The heartland cities of the Midwest have been revitalized in recent years. From the enhanced waterfront areas of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Wichita, Kansas, to the new Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, Kansas, this region is upping its game for meetings. While these cities have many modern attributes—such as new dining, lodging and entertainment options near convention centers and other venues—they also celebrate their history. Attendees have the chance to experience the defining characteristics of each with a Kansas City jazz performance, a cornfield dinner near Cedar Rapids or a Wild West chuckwagon evening in Wichita.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Despite being Iowa’s second-largest city, Cedar Rapids has a relaxed feel, says Jennifer Pickar, director of marketing and communications for the Cedar Rapids Area CVB. “We talk about how we don’t have long commute times and we try not to get caught up in the hustle and bustle,” Pickar says, noting the city’s accessibility from Eastern Iowa Airport and Interstate 380.
The city is located on the Cedar River, which flooded more than 10 square miles in 2008, resulting in a massive reconstruction effort in the ensuing years. In 2014, the National Civic League named Cedar Rapids an All-America City, honoring its efforts to rebuild neighborhoods, businesses and arts districts. Projects included the 2013 opening of the U.S. Cellular Center complex, home to the new U.S. Cellular Convention Center, the renovated U.S. Cellular Arena and the renovated 267-room DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex. Together these facilities provide 80,000 square feet of meeting space.
These undertakings are all reasons the National Association of Counties decided to hold its Fall Board of Directors Meeting at the U.S. Cellular Center complex in December 2013. “Resiliency was the president’s theme,” says Kim Struble, CMP, NACo’s director of conferences and meetings. “She wanted to be able to show the city’s resilience after the flood of 2008.” The first night, attendees went on a tour of the areas that flooded, followed by a reception at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. For a reception on the second night, NACo rented out Zins, a restaurant hit hard by the flood. “Zins was a good example to show how strong the county is,” Struble says. During the December meeting, attendees also experienced the strength of an Iowa winter, and Struble notes that while the cold can be an issue, planners can get good rates if they hold events during the off-season.
During warmer weather, planners can use such outdoor facilities as the new riverfront McGrath Amphitheatre, which opened in 2013 and holds concerts every weekend from May to September. Another option during pleasant weather is NewBo City Market (shown), a year-round indoor public market where attendees can participate in the new “Meet Me at the Market” event every Thursday from May to October, in which they’ll join local residents to walk, run or bike near the market, and then return to take advantage of vendor discounts. Additionally, Bloomsbury Farm in nearby Atkins, 13 miles away, hosts Cuisine in the Corn in August, a fine-dining experience set up in the farm’s cornfield.
Kansas City, Missouri
When the directors of Folk Alliance International picked Kansas City out of 32 possible cities for their February 2014 Conference & Camp, they wound up with something more permanent once the event was over: The group decided to move its headquarters there, according to Operations Manager Jennifer Roe. “Kansas City is backed by strong civic, municipal and state support for the arts,” Roe says. “Moving to Kansas City [from Memphis, Tennessee] was a natural way for us to grow.” Anchored by the Missouri River, Kansas City is the state’s largest city, accessible from Kansas City International Airport and three interstates.
FAI took place at The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center, and its Winter Music Camp was held at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center. Together, these hotels have 150,000 square feet of recently renovated meeting space and 1,454 guest rooms. Roe says the hotels’ proximity to Crown Center and Union Station was a selling point. The spaces are connected via the Link, a heated, elevated pedestrian walkway. The Crown Center complex is five minutes from downtown and is home to Hallmark Visitors Center, the LEGOLAND Discovery Center and more than 60 shops and restaurants. Starting in 2015, convention groups will be able to ride a new streetcar on Main Street between downtown Kansas City and Crown Center. Rides will be free during the first year of operation.
The city has invested nearly $6.5 billion in renovations to the downtown area in recent years. These upgrades included the addition of a 46,500-sq.-ft. Grand Ballroom, one of the 10 largest convention center ballrooms in the country, at Kansas City Convention Center. The facilities also include 388,800 square feet of column-free exhibit space, 48 meeting rooms, a renovated 10,700-seat arena and an Art Deco auditorium. Kansas City also recently developed the Power & Light District (shown). The nine-block entertainment area has one city block called KC Live, which has more than 40 restaurants and bars surrounding a covered outdoor courtyard. Planners can rent this entire 25,000-square-foot KC Live space or book smaller spaces within for events.
Roe says the Kansas City CVA helped organize pre- and post-meeting city tours to visit the historic City Market, hear Kansas City jazz and dine at local restaurants. Sports lovers can catch an NFL Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium, while thrillseekers can attempt Verruckt, the world’s tallest waterslide (opened in July), at Schlitterbahn Kansas City Water Park.
Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, is located on the Missouri River in the center of the country. Cathy Keller, director of convention sales for Omaha CVB, says Omaha’s central location and convenience make it an attractive meeting destination, citing the short drive from Eppley Airfield to the convention center, CenturyLink Center and free shuttle service.
CenturyLink Center (shown) has 250,000 square feet of meeting space and is home to an 18,900-seat arena. About 2,600 guest rooms are within a mile of the convention center, including the 600-room Hilton Omaha that is linked to the center via skywalk. More rooms are on the way, including a 115-room Holiday Inn Express and a 350-room Marriott property, both expected to open by 2016.
Omaha has taken steps to make its downtown area near the convention district more walkable. In spring 2014, the city completed a nearly $2 million renovation of Gene Leahy Mall, a 10-acre public park with a lagoon, waterfalls, gardens and an amphitheater. A new trail surrounds the lagoon. The renovations are part of the Downtown Omaha 2030 Master Plan, which includes improvements to the historic Old Market District. Along these cobblestoned streets, attendees will find many restaurants, pubs, cafes and shops, such as the Omaha Farmers Market.
The city has plenty of entertainment options as well. The arena at CenturyLink books premier concerts, and indie rock acts play at The Slowdown in the hip North Downtown Entertainment District. Sports fans can watch basketball or hockey games at the arena or a baseball game at the 24,000-seat TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, home to the College World Series. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore walking and biking trails throughout the city or go boating on one of the area’s five rivers and two lakes. The Midtown Crossing district is five minutes from downtown and has more shops and restaurants, including Brix, which has wine, beer and liquor tasting events. Outdoor jazz concerts are also scheduled on Thursday evenings in the summer.
Overland Park, Kansas
Overland Park is the largest suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, and is one mile from the Missouri border. Visitors are commonly confused about which state Overland Park is in, but Liron BenDor, vice president of marketing for the Overland Park CVB, says that’s just fine. “We work with Missouri and Kansas to help people see this as one area,” she says. According to BenDor, meeting planners choose Overland Park because it’s a three-hour flight from either coast, and the city’s 1,000 hotel rooms near the convention center allow planners to keep attendees together. But guests often visit Kansas City and other nearby attractions for pre- or post-meeting stays.
Groups who want to centralize all of their meeting activities can book the 237,000-sq.-ft. Overland Park Convention Center, which is connected by covered walkway to the 412-room Sheraton Overland Park. The hotel has more than 20,000 square feet of additional meeting and event space, including two ballrooms. The city has a total of 5,200 hotel rooms, nearly 1,000 of which are within walking distance of the convention center. Parking is free near the hotels and the convention center.
The convention center was large enough for the National Corvette Restorers Society’s national convention in July 2014, according to 2014 Convention Chairman Dana Forrester. The event included an exhibition of nearly 200 Corvettes restored by NCRS members. Forrester says the 60,000-sq.-ft. exhibit hall at the Overland Park Convention Center was exactly the right space because it is column-free and had a 200-space parking garage beneath it for added security and weather protection. The convention center also has seven meeting rooms and three ballrooms. Attendees stayed at the connected Sheraton. “It was all coordinated in one location, so people didn’t have to go far, and the staff was very accommodating and quick to react to requests,” Forrester says.
Attendees can walk or take a shuttle from the convention center area to the new Prairiefire shopping and entertainment district, which opened in spring 2014. It includes the Cinetopia Theater (shown), which planners can book for private events of up to 5,000 people, as well as Museum at Prairiefire, which is the first museum outside New York to host traveling exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibits change every six months.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Known as the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” Rapid City is a popular starting place for visits to two famous sites carved into those hills: Crazy Horse Memorial, honoring the Lakota leader, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Rapid City CVB works with planners to coordinate pre- and post-meeting stays for attendees to see a number of the surrounding attractions, including an evening lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore. Attendees also can see famous faces without leaving Rapid City by visiting the City of Presidents, a series of life-size bronze statues of the nation’s past presidents located in downtown Rapid City.
The pre- and post-conference activities were a selling point for the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which drew an above average number of attendees—about 600—to its June 2014 Joint Western/Midwestern District ITE Annual Meeting in Rapid City, according to ITE Western District co-chair Randy McCourt. The event took place at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which has nearly 250,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space, a 10,000-seat arena, a 7,500-seat ice arena and a 1,752-seat theater. Rapid City is working on the Memorial Park Promenade Project, which will connect the civic center and downtown area (shown) to walking and biking trails.
The 205-room Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn has 14,000 square feet of meeting space, including the Dakota Ballroom, which can accommodate up to 500 attendees. The city’s hotels also provide free shuttles and free parking. In the summer, attendees can take the City View Trolley from the center to such local attractions as Journey Museum, Founders Park Plaza, Sioux Park Formal Gardens, Dinosaur Park and Dahl Arts Center. McCourt says that during ITE’s meeting, the group held an “Amazing Race”-style event in the City of Presidents and hosted a dinner at the Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Cowboy Music Show, followed by the Mount Rushmore evening lighting ceremony. He says the group also caught a show at Firehouse Brewing Company, which has bands and a beer garden. Many attendees brought their families and planned visits to surrounding sites.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been to Wichita, you might not think you’re in Kansas anymore. The city has been investing millions of dollars in public and private funds to revamp the city center through Project Downtown. In 2010, the 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena opened at Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center. The 303-room Hyatt Regency Wichita and 128-room Courtyard Wichita at Old Town both recently renovated. Wichita is located on the Arkansas River and the riverfront area is being enhanced. Susie Santo, president and CEO of the Go Wichita CVB, says the walking paths have been improved, and visitors can walk to museums. Additionally, Wichita Mid-Continent Airport will open a third terminal in early 2015, which will mean easier baggage screening, more concessions and boarding bridges at all gates.
Amid the city’s modernization, meeting planners can still find ways for attendees to experience Wichita’s western heritage. The American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association’s annual conference took place at the 302-room DoubleTree by Hilton Wichita Airport hotel in July 2014. The hotel has several conference rooms and the 7,200-sq.-ft. Emerald Ballroom. During the conference, attendees and their families participated in the Chuckwagon Supper at the Prairie Rose Ranch in nearby Benton, where they also caught a western stage show and went on wagon rides, according to ADTSEA Secretary Treasurer Gary Scott, who got positive feedback from attendees about the outing.
For a more traditional event setting, Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center has 200,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 2,100-seat concert hall, a 650-seat theater and 20 meeting rooms. The Hyatt Regency connects to the center and has 303 guest rooms and 40,000 square feet of function space in 29 rooms.
Wichita earned the name “Cowtown” in the late 1800s when it became a destination for cattle drives from Texas, and it celebrates this past at the Old Cowtown Museum. The 25-acre museum recreates 19th-century Wichita with homes, stores, a saloon and a jail. The site also has 9,000 square feet of meeting space for events. Attendees can experience Wichita’s past and present in Old Town Square (shown), which has brick-lined streets, historic lampposts and more than 100 restaurants, shops and entertainment options. Scott says his group set up daytime bus trips for attendees to go shopping and learn more about Wichita’s history at the Mid-America All-Indian Center and the Kansas Aviation Museum, both of which have space for private events.