The tourism promotion effort of Buffalo, New York, carries the tagline “Unexpected Buffalo,” and during a recent trip to the western Empire State city, Meetings Today got a taste of how the destination may surprise attendees with its eye-opening offerings.

Meetings Today got the rare opportunity to participate in Visit Buffalo Niagara’s annual Customer Advisory Council meeting, during which meeting planners and local hospitality industry stakeholders met to discuss the success and challenges facing Buffalo’s meeting effort and provide input on how to move forward to improve the product.

A Voyage of Discovery

Ask someone what their impressions of Buffalo are and you’re probably going to hear about its signature snack, Buffalo wings—they’re just called “wings” here, and please, no ranch dressing! Or maybe perceptions of the destination’s notoriously snowy winters and urban challenges stemming from its reemergence from an industrial past. Or perhaps Buffalo’s status as the gateway city to the massive leisure tourism draw of Niagara Falls.

But what people may not know is that the city is filled with beautiful green parks designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York City’s Central Park, among other groundbreaking, progressive urban greenspaces. Buffalo boasts six Olmsted-designed parks as part of its Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservatory.

[Related: Buffalo-Niagara Architectural and Natural Landmarks Are Built for Groups]

The city is also home to a thriving theater scene, with about 20 theater companies serving a population of approximately 250,000, making it a draw for major productions before and after they play in New York City.

Buffalo is also home to the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright structures in the world outside of Chicago.

In another surprising turn, Buffalo is expecting a population increase in the next census for the first time since a mass exodus of residents in the 1960s and ’70s following the collapse of its steel and grain industries.

Buffalo RiverWorks

Buffalo still contains the largest collection of grain elevator silos in the world, a remnant from its stature of being the terminus of the Erie Canal, where the grain bounty from America’s Heartland was stored and processed before being transported by rail to the major metropolitan areas of the East Coast and by ship to the world. One has to strain to not see towering abandoned grain silos when looking anywhere in the city.

A great multiuse Buffalo event venue in the shadow of a former grain silo complex is RiverWorks—groups can actually zipline between silos next door to the 60,000-square-foot facility that boasts two full-size hockey rinks and a covered live entertainment space that can handle 4,500 people, food and beverage-service included.

Buffalo RiverWorks Zipline
Photo: Attendees can zipline across abandoned grain silos at Buffalo RiverWorks. Credit: Grant Taylor. 

Located on the Buffalo River, Buffalo RiverWorks is also a great jumping off point for river excursions operated by Grand Lady Boat Tours, and also tiki boats from Buffalo Tiki Tours that are guaranteed to get passengers in a festive mood.

Silo City

Taking the grain silo repurposing concept to the max is Silo City.

As these mammoth structures have concrete walls that are up to four feet thick, it’s cost-prohibitive to knock them down—wrecking balls merely bounce off the towering fortress-like structures.

Buffalo's Silo City
Photo: Buffalo’s Silo City is a dilapidated 27-acre grain silo complex that is coming to life as an arts and events venue. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

But as the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

One infinitely interesting Buffalonian with epic ideas is Rick Smith, the enigmatic owner of Silo City who is transforming a dilapidated complex of grain silos into a center of arts and events such as the Buffalo Niagara Blues Festival.

Rick Smith
Photo: Silo City’s Rick Smith is a man on an artistic mission to transform Buffalo, New York. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

The 27-acre, expansive industrial complex features a variety of rotating visual, theater and audio arts installations, providing a dynamic environment perfect for groups who truly want to experience the unexpected, and basically have the place all to themselves.

Colored Musicians Club

The final surprise during my visit to Buffalo was provided by the Colored Musicians Club, former home to Local 533—the only musician’s union that would accept African-American musicians and now a Smithsonian-affiliated museum and performance venue that serves as a testament to the greats of America’s indigenous art form, jazz.

From John Coltrane to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, name an iconic jazz musician and they’ve played the Colored Musicians Club, which still carries the original, “non-P.C.” moniker that speaks honestly to its legacy.

The Club, which offers live music on select nights, is available for event rental and has a full bar, with the downstairs museum detailing the historic importance of the venue and art form.

For groups that value unexpected surprises, and at an imminently agreeable price point, Buffalo is truly one magic act that keeps pulling rabbits out of its hat.

Visit Buffalo Niagara | 716.852.0511

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