By Erin Caslavka and Libby Hoppe
The Midwest and Great Lakes section of the U.S. has always been a melting pot. Known for its ethnic diversity and proud of its strong cultural traditions, many parts of the area were originally settled by immigrants of European descent. German, Polish, Russian, Czech and Slovakian influences run heavy here, which you’ll see reflected in the local food favorites (kolaches, anyone?) and at annual celebrations. Milwaukee welcomes guests to a number of summer festivals like Festa Italiana and Polish Fest, while Omaha offers a cobblestoned Old Market district that’s full of restaurants and galleries. The region is affordable and fun, and its cities are making their way into the regular destination rotation of faith-based planners.
CincyUSA is the moniker used by the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau, and it’s a reflection of the upbeat pride locals have for their city, named by Esquire as one of the Top 10 Cities That Rock. But recently, Cincinnati has also become known for being accommodating and welcoming to a wide array of ethnic organizations looking for a place to host their conferences and conventions. With approximately 3,000 guest rooms in a three-block radius from the Duke Energy Convention Center, the city is poised to become a major player on the event-planning circuit.
The city also offers a wealth of family-friendly activities, which holds a special appeal for many attendees of faith-based conventions. Larry D. Collins, managing director and meeting planner for the North American Christian Convention, talks about some of the sites popular with his event attendees. “Cincinnati is a very walkable, safe city. It’s also got one of the best zoos around. King’s Island Theme Park is nearby, and within an easy drive, just on the outskirts of town, is the Creation Museum. So there’s lots for families to do outside of attending the convention.”
NACC drew between 7,500 and 10,000 attendees to its convention in Cincinnati in early July. Because of the size of the event, the Duke Energy Convention Center was an ideal venue. “The facility is a modern, three-level building with superb exhibition space on the lower level and ample meeting space on the other two levels,” says Collins. He continues about Cincinnati: “It’s strategically located, with easy access to all points of the Midwest, so it’s extremely convenient for our delegates, who predominantly come from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Plus, it’s priced right.”
NACC attendees spread throughout the city. Cincinnati’s 486-room Hyatt Regency and the 872-room Millennium Hotel hosted many of them. Hyatt was also the venue for the National Bible Bowl (a competition for teens based on answering questions from the Bible), which was held concurrently at both the hotel and the convention center.
Planners might also want to host events in any one of a dozen unexpected meeting spaces, including the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a 158,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes a performance theater and exhibits gallery; the Great American Ball Park, a riverfront development that’s an old-style baseball stadium and home to the Cincinnati Reds; the Contemporary Arts Center, the first art museum in the U.S. designed by a woman (Zaha Hadid), which offers 20,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 200-seat theater; or at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Considered one of the top three zoos in the nation, it features venue options such as the indoor Safari Lodge and the LEED-certified Frisch’s Theater.
Kansas City, Missouri
Saying Kansas City is located in Missouri might confuse someone who’s never been there. Kansas City is in Missouri, but it’s also in Kansas. More than 2 million people live in this metro area that straddles the state line. Kansas City might exist in two states, but it shares a singular personality thanks to the people and places you find there. Its residents are friendly. Its restaurants are relaxed. Its shopping centers, entertainment districts and businesses are busy but not frenzied. It’s gracious and charming, and it’s also going through a revitalization and cultural expansion not seen in decades.
The nucleus of that renaissance is downtown in the city’s convention district, which is why meeting planners who haven’t seen Kansas City in the past few years really haven’t seen Kansas City. Spending $5 billion in a 14-block urban district certainly changes the landscape. Some of that money helped build the 18,500-seat Sprint Center, an all-glass bubble arena that’s hosted a number of concerts, sports events and large conventions since it opened in 2007, including the 2009 National Catholic Youth Conference that brings 20,000 young Catholics into the city. More than $850 million funneled into the Kansas City Power and Light District next door, an eight-block dining and entertainment complex open midday for lunches and meetings and late night for socializing. Another slice of cash went to expanding and updating the Kansas City Convention Center. The 46,000-sq.-ft. grand ballroom opened in 2007 and is LEED Silver-certified. It has an innovative lighting system that uses a lot of natural light; the entire south and east walls of the ballroom are floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
Kansas City has long had a reputation as a barbecue-rich cattle town, but another word keeps popping up in discussions about the city: culture. It’s not that culture is new to the Midwest town: it’s home to the internationally recognized Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Jazz musicians have long called K.C. home, including the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, and The Blue Room at 18th and Vine streets is consistently named one of the top jazz lounges in the country. But the city has done something many other cities haven’t done in recent years: invested in its arts scene. Empty lots and vacant warehouses were transformed into boutiques, restaurants and art galleries to establish the Crossroads Arts District, and this fall the much-anticipated $413 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opens, giving a new home to the symphony, opera and ballet.
The city has everything else planners look for in destination cities: 2,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, museums, major league sports teams and affordable conference hotels (including the Kansas City Marriott Downtown and the Hyatt Regency Crown Center). It’s one of the cities you find ever so often in the Midwest—a place where you feel important but don’t have to pay extra for the special treatment. It just comes with the territory.
Jerry Lee Lewis has his theory about what made Milwaukee famous: he sang a song about it. But for planners, it’s hard to say what put Milwaukee on the map as a popular meeting city. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan where the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers connect, Milwaukee has more than 14,000 acres of parkland, much of it lakeside, so perhaps that’s it. The city also hosts Summerfest, an event that sees almost 1 million visitors every summer for 10 days, so maybe that made it famous. It’s also home to the Santiago Calatrava-designed art museum, with spectacular architectural engineering and fabulous masterpieces within. Maybe that boosted its reputation in planning circles.
One thing is certain: For the people who live there and the planners who have been there, Milwaukee’s hospitality helped make it famous. In 2010, the city hosted more than 330,000 meeting attendees. Many of them met at the Frontier Airlines Center, part of a larger complex that also includes the 12,700-seat U.S. Cellular Arena, the $42 million recently renovated 4,100-seat Milwaukee Theater, and two hotels—a 721-room Hilton and 488-room Hyatt—bookending the conference center and connected via skyways.
“We’re a big city,” says Visit Milwaukee’s Brent Foerster, vice president of sales and marketing, “but we’re very walkable.” There are about 125 restaurants within easy walking distance of the convention center complex, including those along Riverwalk, which traces the path of each of the three rivers. And within a 10-minute drive of downtown you can be in the village of Wauwatosa, with its historic downtown and old limestone buildings that have been restored and now house boutiques, coffeehouses, restaurants and antique shops.
“Our convention center is a pretty unique draw for planners,” adds Foerster. “During the planning phase, we brought in focus groups consisting of event and meeting planners to get input from their perspective. Based on our findings, we designed the complex to be compact and efficient. For example, our meeting and exhibit space is spread out over three floors, versus three city blocks. Additionally, we have huge circular driveways that allow trucks to make deliveries to oversized docks.”
Still, many faith-based planners choose the city not just because of what the convention center offers, but also because of where it’s located geographically. “We wanted a Midwestern location,” says Jan Lampe, co-chair of the 2011 Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society. The group will be holding its 48th annual convention in Milwaukee, which is where it’s headquartered, but members will be coming from a variety of locations, and Milwaukee’s location makes it easy.
“Being down by the lake and the festival grounds is also great,” Lampe continues. “There’s always a Brewers game, and we offer tours out to a local seminary about a half-hour outside of town.
“We also try to make the location for our conference a good choice for visitors, since we do have some spouses attending. And because about 60 percent of our attendees will be staying overnight, it’s nice to have hotels that run the gamut from upscale to more affordable options.”
Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, bills itself as “The Center of Attention.” Given its location in the heart of the Midwest, that’s certainly a fair assessment. Smack-dab in the center of the country, it blends hospitality and affordability with the excitement of a growing, changing city.
Founded in 1854 alongside the Missouri River by a coterie of Native Americans, pioneers and meatpackers, Omaha is now home to a vibrant blend of hardworking professionals who reflect cultural diversity at its best. A 2.5-hour plane flight from either coast lands visitors at Eppley Airfield, a 5-minute drive from downtown. Home to five Fortune 500 companies (including Berkshire Hathaway), Omaha also been referred to as the nation’s No. 1 city with the best bang for the buck.
Recently, the riverfront and downtown area have enjoyed restoration efforts with more $2 billion spent on new development. There’s also the $22 million Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge that allows pedestrians to cross over the Missouri River while enjoying dynamic skyline views. A popular spot is the Old Market historic district, where cobblestoned streets are filled with performers, jazz clubs, cafes and horse-drawn carriages.
If there’s a predominant jewel in the city’s crown, it’s most likely Qwest Center, Omaha’s convention center that’s linked to a 450-room Hilton via a glass-enclosed skywalk. Omaha is known as an art-loving city, and conventioneers can view more than 40 sculptures that are part of a $2 million public art project created by artist Matthew Placzek and inspired by a 13th-century Venetian Carnival celebration. On the more practical side, Qwest features 23 loading docks and three drive-in ramps that provide easy access to the exhibition halls.
In August, the Women of Faith conference welcomes 8,300 attendees to its Nebraska event (Women of Faith conferences are held in cities across the country). When they come, they’ll take over the Qwest Center. But smaller religious groups find suitable meeting venues in Omaha as well. Peter Kennedy, administrator of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Omaha, selected the D.J. Sokol Arena in the Wayne and Eileen Ryan Athletic Center at Creighton University for the second annual Heartland Catholic Men’s Conference in August. Creighton is the largest private religious college in Nebraska, and the conference brings 1,000 attendees to campus. “Because Creighton is a Jesuit Catholic university, we felt it was an appropriate venue for our men’s conference,” Kennedy explains. “We draw from six different dioceses and from several different states, so the location works on many levels.
“We also feel that holding our conference in Omaha makes sense from the standpoint that it’s a very Christian city. Our statistics show that [it is] 10 percent higher than the national average in terms of church attendance, with almost 45 percent of the people attending church services on a regular basis. So it’s a very supportive, religious community.”
Kennedy also mentions TD Ameritrade Park—built to host the NCAA men’s College World Series—as another venue for events within the city limits (read more about the venue on page 57). Adding to the list of alternate facilities is the Joslyn Art Museum (Nebraska’s largest art museum), where events can be held in the ConAgra Foods Atrium, a contemporary space that seats 400 and is enclosed by a 45-foot glass ceiling highlighted by two Dale Chihuly sculptures, or the Strategic Air and Space Museum, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. The entire museum can be used, or a planner can rent out individual hangars where guests can be seated in and among the historic aircraft on display.
“The facility can accommodate up to 3,000 guests, and we can even move the aircraft around,” says Laura Lessmann, events and volunteer coordinator for the museum. “The atrium is one of our best-selling features. It’s enclosed by a huge glass dome, and seating is done underneath the wings of an FR71 plane so you can still host a spectacular indoor event that makes you feel like you’re outdoors, even in winter.”
St. Louis, Missouri
For many, St. Louis is known as the home of the Arch, a 63-story monument to the western expansion of the United States built in the 1960s. Commemorating the spot where President Jefferson sent explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their now-famous mission, the Gateway Arch stands as a testament to the spirit of exploration. And though other big cities across the country might garner more attention, St. Louis can be proud of its history and a handful of distinct meeting sites.
One of those sites is Forest Park, the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, which at 1,370 acres is larger than New York’s Central Park. Another is Union Station, what was once the world’s largest and busiest passenger rail terminal. Opened in 1894, it was modeled after a French medieval city and features a barrel-vaulted Grand Hall with gold-leaf detailing, mosaic work and Tiffany-stained glass windows—all next door to a full-service Marriott with 39 meeting rooms and 35,000 square feet of meeting space.
Just as President Jackson invested in the future of western exploration, so too have the city fathers invested in the future of St. Louis. With a $352 million commitment to the development of the downtown area, projects such as the Mercantile Exchange mixed-use district will provide conventioneers with new dining, lodging and entertainment options.
Meeting planners can feel the spirit of St. Louis by hosting events at the America’s Center Convention Complex, which has more than 500,000 square feet of meeting space and a convention services department that’s won several industry awards. Also, St. Louis is within about 1,500 miles of 90 percent of the U.S. population.
“Having our meeting in a centrally-located city is helpful for us because it cuts the distance for everyone,” says Margaret Daley, president of the American Christian Fiction Writers, which will be holding its annual conference in St. Louis in September.
The ACFW conference is expected to draw about 700 attendees from all over the country (as well as some from overseas), making the 910-room Hyatt Regency St. Louis an ideal venue. With 83,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space, the hotel can easily accommodate the group’s needs for workshops, educational classes, one-on-one meetings and a closing night banquet.
“We looked at different hotels for our conference and ended up selecting the Hyatt, a company we’ve worked with before. For us, we’d rather have our event in a smaller venue. It makes it more personalized, and it’s easier for our members to meet, mingle and network,” says Daley. “Our writers need to form contacts with one another and with our invited speakers, and a hotel setting lends itself well to that.
“And for the invited spouses who will also be making the journey to St. Louis, there’s plenty to do. There’ll be a lot of sporting events going on while we’re there, which is a great added bonus.”