Kansas City’s renaissance has made it a compelling destination for meeting planners who want to provide their attendees with not only top-notch convention infrastructure, but rich art and cultural experiences and next-level culinary offerings.
In many industries, the all-work, no-play attitudes of the last decade or two are finally winding down. Over the last several years, many executive leaders have grown to understand the value of work-life balance and providing employees with down time for themselves.
Fortunately, this has extended to the way people plan and attend meetings and events. Meeting planners are now including more team-building activities, implementing more flexible schedules, and are providing breathing room for pre- and post-conference activities that center around food, drink, and entertainment and allow attendees to truly get to know the destination. At the same time, attendees are increasingly combining their business trips with leisure activities, even extending their trips a few days to experience the destination outside of work-related events. In 2018, 60 percent of U.S. business trips featured an added leisure element, up from 43 percent in 2016, according to research from Expedia Group Media Solutions.
Kansas City has invested $9 billion in its Downtown convention package over the last few years, which includes improved infrastructure and transportation, hotel enhancements and expansion, and ongoing meeting space renovations throughout the Kansas City Convention Center. The city is also undergoing a cultural renovation of sorts, with new, innovative arts, culture, and culinary options in its Downtown district. As Natalie Gershon, director of marketing for Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company, said, “People often expect that they’ll be hanging out on farmland when they come to Kansas City, but that’s not the case at all. It definitely has a really cool urban core, which may surprise visitors.”
This revitalization has made Kansas City a particularly compelling choice for planners looking for an accessible and affordable, yet culturally rich destination that will appeal to attendees looking to add leisure elements to their business trips. “With its diverse array of experiences, Kansas City definitely sits at the intersection of business and leisure,” said Derek Klaus, director of communications for Visit KC. “We’re noticing that more and more business travelers are so struck by the authenticity of our destination that they can’t help but to extend their trip by a day or two. Sometimes that means bringing the family along, sometimes that means exploring the city as a solo traveler. We feel that Kansas City is primed for both.”
The KC Culinary Scene
No trip to Kansas City — whether it’s for leisure, business, or both — would be complete without a taste of Kansas City barbecue. Barbecue in Kansas City goes way beyond being just a menu item or a cooking method. It holds a rich with history and culinary tradition that has shaped the city’s dining landscape since the early 1900s, and continues to do so. Longtime favorites include Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, Gates Bar-B-Q, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, and B.B.’s Lawnside Bar-B-Q.
The city is also home to a number of nationally recognized restaurants, both on the high-end and more casual side of things. Chef Michael Corvino of Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room was a finalist for the James Beard Award’s “Best Chef: Midwest” category this year, while Stroud’s, a restaurant that has been around since World War II and is best known for its pan-fried chicken, has a James Beard Award for Excellence in the “Home Style” category and a Zagat award for “Best Restaurant.” Meanwhile, Bon Appétit named The Antler Room, which blends Mediterranean, East Asian, and Midwestern influences, one of its finalists for “Best New Restaurant in America” in 2017.
Kansas City has a long-running craft brewery and local distillery scene as well. As of November 2018, there were more than 30 craft breweries in Kansas City. Boulevard Brewing Company introduced its Pale Ale, a perennial favorite, 30 years ago. According to Gershon, “John McDonald, the brewery’s founder, used to drive a tank of the Pale Ale over to Crossroads Arts District’s First Fridays to help draw a crowd and share the art of Kansas City with both locals and tourists.” Boulevard has since grown to become the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest.
Last year, Food and Wine deemed Kansas City “one of America’s most exciting cocktail cities.” Local favorites include Manifesto, Lifted Spirits, Swordfish Tom’s, and Ça Va champagne bar. And The Monarch Cocktail Bar & Lounge, an innovative craft cocktail bar, was recently nominated as a 2019 James Beard Award Semifinalist for “Outstanding Bar Program.”
The KC Cultural Scene
Leisure and business travelers looking to experience the innovation and culture that power Kansas City have a lot of neighborhoods to choose from. The Crossroads Arts District is a dynamic area that showcases Kansas City’s vibrant art scene, whether a visitor is seeking out a gallery crawl or large-scale graffiti mural. The 20-block area contains more than 65 galleries, many of which are located in once-vacant warehouses, as well as eclectic boutiques, restaurants, and other unique local businesses. During First Fridays, one of the nation’s largest free art crawls, more than 70 shops and galleries stay open late to welcome visitors. Meanwhile, local live music venues like Green Lady Lounge and recordBar offer something for every kind of music taste, such as local Kansas City jazz, rock, hip hop, reggae, or indie music.
As Tyler Enders, co-owner of Made in KC, a popular retail shop with six stand-alone locations that features work from over 300 local artists, designers, and makers, said, “I think the affordability and walkability of our arts district surprises people. Within a four-block radius, you can find multiple breweries, jazz venues, independent boutiques, and modern art galleries. And that doesn’t even include your food options.”
Less than four miles south of Downtown Kansas City proper is The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a much-loved art institution in the area which opened its doors more than 85 years ago. The museum is known for its extensive collection of Asian art and neoclassical architecture and continues to play a prominent role within the city’s arts and culture. Going back even further, Hallmark Cards was founded in Kansas City in 1910. Visitors can head to the Hallmark Visitors Center to learn how one of the world’s most creative companies came to be. And located just a few blocks away is The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a multi-venue center for music, opera, theater, and dance. It serves as a cultural cornerstone for Downtown Kansas City and is home to the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and the Lyric Opera.
Downtown Kansas City has a flourishing artisanal and maker culture that’s carrying on the city’s creative tradition as well. “We’re lucky to have an arts district within our urban core. With a short walk or a ride down the streetcar, you can immerse yourself in creative, locally owned shops and colorful galleries,” said Enders.
Hammerpress Design Studio offers letterpress products such as printed goods, home goods, desk supplies, and personal accessories in its hand-crafted retail space located in the Crossroads Arts District. The district is also home to Sandlot Goods, producer of high-quality leather accessories, such as wallets and keychains, along with tees and tote bags. Meanwhile, Wood + Salt is bringing a new face to Kansas City’s long-standing barbecue tradition. The company, founded by a brother and sister duo, creates small batch dry rubs, brines, and spices, as well as smoked sea salts, infused sugars, and other artisanal ingredients.
As far as convenience and accessibility goes, “Everything in Kansas City is within 30 minutes of each other, max. You can get from great spot to another great spot in a quick Uber ride or with a scenic walk,” explained Gershon. And the KC Streetcar, which launched in 2016 and is free for all passengers, connects the Power & Light District, Crossroads Arts District, River Market, and Union Station/Crown Center –– the heart of Downtown –– together. This is especially worthwhile for meeting and event attendees who want to explore what the city has to offer outside of their business-related commitments and really understand what the city is all about.
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