Meeting planners know the value of a centrally located destination, and meetings, at least national ones, can hardly be any more centrally located than in Nebraska. The prairie state with wide-open skies sits smack dab in the middle of the country.
Or, as Tricia Beem, assistant director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau said, “We are halfway to everybody in the continental United States.”
Nebraska is known for its beef, corn and Kool-Aid. Maybe most of the population doesn’t associate Kool-Aid with Nebraska, but the drink mix was invented in Hastings, Nebraska, and is the state’s official soft drink.
Mother Nature knows that south-central Nebraska is a great meeting spot. Each spring, more than 500,000 sandhill cranes converge on the region, creating a spectacular sight and the largest congregation of cranes anywhere.
Although the cranes and other migratory birds choose to fly in, meeting attendees generally drive. And two south central Nebraska towns offer prime meeting real estate.
Kearney’s Convention Scene
Kearney (pronounced “KAR-nee”) became a leader in meetings in 2011 when it opened the Younes (“YOU-nis”) Conference Center, which is billed as the largest dedicated meeting space between Omaha and Denver.
The conference center not only offers 48,000 square feet of meeting space, but also has 200 guest rooms in two hotels, the Fairfield Inn and Suites, and the Comfort Inn — formerly the Hampton Inn — that are connected to the center by enclosed concourses. A total of 550 hotel rooms in five hotels owned by Younes Hospitality surround the conference center, making the area a meeting campus on the south side of Kearney. The locally owned company, with a total of 12 hotels in Nebraska, also has another 88 rooms in the Holiday Inn Express across Interstate 80 in Kearney.
The other Younes hotels on the Kearney campus are the Wingate by Wyndam, a brand-new Hampton Inn that opened in January, and the Holiday Inn Hotel and Convention Center, which provides an additional 23,000 square feet of meeting space accommodating up to 700 people, as well as an indoor water center with two adult slides.
The first floor of the Younes Conference Center features two large ballrooms with nearly 4,000 square feet of prefunction area. The more than 16,000-square-foot Diamond Ballroom can be divided into 10 breakout rooms but is so versatile that it can be configured in more than 50 different ways.
At nearly 13,000 square feet and with floor outlets throughout, the Crystal Ballroom is the favorite for trade shows, capable of accommodating 100 exhibit booths. Both ballrooms have large overhead door access. The second floor has five conference rooms.
An executive chef oversees complete on-site catering in a state-of-the art kitchen.
“The kitchen is huge and beautiful,” said Sarah Focke, convention and tourism sales manager. “It runs the length of the facility.”
Also, Paul Younes, the man behind Younes Hospitality, lives in Kearney and is hands-on.
“I have never seen a property owner like Paul before,” said Focke. “He is often out there serving meals and doing whatever it takes to provide the best service possible.”
Group sizes range from 20 to 1,200 but average from 300 to 600. State associations and state government agencies are two primary groups that meet at the conference center.
In addition to the Younes Conference Center and its hotels, Kearney, with a population of just over 30,000, also has other meeting space, such as the Ramada Inn, which hosts the Nebraska Fair Managers group. Although the ballroom holds up to 900 people, the group brings in about 1,200 because scheduled performers come and go, demonstrating their acts on stage.
Kearney’s No. 1 off-site venue is the Archway, formerly known as the Great Platte River Road Archway; it extends over Interstate 80 on the east side of Kearney and depicts the history of the area.
“I recommend taking an hourlong tour and then a sit-down dinner,” said Focke. If the group is more than 200, meals can be served in shifts.
“One group of 300 had a catered meal outside under a tent,” she said.
Another popular venue is the Museum of Nebraska Art, which features an outdoor sculpture garden.
“Groups use it both inside and out,” said Focke. “It is a more formal place.”
The town’s recently restored theater across the street from the art museum is also a good place for receptions and is often used in conjunction with the museum.
On the more casual side is the Classic Car Museum, which showcases 160 historic cars.
“It is a great place for a reception, but we have also done meals there,” said Focke.
Grand Island Opportunities
About 50 miles northeast of Kearney is Grand Island, named for a nearby island on the Platte River. Since 2010, it is the home of the Nebraska State Fair set on the 240-acre Fonner Park facilities.
Fonner Park, a thoroughbred horse racing track started 60 years ago, has expanded its facilities over the years. Now, adjacent to the horseracing park is the Heartland Events Center, a 180,000-square-foot multipurpose facility that opened in 2006.
The event center includes the Bosselman Conference Center, with a separate entrance on the south side. The 8,000 square feet of meeting space can accommodate up to 450 people and converts into five meeting rooms with separate lights, sound systems and climate controls.
The Heartland Events Center features the two-level Eihusen Arena with 6,000 concourse seats and an additional 1,500 floor seats. It has a banquet capacity of up to 1,500 or can hold up to 140 exhibit booths on the floor with an additional 140 booths in the adjoining Fonner Park concourse. Arena highlights include a four-sided video scoreboard, 12 suites and five concession stands. Performers from Bill Cosby to the Beach Boys have headlined at the arena, and the events center regularly accommodates home and builder shows, cheer and dance competitions, and graduations.
When Grand Island was awarded the state fair, numerous top-notch agricultural buildings were built the year before, including more climate-controlled arenas and barns for cattle, sheep and swine. Also added was a 100,000-square-foot climate-controlled exhibition building with room for more than 350 booths for trade shows, Wi-Fi and additional meeting and office space.
One of the top agricultural shows held there was U.S. Custom Harvesters, which brought in 1,000 people from across the country, said Beem.
“They used multiple areas and most of the city’s 1,800 hotel rooms,” she said.
Another group scheduled to meet in Grand Island yearly through 2016 is the National 4-H Shooting Sports Invitational.
“I would like to get them here permanently,” said Beem. “They come to Grand Island and then venture out around the state. The whole family comes in and makes it a vacation.”
Many events at Fonner Park attract children and young adults because the park is home to Island Oasis Water Park, with six slides, a wave pool and a lazy river.
In addition to the meeting facilities at Fonner Park, Grand Island has four hotels with conference spaces ranging from 5,000 square feet to 14,000 square feet.