by Chris Duthie | May 01, 2017

Watch out Orlando, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, San Diego, Phoenix and all the other big convention towns. A number of highly attractive second-tier meeting destinations are poised to nab more market share on the strength of superb services, fun attractions, engaging localities and big-ticket investments. Here are seven that deserve serious consideration.


Omaha, Neb.
Omaha has a long and storied history of entertaining travelers that began long before President Lincoln made it the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad in 1863. Today, the city's Missouri River locale is a vibrant metropolis of nearly half a million residents, including billionaire Warren Buffet and his Berkshire Hathaway investment group, plus four other Fortune 500 companies.

Returning visitors will note a major hotel boom within the historic downtown. Leading the way is the new 333-room Omaha Marriott Downtown at the Capital District, which will feature a rooftop pool and 33,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 11,000-square-foot ballroom. Opening in June, the hotel is across the street from the CenturyLink Arena & Convention Center, which has 194,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, 63,000 square feet of meeting space and a 31,000-square-foot grand ballroom. The facility also features a 18,300-seat arena; a skywalk connects to the 600-room Hilton Omaha Hotel and its own 39,000 square feet of conference space.

Four more hotels will debut in 2017: the 72-room Comfort Suites La Vista (spring), the 80-room Omaha Airport  and 102-room Home2 Suites Omaha (both in May), and the 81-room Candlewood Suites Omaha Millard (June). Planned for 2018 are the Aloft Omaha West, the Comfort Suites Carter Lake, the Comfort Inn & Suites Blair, the Courtyard Council Bluffs and more.

Omaha's major attractions include the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Holland Performing Arts Center. The revitalized riverfront shines with verdant parks and river-spanning pedestrian bridges linking to Council Bluffs, Iowa. After hours, visit cobblestoned Old Market with its shops, galleries, theaters and taverns, plus premium eateries like Plank Seafood Provisions, Nicola's and Le Bouillon.

Special meeting venue: The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium has a number of areas for day and evening events, such as the Desert Dome and Kingdoms of the Night, which bring the animals of three deserts under the world's largest geodesic dome. The facility hosts dinners for up to 50 or 300 for a reception.


Columbus, Ohio

The Ohio state capital's buzz-worthy status goes well beyond its acclaim for warm hospitality. With a population of 823,000, the city scores major kudos for a variety of head-turning meeting resources, like the fully renovated and expanded Columbus Convention Center that in July will unveil 373,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space added to its 1.8 million-square-foot total.

 

From top: The Scioto River winds
gracefully through a revitalized
Columbus, Ohio, while in Madison,
WI., the Wisconsin State Capitol
presides over a friendly, intimate
college town.

Long lauded for its attention to renovation, preservation and revitalization, the city continues its renaissance with moves like last year's 75,000-square-foot expansion of the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair, a $37 million upgrade of the Columbus Museum of Art and the addition of 33 acres of reclaimed green space to downtown's Scioto Mile, which connects the Scioto River with a network of parks, boulevards, bikeways and pedestrian paths.

Downtown Columbus has 4,000 guest rooms, all within 10 minutes of John Glenn Columbus International Airport. Newly opened are the 135-room Courtyard by Marriott Columbus OSU, which sits alongside the 13,000-square-foot Grand Event Center, and the 49-room Hotel LeVeque, a Marriott Autograph Collection property in the historic LeVeque Tower. The Hampton Inn & Suites Columbus--Downtown, across from the convention center, is about to complete a revamp of its 179 guest rooms. And in June, a $50 million, twin-brand, 240-room Marriott hotel and 114-room Residence Inn will open with 12,000 square feet of meeting space near Ohio State University.

Nightlife options include the galleries and restaurants in the Short North, concerts and pro sports in the Arena District, and the historic ambience of German Village. Foodies will love the Barcelona Restaurant & Bar, the Pearl, Rigsby's Kitchen and the butterfat-laced delights of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.

Special meeting venue:
 The Smith Bros. Hardware Building just opened a 12,000-square-foot rooftop space that complements existing event areas in the six-story, landmark-1926 structure.


Madison, Wis.
Home to several schools, including the main campus of the University of Wisconsin, this charismatic and intimate metropolis with a population of 555,000 also packs amazing vibes.

The fun starts with the variety of "Madtown" attractions like the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, the Chazen Museum of Art and Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Taliesin East in nearby Spring Green. A round of high-caliber golf is as close as the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed University Ridge Golf Course.

Madison is perched on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona, where sailing, kayaking, fishing, skating, cross-country skiing and ice-kiting accentuate an active itinerary of bicycling, hiking, golf and snowshoeing.

A diverse restaurant scene ranges from classic Cajun to spicy Thai to complement the city's progressive, cosmopolitan persona. To sample eateries like the Freehouse Pub, Hubbard Avenue Diner and the Village Green, all in the Middleton district, join one of the many guided food tours or pub crawls.

Underscoring all of the above are premier meeting properties such as the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. On the shores of Lake Monona, the facility has 85,000 square feet of meeting space, a 37,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 13,524-square-foot ballroom, a large rooftop terrace that can host 3,000 and much more. Connected by skywalk is the 240-room Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, which offers its own flexible event space. Newbies include the 165-room AC Hotel Madison, opening in May near Capital Square, and the 90-room Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott--Madison/Verona.

Special meeting venue: The 164-acre Alliant Energy Center offers four spacious and versatile meeting spaces, including a 255,000-square-foot exhibition hall and the 10,000-seat Veterans Memorial Coliseum.