by Elaine Warner | October 01, 2015

There's more to Kansas and Oklahoma than plains and prairies, though both are still beloved features of these Midwestern states. Visiting groups can meet at multipurpose arenas, in spirited university towns, at historical resorts or at attractions ranging from wildlife parks to waterfront districts.

And in a part of the country where locals are as forthright as they are friendly, planners will find that they can easily create an event that treats attendees to the best of any area.

Wichita, Kansas: Transforming a Classic

Once a shipping stop on the historic Chisholm Trail, Wichita has evolved from a town with dirt streets and saloon shoot-outs to a sparkling city with art galleries, more than two dozen golf courses, an annual film festival and several event venues, including the Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center, with 200,000 square feet of space, and the 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena.

Planners who want to break out of the traditional meeting-venue mold can look to one of the city's popular attractions. At Botanica Gardens, 17 acres of green spaces await groups; eight event venues include Lotus Hall, which can accommodate up to 299 and is connected to the new Chinese Garden of Friendship, and the Terrace Room, for up to 400.

The nearby Old Cowtown Museum has event space for up to 600, and the Wichita Art Museum has event space for up to 200. And Exploration Place, a science museum on the Arkansas River, has several spaces available for gatherings, including a 27,000-square-foot wooded area with picnic tables, a plaza for upwards of 1,000 and WaterWay Hall, which can currently accommodate up to 200 but is scheduled for a renovation this winter that will double its capacity. Also worth noting is the museum's WaterWay Terrace, an ideal spot to watch the nightly lighting of the Keeper of the Plains, a symbolic city sculpture. West of town, in Goddard, the 3.5-acre Tanganyika Wildlife Park has indoor event space for up to 400, a conference center for up to 100 and an outdoor garden.

Wichita offers more than a dozen hotels with meeting space. The Hyatt Regency/Wichita, connected to the convention center, wrapped up a multimillion-dollar renovation last year. Also nearby are the LEED-certified Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview, a historic property that reopened in 2011 after a $25 million revamp, and the Hotel at Old Town, housed in the Keen Kutter Building.

The Society of American Travel Writers' Central States Chapter recently gathered at the Hotel at Old Town with about 45 delegates. Susan Kraus, conference chairwoman for the annual meeting, said one of the main reasons the group chose the hotel was its location. "It sits in the middle of a trendy area with an abundance of restaurants and bars, museums, eclectic shopping and more, all within walking distance. Plus, there's a free trolley that will take you to other sections of the city," she said. Kraus also appreciated the property's meeting amenities: "Well-appointed larger meeting spaces and breakout rooms, a spacious lobby filled with tables, chairs and couches-perfect for mini-meetings or work groups-free adjacent covered parking, 24-hour coffee and tea in the lobby and a lobby bar for participants who wanted a quiet chat later in the evening. The very congenial staff, eager to please, made me copies and adjusted to schedule changes more times than I could count," she said.  

Overland Park & Kansas City: Expect Great Things

Overland Park, once a sleepy suburb, is now the second-largest city in the state. With more than 5,000 hotel rooms, a variety of meeting spaces and easy access to all the activities happening in the greater Kansas City metro area, it's an ideal destination for association groups.

The primary meeting venue is the Overland Park Convention Center, which features a 60,000-square-foot, divisible exhibit hall, a 25,000-square-foot ballroom, smaller meeting rooms and a 25,000-square-foot outdoor courtyard. In February, the American Farriers Association held its annual convention here with 650 attendees from across the nation. Jon Johnson, chairman of its convention coordinating committee, praised the city's variety of venues for after-hours enjoyment and the cooperation of community officials who helped with planning. "All of the people we worked with were extremely helpful," he said.

A new local facility that combines team-building options with meeting possibilities is Topgolf, a 65,000-square-foot venue that opened a little more than a year ago. Attendees can play golf with micro-chipped balls and then get down to work amid 2,900 square feet of meeting space, which can host up to 250. Amenities include lounge and patio spaces, audiovisual equipment and food-and-wine service. Also in town is the University of Kansas Edwards Campus, which has conference space for up to 400.

Just north of Overland Park is Kansas City, whose main meeting hub is the Jack Reardon Convention Center, served by an adjacent Hilton Garden Inn. Other local hotels that offer event space include the Great Wolf Lodge, the Best Western Premier KC Speedway Inn & Suites, the Comfort Suites/Speedway, the Chateau Avalon Hotel and the Country Inn & Suites/Kansas City at Village West.

The 4,800-seat CommunityAmerica Ballpark can be used for special events, as can the Kansas Speedway. Sporting Park can be configured to seat up to 25,000 and has additional indoor event space for up to 600 and a 124,000-square-foot plaza. Another option is the 180,000-square-foot Cabela, a sporting store with a conference room. A smaller option is the Victorian-style Strawberry Hill Museum & Cultural Center, with meeting space for up to 100.

Farther west, in Bonner Springs, is the 172-acre National Agricultural Center & Hall of Fame. Features include a 750-seat pavilion and a 200-seat auditorium, and staff can arrange hayrides and educational living history talks.

Manhattan & Lawrence: Building Team Spirit

Folks in Kansas bleed crimson and blue for the University of Kansas (KU) or purple for Kansas State (one of the few schools in the country with one official color). There's a lot in store for groups who visit the schools' hometowns of Lawrence and Manhattan, respectively.

In Manhattan, a popular campus option for group events is the Kansas State Alumni Center, which has more than a dozen spaces, including a banquet room for up to 750. Southeast of the university, Flint Hills Discovery Center offers a rooftop terrace, glass atrium, smaller boardrooms and gallery space. Also downtown is the Manhattan Conference Center, with 25,000 square feet of space for up to 1,500 attendees.

Historic buildings seem to be a specialty of Lawrence. Three such structures that can be used for events include the Cider Gallery, built in the 1890s and recently renovated for functions of upwards of 300; the Eldridge Hotel, which dates back to 1855; and the 1904 Carnegie Building, originally a public library and now available to host up to 220 people with three meeting rooms.

Groups can also turn to KU for their events. Venues include the Dole Institute, the Kansas Union (with two new customizable spaces) and the Burge Union. Beginning in early 2016, the DeBruce Center is expected to open with a 5,000-square-foot plaza and three indoor spaces. East of campus, Maceli's Banquet Hall & Catering has dining space for up to 80 and reception space for up to 400, and up the street, the Lawrence Arts Center can host up to 600.

Around the State: Small-town Feel

In central Kansas, the Bicentennial Center in Salina recently finished up a $13.1 million renovation project. Facility features include upgraded technology, eight meeting rooms and the 18,600-square-foot Heritage Hall, which can host events as large as 2,000. And this spring, a 115-room Holiday Inn opened with event space for up to 300 people. Slightly smaller space (for up to 275) is available at the Rolling Hills Zoo conference center. Seventy miles west, in Russell, Fossil Creek Hotel & Suites' Dole-Specter Conference Center has 3,200 square feet of meeting space.

Hutchinson, 50 miles northwest of Wichita, is home to several entertaining event venues. The Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center can be booked in its entirety for up to 500 people, or groups can head underground to Strataca, a salt mine that can host events of up to 250. A new entertainment center called Alley opened in May with bowling, laser tag, bumper cars, arcade games, a restaurant and a meeting room for up to 60. For more conventional meeting space, there's the Atrium Hotel & Conference Center.

If you need a meeting spot in southwestern Kansas, follow the yellow brick road to Liberal, home to Dorothy's House & the Land of Oz-the farmhouse model for the film and an interactive exhibit. Both the Holiday Inn Express and the Hampton Inn & Suites have meeting rooms, or classroom space is available at Seward County Community College.

Oklahoma City & Enid: Highly Recommended

One of only four U.S. cities to make National Geographic Traveler's Best Trips 2015 list, Oklahoma City is basking in the well-deserved recognition of reinvention. Areas like Automobile Alley, the Film Row District, Bricktown and the Boathouse District bustle with locals and visitors alike.

Downtown, the Cox Convention Center hosts the city's largest meetings and is a stone's throw from three of the city's major meeting hotels: the Renaissance, the Skirvin Hilton and the Sheraton. The adjacent Chesapeake Energy Arena has 34,000 square feet of floor space, and the Myriad Botanical Gardens can host upwards of 400 for group functions. Just south, on the Oklahoma River, several boathouses in the Boathouse District have large areas for meetings, or planners can organize a number of team-building activities like dragon boating, rowing or a day's worth of various fun through Riversport Adventures. Other sites that can double as recreational and business venues include Topgolf and the Main Event, both located north of downtown. New to the meetings scene is the Embassy Suites/Downtown-Medical Center.

About 100 miles north, Enid was built on wheat and oil and has grown to become a big business center for north-central Oklahoma. Groups can meet at the Enid Event Center & Convention Hall, with 53,000 square feet of space, including a 11,500-square-foot Grand Ballroom; Northern Oklahoma College's Enid campus, with spaces ranging from classrooms to an observatory and planetarium; and the Enid Symphony Center, with five spaces, the largest of which is a 340-seat theater.

The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center has space for group events and can accommodate up to 400. Or Simpson's Old Time Museum welcomes groups with a 1,200-square-foot saloon and additional space on its Main Street.

In hotel news, the Country Inn & Suites opened last year with 77 guest rooms and a 30-person boardroom. Three other local chain hotels are under construction or in the planning stages.

Greater Tulsa: Grand Green Country

There is no shortage of art and music venues in the city of Tulsa. Its downtown is graced with one of the country's largest collections of Art Deco buildings and its Brady Arts District attracts visitors with green space, restaurants, boutiques and museums.

The downtown Cox Business Center is the prime spot for large meetings and is located within walking distance of the 19,199-seat BOK Center. There are more than 1,650 hotel rooms downtown. Larger meeting properties include the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Hyatt Regency, which recently hosted the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association Convention and is scheduled to welcome the Arabian Horse Association Annual Convention in November.

The landmark Ambassador Hotel is now part of the Marriott Autograph Collection following a $2 million renovation that was completed in April. It has meeting space for up to 70 and its restaurant can accommodate up to 100. Less than a mile away, the new Best Western Plus/Downtown-Route 66 recently opened with meeting space for up to 30 people. Southeast of downtown, the Renaissance Tulsa Hotel & Convention Center is home to the state's largest ballroom and offers free round-trip service to the airport, and six miles west, is the Marriott Tulsa Southern Hills Hotel.

Other venues worth considering include the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, with a half-dozen spaces including the 2,365-seat Chapman Music Hall; the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center, with space for up to 250; and Expo Square, east of downtown, featuring more than 500,000 square feet of event space as well as a 4,500-seat pavilion.

Thirty miles northeast of Tulsa, in Claremore, the new Claremore Conference Center offers 7,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor space and is adjacent to an 81-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites, also newly opened. Farther north, in Bartlesville, the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced Community Center has a 1,700-seat auditorium as well as several smaller spaces. And meeting space with panoramic views is now available in the restored 1910 Johnstone-Sare Building, which has retained its antique bar and other fixtures. Another option is Woolaroc, the estate of oil magnate Frank Phillips. It has a lakeview event center that can host up to 100, outdoor space for up to 400, a historic lodge and a museum.

Wagoner, southeast of Tulsa, is the home of the Canebrake Hotel & Spa on Fort Gibson Lake. The 250-acre, eco-friendly property welcomes groups with conference space for up to 75 as well as a 65-seat restaurant and a spa.

One of Oklahoma's endangered historic treasures, the Kerr Mansion in Poteau, has been adopted by a non-profit, volunteer organization and is now open for conferences and meetings. Once a country getaway for Robert Kerr, a former senator and Oklahoma governor, it went on to host such guests as presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, George H.W. Bush and Carter and still impresses with its views of the Ouachita Mountains.

Southern & Western Oklahoma: Retreats & Recreation

The Chickasaw National Recreation Area in south-central Oklahoma has long attracted those who love the outdoors, and planners can incorporate a day of bird-watching, bicycling, boating or fishing into the agenda for a little rest and relaxation. The park's northern entrance, in Sulphur, is convenient to the Artesian Hotel, ready for groups with three meeting rooms and a ballroom for up to 200 people, shops, a spa and a casino. The hotel recently hosted an event of the Oklahoma Historical Society and is scheduled to welcome the Oklahoma Health Information Management Association this month.

West of town, the Chickasaw Cultural Center is a popular attraction that focuses on the heritage of the Chickasaw people with exhibits, cooking and archery demonstrations, shops, art galleries and a recreated traditional village. And on the southern shores of the Lake of the Arbuckles, the Chickasaw Retreat & Conference Center is designed for group meetings with minimal distractions. Facilities include a 124-seat amphitheater, a Great Room with a central fire pit, and outdoor spaces.

In southeastern Oklahoma, Idabel is home to the Museum of the Red River, with one of the finest archaeological and ethnological collections in the state. Its 11,000-square-foot conference center has three event spaces, the largest of which can host up to 255 people.

In southwestern Oklahoma's ancient Wichita Mountains, Lone Wolf is home to the Quartz Mountain Resort Arts & Conference Center, closely associated with the Oklahoma Arts Institute and decorated with works by well-known artists like Mike Larson and Fritz Scholder. The property regularly welcomes group retreats and conferences with meeting spaces including a 697-seat performance hall and an outdoor amphitheater. Activities include fishing, boating, hiking and golf.

The largest town in the high plains panhandle, Guymon is a convenient destination for small regional gatherings. Although it lacks conventional meeting facilities, planners can work with Melyn Johnson, director of Main Street Guymon, who works to pull unconventional spaces together to create fun and unique events.

Melvena Heisch, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Oklahoma Historical Society, spoke highly of a recent statewide preservation conference held in town with 200 participants. "Having the event in Guymon allowed us to focus our program on historic landscapes, the archaeology of the region, the Santa Fe Trail and much more," she said. "In addition to concurrent sessions in a classroom setting, there were several tours and special events included in the program."

Far From Ordinary

Associations that have met in Kansas and Oklahoma know that there is more to this region than meets the eye. Exciting cities and charming small towns offer a wide selection of options, and attendees can enjoy everything from Native American culture and art to modern dance performances, major college football action and reborn riverfront districts. One can still visit the tallgrass prairies and the house that transported Dorothy to Oz, but what will leave a lasting impression on groups is all the diversity these states are able to offer. And that's the plain truth.