Southwest Missouri beckons planners with history, culture, attractions and meeting venues for groups of every size.
In Branson, groups can take in a show, book a boat cruise on beautiful Table Rock Lake and enjoy a night out in Branson Landing. Joplin is busy recovering from its 2011 tornado and is primed for groups with well-appointed hotels and voluntourism opportunities. Rounding out the region is Springfield, a city with a large conference center and new meeting spaces.
Although Branson has an official population of just around 10,000 people, many more visitors can be found within the city’s borders on any given day. This is because of the city’s breathtaking views of the Ozark Mountain Range and easily accessible attractions, including live variety shows and riverboat cruises.
This beauty was struck, though, in the early morning hours of Feb. 29, when a tornado ripped through the city, zigzagging down Highway 76, dubbed the “Strip.” Fortunately, there were few injuries and no fatalities as a result of the storm. But some facilities weren’t as fortunate.
“We had a few theaters, hotels and restaurants with damage,” says Deborah Cohen, CMP, director of meeting and convention sales for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and CVB.
The Branson Variety Theater sustained damage and is slated to reopen soon. The Branson Convention Center survived minimal damage and reopened in April. The Hilton Branson Convention Center sustained a large amount of window damage and plans to reopen October 1st.
“Other than that, we were pretty lucky,” she says. “We had some homes that received damage, but in terms of businesses, most of them have reopened. The city of Branson has rebounded extremely quickly.”
Cohen says today the city’s downtown looks sparkling, including Branson Landing, a massive multiuse complex filled with retail outlets, dining and a Las Vegas Bellagio-style fountain that goes off every hour to music.
“In the warmer months, we have live bands down on the Landing,” Cohen says. “It is a lot of fun.”
Planners looking for unique off-site venues can hop aboard the Showboat Branson Belle, a 750-passenger riverboat that traverses the picturesque Table Rock Lake.
“A lot of groups like to charter the boat for private events. You can have a show onboard, a dinner cruise or a lunch,” she says.
The Titanic Museum is another off-site option for groups, featuring a replica of the boat. It is a popular place for period dinners.
“They go a great job with theming,” Cohen says. “They will give you a card with the name of a real passenger and then you can spend the night walking through the boat to food stations with people dressed up for the time period. By the end of the night, you can check to see if the person on your card survived. It makes history real for every attendee.”
A little more than 10 miles south of Branson in Ridgedale sits Big Cedar Lodge, which not only offers space for groups of up to 1,000 people but also is located near Dog Wood Canyon Nature Park.
“You can go over to the park and set up a bonfire with s’mores or go biking, hiking and fishing,” Cohen says.
Back in Branson, the largest space to meet is in the 220,000-square-foot Branson Convention Center.
Nearby hotels include the Hilton, which will reopen this fall, and the newly renovated Radisson Branson. The 301-room Chateau on the Lake is another nice option for groups, with 43,500 square feet of meeting space.
About two hours southeast of Branson sits the bustling city of Joplin, home to more than 175,000 residents. Founded in 1873 around the zinc mining industry, the metro saw a fall in population after World War II but then rebounded years later with the popularity of Route 66, which runs straight through the city.
More recently, Joplin has made the news for sad reasons, as a major tornado tore through the city May 22, 2011. While more than 3,000 homes were destroyed by the tornado, only one hotel was touched. It was not a meetings hotel, and according to Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin CVB, group gatherings hardly slowed in the city, reporting only two cancellations.
Today, the city is looking good and rebuilding is under way. As a one-year commemoration of the storm, the city put on a walk for the public on May 22, starting at 2 p.m. and traversing along 20th Street.
“We did a 3.7-mile walk across town and planned on having around 600 people show up and were shocked with more than 6,500 came to participate,” Tuttle says. “May 22nd will always be our Day of Unity and remembrance.”
Are things back to normal?
“We are back to normal in terms of our lifestyle and are working hard at helping those in need,” Tuttle says.
Of the 504 businesses hit, more than 470 are slated to return. Eateries are opening around every corner, and meeting planners are showing a real interest in bookings.
“We can now offer a unique component to our meetings: voluntourism,” Tuttle says. “We have a lot of need here, so if you book a meeting, we can set you up to help rebuild a home or business. Delegates can use it as a team-building exercise.”
As straight meeting spaces go, Joplin has plenty to offer, with the Holiday Inn Hotel and Convention Center boasting nearly 50,000 square feet of meeting space. The La Quinta Inn is another popular option.
“We also have a Hilton Garden Inn and Residence Inn that can handle 80 people each for a meeting,” he says.
Planners can organize off-site receptions at the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center, located on W. Riviera Drive. The facility offers an outdoor pavilion and indoor space in a meeting room, classroom and seminar hall.
Family-friendly groups can head over to Carousel Park, which features amusement rides, an arcade, go carts, batting cages and mini-golf. The facility regularly welcomes groups for outdoor picnics.
Joplin Memorial Hall, a striking historic structure built in 1923, offers space for meetings, with a capacity for more than 2,700 people.
Driving about 73 miles east, planners will find themselves in Springfield, Missouri’s capital city and the birthplace of Route 66.
“April 30, 1926, is the day when officials came together here to name Route 66; that is when it became the first paved, transcontinental highway in the country,” says Dana Maugans, director of sales for the Springfield CVB.
The city’s history starts father back than that, though. Maugans, a 30-year resident, proudly recites other notable Springfield historical facts.
“This is where the first Civil War battle happened west of the Mississippi,” she says. “It was Aug. 10, 1861, and it was the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. About 5,400 Union soldiers and 12,000 Confederate soldiers fought, and it is where Nathaniel Lyon was killed, the first Union general killed in combat. Today you can visit Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.”
Another historical factoid: Springfield was the location of the first shootout.
“It was in July 1865 in our downtown Park Central Square between Dave Tutt and ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok,” she says. “Bill shot Dave from 75 yards away, and it made headlines across the nation. Dave died and he is buried here in Springfield.”
Today, Park Central Square is still the city’s main meeting point, where visitors can find dining outlets, shops and nightlife entertainment (sans shootouts). The city has an eclectic, young vibe thanks to the presence of Missouri State University, Drury University and Ozarks Technical Community College.
“Our downtown is very alive; there is always a cultural event going on, and it is a great place to get a bite to eat,” Maugans says.
On the meeting side, University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center has 39,000 square feet of space.
Just across the street planners can also take advantage of the Springfield Expo Center, which offers 112,000 square feet of space.
The Ramada Oasis and Doubletree are also favorites with groups.
Off-site venues include the new White River Conference Center, which is “amazingly beautiful inside,” Maugans says, with a wrap-around terrace. The space opened in February adjacent to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and can accommodate 650 guests for group gatherings.
Another off-site option is Pythian Castle, which is a medieval-style structure built in 1913 as an orphanage, but over the years has been used as a USO and a hospital. Today, the facility is refurbished and features ghost tours and multiple spaces for group events.
Built in 1926, Gillioz Theatre is a unique option for groups looking for something special.
“It is an old movie theater that has been beautifully restored and has a 1,130-seat performance venue,” Maugans says. “It is a perfect spot for group events.”
Katie Morell is a writer and editor based in San Francisco: www.katiemorell.com.