As I drive through downtown Lexington, Kentucky, my hometown, I’m reminded that everything didn’t grind to a halt during the pandemic. Next to our basketball palace, Rupp Arena, an improved convention center has been taking shape slowly over the past year. Along Vine Street, workers stack limestone walls along the newly paved pathways of a linear park that will course more than a mile through downtown from the convention complex to city parks.
Lexington’s a good example of a midsize city that is forging ahead with its plans or even making ambitious new ones. It’s a strategy that makes sense; many expect that travelers and meeting attendees alike will seek smaller, less congested cities and towns as they venture out and begin to gather in person again. Here’s an update from five smaller cities and regions around the country.
Slip out of Chicago and into south suburbs
Everyone still loves Chicago, but small groups would do well to shift to its suburbs. For example, south of the city, in a collection of suburbs marketed as Chicago Southland, meeting venues include the Tinley Park Convention Center with 70,000 square feet of meeting space. It’s attached to the Even Hotel Tinley Park Convention Center, recently improved with a $10 million renovation. The first Even Hotel in Illinois, the Tinley Park property gives guests space to spread out, with a gym three times larger than a typical hotel gym and a gastropub with lots of outdoor seating.
These suburbs also have ample outdoor escapes: nature preserves, a reservoir, a nature center and a botanic garden. To help visitors enjoy the open spaces and fresh air, Chicago Southland’s CVB recently launched a free trails app that includes a map, trail names, surface types, distances and trail difficulty.
In Topeka, outdoors is a capital idea
In Topeka, there’s an emphasis on the outdoors with the opening of two urban parks and a Japanese garden.
The dazzling Kay’s Garden at the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center is a breath of fresh air after a year of social distancing and shutdowns. The Japanese-style garden, made possible by funding from the late Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland, is serene, with koi ponds, lush plantings, arched bridges and burbling fountains. It’s anchored by an event center next to an enormous pond, where ample windows bring the beauty outside in.
The Kansas capital also recently opened its long-awaited downtown gathering place Evergy Plaza. Visitors will be able to catch concerts, exercise classes, movie nights and dozens of other community events there. In North Topeka’s downtown NOTO Arts and Entertainment District, a former parking lot has become Redbud Park, with sculpture gardens, a pavilion and a public stage. It can be booked for events.
And, to top it all off, Topeka’s largest event complex, the Stormont Vail Events Center, is wrapping up a $48 million renovation that includes a 40% expansion of its exhibition hall.
Changes are happening in the desert
There’s a lot of hubbub around the Tucson Convention Center. First, a $65 million expansion and renovation is underway that will renovate convention spaces, improve lighting, upgrade technology and add another 18,000 square feet of meeting rooms among other improvements. Plus, in March, a 170-room DoubleTree by Hilton opened on the center’s south parking lot. Later this summer, a dual-branded Hilton — a combo of a Home2Suites and a Hampton Inn — should open a block away.
The southern Arizona city is also seeing new developments among its resorts and boutique hotels. The Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, a Forbes four-star resort, is adding 40 new guest rooms. In the past year, the Graduate Tucson opened near the University of Arizona’s campus; the Tuxon, a 112-room boutique hotel, opened in the heart of Tucson; and the El Conquistador Tucson opened a new spa.
The show goes on in Branson
In February, Branson, Missouri, and nine other small cities were noted by Forbes as good places to visit while still avoiding the pandemic. Writer Peter Lane Taylor based his recommendations on stats gathered about the number of coronavirus cases and virus-related deaths in each city.
Those who choose to visit Branson will soon be able to fly in on Frontier Airlines, which has announced it will resume flights there in May. They’ll find that performers are taking the stage once again in a town where live entertainment is the rocket fuel of the local economy. And it was recently announced that in a couple of years, Branson will have a new meeting venue: a 450-room water-park-themed resort that Imagine Resorts says it will build south of Branson. The resort will have 30,000 square feet of meeting space and, of course, a huge — 100,000-square-foot — indoor water park.
Green Bay scores with new expo center
A sparkling new expo center opened in January across from Green Bay’s iconic Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.
Resch Expo is being touted as one of the most flexible venues in the state. Its 125,000-square-foot exhibit hall can be divided into as many as three spaces and can handle up to 600 standard trade show booths; its column-free floor is likely to draw all types of sporting events, from cheerleading competitions and gymnastics to volleyball and wrestling. The second floor’s six breakout spaces each measure 1,000 square feet and are adjoined by prefunction space and an outdoor balcony. The expo center is connected to the 10,000-seat Resch Center, a concert and sports venue. A plaza next to the expo center with views of Lambeau Field can be used for anything from morning yoga warmups to food truck dinners and receptions.