From colorful mascots and the excitement surrounding home sporting events to vibrant shopping districts and exceptional culinary scenes, college towns have a buzz about them that is unmistakable. Here are a few of the top college towns in Kansas that also make great locations for meetings or events.
In the past 10 years, investors in Hays have spent millions of dollars revitalizing the downtown area to make it more attractive and walkable for visitors and the students who flock to Fort Hays State University each year. The city added an award-winning brewpub and a wine bar with live music downtown, and an investor purchased the historic Strand Theatre on Main Street to convert into an events space. The city and Fort Hays State also partnered to build an outdoor pavilion for concerts.
“There’s exciting stuff going on,” said Melissa Dixon, director of the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The most exciting part is that Hays people are investing in Hays and seeing its potential.”
The city will open its brand-new convention center and hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn, in October. Before that, the city’s default large host site was the university campus, but university events always took precedence. The convention center gives Hays additional opportunities to host larger meetings and events with its 100 guest rooms and 8,000 square feet of meeting space. In total, Hays has 1,100 guest rooms, with two new hotel properties in the works.
Fort Hays State has numerous meeting venues, including the Fort Hays Ballroom in the campus Memorial Union, which can host banquets for up to 497 people, and the Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center, which seats 1,100. The campus has numerous other rooms and buildings that can be rented. In their free time, visitors like to tour Fort Hays, the former U.S. Army fort that was built to protect the railroad workers in the 1800s, or visit the city’s many historic churches, including a cathedral that was designated a minor basilica by the pope.
Lawrence is home to two schools: the University of Kansas and the Haskell Indian Nations University. The Kansas Jayhawks basketball team is the pride of the area, and the team is said to have the loudest stadium in the country.
Arts, culture and diversity are center points of the area. Haskell Indian Nations University gives the community an opportunity to learn more about the 200 Native American tribes represented at the university through cultural events, art markets and a large annual powwow. Wherever you go in Lawrence, you are bound to run into live music, from local musicians to national touring acts.
Downtown Lawrence is within walking distance of both university campuses, which makes it a great place to host a meeting or an event. The city doesn’t have a large conference center, but it has meeting venues that can host events for up to 1,500 people.
The DoubleTree by Hilton has 192 guest rooms and 14,000 square feet of meeting space. The Oread has 99 guest rooms and meeting space for 600 people reception style. The Lied Center of Kansas has six unique meeting spaces that can host up to 2,000 people theater style.
The University of Kansas has plentiful meeting venues, including the KU Memorial Unions, which can host 950 people for a reception or 438 for a banquet. There are three museums on campus that make great off-site meeting venues: the Spencer Museum of Art, the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics Museum.
Manhattan is a prime meeting and event location because of its proximity to Kansas State University and nearby U.S. Army base Fort Riley. The constant flow of new soldiers and students motivates the city to continue to reimagine itself with new hotels, restaurants, attractions and shopping.
“College students bring an excitement to the community,” said Karen Hibbard, vice president of Visit Manhattan. “They bring energy.”
In the past 15 years, Manhattan has changed dramatically, including the redevelopment of its downtown area. One of its most popular meeting venues and attractions is the Flint Hills Discovery Center, an interactive museum about the Flint Hills and the area’s tallgrass prairie. Its immersive experience theater plays a movie that pulls the audience in using sight, sound and innovative effects. The center can host groups of up to 375 people.
There are four full-service meeting properties in Manhattan. The Hilton Garden Inn is attached to the Manhattan Conference Center. Between the two, planners can bring in groups of up to 2,300 people. The largest spaces are the Manhattan Grand Ballroom and the Manhattan Grand Ballroom Foyer in the conference center. The city has about 1,400 lodge rooms. Planners can use the spaces on the KSU campus as well.
For fun, groups can plan a wine tasting at the Liquid Art Winery, try their hand at zip lining at the Wildwood Adventure Park, take in a Broadway show at the McCain Performing Arts Center on campus or play a round of golf at Colbert Hills, a PGA-sanctioned golf course carved out of the Flint Hills.
The home of Kansas Wesleyan University and Kansas State University Polytechnic, Salina is in the middle of a revitalization. The area has seen new restaurants and new shops pop up in the city center.
“We’re rural with a flair of the artsy,” said Jo Ann McClure, convention sales manager for Visit Salina. “We have a little different atmosphere than one would expect in a rural community.”
From an outdoor display of sculptures downtown to a new streetscape, Salina continues to pull away from its mill town persona. It recently opened a Homewood Suites by Hilton that was designed to look like an early-1900s brick building, with 113 guest suites and 2,400 square feet of indoor meeting space.
Tony’s Pizza Events Center is the largest meeting venue in Salina, with 40,000 square feet of space. The arena seats 7,000 people and is excellent for concerts, rodeos and large trade shows.
Closer to the Kansas State campus is the Hilton Garden Inn, with about 10,000 square feet of meeting space and 96 guest rooms. The Hilton’s meeting space can be broken into five rooms, along with a large pre-convention area. In total, Salina has about 2,000 guest rooms and more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space.
Meeting planners looking for something a little different can book a dinner or reception at the Rolling Hills Zoo or a nearby Christmas tree farm. The Webster Conference Center offers meeting spaces and ropes courses that are great for teambuilding.
Topeka is a meeting planner’s dream, with its proximity to Washburn University, two convention centers and one of the kitschiest venues around, the Evel Knievel Museum. Visit Topeka often hosts the opening night of conventions at the museum. Guests can enjoy cocktails and dinner, visit the museum at their leisure and even try making one of Knievel’s death-defying motorcycle jumps on a 3D ride.
“It is a fun conversation piece and a great way to open or close a conference,” said Jessica Schenkel, vice president of Visit Topeka.
The Capitol Plaza Hotel and Maner Conference Center has more than 32,000 square feet of meeting space, with an additional 66,000 square feet at the Kansas Expocentre, a convention hotel that can host large events. The Ramada Topeka Downtown Hotel and Convention Center has 32,000 square feet of meeting space and can host banquets of up to 1,000 people.
Evergy Plaza is a new gathering place in the heart of the city that hosts conference events, concerts, movie nights and sporting event watch parties on its 30-foot digital screen. Groups can gather around the 16-foot-long fire pit or hire food trucks to line the plaza for their event.
Washburn University’s 160-acre campus can host banquets for up to 400 people, and there are plenty of rooms available for breakout spaces. The Mulvane Art Museum on campus is a great cocktail reception location. For teambuilding, groups can visit an ax-throwing company or the North Topeka Arts District, which is full of restaurants, a brewery, art galleries and unique shops.