Many areas of Nebraska are too small to offer a full-size convention center. But in numerous destinations, dedicated conference centers fill the gap, offering a dash of small-town charm, a taste of history, comfortable guest rooms and gourmet cuisine.
Holthus Convention Center
Before the Holthus Convention Center was built in 2014, York could only accommodate meetings and conferences of up to 200 people. The state-of-the-art 30,000-square-foot conference facility now hosts events for up to 1,100 people or 800 banquet style.
The land for the center was donated by the Holthus family, which owns York-based Cornerstone Bank, said Bob Sautter, executive director of the York County Visitors Bureau. “They were the ones who donated the land and gave us the first seed money for that. They raised the rest of the money through donations and grants.”
The visitors bureau contributed $750,000 for the construction.
“We’re very lucky the Holthus family is very generous and give back a lot to the community,” Sautter said. The facility is now run by the city of York.
Near the middle of Nebraska, the center attracts conferences from Grand Island, Kearney and Lincoln, groups that want something a little different, Sautter said.
The Grand Ballroom has 12,000 square feet of space and 20-foot ceilings. The venue has a built-in stage, an audiovisual system and retractable big screens. The room can be divided into five separate rooms that operate independently.
The facility has 11 flexible meeting and event spaces. The York area offers about 650 lodging rooms within five blocks of the convention center.
There’s plenty to do in the area, including visits to the Clayton Museum of Ancient History at York College; Lee’s Legendary Marbles and Collectables, which hosts one of the world’s largest privately owned marble collections; and the largest, longest hand-drawn solvable maze, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.
“A lot of people are looking for those odd little things,” Sautter said.
Carol Joy Holling Conference and Retreat Center
About 30 minutes from both Omaha and Lincoln, the Carol Joy Holling Conference and Retreat Center offers beautiful scenery, well-appointed meeting spaces, lodging and extensive team-building activities.
The center has four main meeting locations on-site, including its Western Town, which can hold up to 756 people, and the Swanson Center, the Sjogren Center and the Holling House, all with spaces that hold up to 100 people.
Hosting an event at the Carol Joy Holling Conference Center is a “great opportunity for businesses, organizations or groups to get out of town and get a change of scenery,” said Dani Hatfield, marketing director for the center. “You can be so much more productive and have a greater time when you get a change of scenery and a change of pace to what you are doing.”
Both the Swanson and Sjogren locations have 24-hour hospitality centers with snacks and drinks for conference attendees and a host that caters to their every need.
The conference center chef specializes in comfort food such as fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, she said. But the staff can work with the dietary needs of any conference attendees.
Team-building activities are extensive. The center has a high-ropes team challenge course where attendees start by climbing 30 feet up a cargo net and then working together to get to the other side of the course. It ends with a zip line to the ground.
The low-ropes challenge course offers the same sorts of activities but closer to the ground. An indoor challenge course offers a nice blend of the other two courses.
Gering Civic Center
The Gering Civic Center is a 26,250-square-foot, multifunction banquet facility that sits on the Oregon Trail in western Nebraska. Right across the North Platte River from the city of Scottsbluff and close to Scotts Bluff National Monument, with its towering rock formations, the center can host meetings or events of up to 1,150 people in its Grand Ballroom.
The national monument is the main reason most people visit Gering. It draws about 120,000 visitors a year.
“One of the unique things about our conference and meeting facility is that when we have groups come from the eastern part of the state, where our large metropolitan areas are, they are surprised that our facility is of this caliber,” said Karla Nieden-Streeks, director of the Gering Visitors Bureau. Meeting planners compliment the center for its fabulous food and service. It has an in-house kitchen and catering staff.
“All of us have been to conferences with great meeting rooms, but rarely do you go somewhere and the first thing you say is the food was extraordinary,” Nieden-Streeks said.
Run by the visitors bureau, the center offers a one-stop shop for conference planning services, from catering and transportation to itinerary planning before and after an event.
Heartland Events Center
In Grand Island, the Heartland Events Center has 180,000 square feet of meeting and events space, hosting everything from sporting events and concerts to large conferences in town.
Opened in 2006, the center had been a dream of the area since the early 1970s. Back then, several studies showed there was a need for a large civic center outside Nebraska’s largest towns that could host events for up to 8,000 people. Close to Omaha, Grand Island has a population of 50,000 people.
“It is easy to get to and still have amenities and things to do, having more of that city feel but the charm of a smaller community,” said Jill Lander, director of sales for the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Conference attendees have access to local restaurants, antique stores, shops and boutiques in Grand Island’s quaint downtown. Event attendees who want to get out and explore often enjoy the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, which exhibits what life was like for Nebraska natives and settlers in the early 1800s. Grand Island also has the Island Oasis Water Park, as well as a shopping mall and a shooting park.
“If groups are looking for tours or specific things they want to see while here, we can get that set up for them,” Lander said.
Along with its large arena, the Heartland Events Center also has a conference center that can host meetings of 20 to 500 people.
Divots Conference Center
Opened in 2002, the Divots Conference Center in Norfolk offers meeting planners the “complete experience,” said Donna Herrick, owner and property manager at the center.
“We do the same things other conference centers do, but the service is a little warmer, a little more Midwestern, with more personal, warmer contact,” she said.
The property is comfortable, she said. “It is not elegant or fancy, but it is like living in a nice log house.”
When Herrick purchased the property, it already had a miniature golf course and driving range on it. She decided to keep the course as a perk for visitors and retained the Divots name as she began growing and expanding the lodging and meeting spaces on-site.
To capture some of the regional convention business in the area, the conference center expanded to more than 100 lodging rooms at its Norfolk Lodge and Suites. It also has grown to 30,000 square feet of flexible conference and meeting space, offering two full-service kitchens and a microbrewery on property.
Meeting rooms range from 483 square feet to 870 square feet. The ballroom has 4,600 square feet of space, and the on-site event center is a 21,000-square-foot space suitable for conventions, trade shows and weddings. A beautiful rooftop terrace was added to the lodge last year.