At Home in the Heartland

Urban revitalization combines with value and hospitality in Midwest and Great Lakes meeting destinations.

St. Louis Arch

To truly appreciate the benefits of meeting in America’s heartland, one has to look beyond the impressive big picture of Great Lakes and Midwest states (totaling more than half a million square miles and 60 million people) to the area’s charming details, most notably its mid-size and smaller destinations that work well for faith-based groups.

“We’re on a rotation — East, West, Midwest — and our attendance usually goes up when we’re in the Midwest,” says Janiece Sneegas, Ph.D., director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) General Assembly and Conference Services. The association is based in Boston, and Sneegas says she appreciates the variety, practicality and basic value that Midwest destinations offer. “In general, we have very good meetings there,” says Sneegas, who recently brought 3,800 UUA attendees to Minneapolis for the group’s annual business meeting. “It’s a centralized location, which is important for us, and the people are always very welcoming. We appreciate the work that the cities, their hotels partners and convention centers do with us as well.”

Quality of life also plays an important role for planners organizing events from Minnesota to Indiana, from Michigan to Missouri. Faith-based attendees often appreciate the same values in their meetings destinations that they cherish in their hometowns. “Midwest cities in general are well cared-for and kept,” says Laurie Seay, meeting coordinator for the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). “There’s a genuine hospitality and kindness there, and a lot could be said for the pace of life as well.”

Faith-based attendees are growing more interested in green efforts and sustainability practices at meetings. A number of Midwest and Great Lakes destinations feature a growing number of LEED-certified facilities, as well as parks, wetlands, wilderness areas and other protected public spaces. Another plus about a Midwest meeting: fun things for the entire family to see and do, be it an opening party or reception at a waterpark or a closing night gala at a ballpark.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

For some attendees, a meeting in Michigan, Minnesota or Wisconsin can evoke sweet memories: a church picnic, a family canoe trip or an afternoon of bicycling. This trio of northern states values and utilizes its natural treasures. Michigan features 97 state parks, refuges, gardens and arboretums, while Wisconsin offers more than 60 state parks and forests covering more than 60,000 square acres. Minnesota, meanwhile, just added 188,000 square acres to its own cache of protected forests and wetlands.

For groups, that means an enormous trove of recreational options, from volleyball games, biking, hiking and fishing to any number of outdoor team-building activities. Attendees don’t have to travel far to get outside, either. Grand Rapids’ snazzy downtown DeVos Place, which has close to 250,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, lies just minutes from urban hiking and cycling trails and Rosa Parks Circle, an ice skating site November through March.

Detroit is home to the Lansing Center, which has 175,000 square feet of flexible space and sits on the banks of the Grand River. The center is attached to the Radisson Hotel by a covered sky bridge that stretches across the river. The capital city’s downtown district offers groups a kaleidoscope of culture, arts, history, sports and entertainment at Greektown, Institute of Arts, Fox Theatre, Detroit Science Center, Comerica Park, Motown Historical Museum and a number of other Motor City venues.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee’s urban revitalization continues to keep planners and attendees abuzz. The new $2.6 million Daniel M. Soref Planetarium caps an already vibrant Museum Center Complex, while the chic, new Aloft Milwaukee Downtown, with 160 guest rooms and four meeting rooms, sits just a short stroll from the Bradley Center entertainment venues, the city’s famous brewpubs, and shopping and dining along the scenic RiverWalk.

Milwaukee’s largest convention hotel, the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, has a new look after a multimillion-dollar renovation to help restore the hotel to its 1920s style. Guests will notice prominent chandeliers, detailed woodwork, marble floors and period-inspired furnishings. The property has 34,000 square feet of event space, five ballrooms and 18 meeting rooms. It’s connected by skywalk to the 280,000-sq.-ft. Midwest Airlines Center. The city is also home to nearly 15,000 acres of parkland and year-round recreational venues, including 16 outdoor and indoor pools, 122 tennis courts, two family aquatic centers and more than 200 athletic fields.

Madison’s got more than 8,000 guest rooms to choose from and is home to University of Wisconsin’s main campus, a big networking plus for youth and educational events. Wisconsin Dells, meanwhile, continues to draw faith-based groups for its combination of spacious meeting resorts and a host of family-oriented, aquatic theme parks.

While a medium-size city, Minnesota’s Saint Paul draws some big-name medical groups, thanks to its clout as the state capital and its snazzy RiverCentre (nearly 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and 15 meeting rooms), which is in proximity to a slew of high-profile health care facilities. Minneapolis, home to spiffy new stadiums for both the University of Minnesota and baseball’s Minnesota Twins, recently added a pair of feathers to its meetings cap. The city, which is the state’s largest, was named a finalist for the 2012 Democratic Convention, while the Minneapolis Convention Center received a $2 million grant from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund to construct a solar panel array to directly power its internal electrical system.

“We’ve made a conscious decision to court the faith-based market,” says Leslie Wright, senior vice president of sales and services for Meet Minneapolis, the official CVA. “We have a great variety of faith-based denominations in the city and can service these groups accordingly, within our community, while meeting their price points and placing them in the right facilities and hotels.”

MIDDLE GROUND

What stands out in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois is how the states balance urban sophistication with rural beauty. Groups seeking big-city excitement won’t be disappointed with cities like Chicago, Indianapolis and Cleveland matched nicely by smaller, welcoming destinations.

Faith-based groups with an eye on family recreation appreciate Indiana for its sports culture (NCAA basketball, NFL’s Colts football and Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and its community commitment to religious outreach programs. Indianapolis, the state’s capital and largest city, is a destination designed for meetings, with a new, easy-to-navigate airport and a large, downtown convention center using skywalks that connect to a four-story urban mall and some 4,700 guestrooms, including a new, 1,005-room JW Marriott, which opens in February as part of the partially opened, 2,200-room, four-hotel Marriott Place complex.

Planners like Ohio for its easy access and user-friendly cities. In Cleveland, plans call for a new $450 million convention center and medical mart near Tower City Center, complementing the Cleveland Convention Center (21 meeting rooms and 375,000 square feet of exhibit space) and the International Exposition Center. The Greater Columbus Convention Center, meanwhile, unveiled its new $40 million Battelle Hall as work continues on a 500-room convention center hotel, expected to open in 2012.

“We chose Columbus because it’s an accessible city to drive and fly to,” says the EFCA’s Laurie Seay, who recently planned two major meetings in the Ohio capital. “The downtown is very conducive for holding events. All our hotels were within walking distance of the convention center, and that’s important, especially for our [youth] challenge event.” Seay was also grateful to the CVB for supporting her ministry outreach efforts. “The CVB was very proactive and tried to think ahead about what some of our needs might be,” she says. “I really feel like they were partners with us in the event.”

Chicago continues to be a Midwest meetings leader — witness McCormick Place’s new cost-saving measures that allow exhibitors and show management to complete work that previously required hiring union labor. Groups are also discovering a slew of new meeting sites surrounding the Windy City, with CVBs rolling out the welcome mats in the 62 communities of Chicago Southland, neighboring DuPage County, the North Shore (Evanston, Wilmette and Northbrook, among others), the northern suburb of Prospect Heights, rural and recreation-rich Lake and McHenry counties, and St. Charles in Fox
Valley. St. Charles has two event venues with more than 100,000 square feet of convention space each: Pheasant Run Resort with 473 guest rooms and the Q Center, which has 1,042 rooms.

Beyond Chicago and its suburbs, Illinois spreads out into pastoral farmland dotted with smaller destinations that bring their own perspectives to group business. “We offer great hotel rooms, restaurants and activities and the largest downstate convention property for less than it would cost in a major city,” says Teri Hammel, director of sales and finance for the Decatur Area CVB, referring to the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel. “And with our nearby highways, we’re a perfect fit for groups that like to drive.”

The Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Quad Cities and Champaign areas also offer groups Central Illinois locations close to major interstates, community bases influenced by higher education and corporate headquarters, and plenty of family-oriented outdoor activities.
Springfield, the Illinois capital, brings the added dimension of government networking to its meetings, as well as a wealth of state and national culture and history.

COUNTRY COUSINS

Many Americans only think about Iowa during the presidential primary season, but there’s much more to see in this patch of gently rolling farmland than politicians kissing babies. “People who’ve never been to Iowa and Des Moines are always impressed,” says Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines CVB. That’s due in part to Des Moines’ size (just over half a million residents), stature (it’s the state capital and headquarters to major corporations) and enthusiasm for meetings (the city’s major convention facilities are undergoing a $42 million expansion and renovation).

Iowa also helps planners and attendees meet that all-important bottom line. “People are more budget-conscious than ever these days,” says Edwards. “Our cost of living is more under control here, so they’ll find better deals. We can be very competitive on rental rates, whether at a hotel or convention center, and we have very affordable guest rooms.” And then there’s that Midwest hospitality. “It’s a big deal when we have a large group come here,” says Amanda Snoozy, director of sales at the Hilton Garden Inn Sioux City Riverfront. “We have that contact base with everyone else in town who works in the industry, and we all try our best to make the attendees feel right at home.”

That hospitable attitude extends south to Missouri as well. St. Louis, hugging the Mississippi River on Missouri’s eastern edge, features a skyline made distinct by its 630-foot Gateway Arch and 900 churches citywide, a plus for community networking. Kansas City, the state’s largest city and western anchor on the Missouri River, gains kudos for its world-famous barbecue, freshly renovated convention center and downtown’s new Power & Light District for entertainment.

Joplin, a southwestern Missouri city of about 47,000, owes its “crossroads of America” moniker to a nearly dead-center U.S. location. Midwestern charm and practicality are plentiful here. More than a dozen venues can accommodate groups of 50 to 4,000, including Ozark Christian College, Holiday Inn Joplin convention center hotel (with 42,000 square feet of space) and the youth-focused Bridge entertainment complex, home to the 7,000-sq.-ft. Foundry music and youth event center.

Meetings and entertainment make Branson one of the hottest group destinations in America. Along with its marquee shows and star performers, the area has blossomed into a major faith-based conference spot, with more than 240 restaurants, 18,000 guest rooms (including new Hampton Inn and Baymont Inn and Suites properties) and a new convention center with 220,000 square feet of meeting space.

— Marc Boisclair

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