From college towns to the capital, cities in Iowa’s middle teem with culture and distinct personalities. From smaller cities with lively downtowns and capable meeting venues to larger cities with some of the state’s largest venues,meetings in the heart of the state capitalize on Iowa’s diversity. The range of conference hotels is wide, from historic to brand new, and many local attractions double as meeting and event venues.
At the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, Iowa’s capital is its largest city (pop. 210,000) and the epicenter for business and manufacturing in the state.
“We have over 80 insurance and financial companies that are headquartered here in Des Moines,” said Trina Flack, vice president of sales at Catch Des Moines. “We have the infrastructure in place to make it a vibrant, fun city.”
The Iowa Events Center, the city’s main convention center, is the largest meeting venue in Iowa. The three-building complex has a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 28,000 square feet of ballroom space and 37 meeting rooms, and is attached to the 330-room Hilton Des Moines Downtown Hotel with its own 14,000 square feet of meeting space. Just a few blocks away, the city’s largest hotel is the Des Moines Marriott, with 413 rooms and 28,000 square feet of meeting space. Also downtown, Hotel Fort Des Moines is a historic hotel restored as part of the Hilton Curio Collection. It seamlessly blends opulent touches like ornate chandeliers and rich wood paneling with modern amenities like 55-inch smart TVs in its 290 rooms and 13,000 square feet of meeting space.
Des Moines is home to the Iowa State Fair Grounds, which hosts expos and other large-scale events when it’s not hosting the renowned state fair each August. At West End Architectural Salvage, guests can peruse four floors of antiques and refurbished furniture while enjoying cocktails and coffee.
Cedar Falls and Waterloo
Cedar Falls and Waterloo, two towns six miles apart on the Cedar River, pack a big punch.
Cedar Falls revolves around the University of Northern Iowa and a historic downtown district with locally owned breweries, bars and boutiques. The UNI-Dome, UNI’s campus stadium, has over 16,000 seats and suits large events like trade shows. Several of Cedar Falls’ 11 hotels have conference facilities: the 126-room Holiday Inn and Suites Hotel and attached Bien VenU Event Center, with 37,000 square feet of event space; the 113-room Hilton Garden Inn and Cedar Falls Convention and Event Center with 14,000 square feet of event space; and the 130-room Hampton Inn Cedar Falls Downtown, with views of the Cedar River and downtown.
“To have these event spaces to accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of people and still be able to give them the small-town feel of being in a Midwest community helps us stand out,” said Adam Bolander, sales and marketing coordinator at the Cedar Falls Tourism and Visitors Bureau.
In Waterloo, the Waterloo Convention Center at Sullivan Brothers Plaza recently underwent a $10 million dollar renovation and expansion. The center has more than 19,000 square feet of exhibit space, four meeting rooms, a conference room and a divisible 12,000-square-foot ballroom. It is connected by skywalk to the 168-room Best Western Plus Hotel. Also downtown, the 166-room Courtyard by Marriott Waterloo-Cedar Falls is built in the historic John Deere Factory, near the Young Arena and its hockey games, the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum and Waterloo Center for the Arts. The arts center, with event spaces indoors and out, overlooks the Cedar River.
Ames is known for Iowa State University, which gives the city varied large and small meeting spaces, particularly during the summer months. Iowa State Center consists of a cluster of campus venues right next to each other, including the Scheman Building, a three-floor, 38,000-square-foot venue with a wide selection of breakout rooms and exhibit spaces. Stephens Auditorium is the center’s largest auditorium and hosts Broadway musicals. The Hilton Coliseum, home of the Iowa State Cyclones, has seating for over 14,000 and is used for sporting events and trade shows. At Reiman Gardens, another campus venue, 17 acres of gardens, a conservatory and event spaces, can be a lush event setting.
The CPMI Event Center in the Iowa State University Research Park is a flexible space, off campus, that accommodates banquets of up to 350. The 180-room Gateway Hotel and Conference Center, an easy walk from campus, has over 17,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.
“Our meeting venues are all within the university setting, so it’s young and vibrant,” said Kevin Bourke, president and CEO at Discover Ames. “We have a phenomenal downtown with a lot of nightlife, a lot of restaurants and great retail shopping.”
Long ago, Iowa City was the capital of Iowa. Now the city of 75,000 is best known for the University of Iowa and its renowned graduate programs — the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Nonfiction Writing Program. Those programs have also solidified the city’s reputation for creativity and the arts, which is apparent in a downtown vibrant with public art, literary-themed walking tours and performance venues.
Stacey Houseman, vice president of sales and event experience at the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said its arts connection is what earned Iowa City its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. “It was the first city in the U.S. to be given that designation,” said Houseman.
At the Graduate Iowa City, the lobby mimics a library in honor of the city’s literary heritage. The 231-room downtown hotel has some 9,000 square feet of event space. The Courtyard by Marriott University
Heights, with 140 guest rooms, 11,000 square feet of event space and a rooftop terrace, is west of downtown, next to campus. Artsy venues like the Englert Theater downtown, in a restored hotel from the early 1900s, and the Stanley Museum of Art, on the University of Iowa’s campus, express the city’s personality.
Iowa City also benefits from nearby Coralville and its entertainment district, Iowa River Landing, and meeting hotels that include the 288-room Coralville Hyatt Regency Convention Center, with 60,000 square feet of meeting space and 15,000 square feet of outdoor space. The 2020 opening of the Xtream Arena, home to pro hockey and other sports, brings more options, from receptions on its green roof and trade shows on the arena floor to casual gatherings in a 4,000-square-foot team hangout space outfitted with TVs and lounge furniture.
What makes Cedar Rapids special? “It’s that Midwest hospitality, along with the diversity of venues,” said Julie Stow, associate executive director/director of meetings and conventions at Cedar Rapids Tourism.
There are plenty of traditional spaces, including the Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, Iowa’s newest convention center. The complex has 80,000 square feet of meeting space and is attached to the 267-room DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. For an upscale meeting, banquet or board meeting, planners can look south of downtown to the Hotel at Kirkwood, a swanky, AAA Four-Diamond boutique hotel with 71 rooms and a renowned restaurant, The Class Act.
A favorite venue, the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, explores the city’s Czech and Slovak heritage. It’s located in Czech Village, a popular attraction that’s also a popular event venue. The elegant Rozek Grand Hall there features high, arched ceilings with a sparkling chandelier and can seat 100 at a banquet. For green meetings, the Indian Creek Nature Center is one of only 31 buildings in the world designated as “living buildings,” the highest level of sustainability. Another signature Cedar Rapids venue, the Paramount Theatre, is an opulently restored 1920s theater with 1,700 seats two blocks from the convention center.