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The Gathering Spot Next Door

Midsize cities across the region welcome planners and attendees with open arms and abundant venues

By Teresa Bergen

Olympia, Washington || Courtesy of Experience Olympia

Most Northwest meetings professionals have been to conferences in the region’s biggest cities. But it might be time to go beyond the urban downtown and explore what some of the region’s smaller, midsize cities have to offer—what you find just might surprise you.

“When you meet in a midsize city like Tacoma, you really own the city,” says Lynsey Norton, director of convention sales and regional services for Travel Tacoma—Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports. “The [staff at the] restaurants, hotels, and attractions here know you’re coming. They understand the value meetings and conventions bring. They see your badge, and they welcome you.” And if your meeting is the only one in town, you’ll also have the full attention of the conference services team, from the chef to the audiovisual crew to the visitor and convention bureau.

While each midsize town has its own personality, you’ll notice some recurring themes here in the Northwest, including excellent restaurants and wines along with easy access to the region’s beautiful outdoors. These are the kinds of places where attendees will want to spend an additional vacation day—or three—and explore pre- or post-meeting.

Natural Beauty in Alaska

Do you want your attendees to bond while gazing at the aurora borealis or walking with a herd of docile reindeer? Then Fairbanks is the place to meet. “We embrace the fact that we are a bit ‘off the beaten path’ by offering attendees a chance to complete their business in a bucket-list destination,” says Jesse Pfeffer, meetings and conventions sales and services manager for Explore Fairbanks Alaska.

With over 175,000 square feet of meeting and event space and 2,900 guest rooms, this interior Alaskan city can accommodate sizable conferences. Your group can hold a reception surrounded by pristine old cars at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum or learn about Alaskan aboriginal culture while mingling in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center. It’s easy for attendees to get a taste of authentic Alaskan life during a meeting in Fairbanks.

While in Juneau, look up and you’ll probably see a bald eagle, and you don’t have to venture far from downtown Juneau to encounter a brown bear. “The small, safe, welcoming community is full of Alaskan adventures just steps from hotels and meeting spaces,” says Heather Collins, event and group sales manager for Travel Juneau. And it’s only a two-hour flight from Seattle. Two of Juneau’s newly renovated venues are Centennial Hall Convention Center, with 17,000 square feet of meeting space, and the smaller Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in downtown Juneau.

Since Juneau is a major cruise port, local outfitters are pros at offering group activities, such as whale watching in summer, skiing in winter, and visiting Mendenhall Glacier year-round. “Because it is just 15 minutes from downtown, the glacier is the most accessible in the state and offers wildlife viewing and spectacular scenery,” says Collins.

Fairbanks, Alaska || Photo by Sherman Hogue, courtesy of Explore Fairbanks

Memorable Meetings in British Columbia

Victoria’s waterfront location, British tea house vibe, and hanging flower baskets lining the streets make it popular with meeting-goers. It also boasts some of the best meeting facilities around. The Victoria Conference Centre incorporates diverse elements of the city’s history, including a First Nations totem pole and historic Crystal Garden—once the site of the British Empire’s largest indoor heated saltwater pool. “When your group is hosting their meeting in Victoria and the Victoria Conference Centre, there is a sense of exclusivity for the delegates,” says Miranda Ji, Destination Greater Victoria’s executive vice president of sales and business development. For a fun, smaller venue, meet at Craigdarroch Castle, a turreted Victorian mansion made of stone.

When not in meetings, your group can go whale watching, e-bike touring, or taste fresh-cut basil, berries, fireweed honey, and local wines while touring Greater Victoria’s Flavour Trail.

Just northwest of Vancouver and located in southern British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Kelowna is known for wine and sunshine. In addition to solid meeting options like the Hampton Inn & Suites and Hotel Kelowna and Conference Center, summertime meetings can rent the budget-friendly University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus. The city is currently abuzz about the new KF Aerospace Centre for Excellence, a 60,000-square-foot aviation museum and conference facility shaped like the fuselage and wings of an aircraft.

Kelowna has more than 70 wineries, breweries, distilleries, and cideries, as well as 19 golf courses in the area. “From group wine tours and dinners showcasing the region’s exceptional produce to cruises along Okanagan Lake and ample outdoor activities including skiing, golfing, and hiking, Kelowna and the central Okanagan [Valley] will deliver an experience your delegates won’t soon forget,” says Nikki Robinson, Tourism Kelowna’s director of business development.

Victoria, British Columbia || Photo by Kevin Light Photography, courtesy of Destination Greater Victoria

Scenic Venues in Washington

The Greater Tacoma Convention Center has 119,000 flexible square feet of space, including 50,000 square feet of column-free exhibition-hall space, 24,000 square feet of pre-function space, and a 13,650-square-foot ballroom. “But it’s the sweeping views of downtown Tacoma and Mount Rainier, with massive windows and glass-enclosed entries, lobbies, and a suspended stairway for natural lighting that attendees will remember most,” says Norton.

Pierce County’s more intimate venues include the sophisticated Museum of Glass, the historic 1906 Pythian Temple, and Tin Can Alley, a funky hot pink repurposed factory. For group activities, visitors can choose between mountain, city, and sea. Many meeting clients organize a tour of nearby Mount Rainier. “Those outdoor, transformative experiences create lasting bonds and connections,” Norton says. Other team-building options include an escape room, boat tour, or ghost walk.

On the southern end of Puget Sound, Washington’s state capital of Olympia makes for a scenic meeting destination. The top venue is the Olympia Hotel at Capitol Lake, an IHG Hotel with 12 meeting rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

Jeff Bowe, vice president of sales and development for Experience Olympia & Beyond, notes the scalability of Olympia’s group activities, such as farm tours. “One of Olympia’s most unique experiences is a coffee roastery tour, where the tour takers learn about the chemistry of a coffee bean; or they can explore a shellfish farm and end the day with a tide-to-table experience paired with local wines. Of course, the visitors and convention bureau can assist with custom networking or team-building events—including golf, indoor rock climbing, or even soap-making classes, to name a few.”

In southcentral Washington, Yakima has long been called “the fruit bowl of the nation.” Hops and apples thrive in the region’s 300-plus days of sunshine per year. It also has Washington’s fourth-largest convention center, with more than 1,000 sleeping rooms nearby. Notable smaller venues include the Yakima Area Arboretum, the Yakima Valley Museum, and the historic 1,500-seat Capital Theatre, originally built in 1920.

Why choose Yakima over bigger cities? “Great restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, easily accessible outdoor adventure, unique craft beer, and award-winning wines—[all] without all the crowds, heavy traffic, and expensive parking,” says Brynn Johnson, director of convention and group sales at Yakima Valley Tourism. “The city has a unique character and charm, surrounded by scenic areas, hop fields, vineyards, and outdoor recreation.”

Get Outside in Oregon

Oregon’s state capital has several top meeting venues, from the Salem Convention Center to the chic new Holman Riverfront Park Hotel downtown. “Salem is easy to navigate, with a vibrant, walkable downtown home to restaurants, shops, and the arts,” says Debbie McCune, Travel Salem’s director of sales. “Wine country, flower gardens, and farmland are just minutes from the city center.”

For team building, you can’t get much more Northwest than ax throwing or a guided tree climb at Silver Falls State Park. Prefer something a bit slower paced? Yoga + Beer can organize a special yoga class at a brewery or winery. Additionally, event planners can coordinate with local farms and vineyards to organize farm-to-fork dinners. Or reserve The Yard Food Park, where your group will have indoor seating and a dozen food trucks to choose from.

To the southeast from Salem, Bend is known for having something that much of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t: sunshine. The high desert location sets an outdoorsy tone for your attendees to enjoy. Central Oregon’s largest meeting facility, the Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center, has 29,000 square feet of indoor space and capacity for 1,700 attendees, as well as a beautiful setting overlooking the Deschutes River. 

Bend, Oregon || Courtesy of Visit Bend

Partner with Wanderlust Tours for group activities. Depending on the season, you can arrange canoe tours, hikes, or a bonfire on the snow. One of the company’s most popular team-building excursions is a GPS eco-challenge, a cross between geocaching and a scavenger hunt.

Further south, Ashland is world famous for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which offers group ticketing. Throw in wineries, rafting the Rogue River, and jetboating, and you have a town that perfectly combines culture, culinary arts, and nature. “It’s safe, family friendly, walkable, and offers great weather year-round with four distinctive seasons,” says Daniel Miller, catering and sales manager at the Neuman Hotel Group. “Located halfway between Portland and San Francisco, it offers a great midpoint for many conference attendees.”

Groups of 400 or more will find plenty of space at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites. For groups of 200 or fewer, the Ashland Springs Hotel is a gorgeously restored 1925 property complete with a ballroom, English garden, and palm tree-filled conservatory.

Group Adventure Galore in Idaho

Idaho Falls is the state’s second-largest city and a jumping off point for both Grand Teton National Park and the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The Idaho Falls Regional Airport, just 2 miles outside of downtown, offers nonstop flights from 13 destinations. The city is an unusual mix between high-tech (it’s home to the Idaho National Laboratory, the country’s top nuclear research facility), agricultural, and outdoorsy.

Since opening its brand-new 48,000-square-foot venue, Mountain America Center, Idaho Falls is revving up for increased meetings business. The center includes Hero Arena, a 27,000-square-foot stadium, plus 11,500 square feet of meeting space that can host expos, receptions, trade shows, and conventions. The city also has several smaller event centers. Visitors love to stroll the 10-mile paved Idaho Falls River Walk, which straddles the Snake River.

Twin Falls is also in southern Idaho, about halfway between Boise and Idaho Falls. Two of Twin Falls’ most attractive meeting spaces are Canyon Crest Event Center and Elevation 486. Both have outdoor seating, high-class dining, incredible views of the Snake River and Perrine Bridge, and easy access to walking or biking the 8-mile Canyon Rim Trail.

Sarah Rohrbach, executive director for Southern Idaho Tourism, encourages meeting planners to take advantage of outdoor team-building experiences, such as the College of Southern Idaho’s outdoor challenge course, zip lining, and boat and kayak tours. “The views of the Snake River Canyon cannot be beat,” she says. “Zip liners will see stunning views of waterfalls.” Indoor team-building options include ax-throwing gyms, eating at 2nd South Market—Idaho’s first food hall—or exploring rich history with a tour of the Orpheum Theatre, which first opened in 1921.