caliber contemporary art collection, and these pieces at the inn also feature extended labels and audio guides.”
Taste of Lynchburg
Jack Daniel’s, the whiskey that’s synonymous with Tennessee, welcomes guests from across the country to its visitor center and distillery in Lynchburg.
The distillery offers a range of daily tours, including the popular 90-minute Angel’s Share Tour, which offers guests a chance to tour the distillery and taste whiskey drawn from individual barrels. On this tour, visitors can enjoy sips of the distillery’s premier, higher-proof and limited-edition whiskeys.
“All of our tours start with the rich history of Mr. Jack himself, as well as the history of our distillery,” said Emily Sledge, manager of visitor experience operations for the Jack Daniel’s Visitor Center. “Guests will also come away understanding a little about the art that goes into making our Tennessee whiskey.”
But for groups wanting a little something extra, the distillery’s Taste of Lynchburg Tour delivers. This three-hour tour includes a full experience of the distillery; a VIP whiskey tasting with samplings of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof, Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select and others; and a full meal at the nearby Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Restaurant.
“Miss Mary Bobo’s is something you do not want to miss,” Sledge said. “It’s truly great Southern food.” Meals here are often served family-style, with fried chicken, meatloaf and catfish frequent highlights of the menu.
While in Lynchburg, visitors will want to shop at storefronts in the downtown historic square and stop by the Lynchburg Hardware and General Store, home to a huge selection of Jack Daniel’s merchandise and memorabilia.