More than 150 years ago, railroads made an enormous impact on a tiny hamlet in the Dakota Territory. The Union Pacific Railroad designated this spot as the launch point for its grueling climb over the Rocky Mountains as its tracks pushed ever farther into the western United States. That speck on the map became known as Cheyenne, named for the local Native American tribe. Soon it developed into the capital of the new state of Wyoming and, eventually, grew into the state’s most populous city. Cheyenne sprouted so fast that it was nicknamed the “Magic City of the Plains.”
In the 2020s, Cheyenne remains as committed to its railroad and cowboy heritage as it is eager to bill itself the most up-to-date and essential city in the region.
Influential meeting planners from across the country will enjoy Cheyenne’s hospitality for themselves when they gather in rugged and beautiful Wyoming September 26-28 for the annual Small Market Meetings Conference.
“We are an authentic Western community but with all of the modern amenities you would hope for, including great downtown nightlife,” said Jim Walter, director of sales and marketing for Visit Cheyenne, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “It is a great place to host meetings and to give people a destination experience they won’t get in a huge hotel ballroom in some big city.”
Walter said he loves that his city gets to host 75 to 100 meeting planners and show them what a conference can look like for their groups.
“We can’t compete with big cities like Denver, but when you bring a meeting to Cheyenne, you can customize it and work with our very personable convention and visitors bureau staff to get a memorable experience for your attendees,” he said.
Visit Cheyenne and the conference organizers pledge to do everything possible to provide a clean, safe and healthy environment when convention attendees arrive. Walter believes safety restrictions will be reduced by late September and the COVID-19 vaccines will be doing their job and people will be able to move about more freely.
“September is my favorite time of the year,” said Walter. “Our weather will be spectacular, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. The trees will be turning gold.”
Cheyenne, with a population of 64,000, is in the southeast corner of the state at the crossroads of interstates 80 and 25. It’s just 90 minutes north of Denver, which has the fifth-largest airport in the U.S. Cheyenne is also 439 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah; 498 miles from Omaha, Nebraska; and 548 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The city is proud of its new airport terminal building, which opened two years ago.
“The beauty of flying into or out of Cheyenne is that security lines are super short, and the baggage claim is very quick, too,” said Walter.
Once in Cheyenne, visitors can choose from several excellent full-service hotels. One is the Little America Hotel and Resort, with 88 beautiful, large guest rooms. The property boasts 32,000 square feet of meeting space that can be configured in many ways. The 2021 Small Market Meetings Conference will take place inside the Little America, also the official delegate hotel. So for convention attendees, everything will be self-contained.
Also offering excellent meetings spaces and comfortable rooms are the Red Lion Hotel and Conference Center, with 245 rooms and 19,000 square feet of event space, and the Fairfield Inn and Suites Southwest/Downtown Area, with 67 rooms, 17 suites and 1,056 square feet of meeting space.
Other nearby venues also provide excellent meeting and event spaces for planners to ponder. The Event Center at Archer offers a whopping 100,000 square feet of space that can be used for everything from conventions and trade shows to agricultural events, student competitions and indoor sports tournaments. Another good place to gather is the Event Center at Cheyenne Frontier Days, a busy place all year round, not just during the big July event. Finally, for something out of the ordinary, planners may want to consider booking space at either the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and its lovely Grand Conservator or the busy, versatile and historic Cheyenne Depot.
When people from around the world arrive in Cheyenne, their minds are flooded with images of the Old West, cowboys, the railroads and the great expansion of America, Walter said. And that is fine with the CVB. When visitors come to town, staff urge them to hop on a Cheyenne Trolley to get a great overview of the city, past and present.
“We have 90-minute Wild West history tours by trolley,” Walter said. “People can get off at any stop and then get back on the next [trolley] that comes by 90 minutes later. You’ll learn Cheyenne’s colorful history on these rides.”
The knowledgeable guides will entertain riders with tales of rough and tough cowboys, gunfights, stagecoaches, muddy streets, saloons, brothels, wide-open gambling and characters like lawman Wild Bill Hickok and Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody.
One stop to make is the old Union Pacific Depot, a National Historic Landmark. It has been restored and features a museum rich with railroad history, a visitor center and a restaurant. Outside, the plaza hosts concerts and many other events.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the railroads,” said Walter. “We don’t have a body of water here on the high plains, and we weren’t part of the famous Oregon or Mormon Trails that pioneers traveled on, but the railroads made this town important.”
The nearby Wyoming State Museum is a fantastic place that tells the story of the state, its culture and the settling of the West. Also in the downtown area is the Nelson Museum of the West, which houses more than 6,000 cowboy and Native American artifacts and memorabilia.
Wyoming’s beautiful state Capitol dates to 1889 and has undergone a $300 million restoration.
“It is gorgeous,” said Walter. “Anyone can walk in and do a self-guided tour and enjoy it.” He said it is not unusual for the governor to wander out of his office and discreetly join a group of tourists walking around until the secret gets out, to much laughter.
A side historic note: In 1869, Wyoming became the first state or territory to give women the right to vote, 50 years before any other state did that. In 1925, the state elected the first female governor in the nation.
Cheyenne Frontier Days
People traveling in the vicinity of Cheyenne in late July should consider attending what is dubbed the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration. Cheyenne Frontier Days attracts up to 200,000 people every year. The 10-day event has four parades, a cattle drive, a frontier village and chuck wagons. Every year, some of the best country music stars in the business perform. This summer, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, Ashley McBryde, Thomas Rhett and Eric Church are scheduled to appear. The Air Force Thunderbirds will be executing their signature aerial acrobatics.
But the main feature of the event is the Frontier Days rodeo.
“They bring in the top rodeo performers from across the country because it offers the biggest purses,” said Walter. “That’s how the cowboys earn their rankings and their living.”
The rodeo is staged using 3,000 local volunteers who do everything from cleaning bathrooms and tending bar to hosting sponsors. Contributing in this way has become a matter of community pride and spirit.
Ranches and Missiles
A ranch tour is a great way for someone to see what life on the open range must have been like in the 1800s. Train rides past a massive herd of bison can be had at Terry Bison Ranch. During a narrated trip on a custom-built train, riders see the herd close-up and to get to feed some of the beasts. Also on-site are camels, ostriches and other farm animals. Ponies and horses are available to ride. In season, some trips include lunch.
For another interesting experience, visitors can travel about 25 miles north to the Quebec 01 Missile Alert facility, once home base for three of America’s most powerful nuclear weapons. Built in 1962, the now-decommissioned site allows visitors to see and learn about America’s Cold War-era missile alert, peacekeeper systems and former nuclear launch control facilities.
To register for the 2021 Small Market Meetings Conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming, September 26-28, go to: smmconf.com/registration.