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From Cattle to Cockpits in Wichita, Kansas

Wichita’s Western heritage blends the past, present and future. This history dovetails with its high-tech manufacturing sector that helped it earn the nickname Air Capital of the World. Call it a combination of ambition and tradition.

“The tradition goes back to the days of the Chisholm Trail [the 1860s to 1880s] when cowboys herded their Texas cattle through here to the Kansas railheads,” said Susie Santo, president and CEO of the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Wichita is also named after the Native American tribe. So we have rich tradition.”

The “today” portion of the equation speaks loudly as well.

“Now we are also known for our aircraft production,” Santo said. “You cannot ride in any 737 jetliner whose fuselage wasn’t built right here in Wichita. We’re also the international headquarters for Koch Industries [which makes food, clothing, shelter and transportation products], so we definitely have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Located in south-central Kansas on the Arkansas River, Wichita is the state’s largest city and has a growing population of nearly 290,000. It is home to Wichita State University and Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, which has a new terminal and is named for the president and military commander who grew up 90 minutes north of the city.

The CVB believes that many meeting planners are interested in bringing their groups to Wichita to conduct business because of the industries located there.

“Our CVB focuses on our local companies and associations that are tied to such things as aviation, agriculture, oil and gas, and health and medical,” said Maureen Hofrenning, the CVB’s vice president of sales.

Wichita is one of few cities in Kansas that can handle large association meetings. It also draws people from nearby states.

“Someone can drive here from Dallas or Omaha in five hours, St. Louis in six hours or Denver in eight hours,” said Hofrenning. “We hear from many planners how important our location is for their drive-in business.”

Meeting Venues

Wichita’s main convention venue is the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center, which is located in the heart of downtown. The center has nearly 228,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, including 22 meeting rooms and three different performance halls. One of them can seat as many as 2,000 group members for everything from a general session to a stage show

The center has booked those halls for when it hosts the Sweet Adelines, a musical education association for women who perform a cappella, four-part harmony. Hundreds of performers will be in town to do just that in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Another meeting option is Intrust Bank Arena, two blocks from the convention center.

“It is a state-of-the-art, beautiful facility,” said Santo. “It can host all types of meetings, as well as basketball, hockey and other sporting events and large concerts. Last December, Garth Brooks sold out six concerts here in just 75 minutes.”

Another local indoor stadium is smaller — 5,000 seats — but that may be exactly what a particular group needs. Hartman Arena is located in nearby Park City, Kansas. Right across the highway from Hartman, in the suburb of Valley Center, is Kansas Pavilions. It is a complex made up of four different pavilions, so there are many choices for planners to consider. The complex is known for hosting horse, livestock, dog and car shows.

The pavilions and grounds will be hopping this summer when the Hot Rod Power Tour hits town on the sixth day of its seven-day circuit.

“There will be 4,500 classic cars on the property and many thousands of car fans scurrying to get a good look at them,” said Hofrenning.

Time for Fun

The locals say you should not visit Wichita without making a day or night of it in Old Town. Brick-lined streets and historic lampposts can be found throughout. Historic brick warehouses and other buildings have been converted into restaurants, bars, shops, clubs, galleries, theaters and hotels. All are a tribute to developers with the foresight to save them from the wrecking ball.

“It’s really a fun area for our groups, with more than 100 businesses,” said Hofrenning. “We’re also proud of the free Q-Line Trolley, which runs a circuit around the downtown hotels, making it easy for people to get back and forth for an evening of entertainment.”

A brand-new show has opened at the city’s Sedgwick County Zoo. Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley is the third-largest elephant exhibit in the country. It puts visitors right in the middle of an elephant habitat with a waterfall, a stream and land that allow visitors to be surrounded by as many as half a dozen pachyderms. A riverboat ride feature allows guests to get close to these gentle, spectacular creatures.

“When you look at this area, you think you are in Africa,” said Santo. “We just had a sit-down event for 200 people out there, very comfortably. I envision meeting groups heading to the zoo to enjoy that experience.”

Wichita must be wild about wildlife because there is yet another animal attraction that draws large crowds and meeting groups searching for adventure. Tanganyika Wildlife Park was founded by a local couple to save endangered animals; they have vast experience breeding endangered animals for zoos around the world.

“They will offer you an enclosed area for your cocktail party,” Santo said. “As you walk throughout the grounds, you’ll have many animal encounters. You can feed giraffes, pigmy hippos and lemurs and many more. It is a real hands-on animal experience.”

Surprise, Surprise

Cynthia Wentworth, vice president of marketing for the CVB, likes to boast that “people are incredibly surprised at what Wichita offers.” One example is the performing arts. Music Theater Wichita stages five Broadway-scale musical productions per season using a mix of top-tier professionals and talented young performers and technicians who must win places in the company both onstage and behind the scenes.

“They interview thousands of people across the country each year to find 20 to 30 talented young people to take part in the performances each summer,” said Wentworth. “At any theater or theater company around Broadway in New York City, you will find working alumni of that Wichita program.”

Wichita is also a city of museums, and an interesting place called Museums on the River boasts five of them in one collection. The 23-acre Old Cowtown Museum is the oldest open-air museum in the Midwest, with more than 50 historic, re-created buildings in a farm-and-town setting from the 1870s. It is located near the old Chisholm Trail and is a great spot for a cocktail party for any group that would enjoy cowboy history.

Botanica, the Wichita Gardens, comprises nine acres of beautiful landscapes. Mid-America All-Indian Center educates visitors about the heritage of Native Americans. There’s a museum and a center for presenting special cultural events. Exploration Place features 20 acres of exhibits designed to stimulate the imaginations of people of all ages. And Wichita Art Museum presents works of art spanning three centuries.

Hotel Options

Wichita has about 8,000 hotel rooms in the city, with 1,200 of them in the downtown area. About 630 rooms are within walking distance of the convention center. The Hyatt Regency Wichita has 303 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space to rent and is conveniently connected directly to the Century II center.

History is at the forefront of several other hotel properties located in and around the Old Town District. The Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview is located in a 1920s-era building that has been refurbished; it offers 200 rooms. The Ambassador Hotel Wichita, a boutique hotel with 117 rooms, is part of the celebrated Marriott Collection hotel group; it is located in the historic and meticulously renovated Union National Bank Building.

Hotel at Old Town, another historic gem, is located in the former Keen Kutter brick warehouse and features lavish suites and a classic piano bar inside its stunning atrium lobby. The Courtyard Wichita at Old Town is an example of the city’s love of history and urban sophistication. Finally, the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott-Wichita Downtown, another meetings hotel option, is right in the middle of the downtown action.

Wichita, Kansas

Location: South Central Kansas

Access: Wichita Eisenhower National Airport; interstates 35, 135, 235

Major Meeting Spaces: Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center, Intrust Bank Arena, Hartman Arena, Kansas Pavilions

Hotel Rooms: 8,000 in the city; 1,200 downtown

Offsite Venues: Old Town, Museums on the River, Sedgwick County Zoo, Tanganyika Wildlife Park.

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Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.