by Rachel Carter | July 01, 2016

Groups that haven’t convened in Iowa and Nebraska recently are going to be surprised by a number of big changes. In the last several years, millions of dollars have been invested in real-estate redevelopment projects in these states, resulting in hip hotels, mixed-use projects and renovated riverfront entertainment options.

The hospitality infrastructure has particularly been swept up in the forward movement, with planners benefiting from destinations eager to win over association meetings with new and improved options.

Greater Des Moines: Downtown Development

The capital city of Des Moines aims to be more accommodating than ever. Projects are underway that will add nearly 700 guest rooms downtown by 2018, while other hotels are scheduled to undergo renovations and rebranding. A new, $101 million Hilton Hotel broke ground in May on the southwest side of the 226,000-square-foot Iowa Events Center, the city’s largest event venue. It is scheduled to open in spring 2018 with 330 guest rooms and a direct connection to the center.

The Hilton project helped lure the 2018 Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives’ annual convention, a multi-day event that is expected to bring 1,000 attendees to the city. According to Mick Fleming, the association’s president and CEO, “The new convention center hotel was one key factor, but so was the buzz we experienced during site visits.” Other organizations that have recently met in Des Moines include the International Hunter Education Association, the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League and the American Quilter’s Society.

In other hotel news, the 102-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Des Moines Downtown opened earlier this year on the burgeoning south side, and in the Historic East Village neighborhood, home to the City Square development, two properties are going up: a 111-room Staybridge Suites and a 108-room AC Hotel by Marriott. Both are expected to open by the end of the year. The landmark Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel, built in 1919, is scheduled to close in August to undergo a major renovation and is scheduled to reopen in early 2017. The Quality Inn & Suites/Downtown Des Moines is also expected to be renovated in preparation for a rebranding early next year when it will become a Comfort Inn & Suites.

Unique event venues include the Central Des Moines Public Library, the State Historical Museum of Iowa, Drake University’s Olmsted Center and the Temple for Performing Arts. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, West End Architectural Salvage and the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates are also fun off-site venues.

In West Des Moines, two hotels opened last fall: a 100-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton, with meeting space for up to 40, and the 102-room Hampton Inn & Suites, with a conference room for up to 65 people. In addition, a 99-room TownePlace Suites and a 123-room Hyatt Place are scheduled to open in the coming months, as is a 95-room Hampton Inn & Suites in nearly Urbandale.

North of Des Moines, in Ankeny, the FFA Enrichment Center on the Des Moines Area Community College campus can host events of up to 700. And in Altoona, the Prairie Meadows Casino, Racetrack & Hotel is an option for meetings of up to 2,000.

Ames: School Spirit

Iowa State University is the heart of Ames, 35 miles north of Des Moines. The campus welcomes outside groups with a variety of spaces such as the ISU Alumni Center or the Memorial Union. Hotel Memorial Union will cease operations in July and be converted into student housing. Iowa State Center, just off the main campus, is a five-building complex of auditoriums, theaters and stadiums. These include Jack Trice Stadium, which completed a renovation and expansion last year; the Hilton Coliseum; Stephens Auditorium; and the Scheman Building.

Larger groups may opt for the Gateway Hotel & Conference Center, with function space for up to 850, or the Quality Inn & Suites Starlite Village Conference Center, with space for up to 750. Planners looking for an outdoor setting can turn to the Prairie Moon Winery & Vineyards, which can host up to 500 people.

Eastern Iowa: Delightful Destinations

The Cedar River winds through Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second-largest city. In addition to being home to 130,000 residents, the city also boasts the newest convention center in Iowa, five full-service hotels and 3,000 guest rooms. The downtown DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, which opened in 2013, features a 267-room hotel and more than 80,000 square feet of meeting space that includes a 12,359-square-foot Grand Ballroom. It is connected to the U.S. Cellular Center, which can seat upwards of 9,000 people.

The complex has hosted the Northwestern Lumber Association’s Iowa Lumber Convention for the last two years, the International Machine Quilters Association’s 2016 Machine Quilters Showcase in May and the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council’s 63rd Annual Professional Development Conference & Expo in April.

At the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council event, which drew 665 people, technical sessions, breakout sessions, keynote speeches, the expo and annual business meeting were held at the convention complex, while its President’s Dinner was organized at the White Star Ale House. Laura Johnson, the group’s executive director, said she appreciated the fact that the convention complex was close to hospitality venues so attendees could enjoy their free time. She also commented that the city and DoubleTree staff were a “delight to work with.”

On May’s Island, the Veterans Memorial Building welcomes association groups with a 10,000-square-foot coliseum, a 6,000-square-foot armory and a 2,500-square-foot ballroom. Two blocks east, the restored, 1920s Paramount Theatre can seat up to 1,690. Upriver, the 10-acre Ushers Ferry Historic Village has renovated event space for up to 300.

East of downtown, the Indian Creek Nature Center is scheduled to open its new Amazing Space campus in mid-September. The enhanced outdoor campus will feature an outdoor amphitheater for groups of up to 500 people and a 12,000-square-foot building designed to produce its own power and water for at least a year. The new building will include a 200-seat auditorium, a kitchen, two classrooms, a small conference room and a deck that can be used for events of up to 200 people.

Three hotel properties have improved their offerings. The Hampton Inn & Suites/Cedar Rapids North completed a renovation this spring that included a remodel of its guest rooms and lobby. Also north of downtown is the Holiday Inn Express on Collins Road, which has updated guest rooms. And the new Residence Inn/Cedar Rapids South opened in June with small meeting space, a barbecue area and an indoor pool.

Twenty miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, venues at the Amana Colonies are as historic as they are charming and include the restored, century-old Festhalle Barn for up to 500 people. Groups can also experience family-style meals similar to those the founding German Pietists ate in the 1850s; local restaurants that offer event space include the Ox Yoke Inn, the Colony Inn Restaurant and the Ronneburg Restaurant. Another large facility for groups is the Amana Colonies RV Park & Event Center, open mid-April to November 1, with four event buildings for up to 1,200 people.

Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa, whose recently renovated Iowa Memorial Union has more than 20 event spaces and also houses the Iowa House Hotel. Danforth Chapel, the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame and the Kinnick Stadium are other on-campus choices, and the nearby University Club (not affiliated with the university) can host functions of up to 300 people.

A few miles north, in Coralville, the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center is scheduled to host the mid-year meetings of the Iowa Firefighters Association in 2017 and 2018 and the annual conference of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association this year and next. The hotel is part of the Iowa River Landing entertainment district, home to Iowa’s largest brewery, Backpocket Brewing, which can host events of up to 70 people.

To the east, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Quad Cities riverboat casinos are making major moves that will redefine the local casino scene: Riverboat casinos are shifting to land. In Bettendorf, the Isle Casino Hotel opened its new $60 million land-based casino last month. The casino sits between its two hotel towers, one of which was completely renovated last fall, and is connected by skywalk to the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center, which offers more than 24,000 square feet of function space. And in Davenport, the new, $110 million Rhythm City Casino Resort also opened last month and features two restaurants, a spa and an event center that can host up to 1,500 people.

About 75 miles south, in Burlington, the PZAZZ! Resort Hotel & Entertainment Complex features a 9,060-square-foot event center, a club that can host up to 200 and Huckleberry Hall, for groups of up to 125. Other choices include the historic, riverfront Memorial Auditorium, with space for up to 2,300 and the two-year-old Barn on the Ridge, a 7,400-square-foot event facility about six miles north of downtown that can host groups of up to 390 people.

Dubuque, Iowa’s oldest city, has attracted the attention of various groups including the Iowa Library Association and the Iowa Dental Association, both of which have scheduled upcoming events in town later this year. Dubuque’s main meetings venue is the 86,000-square-foot Grand River Center, set on the banks of the Mississippi and adjacent to a casino and a water park. A few blocks away, the Five Flags Center has a half-dozen spaces for groups of up to 4,000. Also nearby is the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which has event space for up to 240 people.

Ninety miles west, in Waterloo, the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center has 40,000 square feet of space and is connected to a Ramada. The RiverLoop Amphitheatre & Expo Plaza is just two blocks away and can host up to 1,000 people.

Northern & Western Iowa: Functions & Families

Fort Dodge may have started as a frontier stronghold in 1850, but today is a hub of international manufacturing and its recent economic development has spurred growth on the retail, lodging and hospitality fronts. A Sleep Inn & Suites opened in May with 65 guest rooms and the Best Western Starlite Village recently renovated its meeting space. Venues that welcome group gatherings include the Blanden Art Museum, the historic Vincent House, the Ringland-Smeltzer House, the Fort Dodge Opera House and Iowa Central Community College’s Hodges Fieldhouse. A newer option for groups is ShinyTop Brewing, which opened in May, or oenophiles might prefer Soldier Creek Winery, which opened in 2014.

Sioux City, on the state’s western border, is a convenient meeting point for groups whose members hail from Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. Large venues include the Sioux City Convention Center, with 54,000 square feet of event space; the Orpheum Theatre; or the Tyson Events Center/Gateway Arena.

Ninety miles south is Council Bluffs, considered part of the greater Omaha (Nebraska) metropolitan area. Meeting spaces include the Mid-America Center, with 64,000 square feet of meeting space, and the Ameristar Casino Hotel, which can host meetings of up to 450 and, combined with the connected Holiday Inn & Suites, a total of 345 guest rooms.

Omaha & Lincoln: Major Midwestern Metros

As Nebraska’s biggest city, Omaha offers groups a wide range of options. The Association of Information Technology Professionals, the National Science Teachers Association and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums are just a few of the organizations that have recently held events in Omaha.

Downtown’s CenturyLink Center boasts nearly 350,000 square feet of convention space and is attached to an 18,300-seat arena. Nearby sites that welcome events include the Joslyn Art Museum, the 24,000-seat TD Ameritrade Park, a three-acre plaza near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, the Holland Performing Arts Center, the Orpheum Theater and the Durham Museum. South of downtown, the Henry Doorly Zoo recently opened its $73 million, 28-acre African Grasslands experience. The zoo has several event areas, including a new African Lodge with a 300-seat dining area. Closer to the Missouri River, Lauritzen Gardens can host up to 500 people.

The city is adding to its inventory. A couple blocks from the CenturyLink Center, construction is progressing on the Capitol District development, a $205 million mixed-use project; plans include a 333-room, full-service Marriott Hotel, expected to open next summer. The 132-suite Even Hotel is slated to open downtown this summer with a focus on wellness. The Fairfield Inn & Suites/Omaha West opened this spring with meeting space for up to 120, and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Omaha Airport will open this summer. In Bellevue, the 122-room Courtyard/Omaha South-Bellevue at Event Center is scheduled to open this month with 18,000 square feet of meeting space.

While Omaha is Nebraska’s largest city, Lincoln is its capital and home to the University of Nebraska/Lincoln. One of the largest meeting properties is the Lincoln Marriott Cornhusker Hotel, which is newly renovated and offers space for groups of up to 1,100. The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry held its annual convention at the Cornhusker in November with about 400 people, and the American Meat Science Association (AMSA) held its Reciprocal Meat Conference at the hotel and the university’s Animal Science Complex last summer with 850 attendees.

Lincoln’s central location helped “drive attendance through the roof,” said Deidrea Mabry, director of scientific communications and technical programs for AMSA. “And the fun family atmosphere and great food made Lincoln a great fit for our meeting crowd.”

Stephanie Tiller, convention director for the National Grange, also viewed her event as successful. “Everyone was happy with their experience,” she said. “Great city, great people.”

When the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) held its Midwest Regional Conference in Lincoln in March 2015, most guests stayed at the Cornhusker, where the conference was held, and the Courtyard/Lincoln Downtown-Haymarket was used for overflow. The group had a dinner at the Lincoln Station Great Hall, which can accommodate up to 425 people, and the final banquet was held at the university’s Nebraska Innovation Campus.

Downtown’s Historic Haymarket District is full of entertainment options for attendees and is located close to the 15,500-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena. Other options for events include the historic Grand Manse, the Great Plains Art Museum, the Bob Devaney Sports Center and the Nebraska Champions Club. Blue Blood Brewing, located on the grounds of Robber’s Cave (which legend holds was the hideout of Jesse James) opened this spring and can host parties of up to 150.

central & western nebraska: Meeting Migrations

In central Nebraska, Grand Island is known for the region’s famous sandhill crane migration, but it is also home to nearly 60 meeting sites and 1,800 guest rooms. The Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in nearby Wood River hits both marks; it’s the headquarters for the annual spring crane migration but also offers meeting space. Boarders Inn & Suites, the largest meeting hotel in the area, is completing a $7 million renovation. A new MainStay Suites opened last summer with a small meeting room, and a Candlewood Suites is scheduled to open this fall.

The Nebraska State Fairgrounds and the Heartland Events Center at Fonner Park are two sprawling complexes that boast exhibition halls, arenas and other event spaces. Smaller sites include the downtown Chocolate Bar, which finished an expansion this spring; the Art Deco–style Grand Theatre; and Burlington Station.

In Kearney, groups can meet at the Younes Conference Centre or at the Buffalo County Fairgrounds. In northwest Nebraska, the Gering Civic Center in Gering welcomes up to 1,150.

The Heart of the Land

Although tilled fields and grazing cattle still cover much of the land in both Iowa and Nebraska, the states’ major cities and historic towns work just as hard to attract meetings and conventions as farmers and ranchers do to keep up with all of the growth. Hospitality professionals here will go the extra mile for association planners to ensure events go off without a hitch, a modern testament to the heart of this famously accommodating part of the United States.