Kearney at a Glance
Location: South-central Nebraska on the north banks of the Platte River
Access: Daily flights from Kearney Regional Airport to Denver International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport; Interstate 80, U.S. Highway 30 and state highways 10, 40 and 44
Hotel Rooms: 9,000
Younes Conference Campus
Overview: Two freestanding conference centers, each with attached hotels. Campus has seven hotel properties and a total of 800 rooms.
Exhibit Space: 123,000 square feet when expanded facility opens in January, with two connecting hotels and three more on the Younes Campus
Holiday Inn Convention Center
Guest Rooms: 156
Meeting Space: 25,000 square feet
Who’s Meeting in Kearney
Nebraska Association of County Officials
Nebraska Council of School Administrators
Buckle Regional Meeting
Though the original Lincoln Highway is now superseded by Interstate 80, even before the opening of that historic byway in 1913 and for millennia before, what is now America’s greatest bird migration transpired — and still does — during eight weeks each spring, from about Valentine’s Day through early April. This is why Kearney bills itself as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.
Mother Nature graced the area along the wide, shallow Platte River with a perfect ecosystem for sandhill cranes to stop over during their arduous migration from northern Mexico, Texas and New Mexico to vast breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. In Kearney, they roost on sandbars safe from nighttime predators and feast for the long flight ahead by day.
Large numbers of snow geese, shorebirds and ducks tag along, making the avian population soar to nearly a million during this time.
Meanwhile, in 2015, downtown’s Central Avenue was paved with bricks. These days the area is known as The Bricks and is rife with boutiques, department stores, pubs, restaurants and entertainment. The Merryman Performing Arts Center, Minden Opera House and the University of Nebraska at Kearney play the culture card, and free parking abounds.
“Affordability is the number No. 1 amenity in Kearney,” said Sarah Focke, tourism and convention sales manager for Visit Kearney. “That, and top notch service. Larger communities have big staff turnover. So many hospitality workers have been here for 20 to 30 years. They remember you, call you by name. It makes your planning experience easy.”
The only attraction spanning an interstate highway, the Archway is a remarkable structure that honors the adventurers who journeyed west along the Great Platte River Road, the Mormon Trail and the Oregon Trail. The Archway is filled with significant history, and visitors there can watch a rider switch horses at a Pony Express station, hear Mark Twain recount a stagecoach trip cross-country, relive the driving of the Golden Spike that joined the nation’s railroads and look down on traffic speeding beneath them on Interstate 80. Complete with a soda fountain, a meeting/reception room can accommodate 120.
Nearly 300 attendees can fill the circa 1927 World Theatre, a former Vaudeville movie house. When it closed in 2008 for demolition, a group of citizens organized a Save the World campaign that did that very thing. Reopened in 2012, this classic theater is known for its lovingly restored balcony with four booths, a mezzanine and a grand main auditorium.
“We offer private movie screenings, musicals and plays,” said Mark Orr, president of its board of directors.
Another marquee attraction is the Museum of Nebraska Art, housed since 1986 in Kearney’s iconic former U.S. Post Office. During the museum’s 45-year history, its initial collection of 30 artworks has expanded to more than 5,000. As growth continues, supporters have a new vision, and plans are afoot for a major renovation and expansion in the near future.
“The expansion will offer visitors enhanced gallery and meeting spaces indoors and out,” said Gina Garden, the museum’s marketing coordinator.
Major Meeting Spaces
Kearney’s hospitality hot spots cluster around the Younes Convention Center South, on Interstate 80’s Exit 272. A Fairfield Inn and a Comfort Inn are attached, as well as four other hotels, including the Younes-owned Holiday Inn and Conference Center, with its 30-foot waterslide to entice attendees to bring families. Also on the Younes Campus are restaurants, bars, a full-service spa, a cinema, the 80-acre Yanney Park with lakeside event tent rentals, and the 13-mile Kearney Hike and Bike Trail.
Along with his family and loyal staff, some who are 20-plus-year employees, the hands-on entrepreneur behind this haven of hospitality is Paul Younes. His secret to success is no secret: It’s customer service.
“We build relationships and friendships with customers from the minute they arrive until the minute they leave,” said Younes, “They believe in us; we believe in them. Our customers keep coming back for three years, five years, seven years.”
In January 2022, the Younes Conference Center North will open. It will feature a 172-room Crowne Plaza Hotel with an indoor water park and 75,000 square feet of meeting space that can be configured with 37 breakout rooms. Its addition will bring Kearney’s guest room total to 1,900 and will elevate the city in the regional market.
“Kearney’s 300,000-plus square feet of convention space is above average for a city of 35,000 thanks to Paul Younes,” Focke said. “The Younes Campus is a one-stop shop with conference space and hotel rooms. Planners have no multiple contracts and only need to work with one representative for everything.”
After the Meeting
To learn about those magnificent sandhill cranes and the other birds that wing into Kearney every spring, the 2,418-acre Iain Nicholson Audubon Sanctuary at Rowe Center offers guided educational tours in 30-person “blinds” with expansive windows for observing the flocks during the annual fly-in, as well as motorcoach driving tours to witness afternoon feedings in the fields. The awesome “purrs” and “trills” of these huge birds must be heard to be believed.
From April through October, Kearney Paddlesports offers canoeing and kayaking down the 2.3-mile Kearney Whitewater Trail. Folks can enjoy watery teambuilding or catch the area’s natural beauty from a paddler’s perspective. In 2022, for thrills, the company will add artificial rapids to the current flat river or creek float.
Groups of up to 16 can spiff up their kitchens at Look What’s Cookin, the state’s largest cooking store, which features a 100-foot wall chock full of gadgets and tools. Home cooking is a terrific way to eat healthy and spend quality time with friends and family. Small groups, spouses or both can take classes here in the how-tos of the genre or simply relax during a wine-tasting.
A short drive away, family-owned and operated Mac’s Creek Winery and Brewery is a sustainability-focused spot for wine and beer lovers alike. Tastings can be five wines, five beers or a mix of each and are accompanied by tasty munchies. In the summertime, guests can sip while enjoying live music. Up to 100 revelers can gather around a creekside area with fire pits.