Arkansas & Oklahoma Make Big Business Look Easy
If you’re a person who loves surprises, you’ll love the neighboring states of Arkansas and Oklahoma. ’Cause, quite frankly, they’re full of them.
Meeting planners needn’t be alarmed, however, because all of these are the good kind: features like top-tier value at lower rates (both of the states’ iPhone apps ensure you get the best deal), vibrant arts districts, culture, national parks, famous museums and thriving cosmopolitan cities where you hadn’t expected them to be.
Arkansas will show your attendees what it means to be the Natural State, with bathhouses, hot springs and the beautiful Arkansas River. Oklahoma will keep the surprises coming with fun facts like Tulsa being home to the third largest collection of Art Deco buildings (after New York and Miami). And once you’ve arrived in either state, it won’t take you long to realize that the surprises don’t stop there.
Like most great destinations, Arkansas has some secrets to share with its visitors. “A lot of what I hear is that [attendees] are surprised. People that aren’t from Arkansas think of it as a southern, rural state; then they get here and they fly into Little Rock, and see that it’s very cosmopolitan,” says Dena Woerner, tourism communications manager for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “It’s a big, bustling city that’s easy to get around in.”
Part of the bustle comes from the state’s culture and unique meeting venues, as well as its shopping and dining options. “All we hear is ‘Wow!,’” Woerner says—which pretty much sums up the state, as Arkansas has surprises for its visitors around every corner. On its western edge is Fort Smith, which was once a military outpost. Move a little closer to the center, and you’ll find Hot Springs, the only city that’s built within a national park (it’s also home to The Gangster Museum of America). Then, make your way north to visit Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville, which make up one of America’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas.
This line-up doesn’t even include the state’s capital city of Little Rock, where your group will find not only an easily accessible airport, but also 2,200 hotel rooms citywide. But, there are even more surprises in store. Arkansas is also where the Ozark Medieval Fortress is being constructed (using only techniques from the Middle Ages), as well as where the only diamond mine that’s open to the public can be found. The best part? “What you dig for, you can keep,” Woerner says.
Little Rock is nothing like its name implies. It’s the largest city in the state, and that means meetings here are big. Advantageous for planners, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau is also quite large, with more than 120 full-time professionals to meet every need. Plus, with two downtown convention centers (both attached to hotels) and more than 1,300 guest rooms located within a five-block radius of them, there’s sure to be an ideal spot for your group.
Of the two, the largest is the Statehouse Convention Center, which shows off its four Governor’s Halls that encompass 82,892 sq. ft. of exhibit space. The halls can be used as one large area or divided into individual spaces, each with a separate entrance. In addition, the center has an 18,362-square-foot ballroom. Connected to the Four-Star, Four-Diamond Peabody Little Rock, which has 418 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space of its own, it is both convenient and flexible.
Then there’s the Robinson Center, which offers the Barry L. Travis Exhibition Hall, with 14,867 sq. ft. of exhibit space. This facility is connected to the 288-room Doubletree Hotel Little Rock, which is home to an 8,300-square-foot ballroom.
Nearby you’ll find the Clinton Presidential Center, located on the banks of the Arkansas River. Calling it a unique venue would be an understatement, as it features 10,000 sq. ft. of event space among ever-changing exhibits that tell the story behind the Clinton presidency through actual memos, photography, video clips and countless artifacts.
Other downtown meeting options include the Wyndham Riverfront Little Rock, with 220 guest rooms and more than 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the 119-room Hilton Garden Inn North Little Rock, which provides 4,000 sq. ft. of function space.
Before you leave, be sure to check out the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, says Elizabeth Elizandro, community marketing representative for the North Little Rock Visitors Bureau. The museum, which is centered around the World War II-era USS Razorback submarine, has venues for both small and large groups. For the former (groups of 5–10 people), tours can be arranged on the Razorback itself (also not-to-be-missed, according to Elizandro).
Clinton Presidential Center.
Being a city built in a national park has its advantages. Being one that is also famous for its award-winning barbecue is a whole different story. Meeting planners looking for both need to look no further than Hot Springs, Ark.
As the first federally protected area in the nation’s history, Hot Springs National Park is most known for its hot springs (go figure) as it features waters as warm as 143 degrees. In downtown, you will also discover historic highlights such as Victorian buildings, art studios and the famous Bathhouse Row. In addition, “Hot Springs has awesome golf courses, boating, skiing, fishing and hiking,” says Cindy DeWitt, director of sales at the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Visitors can also enjoy thermal bathing as well as receive massages in either a traditional bathhouse or a modern day spa.” As bathhouses are what Hot Springs is known for, it’s not a bad idea to take advantage of their availability and show off the local culture. “The bathhouses are located where warm waters flow into the Victorian historic district,” she says. Plan a pre-meeting soak for attendees—or yourself—then take advantage of the city’s 4,000 hotel rooms and more than 200 restaurants nearby.
The title of the largest convention facility in the state belongs to the Hot Springs Convention Center, with 360,000 sq. ft. of meeting and exhibit space. “The facility hosts numerous conventions, meetings and trade shows each year, as well as sporting and special events such at the Arkansas State High School Basketball Championships and the Sun Belt Conference Basketball Championships,” DeWitt says. “We have also hosted the very popular PBS show Antiques Roadshow.”
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is a historic meetings option in Hot Springs, and offers its own conference center, exhibit center and crystal ballroom. The conference center can accommodate as many as 1,000 attendees, or groups can gather in the 11,520-square-foot exhibit center or any one of the 15 additional meeting rooms for up to 120 attendees.
The Gangster Museum of America, which highlights the area’s hard-core past, throws the word typical right out the window. Among big-name gangsters who made their mark in Hot Springs was Al Capone, who visited from Chicago to strike deals with bootleggers during the Prohibition era. Today, groups can take a 45-minute guided tour here, or use the venue as a reception space (for up to 150), or for a meeting in the on-site theater that seats 35.
EUREKA SPRINGS & THE OZARK MOUNTAINS
At the northern border of Arkansas, Eureka Springs will take your group back in time, as it is filled with historic properties and old-world charm. Located in the famous Ozark Mountains, the city is well known for its Victorian architecture, which you can find at properties including the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa. Part of the Historic Hotels of America, this stunning hotel offers 72 guest rooms and 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space. Overlooking the Ozark Mountains, it also features 15 acres of gardens for outdoor receptions or team-building activities. A slightly younger option is the 1905 Basin Park Hotel, which features a ballroom with the original stained-glass windows. Among its meeting spaces is the 855-square-foot Atrium Room, which showcases a glass ceiling as well as a projection screen and a mounted LCD projector.
For outdoor adventure, take your crew to the Ozark Mountain Region. Here, groups can bond while fishing, hiking, cycling or participating in any number of other outdoor activities. Aside from the aforementioned Ozark Medieval Fortress (currently being built, but not set to open until 2030), the area has several hotels to offer, including the 1929 Hotel Seville, which is located in Harrison. Fresh from a $3.5-million renovation, the property has meeting space for up to 75 attendees.
Like its neighboring state, Oklahoma has a few surprises up its sleeve—the first of which is its unexpected views. “The scenery usually surprises people if it’s their first visit to Oklahoma,” says Amy Huntley, vice president of VisitTulsa. “We have so many different terrains as a state, but we are known as Green Country.” So planners and attendees can expect to see lush, green rolling hills, especially in Tulsa.
Another surprise is that Oklahoma has been a state for a little more than 100 years, as it joined the nation in 1907. Although young, however, it has a rich past, specifically in Native American history. Possibly even lesser known is that, literally translated, the name “Oklahoma” (which comes from the Choctaw words “okla” and “humma”) means “red people.”
For planners, this state offers two major cities in which to do business: Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Together, they offer superb meetings infrastructure as well as such cultural beacons as the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of art from the American West.
The Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau will tell you that the state’s capital city has 15,000 hotel rooms. They will also tell you that they can host up to 20,000 attendees. But what they won’t let on is that the first-ever parking meter was installed in Oklahoma City in 1935, or that the automated twist-tie machine (invented in 1961) was first used at Oklahoma City’s Rainbow Bakery—now known as the Sara Lee Bakery.
Aside from fun tidbits of history (and the not-so-fun parking meter), planners will also find top-notch meeting venues. In the heart of downtown, groups can convene at the Cox Convention Center, which offers easy access to the major meetings hotels that make up 1,400 of the city’s total guest rooms. The center itself has several meeting and exhibit spaces, including an impressive 25,000-square-foot ballroom.
Connected via glass-enclosed walkway to the convention center is the Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel, which provides 258 guest rooms and 66,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Located adjacent to the center is the Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City, with 225 guest rooms and 18,500 sq. ft. of function space.
Nearby, another option is the Crowne Plaza Hotel Oklahoma City. Here, 12,000 sq. ft. of space is offered, and a highlight among its 218 guest rooms is The Crowne Suite (otherwise knows as the only suite in Oklahoma that includes a private swimming pool for your most important guest).
Of the many things that make Tulsa ideal for groups, one is that the city is simple to navigate. “Tulsa has a home-town feel that makes it great to visit and easy to get around, and it’s comfortable,” VisitTulsa’s Huntley says. Even more tempting, the city has plenty for attendees to do before and after meetings, including a visit to the Oklahoma Zoo, the Tulsa Air & Space Museum or enjoying a game at the Bok Center.
Bok Arena at night, Tulsa.
And, if you are bringing your meeting here during the summer, Huntley says, there’s one thing you can’t miss: a showing of the well-known musical Oklahoma!. “We have a wonderful place called Discovery Land, which is an outside amphitheater that does Oklahoma! live all summer long,” she says. “It’s very popular for our [seasonal] groups.”
Before you dive into all of the city’s fun, large groups will be wowed by the Tulsa Convention Center, which completed a major renovation last January. Located downtown, the renewed facility has 35 dedicated meeting rooms and a new ballroom—the largest in the state—as well as several exhibit spaces.
If you aren’t bringing a convention-size group into town, you still have a variety of options, including the newly renovated, 172-room Park Inn Hotel Tulsa Airport. Coupled with its convenient location just one minute from Tulsa International, the property also has five meeting spaces and two ballrooms.
With a name change effective this month, and a $24-million renovation under its belt, the Hyatt Regency Tulsa (formerly the Crowne Plaza), is great for groups and meetings, as it offers 455 guest rooms and 38,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space. Other nearby properties include the 377-room Marriott Tulsa Southern Hills, with 43,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the 410-room Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa, which provides 35,000 sq. ft. of total space, including a 15,000-square-foot ballroom.
For more information on Oklahoma’s culture, read “Oklahoma’s Colorful Powows.”
- The Little Rock National Airport is served by six airlines and offers nonstops to and from a number of national and international destinations. It’s about seven miles from the city center.
- Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport is another local option, located in Bentonville, in the northeast corner of the state. Service from six airlines is available.
- Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport is about 10 miles from downtown Oklahoma City, and offers service from six major airlines.
The Tulsa International Airport is currently undergoing a $15.9-million concourse renovation scheduled for completion in December 2011. It is approximately 10 miles from downtown Tulsa.