Kansas’ small towns have some big personality.
From infamous Wild West towns to frontier Army forts that protected settlers and the railroad during Western expansion, small-town Kansas has much to offer meeting planners trying to escape the hubbub of the state’s largest cities. Here are a few smaller Kansas towns that are not only rich in history, but also have vibrant downtowns and plenty of unique meeting spaces to choose from.
Hays got its start because of Fort Hays, an Army fort that was built to protect railroad workers and give them a place to replenish their supplies. But it’s also known for its large German population that emigrated from the Volga region of Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Groups planning events in the area will want to make a point of touring the historic fort or the historic German churches of Ellis County, including the Basilica of St. Fidelis, known as the Cathedral of the Plains, named a minor basilica by the pope.
Fort Hays State University has many meeting options for groups, including a ballroom in the Memorial Union that can seat up to 500 people for a banquet and the Gross Memorial Coliseum, which can seat 6,814 and has an additional 1,400 square feet for seating on the floor. The Hilton Garden Inn and Convention Center, which opened in October 2020, has 100 guest rooms and 7,800 square feet of meeting space that can hold groups of up to 500 people.
For something different, groups can host an event in the Strand Event Center, a historic movie house from the early 1900s that was recently renovated into an event venue. The Fox Theatre downtown is undergoing a major renovation and will soon host concerts and live performances, as well as private events. Hays has 1,130 hotel rooms.
Emporia was the first dry town in the country, banning alcohol 61 years before Prohibition became the rule of law in the 1920s. The city is in the Flint Hills, so is within easy driving distance of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway and the Flint Hills Quilt Trail. The small town has gained notoriety as a bicycle-friendly destination, playing host to La Grind, the world’s premier gravel riding event that draws 4,000 cyclists and 10,000 visitors annually from 40 different countries. It also is considered the Disc Golf Capital of the World. Both sports are responsible for a big part of the city’s year-round tourism.
Emporia is halfway between Wichita and Kansas City and 45 minutes from Topeka, which makes it an attractive location for regional groups pulling attendees from across the state. The city’s other claim to fame is it is the only community in Kansas that has a winery, a brewery, and a distillery, which make for a trifecta of off-site receptions and tastings. The largest meeting spaces are at Emporia State University. The university’s Memorial Union has a lecture hall and a ballroom; each can accommodate 1,000 people. Downtown, the historic 1930s Grenada Theatre was recently restored to its former grandeur and can accommodate groups of up to 800 people. The Anderson Building at Emporia’s fairgrounds can host 800 people, and the Clint Boyer Community Building can host groups of 300 people. For smaller events, planners should explore the Emporia Arts Center, the Gufler Mansion and the Twin Rivers Winery.
Known as the Wichita of Western Kansas, Garden City gained notoriety because of its connection to two notorious murders. Groups hosting events in the city can learn more about Garden City’s true crime past by visiting the Finney County Historical Museum, which documents the life and crimes of the Fleagle Gang, bank robbers whose founding members grew up in Garden City. The gang robbed a bank in Lamar, Colorado, killing four people during the heist. The Clutter family murders, which were famously documented by Truman Capote in his book “In Cold Blood,” happened in a rural area about 17 miles outside Garden City.
Two area hotels can accommodate larger meeting groups: The Clarion Inn has 109 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 400 people, and Sleep Inn and Suites has a small conference center attached that can host groups of up to 152 guests for a banquet. To get outside the hotel ballroom, planners can host an event at the Lee Richardson Zoo, which has a lecture hall and a conference room that can host groups of up to 110 people. Outside events are held on the west lawn inside the zoo. Attendees can meet the zookeepers and get a close-up view of some of the zoo’s inhabitants as part of their event.
Groups that want to get out into nature should take a truck-pulled wagon tour of the Sandsage Bison Range, home to one of the oldest buffalo herds in Kansas, or plan an event at the Parrot Cove Water Park with its indoor waterslides and lazy river.
Leavenworth grew up around Fort Leavenworth, an Army outpost in Kansas that has operated since 1827. Groups planning meetings in the area can sample locally grown wines and international cuisine, tour the fort itself or visit four museums in the area, including the Frontier Army Museum, which details the Army’s role in the area from the time of Lewis and Clark to 1917, and the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum, which is dedicated to telling the stories of African Americans both locally and nationally.
About a 15-minute drive from the Kansas City International Airport, Leavenworth has plenty of choices in meeting venues, both on the base and in town.
The Frontier Conference Center on Fort Leavenworth can accommodate groups of up to 500 people for formal events, banquets or corporate meetings. Meeting on base does require attendees to apply for daily entrance passes. The J.W. Crancer Building in downtown is a historic event center that can host groups of up to 300 people. June’s Northland is a 5,000-square-foot event venue that can accommodate up to 225 guests with a dance floor and a full-service bar. Meeting spaces also are available on the campus of the University of St. Mary, a small, private Catholic university in the city. Leavenworth has 421-plus hotel rooms in town, including at the Holiday Inn Express Hoge Hall on Fort Leavenworth.
Home to Kansas Wesleyan University and Kansas State University Polytechnic, Salina is a college town with a vibrant arts community. The former mill town has experienced a major resurgence in the past couple of years, with numerous boutique shops and a wide range of dining options popping up throughout the city center. Meeting planners wanting to plan events in the city have some great full-service hotel options as well as a host of unique venues to choose from. All told, Salina has about 2,000 guest rooms and more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space.
The Hilton Garden Inn near the Kansas State campus has 10,000 square feet of meeting space and 96 guest rooms. The meeting space can be divided into five rooms with a large preconvention area. Tony’s Pizza Events Center is the largest meeting venue in the city, with 40,000 square feet of space. The arena can hold 7,000 people and is a good location for large trade shows, rodeos and concerts.
The Rolling Hills Zoo is the newest zoo in Kansas and not only makes a great place for groups to visit but is also an unusual venue for off-site dinners or receptions. For groups that want to get attendees outdoors for team building, the Webster Conference Center offers ropes courses and meeting spaces. Bel Tree Farm is a wonderful off-site location for a picnic or a reception. The venue will bring in barbecue, and groups of up to 200 people can enjoy the beauty of the Christmas tree farm while playing outdoor games.