By Michael Humphrey
Sometimes a meeting should be just that – meet, eat and leave. It’s inevitable that a planner is going to work plenty of meetings where the attendees don’t want a dog and pony show to stop the flow of work.
But other times, especially when most of the attendees find themselves in a town they’ve never seen before, built-in free time is warmly received, even needed. For those meetings, St. Joseph wants planners to know it is the ideal location.
WHY? THAT’S ALL ABOUT HISTORY.
“Where else can you find all of this history so close together?” asks Beth Whitchurch, communications director for the St. Joseph CVB. “Everything is a 10-minute drive here and so many of the major attractions are just blocks away from each other.”
And yet Whitchurch is the first to admit that not enough business groups who use the convention hotels or small venue meeting spaces take advantage of the myriad of attractions that colors St. Joe’s past and present.
“I know it’s hard to budget in free time,” she says. “But I think if planners knew everything that is available, they would see it as a benefit to the meeting.”
Part of the problem is outsiders think they know what St. Joe is about. Pony Express. Jesse James. What is there to see?
Actually, there’s quite a lot to see. The museums that commemorate the beginning of the Express and the end of James astound visitors with their depth and sophistication. But St. Joe is a lot more than “giddy up” and “bang bang.” Few towns its size (approximately 74,000) can compete with its diversity of activities.
FIRST, A LITTLE BUSINESS
Everyone knows meeting planners cannot choose a city by its attractions alone. Even for those meetings where incentives attract attendees, the top priority is finding a venue that works.
“We are obviously not the right choice for a major convention,” Whitchurch says. “But for associations, social groups, sports events, religious groups, we are competitive with any city.”
Some of the advantages might surprise you. For instance, downtown St. Joseph is just 35 miles away from Kansas City International Airport. Add that to its location along I-29 and you have transportation to the city covered.
The city also boasts three conference center hotels: the Riverfront Historic District Hotel (170 guest rooms with 10 meeting rooms, including ballroom), Ramada Inn Conference Center (163 guest rooms with 12 meeting rooms, including ballroom) and Stoney Creek Inn (129 guest rooms with 9 meeting rooms with conference center.) Add 10 more hotels and motels and three well established bed and breakfasts, and a planner has unprecedented flexibility for a historic small town.
There is also room for a sizable trade show. The 40,000-square-foot St. Joseph Civic Arena has an arena with 144 capacity for 8-by-10-foot booths, 1,000 banquet seats or 5,000 assembly seats, as well as four spacious meeting rooms.
And then there are the non-traditional meeting sites, which blend some of St. Joe’s character with a planner’s need for functionality. The Albrecht- Kemper Museum of Art offers six meeting spaces, the largest with a capacity of 144. The Jesse James Banquet and Conference Center can hold as many as 500 and can also intimately host a board meeting for eight. The elegant Missouri Theater seats 1,204. Robidoux Row Museum offers two small spaces (maximum 65) among St. Joe’s grand turn-of-the-century homes. Missouri Western State University also offers space, when classes are not in session, including lecture halls for up to 165, a recital hall for 237, theaters for up to 465, conference rooms, and sporting venues that can both seat 5,000.
“It’s a 10-minute drive anywhere,” Whitchurch says. “When it comes to planning, we’re about as easy as you can get for the resources we have.”
THEN SOME FREE TIME
So yes, a seamless meeting is very possible in St. Joseph.
“What I don’t understand,” says Gary Chilcote, director and founder of the Patee House Museum, “is why someone would come here just to look at the inside of a conference room. Why not take a few hours and see what the city has to offer?”
Chilcote knows better than anyone just what St. Joseph can offer. His museum, which is housed in a National Landmark site that has been a hotel, offices for the Pony Express, a college and a shirt factory, is a living archive of the West from 1850 to 1930. From a real steam locomotive and full-sized carousel to weapons used in murders and an inkwell collection, there are millions of items to gaze and gawk at. A day could be spent simply walking through a replica of St. Joseph’s old downtown, with everything you would expect it to have – a barbershop, jail, dentist’s office, a replica of a Victorian home. All the items that fill the buildings are genuine relics of the time.
“I think we’re an unknown commodity,” says Chilcote, who opened the museum in 1965 and has been collecting items for it all these years, mainly through donations. “I guarantee everyone will find something that interests them.”
Patee House is the center of a historic center and has close ties to St. Joseph’s two most famous events. Patee is where witnesses were interviewd after Jesse James was shot. It was also used as the headquarters for the Pony Express. That’s good news for planners, because the museums commemorating those two legendary Western happenings are within walking distance from the Patee House.
In fact, the home where Jesse James was shot in 1882 has been moved right behind Patee. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the house is a bullet hole in the wall, which many believed was the same bullet that killed the legendary outlaw. That theory has been debunked in favor of one that asserts there must have been two shots fired. Still, the house is far more than a crime scene.
The rooms are full of furniture from James’ era, pictures from his life and death, as well as a room dedicated to information and artifacts about his 1995 exhumation, which proved conclusively that it was Jesse himself in the grave.
Down the street sits the Pony Express Museum, housed in the renovated stables where Pony Express horses and riders started west. The museum features interactive displays that explain not only the famous mail delivery system, but westward expansion in general.
“We have visitors from around the world visit regularly,” says Cindy Hutchcraft, director of development for the Pony Express Museum. “We had a group from Iowa that was hosting some Germans. They told us the Germans refused to leave until they saw where the Pony Express began.”
Hutchcraft knows that museums like Pony Express and Jesse James draw prospective attendees to meetings.
“We offer personal tours if they want, or some groups just like to roam and experience it for themselves,” says Hutchcraft, who added the museum draws about 20,000 people each year. “We definitely accommodate a lot of adult groups each year.”
The museum can even be a venue for small groups. The community room holds 135 and can be air walled into two smaller rooms. It includes a kitchen and personal service during museum hours or after. Costs range from $30 to $95 per hour depending on the room size as well as the day and time a reservation is needed.
“If we have an after-hours group that wants to see the museum, we can arrange that,” Hutchcraft says. “If families are part of the meeting, we can take the children on a tour during the business portion. It’s a great way to have a meeting and make it a special event as well.”
But it doesn’t end there. Other attractions include:
* The Glore Psychiatric Museum. A former sanitarium that shares space with the St. Joseph Museum, the Glore is a fascinating (and slightly disturbing) look at the treatment of psychiatric illness over the centuries.
* The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art presents one of the Midwest’s finest collections of 18th, 19th and 20th century art. Mary Cassatt, Thomas Hart Benton and William Merritt Chase are some of the masters whose works are displayed.
* Barnard House. An intriguing mix of two ideas – taking you back to what a house looked like in 1877 as well as a museum honoring the famous fan dancer Sally Rand. Why Rand, who hailed from the Ozarks? The owner of the house collects memorabilia about Rand and that’s all the reason she needs.
* Twin Spires Church. An interpretive site that explores the rich collection of large, old churches in downtown St. Joseph. This venue can be used for meetings as well.
* Stetson Factory Outlet Store and St. Joe Boot Co. Visitors can leave St. Joseph with their heads and toes covered in Western wear. Both of these stores are near Belt Highway.
* Society of Memories Doll Museum. A review of bygone fashions displayed by dolls.
* St. Jo Frontier Casino. Just in case the group needs to cut loose. This venue also has meeting spaces, including a 2,400 square-foot ballroom and 16,000 square-foot outdoor lawn area.
For information on all of St. Joseph’s destinations, contact the St. Joseph, Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-785-0360 or 816-233-6688 or visit www.stjomo.com. MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the contributing editor in Kansas City, Mo.)