With a convenient, central location for events that draw attendees from the Southwest and Midwest, the meeting and hospitality industries in Oklahoma City and Little Rock, Arkansas, are thriving.
Planners are discovering that there are plenty of options for lodging and meetings, as well as many other attractions. Perhaps the biggest bonus is that Oklahoma City and Little Rock are relative unknowns in meeting circles, so holding events in these towns introduces attendees to destinations few have traveled to before.
In the past two decades, Oklahoma City has come a long way on the hospitality front—so much so that National Geographic Traveler named it one of the world’s must-see places in 2015.
The downtown area had only one hotel in 1995, but today the city is gaining the attention of some of the biggest hotel operators for dibs on the future downtown convention center hotel. Omni, Hyatt, Starwood and Peabody are interested in developing the property, which is slated to have up to 800 guest rooms
“The biggest reason why Oklahoma City is a great place is that so few groups have ever met here,” says Dennis Johnston, vice president of sales at the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The development over the last 25 years has been pretty much geared toward the lifestyle of residents, which also is a benefit for meeting attendees. We are a very affordable destination, from our hotel rates to airline fees in and outside [of the city].”
As part of a citywide improvement project, parks, facilities and transportation are undergoing extensive upgrades. On the list is a new $252 million downtown convention center and an adjoining hotel that would include 200,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 35,000-square-foot ballroom and an additional 50,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Expected to open in 2019, the new center will be located across from Chesapeake Energy Arena and near Myriad Botanical Gardens. Also, in 2016 a revamped $44 million State Fair Park will occupy the site of the current Travel and Transportation Building. The new facility will feature 201,000 sq. ft. of meeting space—which will be the largest amount in the city.
There are plenty of outdoor and recreational activities in the Boathouse District, which sits along the Oklahoma River. Groups can visit the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site, which provides training for U.S. Olympic rowing, canoeing and kayaking hopefuls. Attendees can watch the regattas or do some kayaking or paddleboarding of their own.
The site also claims to be the world’s tallest adventure course and the tallest stainless-steel slide in the United States. From the Boathouse District, visitors can take a cruise on the river or bike along 13 miles of Oklahoma River Trails.
“The Boathouse District is something nobody else has,” Johnson says. “The district was built specifically for [the U.S. Olympic training grounds] and we are in the process of building a white-water rafting center.”
Attendees can take a ride down the mile-long Bricktown Canal on a water taxi, one of the most popular things to do in the city. During the 40-minute ride, spots of interests are pointed out along the way.
The hospitality sector is abuzz in Little Rock. Construction and renovations have ramped up in the past three years, and several new hotels are set to join the booming downtown scene. Even during the recession, the Natural State’s capital city had a spur in redevelopment, thanks to the opening of William J. Clinton Presidential Center. Since it opened in 2004, Little Rock has been placed firmly on the map for meetings and conventions. Its outdoorsy attractions and bustling entertainment districts are just steps away from a plethora of hotels and venues.
“When people come to visit and see what we have available, [they see] that we have an incredible array of offsite meetings—large and small,” says
John Mayner, vice president of marketing and
communications at Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Little Rock and North Little Rock are connected by four pedestrian bridges [including Big Dam Bridge, which is 4,226 feet long] and with the trolley, getting around is easy. From that perspective, we can accommodate anything from large to small.”
Downtown development has surged, and other neighborhoods are joining in. The Main Street corridor, which runs into the Statehouse Convention Center, is in the midst of its own revitalization and is predicted to be a vibrant scene.
The up-and-coming neighborhood is home to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and is the proposed location of a new Aloft hotel, along with several new restaurants.
“This is such a great time to be here in the state, when there’s so much going on,” Mayner says.
The new face of Little Rock is not limited to hotels and venues. The city’s four bridges that connect to North Little Rock underwent a $2.4 million high-tech LED-light addition, called River Lights in the Rock. From dusk to late at night, light shows twinkle on the hour. Groups can rent out the bridge lights and put on a custom show of their own. A $100 million construction of Broadway Bridge, expected to be complete by early 2017, will also join the light spectacle.
Heifer International, a nonprofit charity headquartered in downtown Little Rock, offers tours of its LEED Platinum-certified building that showcases inspiring, interactive exhibits that describe how individuals can help end hunger, poverty and environmental problems. The exhibits appeal to people of all ages, and one of the most popular is a 30,000-gallon rainwater collection tower.
Heifer’s mission is to empower families to turn hunger and poverty into hope and prosperity. The organization provides food-producing animals to families, thereby enabling them to establish a reliable income by trading or selling agricultural products such as milk, eggs and honey.
When many families gain new sustainable income, it brings new opportunities for building schools, creating agricultural cooperatives, forming community savings and funding small businesses.
Groups can rent Heifer International Headquarters’ 3,300-square-foot meeting room, which can accommodate 250 seated and 500 standing.
American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City houses the largest display of banjos in the world, and ranks as the biggest in the United States. The collection explores the banjo’s African roots and highlights its heyday during the Roaring ’20s.
Oklahoma City’s Bricktown District is a one-stop destination for sports, culture, dining and entertainment. The Oklahoma River runs through a mile-long stretch, known as the Bricktown Canal. Visitors can hop on and off a water taxi, which stops along points of interest, such as Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark and Bricktown Brewery.
Chesapeake Energy Arena is home to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. It has hosted multiple NCAA Division I Championships. The stadium has 34,000 sq. ft. available for private events.
William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock just celebrated its 10th anniversary as a city landmark. There is more than 10,000 sq. ft. of event space within the presidential library and museum.
At 4,226 feet, Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock claims to be the world’s longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge. The state’s largest bike tour, Big Dam Bridge 100, draws 3,000 cyclists from around the world and celebrates the bridge.
The burgeoning food scene in Oklahoma City is not to be missed. Restaurants are trending more toward locally sourced menu items and environmental sustainability. Check out Nani, a unique Japanese/Native American restaurant focused on growing its own ingredients. It serves up plates with no more than five ingredients.
The city has some of the best Asian restaurants as a result of its large Vietnamese community. In the Paseo district, classically trained chef Vuong Nguyen does a modern interpretation of traditional Asian cuisine. Dishes such as foie gras and pork belly bahn mi, specialty sushi rolls and Korean-style steaks are offered at his multilevel restaurant, Guernsey Park (pictured), which is available for private dining. Noteworthy restaurants such as these were featured at the annual Downtown OKC Restaurant Week, Jan. 18–24 this year.
Choctaw Casinos Help Preserve Culture
One of the biggest casino chains in the state belongs to the Choctaw Indians, the country’s third largest tribe, with nearly 200,000 members. Choctaw Casino enterprises are comprised of eight locations in southeastern Oklahoma and have undergone a number of multimillion-dollar expansions since they opened in 1987.
Originally from the southeastern United States, the Choctaw were forcibly relocated west of the Mississippi River to present-day Oklahoma in what is known as “The Trail of Tears.” In fact, the state’s name comes from the Choctaw words “okla” and “humma,” meaning red people. Proceeds from the casinos contribute to cultural preservation and improving the lives of its members who have a strong tradition of military service.
The Choctaw are responsible for America’s first field sport, stickball, the ancestor of modern-day lacrosse.
“The Choctaw Casinos continue to make a positive influence on the Choctaw Nation, as well as the local economy,” says Wendy Carter, marketing director at Choctaw Casino Resort–Durant, “We employ 1,280 team members at our properties across southeastern Oklahoma. As we expand our casinos, we continue to provide additional job opportunities to the market, as well as funding for development programs benefiting local communities and the Choctaw Nation.”
The chain’s largest flagship property sits on 50 acres in Durant, southeast of Oklahoma City near the Texas border. The AAA Four Diamond casino resort is undergoing major renovations to be unveiled in June. The new upgrades will include its nationally renowned event center, the addition of a 21-story hotel tower with 487 guest rooms and an additional 20,000 sq. ft. of additional convention space. The resort complex already offers 431 guest rooms.
“With more than 20,000 sq. ft. of current event space, and even more coming with our expansion, we are able to meet the needs of companies looking for a variety of meeting options,” Carter says.
The Durant casino attracts 300,000 visitors annually and ranks as one of the top tourist destinations in the state, thanks to the casino and Lake Texoma, the 12th-largest lake in the United States.
Choctaw Casino Pocola Hotel offers 118 guest rooms, and the Choctaw Casino Grant Resort has 60 guest rooms and flexible venue space that seats 1,000.
Major Meeting Venues
Aloft Oklahoma City Downtown–Bricktown
Situated in the middle of the Bricktown District; 134 guest rooms; nearly 7,500 sq. ft. of meeting space; live performers and DJs play on the weekends at the two-story WXYZ bar and rooftop lounge.
Biltmore Hotel Oklahoma
The largest hotel in the state; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; indoor and outdoor pools; lighted tennis courts; two nightclubs; 367 guest rooms and two column-less ballrooms.
Chesapeake Energy Arena
Home of the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team; regularly features major concerts and events in its 586,000-square-foot facility; the 34,000-square-foot arena seats more than 15,000; Courtside Club restaurant can hold more than 200 attendees.
Choctaw Casino Resort–Durant
Located in southern Oklahoma; 431-room resort complex is undergoing major expansion that will be completed in June, including the addition of a 487-room tower; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Civic Center Music Hall
Premier performing arts facility downtown; Art Deco-style hall was constructed in the late 1930s; three theaters, two banquet spaces and outdoor event space with skyline views; Hall of Mirrors features historic architecture.
Cox Convention Center
Near Bricktown historic and entertainment district; more than 1 million sq. ft. of flexible meeting space including 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space; 25,000-square-foot ballroom; 21 meeting rooms and 15,000-seat arena.
Gaylord–Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum
One of the city’s top tourist attractions; doubles as a one-of-a-kind venue for conferences and meetings; more than 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space among high-tech exhibits including the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, honoring famous Oklahomans.
Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel
Connected to the Cox Convention Center by a glass-enclosed skywalk; 331 guest rooms; full-service business center; more than 66,000 sq. ft. of conference space and 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space.
Sheraton Oklahoma City Downtown Hotel
More than 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; the city’s largest convention hotel; 18 multifunctional spaces, with the largest room having 5,599 sq. ft.; 396 guest rooms; connected via an underground concourse to most of downtown.
Skirvin Hilton Hotel
AAA Four Diamond, historic property that has hosted presidents, world figures, actors and athletes since opening in 1911; located in the heart of the city; 225 guest rooms and 18,500 sq. ft. of meeting space including two ballrooms, three boardrooms, three event rooms and a prefunction lounge. q
Opened in 1870; historically significant hotel; one of the first buildings to run electricity; introduced the first “magnetic annunciator” to call room service; 94 guest rooms; 6,400 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Clarion Hotel Medical Center–Midtown
Within walking distance to four major Little Rock hospitals; 263 guest rooms; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, with the largest room, the Grand Ballroom, offering 4,332 sq. ft.
Comfort Inn & Suites Presidential
Just a few blocks from the William J. Clinton Presidential Center; near the capitol building and Statehouse Convention Center; more than 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space divided among seven rooms; 150 guest rooms.
Crowne Plaza Little Rock
Located in West Little Rock; 244 guest rooms; 7,500 sq. ft. of meeting space that is divided among 11 rooms.
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Little Rock
Forbes Three Star and AAA Three Diamond hotel located close to the riverfront and downtown attractions; more than 40,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; 288 guest rooms.
Holiday Inn Little Rock–Airport–Conference Center
Undergoing a $20 million concourse renovation; one mile from the airport and just a few minutes’ drive from downtown; 201 guest rooms; 22,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Little Rock Marriott
Completed a $16 million renovation last fall with redesigned guest rooms and meeting spaces with outstanding views of downtown and the river; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; the adjoining Statehouse Convention Center also provides additional meeting space.
Located in 76-year-old building with iconic Greek Revival-style columns; undergoing a $70 million renovation with opening slated for late 2016; expansion includes state-of-the-art performance hall with more than 40,000 sq. ft. of conference and lobby space overlooking Arkansas River. q
Statehouse Convention Center
A 10-minute drive from the airport; 220,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including several ballrooms, seven meeting rooms, multiple halls on every floor, a prefunction atrium and a multi-functional lobby.
Across the river in North Little Rock; hosts headlining concerts and sports tournaments; 28,000 sq. ft. of meeting space among four rooms and a prefunction area, with an additional 28,000 sq. ft. of arena floor space.
William J. Clinton Presidential Center
Located downtown off the Arkansas River Trail; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space; Great Hall and Terrace offer more than 5,000 sq. ft. of event space; the gardens make a great reception venue with oak trees and native flowers.