Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa, are far from twin cities, but their proximity to one another makes for a multifaceted destination equipped to serve a wide variety of meeting preferences. While Omaha percolates with urban excitement and Council Bluffs has a more laid-back vibe, both offer groups outstanding amenities, accessibility and services.
Omaha is gearing up to welcome expanded convention business with further enhancements to its burgeoning Capitol District, a dining and entertainment area surrounding CenturyLink Center Omaha, the city’s 225,000-square-foot convention center and arena. Scheduled to open this summer, the Omaha Marriott Downtown at the Capitol District will be a 338-room property that will serve as a convention headquarters hotel, as does the nearby Hilton Omaha.
“The opening of the Marriott will give us two full-service hotels immediately by CenturyLink, which will greatly enhance our convention package,” said Cathy Keller, vice president of sales for Visit Omaha. “It will also give us a total of 2,800 hotel rooms in the convention center vicinity and be a great addition for the many planners who are loyal to Marriott.”
With an eye on increasing national association business, Visit Omaha recently opened a sales office in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve always targeted the national association market, but now we’re really going full-steam ahead,” Keller said. “We’re telling planners who are considering a Midwest destination to take a look at us. We’re easy to get to from either coast and we’re a great value.”
In addition to growth in association business, Omaha is seeing an uptick from the corporate meetings market, particularly in the science and engineering sectors, according to Keller. Religious meetings are another strong area for Omaha, which is hosting the Religious Conference Management Association annual convention next January.
Along with the Capitol District, the nearby Old Market district is also a magnet for visitors. The repurposed turn-of-the-century marketplace houses dozens of shops and restaurants in vintage brick buildings and is home to several stylish new hotels, including the Hyatt Place Omaha/Downtown–Old Market and the Residence Inn Omaha Downtown/Old Market Area, which is located in a restored Art Deco federal building from the 1930s.
“The Old Market, which has over 30 restaurants, is very popular for dine-arounds,” Keller said. “It’s also great for culinary walking tours and bike and brew tours where you can sample craft beers.”
Among the city’s newest areas for business and entertainment is Midtown Crossing, which offers some of Omaha’s most acclaimed restaurants as well as the Element Omaha Midtown Crossing.
West Omaha draws meetings to its cluster of group-friendly hotels in the 72nd and Grover streets area. Several properties have undergone major renovations, including the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Omaha Southwest, Aksarben Suites Omaha and the former Ramada Plaza, now the Hotel RL by Red Lion Omaha with 365 rooms and 60,000 square feet of conference space and meeting rooms.
According to Keller, many planners who come to Omaha for site visits for the first time are surprised to find how much the city offers in the way of dining, entertainment, off-site venues and support from the CVB and community at large.
“Our services department is here to hold your hand and walk you through everything,” she said. “Plus, when a convention group is in town, everyone knows it. You are completely embraced by the hospitality industry—the restaurants, bars, hotels and attractions.”
Omaha is especially proud of its wealth of off-site venues, many of them offering upgraded enhancements, Keller said.
Among these is Lauritzen Gardens, a 100-acre expanse of botanical gardens and art installations overlooking the Missouri River Valley. A new addition to the gardens is the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory, a stunning glass structure filled with tropical plants and exotic flower displays. Groups can enjoy customized tours or events at spaces such as the Great Hall, which holds up to 320 people and opens onto a garden terrace overlooking the river.
Last year the nearby Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, ranked as one of the world’s top zoos, unveiled the largest project in its history, the $73 million African Grasslands, a 28-acre habitat for elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions, cheetahs and other animals.
“It’s a spectacular site for opening or closing receptions,” Keller said.
In addition, the zoo offers a host of other spectacular event sites, including Desert Dome, a geodesic dome containing three desert habitats, and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium and Education and Conference Center, which has a conference room with a 24-foot tropical reef exhibit and 75-foot modular arts wave wall.
The stately marble Joslyn Art Museum, which offers more than 11,000 artworks by such masters as Renoir, Monet and Degas, is another popular venue choice. Groups can gather in the atrium lobby dominated by a Chihuly glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling, a 1,000-seat concert hall or the wood-paneled Founders Hall.
Another popular venue with an artistic twist is Hot Shops Art Center, a warehouse that provides studios for 80 artists working in different mediums. The Art Center offers workshops and teambuilding activities for groups, such as letting participants create their own artworks to take home.
Located in Omaha’s historic Union Station, the Durham Museum takes visitors back in time with its soaring Art Deco Great Hall, once the station’s main waiting room, adorned with bronze figures of train passengers dressed in 1930s attire. Exhibit areas contain galleries of restored train cars, vintage storefronts, rare documents and other items from the city’s past.
Event spaces include the Great Hall, which can host receptions for up to 500 people and can include the adjoining Soda Fountain, which serves up old-fashioned candies and ice-cream treats. Other available areas include the station’s former restaurant, exhibit galleries and a 266-seat lecture hall.
Just south of Omaha, Sarpy County offers an array of event options and meeting planning support services from Sarpy County Tourism for groups based in the area. Meeting-friendly hotels include the Embassy Suites Omaha La Vista Hotel, which is adjacent to the 60,000-square-foot La Vista Conference Center, and the new Courtyard by Marriott Omaha Bellevue, which includes the Beardmore Event Center.
Sarpy Tourism can arrange customized itineraries for groups with step-on guides that visit many of the local attractions. These can include a stop in Olde Town Bellevue where a local interpreter dressed as French pioneer Peter Sarpy escorts the group to historic sites. Another fun option is an evening at Soaring Wings Vineyard & Brewing for a tour and wine/beer tasting followed by a catered dinner and entertainment by the Sarpy Serenaders barbershop chorus.
Located just across the Missouri River from Omaha and linked to it by the graceful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, Council Bluffs complements its larger neighbor with a low-key atmosphere, Victorian architecture and open spaces. At the same time, the city benefits from its proximity to Omaha International Airport and its wide network of flight service.
Among Council Bluffs’ major assets for meetings is Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, a new green space with views of the Missouri River and Omaha skyline. This fall the park will unveil an events pavilion with a community room accommodating up to 60 people and a roof deck with river views and space for up to 100 people. The pavilion will also include water features and an adjoining lawn area accommodating large events.
“The park is a wonderful venue,” said Josee Beier, director of convention and sports sales for the Council Bluffs CVB. “We can do a wide range of outdoor events there, as well as bike rides and teambuilding.”
Council Bluffs’ major convention facility is the Mid-America Center, which offers 64,000 square feet of meeting place, a 24,000-square-foot exhibition hall and an arena accommodating up to 9,000 people. Operated by Caesars Entertainment, the complex was refurbished with new carpeting and wall coverings.
Currently under development near Mid-America Center is a new sports facility to be operated by Fieldhouse USA that will include 12 volleyball and eight basketball courts when it opens this fall.
Meetings-friendly hotels in Council Bluffs include the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Council Bluffs-I-29, Ameristar Casino Hotel Council Bluffs, Hilton Garden Inn Omaha East/Council Bluffs, and Harrah’s Council Bluffs.
Council Bluffs and environs also offer a wide choice of off-site venues. Among them is the General Dodge House, a restored Victorian home once owned by a prominent merchant who helped build the transcontinental railroad. The house includes a dining room for small dinners and an upstairs ballroom seating up to 60 guests.
Located just outside Council Bluffs in Glenwood, Iowa, Bella Terre Reception Hall and Vineyard is a Tuscan-inspired events center surrounded by eight acres of vineyards. Bella Terre is available for catered events and equipped to handle conferences for up to 400 people.