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Inventive Destinations Showcase Their Individuality

If you’ve ever thought all convention and expo centers feel the same, these five facilities will change your mind. Each has found an inventive way to distinguish its spaces. One has added a bar that serves a local spirit, another will soon open a museum that salutes a beloved legend and a third has created a space to escape sensory overload. Each demonstrates that with just a little imagination big gathering places can feel a lot more personal. 


Owensboro gives bourbon a shot.

In Kentucky, the Owensboro Convention Center has assured a shot of bourbon is close at hand with its bourbon bar. A local craftsman used three oak bourbon barrels as a base for the wooden bar. Shelves of rough-hewn timber behind it are lined with bourbon bottles and drink glasses. Most of the 50 or so bourbons cost $8 a shot, with a few of rarer ones like Wild Turkey Diamond or Forged Oak Orphan Barrel costing as much as $50 a shot. In 2019, the center’s staff selected a barrel of bourbon from Bulleit Distilling, its partner in developing the bar, and that barrel has been tapped and served exclusively at the center. The bar is open to the public for Friday happy hour; meeting planners can book it for bourbon-themed receptions and happy hours.

Find calm amid cacophony in Overland Park.

Conventions are typically chaotic. There’s chatter, blaring announcements, flashing lights and scurrying attendees. Staff at the Overland Park Convention Center in Overland Park, Kansas, spoke up about how, especially during stressful times like a pandemic, people with autism, anxiety, PTSD and other sensory issues might need a break from the cacophony. Management listened. The center consulted with KultureCity, a nonprofit that helps those with sensory sensitivities, to create a quiet, calming space to decompress. The convention center says it is the first in the world to offer such a space. The room has low lighting, bean bag chairs, a white-noise bubble wall and tactile art by an autistic artist. By adding the room and training at least half of its staff to be advocates for those with sensory needs, the center has earned Sensory Inclusive Certification. Attendees can also borrow the center’s KultureCity Sensory Inclusion Bags, which have noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads.

In Terre Haute, Larry Bird can’t be beat.

Forty-four years after he left Indiana State University, former NBA star and coach Larry Bird remains the toast of Terre Haute, Indiana. His 15-foot statue leaps on his old school’s campus, intentionally taller than the 12-foot statue of his old rival Magic Johnson that’s on the campus of Michigan State. Soon, Terre Haute will salute Bird with a museum in its new convention center, located downtown near campus. The Larry Bird Museum is expected to open next year, about a year after the convention center opened this spring. Many of the artifacts and memorabilia to be displayed belong to a local collector. About $1.5 million has been set aside for the project, which city leaders say is a way to personalize the convention center. “We always thought that would help set our convention center apart from others,” Steve Witt, president of the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp., told local media.

Green Bay’s Lambeau gets a warm glow.

In Green Bay, a new $93 million expo center is being cheered for its clever design and winning location. Resch Expo was built within sight of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, with views of the stadium from second-floor prefunction spaces and balconies and from a gigantic plaza between the expo center and stadium. The Resch’s roofline soars up to a point that’s aimed at Lambeau with glass walls sheltered beneath. The glass contains less iron than average, which improves transparency and makes the glass clearer. In the winter, when it is cold in Green Bay, the massive expo center’s warm glow will shine through those walls. Its plaza can be used for concerts, extended exhibit space and outdoor dinners and events. Inside, tradeshows will appreciate a 125,000-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall that can be divided into thirds.

Glass City Center reflects Toledo’s past.

Glass City Center, the new name for Toledo, Ohio’s remade convention center, reflects the city’s long history of glass making. It’s also a nod to the city’s glass artists. So it seems fitting that $1.5 million in public art is one of the finishing touches. Among the pieces, some made by local artists, are 30-foot-tall abstract sculptures of blue lupine, a native flower, and a 100-foot long, dangling installation of 800 mirrored discs representing a flowing stream. 

Toledo has spent $67 million to upgrade an existing 1980s-era, 75,000-square-foot hall and 25 meeting rooms. It also added a 16,000-square-foot carpeted ballroom with a light-filled prefunction area and balcony that overlook the Toledo Mud Hens ballpark. A pocket park is a pop of green between the center and its connected hotels, a Hilton Garden Inn and a Homewood Suites that were fashioned from an existing hotel and have a combined 300 hotel rooms.