by Rachel Carter | January 01, 2017

Meeting planners who have not considered Ohio and Indiana recently might be surprised by all of the new options available for groups. Convention centers, from mid-size to massive, have been re-imagined. New hotels are going up and historic properties are being restored into convivial gathering spots.

Associations have also rediscovered expanded museums, the raucous fun to be had at football stadiums and ballparks, and the thrill that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The states' diverse culture, rich food scene, exciting nightlife, affordable amenities and world-class facilities are increasingly on the radar of many groups planning future events. One planner recently put it best, saying, "You truly need to come experience it."

Cleveland: Rockin' Renewal

Downtown Cleveland is more hip and happening than ever thanks to new development and property renovations. Three hotels opened downtown in 2016, bringing the total number of guest rooms to nearly 5,000. In March, the 122-room Kimpton Schofield Hotel opened with 3,800 square feet of event space and a restaurant, the result of a $50 million restoration of a historic Victorian building. A $52 million renovation has transformed the historic Cleveland Board of Education building into the 189-room Drury Plaza/Cleveland Downtown, which opened in April with a restaurant and more than 3,900 square feet of function space. And the 600-room Hilton/Cleveland Downtown opened in June with connection to the Huntington Convention Center (formerly the Cleveland Convention Center). The Hilton offers its own meeting space as well as a bar on the 32nd floor with views of Lake Erie.

The gold LEED-certified convention center includes 225,000 gross square feet of exhibit space, 35 meeting rooms and a 32,000-square-foot ballroom. The adjacent Global Center for Health Innovation features an 11,000-square-foot ballroom, and nearby, the 6.5-acre Public Square completed a $50 million transformation last summer. Features include an event lawn, a reflecting pool, a café and the Speakers' Terrace.

Several other downtown hotels are investing in renovations. The Ritz-Carlton/Cleveland is undergoing a renovation project that is expected to be complete by mid-year. The Wyndham/Cleveland at Playhouse Square updated its guest rooms, and the Residence Inn/Cleveland Downtown has completed a $12 million renovation.

You don't have to be a rocker to enjoy the city's rockin' vibe. This summer, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum updated its outdoor plaza, the first phase of a multimillion-dollar project called "Museum 2.0" that will include updates to its main exhibits.

Cleveland is also a sports city, and its major stadiums welcome private group events. FirstEnergy Stadium and Progressive Field have both recently been renovated and offer small event spaces in addition to their stadium seating. Other sports venues include Quicken Loans Arena ("The Q") and the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University.

Southwest of downtown, the I-X Center (International Exposition Center) provides 2.2 million square feet of event space. Farther south, in Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame plans to open a hotel in May 2018 with 243 guest rooms and a conference center. The hotel is part of a $500 million project that is expected to include an NFL activity center, youth fields, an athletic training complex, stores, restaurants and office space.

Greater Columbus: Growing Gains

In the capital city of Columbus, the Greater Columbus Convention Center is expected to wrap up a $125 million renovation and expansion in July. Plans include the addition of 37,000 square feet of new exhibit space, bringing the center's total contiguous exhibit space to 373,000 square feet; nine new meeting rooms, for a total of 74; and a new, two-story atrium entrance. Furniture, lighting, restrooms and audiovisual systems in the convention center will also be updated, as will meeting and public spaces in the connected Hyatt Regency.

A 168-room Canopy by Hilton is expected to open in 2018 across from the convention center, and two other hotels -an AC Hotel by Marriott and a Curio Collection hotel by Hilton-are proposed for downtown. This month, Hotel LeVeque is scheduled to open within the LeVeque Tower with 149 guest rooms and three meeting rooms.

In June, the Unitarian Universalist Association held its five-day general assembly in town with nearly 3,800 delegates. According to Janiece Sneegas, its general assembly and conference services director, attendees appreciated the variety of restaurants, affordable rates (a new airport bus provides transportation to downtown hotels for only $2.75) and the walkability. From the convention center, where most sessions were held, it's a short walk to the Short North neighborhood or to the North Market. "Columbus takes walkability to a new level," Sneegas said. "And Midwestern hospitality is not a myth. The city is friendly and welcoming to all. Can you tell we loved Columbus?"

The Association for Middle Level Education held its 42nd annual conference in Columbus in October 2015, using the convention center for its trade show, sessions and breakouts and the attached Hilton Hotel for receptions and social events. "Columbus is really an up-and-comer in the convention world," said the organization's director of meetings and events, Sally Ann DeBolt, who received great feedback on the city and said many didn't know Columbus was "so hip."

Cultural venues in town include the Columbus Museum of Art and the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, which features the new 12,000-square-foot Wells Barn.

The Ohio State Fair is held at the 360-acre Ohio Expo Center, where the new Cardinal Hall offers 75,000 square feet of exhibit space and six meeting rooms. Construction has begun on the new National Veterans Memorial & Museum, scheduled to open in 2018. And this June, the dual-branded Residence Inn-Marriott/Columbus University Area is scheduled to open with 114 and 240 guest rooms, respectively, and 11,500 square feet of shared meeting space.

Cincinnati: VIP Events

Cincinnati is a major player in the meetings and convention market, hosting notable events such as the NAACP's 107th annual convention, which drew nearly 6,000 attendees in July. "We held our 2008 convention in the city and knew it was time to return eight years later," said Eris Sims, the association's senior director of events planning.

For the five-day event, the NAACP turned to the 750,000-square-foot Duke Energy Convention Center. Skywalks connect the DECC to three hotels: the Millennium, Hyatt Regency and Hilton/Netherland Plaza. The group also held events at area venues such as OTR Live and the new Prvlgd Lounge & Bistro.

Cincinnati "treated us like VIPs" during the entire process, Sims said. She liked how easy it was for attendees to arrive from around the country and, once downtown, how easy that area was to navigate. "All in all, Cincinnati is a wonderful city to hold a meeting," she said. "The level of hospitality was truly world-class, and we look forward to visiting the city again very soon."

Cincinnati is experiencing a boom of downtown hotel development. A 170-room AC Marriott Hotel is scheduled to open in March in the Banks Entertainment District, and a 106-room Marriott Autograph Collection hotel is expected to open in the renovated, historic Anna Louise Inn building in July. The 117-room Holiday Inn & Suites/Downtown recently opened, and the Embassy Suites by Hilton/Cincinnati Northeast-Blue Ash completed a renovation last July.

Like the NAACP, the National Private Truck Council is looking forward to returning to Cincinnati; in fact, its annual Education Management Conference & Exhibition is scheduled to remain at the DECC through 2022, said Gary Petty, its president and CEO. Cincinnati is easy for the event's 1,250 registrants to get to, and attendance has grown about 5 percent a year since the group began holding the conference there in 2008, he said.

Attendees can now catch a ride on the new Cincinnati Bell Connector, a streetcar linking some of the city's hottest neighborhoods. The 3.6-mile loop stops at more than 18 of Cincinnati's most popular attractions. In the Over-the-Rhine entertainment district, groups can gather at the Transept and Taft's Ale House. At Washington Park, planners can utilize a 10,000-person lawn with a stage.

About 15 miles north of downtown, in Sharonville, the Sharonville Convention Center offers 65,000 square feet of meeting space. An adjoining Hyatt Place Hotel with 120 guest rooms and 2,000 square feet of meeting space is expected to open this year.

Greater Indianapolis: Record-setting Events

At its annual meeting last year, Visit Indy reported that it had booked nearly 905,000 room nights for conventions, trade shows, meetings and events that will gather in Indianapolis over the next decade. Bookings were up 2.7 percent from the previous record, set in 2014.

Major association events that have already been booked in Indianapolis include the National FFA, which has committed to return annually with its national convention and expo through 2024; the American Association of Nurse Practitioners' 2019 National Conference; and the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's 2020 Seminar & Expo. The American Chemical Society also plans to gather in the city in 2023.

In October, the National FFA Convention & Expo was held at the city's largest venue, the Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium, which offers more than 566,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and 83 meeting rooms. Across the street, the stadium's Lucas Oil Plaza, club lounges and the Quarterback Suite also welcome groups.

A system of covered skywalks connects the convention center to a dozen surrounding hotels as well as the Indianapolis Artsgarden and Circle Centre Mall. Two blocks from the center, Ruth's Chris Steak House, which offers private function space, has benefited from a $2 million renovation.

In hotel news, the Omni Severin's meeting space and back lobby underwent a $2 million face-lift late last year, and this year a complete renovation is expected to commence at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. A $55 million redevelopment of Old City Hall includes plans for a 21c Museum Hotel, although the project was recently delayed.

Unique attractions that double as event venues include the Indianapolis Zoo, which recently opened new event space with a capacity for 1,000; Indiana State Museum, which recently unveiled three renovated galleries, part of a multimillion-dollar update that will be complete in 2019. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis recently broke ground on a $35 million expansion, scheduled to open in spring 2018 with the "Sports Legends Experience," to feature a 7.5-acre park with sports-themed activities. And the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a variety of private event spaces. Next door is Speedway Indoor Karting, which opened in April.

Northeast of downtown, the Mass Ave Cultural District will welcome the relocating Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in April. The new facility will be four times larger than its original location (which offers 1,100 square feet of space) and plans to offer a classroom and increased capacity for events. The district is also home to the Athenaeum, a historic social center that was designated as a National Landmark this fall.

Just north of Indianapolis, Hamilton County is home to the cities of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville and Westfield, which offer a combined 3,400 guest rooms with another 722 scheduled to open by early 2018. The largest meeting venue in Hamilton County is the 30,000-square-foot 502 East Event Centre in Carmel. The 192-suite Embassy Suites by Hilton/Indianapolis-Noblesville is expected to open late this year with 21,000 square feet of conference space. The Grand Park Events Center in Westfield opened in July with a 377,000-square-foot building that can be used for field sports or trade shows.

In Lawrenceburg, 100 miles southeast of Indianapolis, the Lawrenceburg Event Center offers more than 37,000 square feet of function space and is attached to a DoubleTree by Hilton. Both are within walking distance of the Hollywood Casino, a riverboat gaming complex.

Fort Wayne, Indiana: Envisioning the Future

Fort Wayne has big plans-plans that community leaders hope will attract new investment, new residents and more tourism. One of many projects in the works is a new downtown boutique hotel that is expected to open in 2019. The city's largest event venue is the 225,000-square-foot Grand Wayne Convention Center. It hosted the 2016 North American Scrabble Championship in August and is scheduled to welcome the national conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America in 2018 and the National Association of County Agricultural Agents in 2019.

Last summer the center finished a complete upgrade of its Wi-Fi system. In addition, planners are now assisted by a new guest-experience manager, responsible for working with incoming groups and community partners to ensure memorable events.

The downtown convention center is attached to two hotels: a Hilton and a Courtyard, both with their own meeting space. Both are within walking distance of the 8,100-seat Parkview Field, with a new rooftop group-seating area called the Summit; and the 2,471-seat Embassy Theatre, which opened a new ballroom, a rooftop garden for events, and new theater spaces including a mezzanine lounge, a boardroom and lobby space.

Other notable venues include the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the year-old Parkview Mirro Event & Conference Center on the Parkview Regional Medical Center. The city is even more accessible for attendees flying into Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA) thanks to new daily nonstop service to and from New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport.

Group Revival

Affordable rates, heartfelt welcomes and safe communities are well-known perks of meeting destinations throughout Indiana and Ohio, but recent improvements have put the spotlight on many cities and their renaissance is attracting an increasing number of groups. With more-and updated-conference space, new attractions and burgeoning neighborhoods, there are more places than ever where attendees can make the best of their time in town.