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Outside Options

Meeting planners have long thought outside the classroom, finding new ways to get attendees out of the building and into the great outdoors. Outdoor events can range from open-air receptions under the stars to walk-and-talk learning sessions en plein air.

But outdoor event space may take on new importance in a post-pandemic world. Though no one knows for sure what meetings will look like when they start again, moving events outdoors would allow more space for social distancing and provide plenty of fresh air.

These convention centers offer a range of outdoor spaces, from rooftop decks to waterfront stages, grassy courtyards to sandy beaches.

Spokane Convention Center

Spokane, Washington

The Spokane Convention Center hugs the banks of the Spokane River, and the venue takes every advantage of its waterfront location with a variety of outdoor spaces.

The center has four main outdoor spaces for events, and the Roof Deck is the most used, said Jessica Deri, director of sales and marketing. With nearly 7,200 square feet, the Roof Deck can seat about 250 for meals or host receptions for up to 350 people, who are treated to views of the river, Riverfront Park and the Great Northern Clocktower.

The Roof Deck also overlooks the tiered amphitheater-style steps that lead down to the water’s edge, where a floating stage can also be reserved for events, like a general session with the audience on the steps or a morning yoga session on the stage itself.

The 5,230-square-foot Riverside Terrace also overlooks the river and provides access into adjacent meeting rooms or steps down to the Riverside Lawn. The center once used both the terrace and the lawn for a sit-down dinner for 950, though 800 is probably a better size, Deri said.

From the floating stage, the riverfront steps lead directly up to Centennial Trail. Groups will often use the paved trail for a 5K, and organizers can reserve the Roof Deck for spectators, or people can watch from the walking bridges over the river.

A five-minute walk on the trail also takes visitors to Spokane Falls, where attendees can ride an aerial tram over the dramatic cascades.

Unlike some other venues that count outdoor spaces separately, planners are able to use spends from outdoor events at the Spokane center to meet their minimums on campus.

Overland Park Convention Center

Overland Park, Kansas

Between the Overland Park Convention Center and the adjoining 412-room Sheraton Hotel is a grassy courtyard that can serve as flexible meeting space — except it’s meeting space under the sky.

The city of Overland Park, Kansas, sits about 36 miles south of Kansas City International Airport and about 20 miles south of downtown Kansas City.

The center’s 25,000-square-foot outdoor courtyard is a private area sandwiched between the convention center and the hotel, with lawn-side entry to both buildings. There, on the large green lawn, hotel guests and meeting attendees will find Adirondack chairs encircling low tables, and yard games like cornhole, croquet and giant Jenga.

The courtyard has ample space for a stage, food stations and bars. Planners have used the space for a convention opening party with live music, large video screens, lawn games and a catered dinner.

Other organizers have used it for teambuilding events, like competitions, build-your-own challenges and group yoga classes. The courtyard has hosted an ice cream social, a tailgate party and even a helicopter display.

On the convention center’s lower level, a 13,000-square foot prefunction area features walls of windows that deliver courtyard views. The lobby connects to seven flexible meeting rooms, making the courtyard great for breaks between sessions.

Albuquerque Convention Center

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Civic Plaza sits directly in front of the Albuquerque Convention Center’s West Building, and the plaza is “the largest public space in all of downtown Albuquerque,” said Kristin McGrath, vice president of convention sales, services and sports for Visit Albuquerque.

The convention center completed a $25 million remodel in 2014 — and then it was Civic Plaza’s turn. In 2018, the sprawling plaza, with a capacity of 20,000 people, underwent a $6.5 million facelift. The project included a new sound system, a massive projector screen and theatrical lighting at the Al Hurricane Pavilion performance stage, as well as more shade and solar pagodas. Crews also replaced the tiered fountain with an interactive LED-lighted water feature, built a new playground and made the entire area Americans with Disabilities Act accessible.

ASM Global manages the convention center and the plaza, which is a public space that’s also available for private events. Before the pandemic, ASM offered a variety of free programming on the plaza, like farmers markets and movie nights, summer concert series and winter ice rinks, that planners often incorporated into their events.

Groups have used the plaza “really successfully” for opening or closing receptions, and it’s ideal for food truck events, McGrath said.

Organizers have also used the 2,000-square-foot Buena Vista Balcony, which is attached to a ballroom on the second floor, as a VIP reception area that overlooked the larger special event happening on the plaza below.

Monona Terrace

Madison, Wisconsin

From Monona Terrace’s massive rooftop garden, visitors are treated to a 360-degree scenic view. They can gaze out across the waters of Lake Monona, survey Madison’s downtown skyline or look beyond the rooftop fountain to the white dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright originally designed the community and convention center in 1938. But construction on Monona Terrace wasn’t completed and the doors didn’t open until nearly 60 years after Wright first proposed the plan — and almost 40 years after his death.

The rooftop serves as a public gathering space, but groups can reserve it for private events. The Center Circle is just shy of 35,000 square feet, and it connects to the 5,400-square-foot West Circle, and they can be reserved separately or together. Planners can arrange formal sit-down dinners or large receptions and bring in bands for live concerts.

The East Circle is home to Lake Vista Café, a seasonal restaurant that planners often incorporate as a cash outlet for food and cocktails, said director of sales Laura MacIsaac.

Throughout the rooftop space, guests will find umbrella-topped cafe tables, public-art sculptures and planters with prairie-style gardens.

The downtown side of the rooftop transitions into Olin Terrace, which “is more of the walkway between our front door and street level,” MacIsaac said. Because Olin Terrace is a more public space with people walking to and from Monona Terrace, marketing companies have done product launches and giveaways there, and Ironman has used it for athlete villages.

Emerald Coast Convention Center

Fort Walton Beach, Florida

With its sparkling emerald water and white-sugar sand beaches, it’s not difficult to see why Florida’s Emerald Coast is a popular destination for both business and pleasure.

The coastal stretch, which includes Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island, also offers fishing charters, dolphin tours on Sea Doos, and sightseeing tours on glass-bottom or pirate-themed boats.

So, it’s not surprising that the Emerald Coast Convention Center also features water views. About a decade after opening, the convention center expanded with the addition of the 30,000-square-foot Bayview Plaza, which opened in June 2014. The expansive concrete slab works well for outdoor events and activities like open-air concerts, farmers markets, and recreational vehicle and boat shows, or it can be tented for sit-down meals and receptions.

The plaza offers water views of Choctawhatchee Bay, as well as views of Ross Marler Park, a public park with boating, swimming and fishing access. There, groups can reserve one of several pavilions, explore the walking trail or take a stroll on the dock.

Next to the park, the Gulf restaurant sits on the water’s edge and is available for private events. Groups can use the restaurant’s hip indoor spaces, but its bayfront outdoor area features a shaded turf patio with lounge furniture, waving palm trees and comfy couches on the sandy beach.