Iowa Nebraska 2015

Where Events are the Heart of the Matter

The landscapes of Iowa and Nebraska, which still call to mind images of corn fields and ranches, reveal a lot about the people who populate these states as well as the effort they put into welcoming groups that choose their destinations for meetings.

They’re hardworking, dependable and both willing and able to handle problems as they arise—all descriptors that association planners can appreciate. Whether it’s a meeting in a major city, a riverfront reception or an expo at a county fairground, these two Midwestern states are excellent places for promising, productive events.

Greater Des Moines: Capital Gains

Iowa’s capital is hopping. New hotels are going up, millions of dollars are being invested in meeting venues and historic properties are getting major makeovers. Association planners who haven’t yet considered Des Moines soon will have more than a few reasons to do so. Topping the list is the 226,000-square-foot Iowa Events Center, which is still fresh from its $42 million renovation and expansion in 2012 and will benefit from an adjacent, $101 million hotel project. Construction has begun on a 330-room hotel that will feature a restaurant, underground parking and skybridge access to the convention center. It is expected to open in the fall of 2017.

With three dedicated spaces, the Iowa Events Center is the city’s largest venue. Groups that have held their events at the venue in the past year include the Iowa Bicycle Racing Association, the Iowa Pork Congress & Exhibition, Wizard World ComicCon and the Iowa Medical Group Management Association.

Other venues include the State Historical Museum of Iowa, the central branch of the Des Moines Public Library, Drake University’s Olmsted Center and the Temple for Performing Arts.

Another historic property, the downtown Hotel Fort Des Moines, is expected to begin a $40 million makeover later this year. Plans include a refurbishment of the first and second floors; the addition of a pool and fitness center and a secondary bar or restaurant; and the possible addition of 20 guest rooms, which would increase its total to 250. It could reopen as soon as late 2016.

Also downtown is the Des Lux Hotel, which underwent a $500,000 renovation last year; the Renaissance Savery Hotel, which recently hosted the League of Historic American Theaters’ regional conference; the year-old Residence Inn/Downtown, with meeting space for up to 50; and the Holiday Inn/Downtown-Mercy Area, which recently refreshed its two largest meeting spaces, the 4,290-square-foot Top of the Tower and the 1,395-square-foot North View Room. In West Des Moines, a 102-room Hampton Inn & Suites is scheduled to open in August with meeting space for up to 65.

In April, the Iowa Department of Transportation held its Geospatial Information Systems for Transportation Symposium—which attracts public works and transportation officials—at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown. One of the things that Shawn Blaesing-Thompson, GIS coordinator for the department’s Office of Maintenance, appreciated about the city was its downtown. “It was very walkable,” she said, “and very tech savvy. It’s definitely a younger population down there. I think it’s kind of a hopping area.”

In addition to symposium events held at the hotel, the group enjoyed an evening reception at the Science Center of Iowa, about half a mile away. The venue can host special events of up to 4,000.

In the East Village neighborhood, a 111-room Staybridge Suites is under construction, part of a $49 million development called City Square scheduled to open in spring 2016. A 108-room AC Hotel is also expected to open early next year. Two local options that recently opened include Della Viti, a self-serve wine bar, and Ricochet, a game lounge that can host groups of up to 200.

Northwest of town, in Urbandale, 102-room Hotel Renovo (formerly the Comfort Inn & Suites at Living History Farms) reopened in June with 1,130 square feet of meeting space. In nearby Grimes, the year-old MB2 Raceway Iowa, an indoor go-kart facility, has 40,000 square feet of event space.

Just north of Des Moines, in Ankeny, a new 92-room Homewood Suites by Hilton has event space for up to 40. Larger groups (of up to 500) can book the FFA Enrichment Center. Northeast of Des Moines, in Altoona, is the Prairie Meadows Casino, Racetrack & Hotel.

Fans can tour the newly opened John Wayne Museum in Winterset—35 miles southwest of Des Moines—where Wayne was born. Also in town is the Madison County Fairgrounds, with more than 8,500 square feet of space.

Ames: Classic College Town

Associations that hold their meetings in Ames will find themselves caught up in the college spirit. Just 35 miles north of Des Moines, Ames is home to Iowa State University, which welcomes group events on its 490-acre campus.

Larger options include the ISU Alumni Center, with eight rooms for gatherings; the ISU Memorial Union, with 22 rooms and ballrooms, the 4,860-square-foot Grand Hall for up to 500 and the 28-room Hotel Memorial Union; and the Iowa State Center.

Football games are held at Jack Trice Stadium, where an enclosure of the south end zone is nearing completion. The permanent, two-story structure is expected to finish in August, when stadium seating will accommodate more than 61,000. Meanwhile, basketball, gymnastics, wrestling and volleyball are played at the Hilton Coliseum. In April, Governor Terry Branstad spoke to a crowd of future farmers at the coliseum, part of the 87th Iowa FFA Leadership Conference, which drew an estimated 5,000 attendees to the city.

Many meeting hotels are convenient to ISU. Larger choices include the Gateway Hotel & Conference Center and the Quality Inn & Suites Starlite Village Conference Center. A 67-room Sleep Inn opened in May on the west side of town, construction is underway on a TownePlace Suites, and the local Hampton Inn will move into a new structure in 2016.

Groups might gather at the Prairie Moon Winery & Vineyards, which can host outdoor events for up to 500.

Eastern Iowa: Refreshing River Cities

With about 130,000 residents, Cedar Rapids is Iowa’s second-largest city, but it feels like a welcoming river town—cut through by the Cedar River—and it’s clean and friendly, said Cody Nuernberg, president of the Northwestern Lumber Association.

In February, the association brought its Iowa Lumber Convention to Cedar Rapids for the first time. About 400 attendees stayed at the downtown DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, which is attached to the U.S. Cellular Center and the U.S. Cellular Convention Center. Nuernberg said the convention center was easy to work with, there was ample parking in the area and its location right off of Interstate 380 meant “you’re not going to kill yourself to get there. What we heard was everybody was very pleased with it.” Cedar Rapids will host the group’s 2016 convention as well.

Other downtown options include the Scottish Rite Masonic Center and the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The Ladd Library branch on the west side has event space for up to 60. The restored, 1920s Paramount Theatre can seat up to 1,690, and on nearby May’s Island, the Veterans Memorial Building offers event space including a 2,500-square-foot ballroom and a 10,000-square-foot coliseum. On the western banks of the river is the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, and to the east of downtown is A Touch of Class Banquets.

On the hotel front, the 95-room Residence Inn by Marriott/Cedar Rapids South is scheduled to open in August with a 40-person event space. The Hotel at Kirkwood Center can also host events.

Upriver, Ushers Ferry Historic Village is a 10-acre, living-history museum. Last year, a $1.2 million renovation introduced a lodge that can host up to 3,000.

South of downtown is the Hawkeye Downs Speedway & Expo Center. Another 18 miles to the southwest, near Amana Colonies, the Amana Colonies RV Park & Event Center recently welcomed events including the Cedar Rapids Rabbit Breeders Association Double Show, polka festivals, sports tournaments and antiques shows. Its facilities include four buildings, among them a 13,000-square-foot center for up to 1,200.

Another city with a river running through it—in this case, the Iowa River—is Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Campus buildings that can be used for events include the Iowa Memorial Union, which in June finished a major renovation project that fully repaired damage sustained during the 2008 flood. It is home to more than 20 event spaces and also houses the Iowa House Hotel. Another three buildings on campus are expected to finish similar improvements next year. Other meeting choices include the University Club, Danforth Chapel, the Athletics Hall of Fame and the Kinnick Stadium, which recently upgraded its audio system.

In nearby Coralville is the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts and the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, which is part of the 180-acre Iowa River Landing entertainment district featuring a Homewood Suites and a planned Drury Inn. For golf enthusiasts, the Brown Deer Golf Course has banquet space for up to 200 and a boardroom.

To the east, on the banks of the Mississippi River, is the Quad Cities region: Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois. One of Davenport’s major event venues is the RiverCenter, and the Rhythm City Casino is in the process of moving from downtown to a new building near Interstates 80 and 74. When it opens in 2016, the property will have an event center for up to 600, a 150-room hotel and a 1,500-seat amphitheater. In downtown Bettendorf, the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center has more than 24,000 square feet of space. Smaller groups can meet at the Bettendorf Community Center, with space for up to 100.

About 70 miles south, in Burlington, the Catfish Bend Casino anchors the PZAZZ! Resort Hotel & Entertainment Complex, which features an event center with 9,000 square feet of function space, Huckleberry Hall for up to 125 and Club TRAX for up to 200. Other venues in town include the Capitol Theater and the Community Field baseball park.

Head the other direction to reach Iowa’s oldest city: Dubuque. Meeting facilities include the Grand River Center and the Five Flags Center offers a renovated theater, an arena for up to 4,000 and several smaller spaces.

About 100 west is Waterloo, where the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center is connected to a Ramada Hotel. For the last five years, the annual Agricultural Machinery Conference has been held in Waterloo, a convenient destination for the 400 attendees who tend to hail from the Waterloo and Quad Cities areas, said Nick Elliott, business development manager for DISTek Integration and outgoing conference chairman.

The city is also affordable and located in an area that’s a hub for agricultural machinery manufacturing, said Jim Evans, an engineering supervisor with John Deere. In fact, the event’s opening ceremonies included a self-guided tour of the new John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum.

Two blocks over from the convention center is the RiverLoop Amphitheatre & Expo Plaza. Other venues include the National Cattle Congress, Young Arena and the Iowa Veterans Museum, which can accommodate up to 200 people.

Just northwest, in Cedar Falls, venues include the Oster Regent Theatre, the Park Place Event Centre at Pipac Centre on the Lake and the University of Northern Iowa’s UNI-Dome.

Northern & Western Iowa: Historic Meeting Hubs

Fort Dodge had its heydey in 1850, and today visitors head back in time during the Frontier Days celebration at the Fort Museum. Many of the festivities also take place at the Opera House. Other venues include the Vincent House, the Ringland-Smeltzer House, the Dodger Stadium and Iowa Central Community College’s Hodges Fieldhouse.

In Mason City, about 90 miles to the northeast, groups can meet at the North Iowa Events Center, Music Man Square or Iowa Area Community College’s Muse-Norris Conference Center or at the school’s auditorium.

Sioux City is another hub for meetings. Recently it welcomed events of the Siouxland Youth Hockey Association, the Northwest Iowa Regional Board of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Greater Siouxland. The city’s largest venue is the Sioux City Convention Center.

Since the early 1800s, Council Bluffs has been populated by a variety of groups. Today the city beckons with meeting sites, both modern and historic attractions and places to while away the hours on the Missouri River. Meeting spaces include the Mid-America Center and a little more than a mile away is the Ameristar Casino Hotel and the attached Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites. The 80-acre River’s Edge Park is nearby and east of downtown is the Westfair Amphitheater and Iowa Western Community College.

Lincoln & Greater Omaha: Star Power

Nebraska’s capital city, Lincoln, is also known as “Star City,” and when it comes to hosting group events, the city excels. The Historic Haymarket District is convenient to the 15,900-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena. From there, it’s just a few blocks to other attractions that double as meeting sites such as the Grand Manse or the Great Plains Art Museum, with space for up to 250. Both are south of the University of Nebraska/Lincoln campus, which offers the Bob Devaney Sports Center and the Nebraska Champions Club. A newer venue is the Nebraska Innovation Campus Conference Center, with a banquet hall, a 400-seat auditorium and eight breakout rooms.

In Columbus, about 75 miles northwest of Lincoln, the Platte County Ag Park can seat up to 1,200. The recently renovated Ramada Columbus offers meeting space for up to 800 people.

Omaha, Nebraska’s biggest city, has no trouble drawing hundreds of events each year, including the annual pilgrimage for shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, the company of billionaire—and Omaha native—Warren Buffett. The event is held at the CenturyLink Center.

Omaha currently has more than 14,000 hotel rooms in the metropolitan area, up 5 percent from the same time last year. One of the new builds is the DoubleTree by Hilton/Omaha Southwest, which opened this spring. The city is set to gain another 1,100 guest rooms at properties that are either under construction or in the planning stage, including a proposed convention hotel across from CenturyLink Center.

Omaha’s other stellar meeting spaces include the Holland Performing Arts Center, the TD Ameritrade Park and the three-acre plaza near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. At the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, a new African Lodge has a 300-seat dining area, one of several areas available for rent. Other off-site venues include Lauritzen Gardens, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Durham Museum.

Central & Western Nebraska: Fair Grounds

In central Nebraska, Grand Island is home to more than 60 meeting sites and 1,700 guest rooms. Fonner Park is a sprawling complex that’s home to the Heartland Events Center. The Nebraska Building is a recent addition that has 54,000 square feet of exhibit space and is slated to house the Nebraska State Fair Historical Museum.

Other local sites that regularly host events include the Holiday Inn/Grand Island-Midtown, the historic Grand Theatre and the Riverside Golf Club.

About 50 miles west of Grand Island, in Kearney, is the Buffalo County Fairgrounds and the Younes Conference Centre. In Gering, the Gering Civic Center also welcomes groups.

Taking Meetings to Heart

Whether an association opts to meet in one of the bigger cities of Iowa or Nebraska or prefers the atmosphere of smaller cities, there are two things that planners can certainly count on: help and hospitality. Convention bureau staff in these destinations are known for the extra effort they put into hosting events and the willingness to offer suggestions with the understanding that good business promotes growth—for their region and for groups alike.