The pandemic couldn’t stop the pace of progress in Kansas. New meeting venues have opened and existing ones have been renovated and expanded over the past two years, giving meeting planners a variety of fresh reasons to consider the state for their events.
Kay McFarland Japanese Garden at Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center
Topeka Zoo opened the Kay McFarland Japanese Garden and Venue during the pandemic. Named after former Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland, the $6.6 million garden is filled with flower-lined trails, running streams, Koi ponds, bridges and waterfalls and is meant to foster serenity in visitors. The garden was named after McFarland because her living trust provided $4.4 million for the project.
The Japanese Garden has a contemporary event center that provides modern amenities and seating for more than 200 people at round tables. It has a dedicated bridal suite that opens to a secluded garden, and an open-air pavilion overlooking the largest pond in the garden is a nice location for a ceremony or additional seating for events. Groups that host events at the zoo can add a safari adventure to their bookings, offering up-close animal encounters, behind-the-scenes tours and animal enrichment activities.
The Japanese Garden isn’t the only meeting venue at the zoo, but it is the newest addition. Meeting planners can host events at Camp Cowabunga and Dung Beetle Square, an outdoor venue that can host groups up to 152 for a banquet. Security Benefit Pavilion overlooking the giraffe habitat and the Northern Lawn on the shores of one of the zoo’s iconic ponds can also host larger groups.
Smaller groups can rent out the Gary K. Clarke Education Center, which can host up to 75 people. After-hours admission to the zoo grounds and exhibits can be included for an additional fee.
Colby Event Center
Colby’s brand new $18 million Colby Events Center held its grand opening in July 2021. It was built to house local sporting events. The north main gym holds 2,000 people, while the south gym holds 1,000. The facility is used for Colby Community College’s home basketball and volleyball games and for the local school district’s high school and middle school sports activities.
Colby, a small town of 8,500 people, is situated on Interstate 70 in the northwest corner of the state and is the biggest town within 100 miles. The community center it replaced was built in the 1950s. It only had one gym and a meeting room space downstairs. About five years ago, the city announced it wanted a new facility in town not only to support the local sports teams but to attract meeting groups as well. The public voted on whether to refurbish the old community center or build a new one closer to the interstate. Voters chose to fund a new facility through a sales tax increase.
Meeting planners wanting to attract attendees from Colorado and Kansas like Colby for its prime location. The community center has one meeting room that can fit 150 people comfortably or be partitioned into four cubes that fit about 40 to 50 people each. Groups have access to chairs and rectangular and round tables. Each cube has a 90-inch TV for slide shows and presentations.
The Winslet is an event venue in Wichita’s waterfront district on the east side of town that was founded by Abbott Events, a company that has opened four very successful venues in the Kansas City area. Named after British actress Kate Winslet, the property was purchased during the pandemic and has been undergoing a full renovation since then. It opened to the public in June.
“We didn’t knock down walls; we just added new paint, trim and light fixtures,” said Ashlee Baysinger, venue manager. “It looks completely different than how it did before.”
The venue can host events of many kinds. It has three main rooms that can accommodate weddings, board meetings, holiday parties, anniversary celebrations and more. The front lawn can host family reunions or picnics.
The Winslet’s main ballroom is the largest meeting space, holding 200 people for a banquet. Two smaller rooms can hold 100 people each, theater-style. Meeting groups can set up the spaces however they like, with rounds, rectangles, conference room tables and chairs. A small bridal suite with its own bathroom can be transformed into a prep room for a conference keynote speaker.
Audio-visual service is available in all rooms except the small bridal suite, which has a small television. A main control panel sets the scene in every room to make sure all blinds are closed, screens come down and lights dim.
Stone Pillar Vineyard and Winery
Stone Pillar Vineyard and Winery is owned by one of the state’s oldest farm families that has been on the property for more than 160 years. The vineyard was started in 2007, and a tasting room opened in May 2010. The vineyard grows several varieties of white and red grapes on five acres and has a contract for nine acres in Atchison. It makes all of its own wines and also supplies juicing grapes to other local wineries.
The company rents out its pavilion, which seats 99 people. The structure was renovated post-COVID, which “made things more efficient for us, nicer,” said owner George Hoff. “It is versatile. We can rearrange it in several different ways.”
The facility can be set up for concerts with the band on stage and a dance floor and seating in front of the stage. The room also can be sectioned off for smaller events. Stone Pillar organizes wine tastings for larger groups by appointment. Every Friday night, the winery brings in food trucks and live music. There is a huge outdoor patio with a fireplace out in the vines and enough seating for 200 people at picnic tables out in the vineyard.
The establishment handles corporate and customer appreciation events, weddings, bridal showers and bachelorette parties. Many smaller events like to piggyback onto Stone Pillar’s Friday night concerts to take advantage of the variety of local bands that perform there. The only food option provided by the winery is charcuterie boards.
Boot Hill Museum
The Boot Hill Museum is located on the original site of the infamous Boot Hill Cemetery and tells the tale of Dodge City’s heyday as “the Queen of the Cowtowns.” Lawmen, cowboys and outlaws, including the likes of Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, vied for dominance in this Western hub in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the Boot Hill Museum tells their juicy stories. It also relates what life was like for the early settlers and Native Americans who lived in the area during that time.
The museum displays more than 20,000 artifacts in more than 30 exhibits. The Front Street exhibit is a replica of Dodge City’s original main street, with storefronts ranging from saloons and a drugstore to dry goods, clothing and hardware stores. Behind this façade lies a large building full of exhibits that can be rented out for meetings or events. The museum recently opened nine new interactive exhibits and the Mariah Gallery, a 3,000-square-foot exhibit space that can host groups up to 175 people.
Groups can bring in their own catering service or use the museum’s catering department. The Mariah Gallery has a high-quality screen and projector that can be used in any of the museum’s meeting spaces, and the Long Branch Saloon and Occident Saloon have sound systems.
Meeting planners wanting attendees to learn more about Dodge City’s past can set up food stations next to different exhibits in a simplified version of a dine-around, offering a variety of cuisine and beverages.