By Michael Humphrey
You can almost feel the serenity in the Overland Park Convention and Visitors Bureau’s slogan: The Natural Choice. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse tranquil with passive.
Sure, the Kansas City suburb is a safe and easy city, one that often evokes monikers such as “all-American” and “family-friendly.” But a closer look at Overland Park, Kan., reveals the other side – savvy, sophisticated and industrious. In a word, Overland Park is a player. Not just a player in Kansas City, but throughout the Midwest.
It was always supposed to be that way.
“The city fathers in the 1970s made a conscious decision that Overland Park should not be a bedroom community,” says Mayor Ed Eilert, who has presided over the city since 1981. “The vision was to attract regional offices of service and retail corporations. They saw that Johnson County was growing, that it was a big attraction to families. With the completion of the Interstate, we were ready to attract the private sector.”
Mission accomplished. Sprint, Yellow Roadway Corp., Black & Veatch and Applebee’s headline a list of not just regional but national corporations that call Overland Park home.
It’s not a new phenomenon, either. Overland Park and business have been a natural pair for three decades.
In 1975, site planners Sasaki, Walker & Associates designed a wooded suburban setting featuring office buildings complete with walking trails, a park and a creek. Today, the Corporate Woods office park, just off College Blvd., features 24 office buildings with approximately 2,100,000 square feet of office space in a setting that could be called state-of-the-park.
“Corporate Woods set the standard for development,” Eilert says. “We’ve been growing ever since.”
Overland Park was incorporated in 1960 with a population of 28,085. Today, 163,319 residents call the city home. The demographics of that citizenry are astounding – yearly incomes that run $12,000 more per capita than the U.S. average, thanks to a 52.1 percent college graduation rate among those 25 and older who live in one of the top cities in America for housing affordability.
And that means one thing – the town is bustling.
“Whether you want to shop at Nordstrom’s, the Oak Park Mall or a mom and pop store in downtown Overland Park, or you want to find anything you need at 119th or 135th,” Eilert says, “once people stay here, they realize how diverse and active we are.”
So can a city stay on the cutting edge of municipal progress and still be “The Natural Choice”?
Yes – and that’s why meeting planners are taking note of Overland Park.
21 Years Old
Overland Park is not a newbie when it comes to wooing the meeting and events market. This year marks the Overland Park CVB’s 21st anniversary. And at least one meeting planner is ready to send it to the major leagues.
“The Overland Park CVB is one of the best bureaus in the country,” says Gwen Knight, CMP. “I religiously work with CVBs around the country and I have yet to find a bureau more helpful. They know their planner and they’ll do anything they can before and after they sell their city.”
Jerry Cook, Overland Park CVB president, says top-notch service is the only way to survive in an era when every city is looking for competitive advantages.
“Our people are committed to exceeding the expectations of the client,” he says. “As unique as a facility might be, it’s the experience that makes people come back.”
In 2003, Overland Park CVB sales staff booked a record number of room nights – 141,919. That was a jump of 27,848. The sales efforts are focused on six major markets: associations (17.5%); athletics (20.%); conventions (6.5%); corporate (23.6%); motorcoach (3.6%) and SMERF (28.4%).
Now the goal is to reach 174,000 room nights in 2004. And to grow like that, you need the right tools to attract meetings. Overland Park certainly has that now, with a sleek and smart convention center as well as a variety of meeting spaces to satisfy numbers from 3 to 3,000.
The Overland Park Convention Center, a 237,000 square-foot facility, is just another example of foresight at work. Plans for the center were first hatched 20 years ago, and several locations were nearly selected before the property near I-435 was purchased from Sprint. But there could have been even more obstacles.
“There was a good deal of understanding from the existing properties (about the Convention Center and attached Sheraton),” Eilert says. “There could have been some real pitched battles over adding another 300 rooms to the market. But they were willing to take the longer-term viewpoint.”
Translation: As Overland Park ramps up its convention business, the positive results will flow out to the other properties.
“It’s just a matter of educating planners as to what we can offer now,” says Shane Somers, Kansas City area director of sales and marketing for the Overland Park Marriott. “Even though having the extra rooms had an effect last year, we know that the city has the opportunity to bring larger events we could not have brought before.”
And the new convention center offers a lot.
The $46.5 million center offers 60,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 25,000 square-foot ballroom, seven meeting rooms totaling 15,000 square feet and 44,000 square feet of pre-function space.
The high-tech building offers WiFi throughout both facilities, an Internet café and board tables with all the bells and whistles, but it’s the more practical thinking that has impressed Knight.
“They’ve done some things that really make a difference for meeting planners,” says Knight, who planned a 1,000-attendee convention at OPCC in August. “The huge pre-function space makes for a much better flow from a meeting to a coffee break or a demonstration. They have huge bathrooms, wonderful artwork throughout the space, wide-body soft chairs. Whoever decided to do that is a wizard.”
That the convention center opened its doors during a meeting and event drought can’t be blamed on anybody in Overland Park. But signs of life throughout the industry are returning – and Overland Park is reviving with it.
Cook says when the economy comes back full steam, Overland Park is ready.
“The infrastructure is there,” he says. “You can see it in the number of rooms convenient to the convention center.”
There are 1,065 rooms within walking distance, 2,420 rooms within a five-minute drive, 1,034 rooms within a seven-minute drive and 624 rooms within 10-15 minutes. All in Overland Park.
Other Meeting Spaces
And the convention center is just the hub; there are plenty of options for planners elsewhere in the city. Spaces for meetings include professional-class hotels, natural settings and the totally unexpected.
A lot of options mean a lot of competition. But Sommers believes that is just more good news for the planner.
“I think we can all succeed in this area,” Sommers says. “The Marriott succeeds on our company philosophy, which has a strong commitment to please the customer. We have 14,000 square feet of meeting space, a Japanese steak house and a great location. We’re not your typical hotel. That’s how you succeed.”
When a full-service hotel is more than you need, there’s more that Overland Park offers.
The Overland Park Arboretum, for instance, brings to life “The Natural Choice” slogan.
“We really do have businesspeople and groups who come to get away for awhile,” says Georgia Erickson, a former city councilwoman and now volunteer docent at the Arboretum. “We have a room that can hold 100 people or divide into two or three smaller rooms. It’s a lovely place to meet.”
The list of meeting spaces is impressive, especially when you consider the variety. Johnson County Community College has numerous options, including the 1,250-capacity Carlsen Center, a 400-capacity theater and various-sized classrooms.
The upscale Ritz Charles meeting facility lends a touch of class for groups up to 400. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill accommodates up to 200 people who want a little pizzazz in their events. The Culinary Center of Kansas City can host 125 people in a very unique downtown Overland Park setting. Deer Creek Golf Club can bring the swing into a meeting.
“We listen to the planner and get to know every aspect of their event or convention,” Cook says. “Then we give them options.”
Not an Island
The options don’t stop at the Overland Park border, either. In fact, the city’s largest suburb has been highly proactive in promoting the larger metropolitan area.
“We want to see downtown Kansas City succeed,” says OPCVB sales manager Charlie Spiegel. “If they succeed in competing with Dallas and Denver and Minneapolis, that helps us succeed in competing in our market.”
Plus, Overland Park becomes all the more enticing when you factor in Country Club Plaza and the American Jazz Museum in the urban core, the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs in Independence, Cabela’s and the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County.
“Those are terrific metro assets,” Eilert says. “The hospitality industry in Johnson County and Overland Park benefits from all the positives throughout the Kansas City area.”
At the same time, Overland Park is becoming more of a destination for residents in other parts of the metropolitan area. Shopping centers at 119th and 135th have drawn folks from Missouri and Wyandotte County. So has the food.
“For someone who’s lived in Chicago, a drive from downtown to Overland Park is a breeze,” says 40 Sardines owner Michael Smith (see “Chef du Jour”). “You used to see an attitude of, ‘We’re not going all the way out there.’ That’s changing, because there’s a lot happening out here that you can’t find anywhere else.”
It all works together, Cook says.
“When we support the other areas, we benefit,” he says. “When they support our efforts, they benefit.”
A Bright Future
Knight says Overland Park’s expansive strategy is wise.
“It’s smart to market themselves as part of the larger metro area,” she says, “because planners need to know they have access to a major airport and all the facilities it takes to make a meeting go smoothly. If they hear of Overland Park up in Chicago and don’t link it to Kansas City, they might not know the facilities are here.”
Having said that, Knight also thinks name recognition for Overland Park itself is going to grow quickly.
“Once the word gets around about the convention center,” she says, “you’ll see more planners looking at Overland Park as a specific destination.”
That’s a draw, she says. Many convention planners will base their decisions on factors in which Overland Park excels: safety, shopping, location and convenience.
And the growth has not ended with the Convention Center. City officials and developers are seriously considering a proposal to build an arena, entertainment and retail district just a few miles from the OPCC.
“It’s being examined right now,” Eilert says. “There may be an opportunity there that could significantly impact this city again.”
Knight says all this activity keeps adding up to something that will have meeting planners excited about Kansas.
“It’s like Arlington, Texas,” Knight says. “Ten years ago, who knew where that was? But they took advantage of their location and built facilities where the traffic was less congested and it was a better value. That’s where Overland Park is going.”
(Michael Humphrey is a contributing editor from Kansas City, MO)