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Opinion: Bass Pro triggers conference center competition

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The pressure is on.

Last week, Springfield Business Journal got a sneak peek of Bass Pro Shop’s White River Conference Center, scheduled to open in April.

On a tour with Banquet Coordinator Natalie Alford – who returned to work for Bass Pro to manage the facility after three years with O’Reilly Hospitality – it became clear that the conference and event business in Springfield is getting an upgrade.

And it’s not just at the hands of Bass Pro visionary Johnny Morris at Sunshine Street and Campbell Avenue – a campus now approaching mall status with the city of Springfield.

On the north side, Ramada Oasis Hotel & Convention Center is almost doubling its space in a 13,000-square-foot, roughly $5.6 million expansion project at 2546 N. Glenstone Ave. There’s also Drury University’s O’Reilly Family Event Center, O’Reilly Hospitality’s Doubletree and Hilton meeting spaces, and multiple smaller downtown banquet centers under the 425 Downtown banner giving longtime staple University Plaza a run for its event-bookings money.

The quiet addition of the White River Conference Center is certainly raising the bar, even if the style isn’t for everyone.

With a Big Cedar Lodge touch, Morris has outfitted a banquet room with nearly 480 deerskin chandeliers – not quite one for each of the 650 guests the room could accommodate. These works of art create a unique elegance particularly appealing to the outdoorsman, of course. Also, a floor-to-ceiling fireplace made of 80,000 pounds of massive Arkansas rock makes a statement in the adjacent 160-seat Sportsman’s Lodge, where Morris this month hosted a Wonders of Wildlife board member gathering. (View a photo slide show of the White River Conference Center on SBJ’s blog, TheFinePrintSBJ.wordpress.com.)

The new space, connected to the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility within the John A. and Genny Morris Conservation Education Center, replaces the White River Room inside Bass Pro’s Outdoor World that was often too noisy from retail traffic or kitchen workers and felt cramped with its low-hanging ceilings.

Based on our experience, those courting events are raising service standards and lowering price quotes in hopes of cornering the market. It seems organizers were itching for changes of scenery, anyway.

With very little promotions to this point, Alford said she’s already booked 20 events this year at the White River Conference Center, beginning with the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Travel & Tourism Awards on Feb. 16 – well ahead of the official grand opening.

The team at SBJ hosts more than 20 events a year and has booked the White River Conference Center for the Aug. 31 Men of the Year. We’re optimistic these new facility options will help generate excitement, creativity and economic viability around these events.

Capitalism is growing Springfield’s conference center market, enough to make Ayn Rand proud.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.[[In-content Ad]]

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