Omaha, Nebraska is a hot seat of innovation. Practical inventions that hail from Nebraska’s largest city include the bobby pin, ski lift and dice. On the culinary scene, butter brickle ice cream, cake mix, Raisin Bran and the TV dinner all made their humble debuts in Omaha.
Topping the Forbes list of Best Bang-For-The-Buck Cities, Omaha is full of surprises—especially for meeting planners, who are often amazed at how interesting and affordable it is.
“Omaha is a great Midwest destination for unique experiences,” says Keith Backsen, executive director of Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Where else can you explore the world’s largest indoor desert, grab a Reuben sandwich in the city where it was invented and walk on a one-of-a-kind Instagramming bridge?”
Meetings Made Easy
Within the last six months American, Southwest, Alaska and Allegiant airlines introduced nonstop service to Omaha Eppley Airfield (OMA), making travel in and out of the city a cinch. It takes less than 10 minutes to get from the airport to the downtown convention center district.
CenturyLink Center Omaha is the centerpiece of downtown Omaha’s $2 billion riverfront revitalization. The versatile facility is a convention center with an attached 18,300-seat arena. The convention center offers 194,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibition space, a 30,996-square-foot ballroom, more than 63,000 sq. ft. of meeting space with 16 meeting rooms and 79,400 sq. ft. of prefunction space.
For planners who must accommodate very large groups, one-third of a mile away is TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, which seats approximately 24,000 and features a walk-around concourse. Both facilities are operated by the nonprofit Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority (MECA).
Omaha is a safe and pleasurable place to walk. The Old Market Entertainment District, near the convention center, houses dozens of unique boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, restaurants and pubs.
A glass-enclosed skywalk links the convention center to the 600-room Hilton Omaha, a AAA Four Diamond property that offers an additional 15 meeting rooms. More than 3,000 other hotel rooms can be found within a three-mile radius of downtown, including 414 guest rooms at DoubleTree by Hilton Omaha Downtown and 249 spacious suites at Embassy Suites by Hilton Omaha Downtown/Old Market.
Expanded accommodation options are coming. A $205 million mixed-use project directly across from CenturyLink Center Omaha is set to open in 2017. It will include the 14-story, 333-room Capitol District Marriott, which will boast 20,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, an 11,000-square-foot ballroom, a restaurant, two bars, a fitness center and a rooftop pool.
A $17.8 million Even Hotel developed by Nebraska heart surgeon Dr. Deepak Gangahar is scheduled to open this summer. Each of the 132 suites in the six-story, wellness-focused hotel will include exercise equipment. Staff will include yoga and spin instructors.
Other new properties opening in 2016 include Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Omaha West with 90 rooms and suites, and Holiday Inn Express & Suites Omaha-Millard Area with 77 rooms and suites. Courtyard Omaha South-Bellevue at Event Center will feature 20,230 sq. ft. of flexible space with a ballroom that can accommodate up to 740 guests.
Food for Thought
When Omaha is mentioned, one of the first images that comes to mind is steak. Devotees swear that visiting Omaha for a steak isn’t a trip—it’s a pilgrimage. Omaha Steaks, founded in 1917 and headquartered in the city, is a fifth-generation family business manufacturing, marketing and distributing steak and other gourmet food. An equally delicious contribution to America’s culinary culture is the Reuben sandwich, which was reportedly created at the city’s Blackstone Hotel during a high-stakes poker game in the early 1900s.
Although Omaha may be known for its meat, it is developing a reputation for more sophisticated farm-to-table cuisine thanks to its access to fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products from neighboring farms. Talented chefs are incorporating the bounty into impressive seasonal menus. Midwest Living has listed Omaha as a Top 10 Ultimate Bucket List Destination for Foodies.
Buzzworthy restaurants that go beyond steak include The Boiler Room Restaurant, which is located in a converted brick boiler room in Omaha’s historic Old Market area. At this appealing eatery, American/French cuisine and hand-crafted beverages with housemade infusions are served in a chic urban environment.
Casual food made from scratch is dished up at Kitchen Table, while The Grey Plume is consistently praised as one of the greenest and most sustainable restaurants in the country. Vegetarians unite at Modern Love, which focuses on swanky vegan comfort food such as mac and shews (mac and cheese, prepared with a cashew cream) and curry cauliflower steaks.
Planners will find a plethora of unusual venues for offsite events. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, ranked as one of the top in its class, is home to the world’s largest indoor desert and the country’s largest indoor rainforest. The new $73 million, 28-acre African Grasslands attraction allows groups to spend time on a simulated savannah teeming with African wildlife. The $14 million Alaskan Adventure will feature more than 75 bronze sculptures, crafted by a local artist, of animals found along the Alaskan coastline.
Lauritzen Gardens is a four-season conservatory with magnificent displays of tropical plants and flowers, and a variety of indoor and outdoor event venues. Joslyn Art Museum is named for George A. Joslyn, a former newspaper executive who once was the wealthiest man in Nebraska. The pink marble Art Deco masterpiece offers free admission. Its 11,000-piece collection includes rare works from Rembrandt, Monet and Pollack, among others.
History buffs will enjoy The Durham Museum. View trains, a log cabin and learn more about the region via curated traveling exhibits about history, culture and science. A variety of event spaces accommodate up to 800 guests; the soda fountain and old-fashioned candy shop are always a treat.
Get a taste of Omaha’s history and food scene on a culinary tour with stops at local restaurants offering signature dishes such as steak, Reuben sandwiches and mud balls (a chocolate confection). Themed tours take place on foot and by bus.
Hot Shops Art Center
This hip, interactive art house has more than 80 studio artists. Visitors can learn how to sculpt molten glass, mold pottery, play African drums, and build metal and wood sculptures. Creative experiences can be customized for groups of up to 200.
College World Series
Omaha has hosted this baseball classic, a long-running sports tradition, since 1950. Each June, fans break out the peanuts and enjoy festivals, street vendors, live music and the best college baseball in the country at TD Ameritrade Park.
Bob the Bridge
Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, aka Bob, may be the only man-made structure with its own video blog, Twitter and Instagram accounts. The celebrity bridge is named after former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who secured $18 million of federal funding for it in 2000.
The 3,000-foot pedestrian bridge is suspended over the Missouri River and links Nebraska to Iowa. Visitors always get a kick out of standing in two states at the same time. Bob connects to more than 150 walking and biking trails, providing groups with outdoor activity options such as walking, running and cycling.