Idaho’s Capital City is actively wooing meeting planners. With a compact, exciting downtown, endless outdoor activities, a first-class convention center and a very accommodating CVB, the courtship is succeeding.
When Wendy Nelson visited Boise last July on a familiarization trip for meeting planners, she found a lot to admire about the fast-growing southwest Idaho city. There is the 25-mile riverfront Greenbelt, a verdant pathway that runs through the heart of the city and is a beloved spot for walking, jogging, bicycle riding and bird watching. Transportation is easy, with nonstop flights to Boise Airport from dozens of cities, including Nelson’s own home city of Chicago, and complimentary shuttles that covered the 3-mile distance from the airport to the center of downtown in just seven minutes.
Nelson, the executive director of Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), a multi-disciplinary geospatial organization, was in the midst of deciding where to hold the organization’s four-day 60th anniversary conference taking place in October 2022. The conference rotates among different regions in North America and was due to head west. Nelson had been considering Denver and Phoenix as possible locations for the gathering. “Some members suggested I check out Boise,” she says, “a destination I knew nothing about. It must have been fate when I received an invitation to join a FAM tour.”
Spoiler alert: Nelson chose Boise.
She was stuck by how Idaho’s capital city had both a vibrant, sophisticated culinary and cultural scene and endless wide-open space for all kinds of outdoor activities. “Downtown Boise is safe, clean and walkable,” Nelson says.
“There are gobs of restaurants and bars, which will provide so many options for our attendees to network and connect after sessions end. We’ll encourage folks to come early or stay late to explore all that the area has to offer, from hiking and whitewater rafting to wineries.”
For the conference itself, which will include an exhibition, general sessions, concurrent breakouts and workshops, Boise Centre offers 86,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, a number that increases to 100,000 square feet with use of the adjacent Idaho Central Arena, home to the Idaho Steelheads minor league hockey team. The ice rink can be covered for private events and has a seating capacity of 6,800. Six hotels surround the convention center and provide a collective 1,300 guest rooms.
Boise’s affordability tipped the scales in the city’s favor. “When we learned that the price of a gallon of coffee at the Centre was less than $40,” Nelson jokes, “I said ‘find me some dates!’”
Mary-Michael Rodgers, a spokesperson for Boise Centre, is amused when she hears it was the price of coffee that cinched Nelson’s decision to choose Boise for her conference. “Actually it’s $34 a gallon,” she says, with a laugh. “The coffee is served in porcelain china cups and it’s from Dawson Taylor, a local artisan coffee roaster.”
Beyond its well-priced caffeinated beverages, Boise Centre has a lot to offer, Rodgers says. “First of all, our location is unmatched,” she says. “Boise is vibrant and up-and-coming, what we call a ‘now and next cool city.’ That’s a real draw for our clients and their attendees.”
Nelson confirms the city’s draw. “I think we’ll hit 500 to 600 attendees at the 2022 conference,” she says, “which is more than recent years. Everyone I’ve spoken with is excited about visiting a place that they haven’t visited before.”
Boise Centre has been nimble in reacting to the challenges of the pandemic. Putting stringent cleaning practices in place, it was the first facility in Idaho to earn the GBAC Star Accreditation, which confirms a facility has met high standards in minimizing risks associated with infectious agents like COVID-19. It invested early in streaming and broadcasting equipment to support virtual and hybrid events. And, during the months that the center was closed, it pivoted to providing social services.
With a long-standing partnership with the Idaho Food Bank, Boise Centre converted its 24,000-square-foot ballroom into a warehouse and storage area for food that was distributed throughout the state. When schools shut down, the National Guard stepped in, gathering at the Centre to pack thousands and thousands of backpacks with food that was then delivered by school bus drivers to families in need.
Rodgers is feeling optimistic about the convention center’s appeal in a post-pandemic world. “Boise Centre is just steps away from local breweries, restaurants, hotels and bars,” she says. “We’re surrounded by outdoor adventures, like floating the Boise River, biking along the Greenbelt or hiking the more than 190 miles of trails in our Ridge to Rivers system. Boise Centre itself offers modern, bright spaces and all the in-house equipment and services that a planner needs to execute a successful event. When you couple the city with the convention center, with our level of service and affordability, it’s a partnership that’s hard to beat.”
Christina Riley, director of events for Cellcore Biosciences, a healthcare supplement company based in Meridian, a city adjacent to Boise, agrees. She held a three-day event for 375 attendees at Boise Centre in late October. “We do seven or eight events a year, from California to Florida,” she says, “so I’m not saying this just because I’m a local. Hands down, Boise Centre has the easiest people to work with. They were the most available on-site. They gave me a walkie-talkie, but I never had to use it because whenever I turned around, there was always somebody within sight that I could approach with whatever request I had.”
Riley booked blocks of rooms at four different downtown hotels. “They were all at different price points,” she says, “and because our attendees were holistic practitioners some were on very specific diets and wanted to be able to cook their own meals.” Some chose Residence Inn, where the 120 suites are equipped with kitchens. For attendees allergic to scents and allergens, the Pure Wellness rooms at Hotel 43
(112 total rooms) were an appealing option. The other two hotels Riley booked were the 109-room boutique Inn at 500 Capitol and The Grove Hotel, the largest downtown Boise property with 250 rooms and more than 14,000 square feet of event space.
“Anyone looking in at our conference at Boise Centre would have thought the event was absolutely flawless,” Riley says. “One night we had a VIP dinner, and the room had been set beautifully the night before. Then, two hours before the dinner, I realized I needed an additional table. The person in charge didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘Let me take care of that,’ and he did, even though they had to reset the buffet and move everything because of elements like the location of plugs. It was incredibly impressive.”
Susan Mitcheltree, a global account executive with ConferenceDirect, who is based in Vancouver, Washington, says Boise is just as appealing the second, third or tenth time around. She has executed many events in Boise for groups that range from 10 attendees to 2,500. “It offers small-town charm, an excellent food and beverage scene, and the perception of safety that other cities in our region suffer from,” she says. “Plus, the lift is reasonable for groups coming from most regions in the U.S.”
A Variety of Meeting Venues
Boise Centre may be the largest, but it’s far from the only meeting venue in the city. JUMP, an acronym for Jack’s Urban Meeting Place, is a lively, colorful art-filled nonprofit hybrid made up of a tractor museum, community gathering space, park and maker’s center. It honors J.R. Simplot, an agricultural entrepreneur who became the exclusive supplier of frozen fresh fries to McDonald’s in the 1940s, and sits adjacent to J.R. Simplot company headquarters. Visitors and groups can plunge down the eight-person Team Slide, scale the three-story net structure called The Climber, and take classes that range from cooking and yoga to 3-D printing and fabrication. JUMP can also customize experiences for groups with activities like workshops in making birdcages or sandals and multimedia filmmaking and editing. The range of spaces available for private events includes the Garden Terrace (3,255 square feet), Sculpture Garden (14,800 square feet), Jump Room (8,230 square feet) and the Inspire, Play, Move and Make studios (920 to 1,500 square feet).
Other unique Boise meeting and event spaces include the Old Idaho Penitentiary (capacity: 1,000), Idaho History Center (capacity: 150), Zoo Boise(from intimate gatherings of under 100 to 1,500 or more), the historic Boise Depot (capacity: 300), and Stueckle Sky Center at Boise State University (banquet capacity: 100 in The Loft, 152 in Skyline Room and 300 in Double R Ranch Room). Various restaurants, breweries and wineries also work well, including Telaya Wine Company’s Teton Room and Tasting Room/Patio Space (capacity 125), which overlooks the Greenbelt.
Like a lot of people who plan meetings, Shannon M. McCabe, CAE, executive director of the Association of Consulting Foresters, has shifted from large national meetings to smaller, regional gatherings. The association’s two-day western regional meeting in mid-October was held in Boise. With 50 attendees, McCabe chose Riverside Hotel, situated on 14 acres along the Boise River with 20,000 square feet of convention and event space. “At Riverside, you’re a quick Uber ride from downtown,” she says, “but you’re far enough away that you’re not in the middle of everything.”
This was the third of three back-to-back regional meetings that McCabe had executed. “Staffing shortages is an issue across the country, and we’d experienced delays and issues at the first two meetings, in Pennsylvania and Alabama,” McCabe says. “While the Riverside Hotel said they were not up to the staffing levels that they would like, you would never know it. Everything was done flawlessly.”
When her association returns to hosting national meetings, McCabe plans to advocate for Boise as the location. “This was the first meeting I have planned, both city and site unseen,” she says. “I was putting my trust completely in the hotel and the CVB. They did not disappoint.”
What’s Nice Got to Do With It?
Q&A with Boise’s Seller-in-Chief
Andrew Heidt, CMP, director of sales for the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau, is a big believer in “try it, you’ll like it” when it comes to the city he promotes. The CVB has been active in inviting meeting planners to tour the city and discover its charm and its convenience. “We’re kind of a surprise destination for meetings,” Heidt says, “so we’re really interested in getting more people here for on-site visits. If a planner is considering Boise, we’ll cover all the costs to visit, including flights, lodging and meals.”
What are key things that Boise offers meeting planners over competing cities?
We have, of course, unlimited outdoor recreation here as well as a vibrant, compact downtown. You can walk everywhere, including to well over 100 restaurants, and visitors are always commenting on the cleanliness of downtown and how safe it feels.
But the feedback we get from site visits is that the first thing that stands out is how truly friendly and genuine people are here. Yes, Western hospitality is alive and well. “Boise nice” is what we call it, and groups experience this walking down the street, in restaurants, hotels and venues.
As a community and a CVB that really embraces groups, we can reach out to dignitaries, whether that’s elected officials or academic and professional experts, to speak at meetings, welcome guests and more. For example, we had Governor Brad Little travel to a Geothermal Resources annual meeting to discuss Idaho’s leadership in this arena. Another example is that Boise State University professors were instrumental in helping Boise attract the 2023 Botany Annual Convention because of the connections and expertise in this field that they’re willing to share.
It’s not only easy to get around once you’re in Boise, it’s easy to get here. We’re adding more and more nonstop flights, from cities like New York, Altanta, Austin and Nashville. We’re up to 29 nonstop destinations right now. And, once you fly into the Boise Airport, you’re just a few minutes from downtown.
What are some things that people may not know about Boise?
We have a wine-growing region with our own American Viticultural Area, the Snake River Valley AVA, that’s just 40 minutes from Boise. They do terrific group tours.
Our restaurant scene is incredibly diverse and it goes beyond steak and potatoes to include nationally acclaimed spots led by Michelin chefs. We actually added restaurants during the pandemic. And we’re excited about the opening, around summer 2022, of Warehouse Food Hall. Located in downtown Boise, it will have more than 20 independent restaurants and retail outlets in 29,000 square feet.
We want visitors who are in town for a conference or event to experience everything Boise has to offer. That’s why we’re developing the “Show Us Your Badge Program,” which will offer discounts at shops and restaurants, as well as for activities, to meeting and conference delegates.
How can the CVB help meeting planners?
You name it! As a smaller destination and CVB, we’re open to providing whatever services our clients need. We have a master streamlined hotel contract that makes it easy to book multiple hotels for citywide meetings or conventions. We can tap into our local corporations, professors at Boise State University, and city and state officials to provide content for meeting programming. We have a public relations team that will help promote your event, and we have assets to boost excitement about the gathering, too.
And, for large conferences, say 400 to 800 attendees, we’ll do what we call a “downtown takeover,” putting up signage at restaurants and venues and really do everything we can to make it a special experience. In a lot of cities, a meeting of that size would get lost among a ton of other events that are taking place, but in Boise you own the city.
Boise By the Numbers
Population increase over the last decade for Boise and its neighboring city of Nampa, according to the 2020 Census, making the area one of the fastest growing in the United States.
Elevation above sea level.
The year Fort Boise, a precursor to the city of Boise, was established by French-Canadian fur trappers. According to oral history, after crossing the hot dry desert, the trappers spotted the woods surrounding the Boise River and exclaimed, “Les bois! Les bois!” (“Woods! Woods!”). Today, Boise has the nickname “City of Trees.”
The length of the Greenbelt, the riverfront pathway that runs through the city along the banks of the Boise River. Easily accessible, the Greenbelt is ideal for walking, jogging, biking and skating.
Distance between downtown Boise and Boise Airport.
58 and 60
The number of breweries and wineries, respectively, in and around Boise. Idaho shares the same longitude and latitude as France; it’s a magical line that creates the ideal conditions for exceptional wine. On the beer front, Idaho is the top producer of barley and second largest producer of hops in the U.S.
Distance from downtown Boise to ski slopes.
Days of sunshine per year.
9 and 1,300
Number of hotels and guest rooms within walking distance of Boise Centre.
3 Boise Experiences You Don’t Want to Miss
These radically different activities illustrate the diversity and the heart of Boise.
Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. This open-air museum that was inaugurated in 2002 includes a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank. The only Anne Frank memorial in the United States, the small park is recognized as a Site of Conscience by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and includes a 180-foot Quote Walk that takes visitors on a journey through history and the ongoing quest for human rights and dignity. The words of presidents and slaves, children and philosophers, poets and paupers, the famous and the unknown are inscribed side-by-side. With an outdoor amphitheater and private classroom, docent-led tours for groups can be arranged.
Basque Block. Home to the largest concentration of Basques per capita in the U.S., Boise also has North America’s only Basque museum. Adjacent to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, in the heart of downtown, are two preserved boarding houses occupied by the Basque Center and Basque Market. Tara McElhose-Eiguren and Tony Eiguren, who have owned the market/restaurant for 13 years, can prepare enormous pans of paella, with theatrical flair, along with tapas, like meatballs and croquettes, for groups of any size. Large groups can take over the entire Basque Block, with entertainment by a local Basque dance troupe and musicians.
Whitewater Rafting on the Payette River. Idaho is known for having some of the greatest whitewater rapids in the world, and the family-owned Cascade Raft and Kayak has been providing unforgettable adventures since 1985. Located just 45 minutes from downtown Boise, the facility offers experiences for groups from 18 to 418, including transportation, changing rooms and lockers, photos, and a post-adventure barbecue on a riverside deck.