by Elaine Warner | October 01, 2016

From the air, the landscapes of Kansas and Oklahoma look like a quilt, which they are in a sense from a meetings standpoint. The destinations are composed of a patchwork of venues and professionals that stitch together a beautiful and comfortable sense of hospitality.

The view at ground level, of course, better shows the contours and character of these states' smaller outposts and large metro areas, all of which are worth exploring as sites for association meetings and conventions.

Wichita, Kansas & Points North: Hit the Trail

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, a route highly influential in the history of Wichita. For a review of this and other city history, groups can head to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Museum or the Old Cowtown Museum, both of which can be used for special events.

Wichita has evolved from its cowtown roots into a hub for Midwest meetings. The biggest venues are the Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center, with more than 200,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and connection to a Hyatt Regency (with its own function space), and the 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena. The Sedgwick County Zoo has eight different event areas. The zoo's new Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit, the third-largest elephant exhibit in the country, offers covered outdoor space for events of up to 200. For larger or indoor functions, the zoo's Cargill Learning Center features a variety of climate-controlled rooms and an auditorium.

This summer, the Hilton Garden Inn/Wichita completed renovations to its guest rooms, banquet areas, public spaces and exterior. Located in the upscale Bradley Fair area, the hotel is positioned near great restaurants and shopping. The nearby Cocoa Dolce Chocolate Lounge is perfect for a sweet pick-me-up or a leisurely glass of wine. A new, 125-room Hampton Inn & Suites has opened near the airport with a 504-square-foot meeting room that can accommodate up to 50 people. And in February, the Aloft/Wichita Northeast is scheduled to open with 126 guest rooms and three meeting rooms.

In Emporia, 90 miles northeast of Wichita, Emporia State University is the go-to spot for meetings, with catering services and high-tech setups that make organizing easy for planners. Its Memorial Union can host up to 1,000.

In hotel news, the Knights Inn & Conference Center is under new management and will be rebranded by the end of the year as a Ramada Worldwide & Conference Center. The hotel is still operating as it undergoes a renovation.

The Knights Inn is just a mile north of the Lyon County Fairgrounds, whose redesigned, 12,000-square-foot Anderson Hall can host up to 2,360 people and 6,500-square-foot Bowyer Community Building offers reception space for up to 820 as well as a catering kitchen, bar and outdoor fire pit.

When Emporia was founded in 1857, it became the first town in the world to include prohibition in its founding documents. But times have changed as is evidenced by three popular watering holes, which can host small to mid-sized meetings: the Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe, the Brickyard 20 Ale House and the Radius Brewing Company.

As the home of Kansas State University, Manhattan is able to cater to nearly any size meeting. Campus options include the Alumni Center and the Kansas State Student Union, which is undergoing a renovation (scheduled for completion in January), and event spaces ranging from a 1,000-seat ballroom to a 16-lane bowling alley. Close to the southeast side of campus, the Bluemont Hotel has five meeting rooms.

Off campus, the downtown Manhattan Conference Center has space for up to 1,500 attendees and is connected to a Hilton Garden Inn. West of town, the Prairiewood Retreat & Preserve offers three indoor venues, the largest of which can host up to 175 indoors or up to 250 when the patio is incorporated, and a landscaped pond. Farther west, on the eastern shores of Milford Lake (the largest lake in Kansas), the Acorns Resort is home to the Milford Lake Conference Center, which offers space for up to 255 and an audiovisual system with three projection screens and built-in HD projectors, wireless microphones, multimedia connectors and Wi-Fi.

Sixty miles southwest, in Salina, the newly renovated Bicentennial Center continues to be the primary venue for meetings and events. It has a 7,500-seat arena and an additional 18,000 square feet of event space. Associations can also host events at the Rolling Hills Zoo museum, which has ballroom space for up to 275. Tours of the museum are included in the rental and the facility is filled with more than 200 mounted specimens, running waterfalls and displays of seven different world ecosystems. Those looking ahead might consider the new Hilton Garden Inn scheduled to open in spring 2017 with approximately 10,000 square feet of divisible meeting space. And for an interactive social event, the staff of Visit Salina can plan a pre-convention scavenger hunt that revolves around the downtown SculptureTour.

Northeastern Kansas: Inspiring and integral

Overland Park, part of the Kansas City metropolitan area and the state's second-largest city, sees its fair share of association business. Larger venues include the Overland Park Convention Center, whose features include 60,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 25,000-square-foot courtyard and seven meeting rooms; Johnson County Community College with dozens of options; and the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, with space for 300.

The newly renovated Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites/Overland Park West offers meeting space for up to 500, including a rooftop ballroom. The DoubleTree by Hilton/Kansas City-Overland Park is in the process of renovations and improvements to its meeting spaces should be complete this fall. And in nearby Olathe, the 200-room Embassy Suites/Kansas City-Olathe opened in December with space for up to 750.

In the state capital of Topeka, which has been undergoing a redevelopment of its downtown area, planners will find a convention center, three convention hotels and more than 3,000 guest rooms.

Fort Scott & Dodge City: Spirit of Discovery

Fort Scott, situated in southeastern Kansas near the Missouri border, was once part of the Fort Leavenworth-Fort Gibson Military Road. Attendees can visit the Fort Scott National Historic Site, whose buildings represent a U.S. Army fort from the 1840s.

A newer attraction in town is the 6,500-square-foot Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, which has two areas that can host groups of up to 30. The adjacent Empress Event Center can host up to 100, and down the street, the Sleep Inn Hotel has a small meeting space. The Liberty Theatre & Crooner's Lounge also welcomes special events. At Fort Scott Community College, the Ellis Fine Arts Center offers a 600-seat auditorium, classrooms and audiovisual aids.

Across the state, in southwest Kansas, Dodge City became famous as a cowtown on the Great Western Cattle Trail. Major venues include the United Wireless Arena, whose Boot Hill Casino Resort & Conference Center (the adjacent casino recently bought the naming rights) offers 7,000 square feet of space, and the Western State Bank Expo Center, with a 27,768-square-foot arena, a 90,000-square-foot exhibit hall and additional outdoor exhibit space and a conference room for up to 75 people.

Groups that have gathered in town in recent years include the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police and the Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association. "The excellent resources, support and commitment from the Dodge City Visitors & Convention Bureau far exceeded what we had expected," said Jennifer Duffy, executive director of the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police. "The relationship that they have with the United Wireless Arena, hotels and restaurants is top-notch and can be felt in the overall ease of planning any major event. It was, by far, one of the best experiences I have had as an event planner and that our members experienced as attendees."

The Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association held its 2015 mid-year meeting at the Dodge House Hotel & Convention Center and everyone in attendance was pleased with the facilities and service, said Kelly Rains, the group's operation manager. "The Dodge House took care of us and had enough room to allow meetings, lunch and a trade show all in one spot," she said. Rains also praised the convention bureau and said that attendees really liked the Boot Hill Museum, which during the summer months entertains visitors with shootout reenactments, country-style dinners and a variety show. "They were all talking about bringing their kids and grandkids back to see it," she said.

Greater Tulsa & Oklahoma City: Cutting Edge

In Tulsa, Oklahoma's second-biggest city, the largest event venues are the 19,199-seat BOK Center and the 310,000-square-foot Cox Business Center (formerly the Tulsa Convention Center). A new, 125-room Hampton Inn & Suites is expected to open within walking distance next spring with its own meeting space. The DoubleTree by Hilton, connected to the convention center, recently completed an $11.7 million renovation, which included updates to its meeting spaces, lobby and front desk areas and guest rooms. A $300,000 sound system was installed and Wi-Fi in meeting rooms was enhanced.

Just 50 miles southeast of town, in Hulbert, the Lodge at Sequoyah State Park (formerly the Western Hills Guest Ranch) completed a major renovation last year. Accommodations include 104 redesigned guest rooms and 45 cottages, and groups can utilize eight meeting rooms or the ballroom that overlooks Fort Gibson Lake. Groups seeking larger grounds for gatherings can head to nearby Tahlequah, where Northeastern State University and the Armory Municipal Center welcome special events.

About 100 miles southwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma City has two new hotels with meeting space. Convenient to the city's medical district and state capitol is the year-old Embassy Suites/Downtown-Medical Center, located on the south side of the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. It features event space for up to 1,000 people. And the 135-room 21c Museum Hotel opened in June in the repurposed, century-old Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant downtown. The hotel's 14,000 square feet of museum space can be used for events of up to 500, and the available technology is as cutting edge as the art.

Or for event space that offers a sense of history, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum offers a 16,500-square-foot events center, a plaza and gardens, a recreated cattle town called Prosperity Junction and a boardroom for up to 180.

About 75 miles to the northwest, Roman Nose State Park in Watonga is a scenic getaway, set in a canyon near Watonga Lake. The park has a variety of accommodations and 2,350 square feet of meeting space as well as on-site catering and audiovisual equipment.

Northern Oklahoma: Unique Sites

In Bartlesville, 45 miles north of Tulsa and not far from the borders of Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, groups can convene at the Tri-County Technology Center's renovated Event Center, which can accommodate up to 232 attendees and offers catering services through the school's culinary arts department. Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Price Tower is also a popular site for events with 4,600 square feet of indoor space and 550 square feet of outdoor terraces.

West, in Ponca City, the Carolyn Renfro Event Center opened early last year with a stage and breakout rooms. A spectacular place for a special event is the E.W. Marland Mansion, often called the "Palace on the Prairie," with a design based on the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, Italy. A ballroom with a gold-leaf-covered ceiling is one of many highlights.

In Enid, the Enid Event Center & Convention Hall has been renamed the Central National Bank Center. Facilities include a 5,000-seat arena and various meeting spaces. And three new hotels have expanded group options: a La Quinta Inn & Suites, a Home Away Suites and a Candlewood Suites.

When the American Kitefliers Association looked to meet in Enid, it had specific requirements for outdoor flying fields. Marla Miller, the group's vice-president, said the team from Visit Enid and the city engineers helped organize a successful gathering, which utilized classrooms at the convention hall.

Farther west, not far from the Texas panhandle, Woodward welcomes groups with a conference center that can accommodate up to 1,200 people or up to 110 trade-show booths. Last September, the Oklahoma Museums Association held its annual conference in Woodward, utilizing the services of both the conference center and local convention and visitors bureau. "Both were outstanding," said Brenda Granger, the association's executive director. "We had nearly 200 participants and used the entire facility. Everyone was so inviting and wonderful to work with. When we arrived, all reserved rooms were set and ready, and the conference center staff helped us and our vendors with moving materials. Once the conference started, they followed our event schedule and were ready to assist whenever necessary. Truly, it was a most professional conference center staff and a pleasure working with the Woodward community."

Other event venues in town include the Northwestern Oklahoma State University/Woodward campus to the Plains Indians & Pioneers Museum.

Southern Oklahoma: Insight and Exploration

Oklahoma is noted for its geologic and biologic diversity, and visitors can experience both at the state's more scenic southern areas and parks.

At the Quartz Mountain Resort Arts & Conference Center, located in Quartz Mountain State Park near Lone Wolf, groups have access to 16,000 square feet of meeting space. The resort is set on the shores of Lake Altus-Lugert, surrounded by the pink granite boulders of an ancient mountain chain. The resort's facilities also serve as a gallery, with works by professional Native American artists as well as pieces by students who attend the Oklahoma Arts Institute.

In south-central Oklahoma's Lake Murray State Park, near Ardmore, the Lake Murray Lodge is on track to open in February. Plans include 32 rooms, seven meeting rooms, a fitness center and a restaurant. Also available at the park are 56 cabins.

Beavers Bend State Park near Broken Bow is set among the tall pines of the Ouachita National Forest and cut through by the Lower Mountain Fork River. Its Lakeview Lodge has a 720-square-foot conference room and a Great Room. Also within the park are 48 cabins; the Forest Heritage Center Museum, an educational facility housing several meeting spaces; and the Cedar Creek Golf Course.

Ninety miles north, in Wilburton, Robbers Cave State Park offers picturesque event space and activities that range from horseback riding to canoeing to miniature golf. The Belle Starr View Lodge offers views of Coon Creek Lake and meeting space for up to 36 people.

No Fly-by Zone

Kansas and Oklahoma meeting venues run the gamut from A to Z-from arenas to zoos. And there's more that's worth exploring, from art-filled hotels and small living history museums to huge powerhouse universities. No need to simply fly over these states and wonder. Join the countless groups each year that stop and stay and soak up this part of the Midwest.