by Barbara Beckley | September 01, 2015

As the cultural and economic capital of the Midwest, home to powerhouse companies like Caterpillar, John Deere and McDonald's, it's no wonder that Illinois is the go-to destination for record-setting meetings of all types. From Chicago's sophistication to Peoria's charm, the state sets the bar high.

Throughout the state, the results of American ingenuity-both historic and contemporary-energize delegates with the power to succeed.

Chicago: Second to None

Since the city's founding in 1833, the business dynamics of Chicago have been turning heads. The Ferris Wheel, which made its debut in 1893, and the remote control device, developed in the 1950s, are just two of countless firsts credited to inventors based in the Windy City. Today, visiting groups can still enjoy all kinds of innovative practices, experienced in everything from restaurants to entertaining attractions to the best of modern meeting spaces.

Chicago also boasts one of the largest exhibit facilities in North America: McCormick Place, which has 2.6 million square feet of space and welcomes some 3 million attendees annually. And July saw the groundbreaking of the $390 million Marriott Marquis/Chicago, which will be connected to McCormick Place when it opens in 2017 and is expected to offer more than 1,200 guest rooms and 90,000 square feet of event space.

The Marriott development is part of a larger building boom going on throughout the greater metro area. Downtown, the Loews/Chicago opened in May with a spa and the city's largest outdoor rooftop terrace. And this fall, Starwood's Luxury Collection will take over the Conrad/Chicago on the Magnificent Mile, renovating and converting the hotel, which is yet to be named; the Conrad, meanwhile, will relocate to a location west of Michigan Avenue and is expected to open there in spring 2016 with 287 guest rooms and 10,500 square feet of meeting space.

Also downtown, the historic London Guarantee Building is being transformed into the 452-room LondonHouse luxury hotel; plans include a new, 22-story Modernist glass tower, some 25,000 square feet of meeting space, a refurbished cupola, rooftop dining and outdoor event spaces. It is scheduled to open in spring 2016.

In April, the world's first Hyatt Centric-brand hotel, the 257-room Hyatt Centric/The Loop, opened in a 1927 Art Deco-style office building. It features 2,513 square feet of meeting space, a rooftop bar and a French bistro by James Beard award-winning chef Roland Liccioni. And in June, the LEED-certified Hampton Inn/Chicago-Downtown-North Loop-Michigan Avenue opened in the 1928 Chicago Motor Club Building. Highlights include a three-story, Art Deco-style lobby, a 1920s cocktail bar, 143 guest rooms and two versatile meeting rooms.

The Omni/Chicago recently finished renovations, which added a new meeting room for up to 120 people with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue. The hotel now offers 8,000 square feet of event space. The historic Hilton/Chicago is newly redone, a project that included a $1.8 million renovation of its Conrad Suite, dubbed the "Midwest White House" as it has hosted every U.S. president since Reagan. The Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago recently added 6,500 square feet of event space, some of which opens onto the Riverwalk (the pedestrian walkway alongside the Chicago River). The Silversmith Hotel, which dates back to 1896, recently added meeting space and can accommodate events of up to 100. The Renaissance/Chicago Downtown has unveiled guest rooms and a lobby with a new look, reflecting the city's historic art and architecture influences, and live entertainment is regularly a part of the scene. And the Fairmont/Chicago-Millennium Park has a new kosher kitchen.

For off-site soirees, Chicago's waterfront attractions take center stage. Navy Pier on Lake Michigan is the top pick, with venues including Festival Hall and the Lakeview Terrace. Shoreline Sightseeing is also based at the pier, with group tours and cruises day and night.

Planners are always in The Loop-so to speak-at Millennium Park, which features several event spaces, the largest of which is the 4,000-seat Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Other popular attractions that are frequently used as event sites include the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. In the West Loop, the new Offsite/Chicago event venue has garnered raves for its avant-garde design and turnkey amenities. It can host up to 100 people.

It's not Chicago without a trip to Wrigley Field, Major League Baseball's second-oldest ballpark. Its private event areas can host up to 1,000 people and the stadium itself can seat as many as 41,160. Other sports venues with special-event space include U.S. Cellular Field and Soldier Field. Also worth considering are universities in the area, including the Forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University Chicago.

O'Hare & the Chicago Suburbs: Rooted in Group Business

The professionalism and multitude of event venues and supporting hotels surrounding O'Hare International Airport make communities in this area meeting destinations in their own right. In fact, you don't even have to leave the airport to have a great gathering: the renovated Hilton/Chicago O'Hare is connected to the domestic terminals through underground walkways and offers function space for up to 300, a pool and fitness center, a barber shop and a restaurant.

In Rosemont, the new Loews/Chicago O'Hare (formerly the InterContinental) is just two miles away and offers an in-house art gallery, live comedy and music and three restaurants. For larger conventions, the Donald E. Stephens Conference Center has 840,000 square feet of exhibit space and is connected to the Hyatt Regency/O'Hare, which has its own event space. Also in Rosemont is Allstate Arena, which can seat up to 18,500 and has 48 luxury suites.

West of the airport, in Schaumburg, is the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel, the region's largest convention facility. Mary Mayer, treasurer of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of Mid-America, recently scheduled a three-day competition at the Renaissance and said, "It's large enough for all our competitions and an easy walk from surrounding hotels." Kathy Ridley, director of membership and meetings for the Illinois State Dental Society agreed; her group has met several times at the Renaissance. "The location is convenient for statewide delegates, the convention center has good space for exhibits, and there is a plethora of restaurants within easy driving distance," she said. Area entertainment is good, too. The dental attendees celebrated their 150th convention with a night at the nearby Improv Comedy Club.

Meet Chicago Northwest, the marketing organization for Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Itasca, Rolling Meadows, Roselle, Schaumburg, Streamwood and Wood Dale, is making gathering in these suburbs even easier with its new planner-friendly website, chicagonorthwest.com, which features direct access to the sales team and information on the region's 62 hotels. Top meeting choices include the Holiday Inn/Rolling Meadows and the Hyatt Regency/Schaumburg-Chicago; the Chicago Marriott/Schaumburg; the recently renovated Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Itasca; and the Westin/Chicago Northwest, also in Itasca. Creative venues include the Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows and the private Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, each of which can host groups of up to 1,000.

Farther north, in Hoffman Estates, meetings are frequently held at the Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, which has 17,000 square feet of space. In Buffalo Grove, the Arboretum Club has conference space for up to 300 people.

Near Libertyville, the Independence Grove Visitors Center has seven event spaces. In nearby Mundelein, the University of St. Mary of the Lake has a conference center for up to 300. To the north, the Cultural & Civic Center of Round Lake Beach has indoor and outdoor space. Just east, in Gurnee, choices include Six Flags Great America, and in Waukegan, the Genesee Theatre has a stage and seven lounges.

Just south of O'Hare Airport, in Addison, the 130,000-square-foot Odeum Sports & Expo Center seats up to 5,000. In nearby Northlake is the Midwest Conference Center. Or take attendees to a function at the Maywood Park Racetrack in Melrose Park. Nearby Oak Park is full of architectural gems that are sure to wow attendees. Venues include the Arts Center and the 1913 Cheney Mansion. Planners might also be interested in signing attendees up for a bicycling tour, offered by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.

In Oak Brook, one of the largest meeting choices is the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, home to the Willow Crest Golf Club. Environmentally prone groups will applaud its newest endeavors, which include an in-house horticulturalist, a beekeeping program, a drink/cocktail garden for veggie-infused teas and libations and a Monarch butterfly way station. The Drake Hotel Oak Brook was fully renovated last year, and also recently renovated is the DoubleTree by Hilton/Chicago-Oak Brook. In nearby Oakbrook Terrace, groups also use the Drury Lane Theatre & Conference Center for private events, and to the north, in Elmhurst, the Elmhurst Art Museum can host sit-down dinners for up to 175 and receptions for up to 275 people.

The College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn offers 40,000 square feet of meeting space and an 850-seat auditorium/theater. Ten miles south, in Naperville, the new Embassy Suites/Chicago-Naperville opened in July. The hotel makes a good complement to the Northern Illinois University/Naperville Conference Center, which offers 40,000 square feet of IACC-approved meeting space, including a 180-seat auditorium and computer labs. And in nearby Lisle, group-friendly offerings include three renovated properties: the Sheraton/Lisle, the Hilton/Lisle and the Hyatt/Lisle. Off-site events can be held at Morton Arboretum, with several venues including the lakefront Ginkgo Room & Restaurant. Groups that have held functions in Lisle of late include the Lions of Illinois, the Illinois Principals Association and the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois.

In Bolingbrook, 30 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, is the Bolingbrook Golf Club. Closer to downtown Chicago, in Bridgeview, is the Toyota Park soccer stadium.

Farther south, in Alsip, is the newly updated DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton/Chicago-Alsip, and in Orland Park, Georgios Banquets Comfort Inn & Conference Centre has event space for up to 1,200. The Tinley Park Convention Center & Holiday Inn Hotel in Tinley Park can be used for larger gatherings. Just east, in Homewood, the new La Banque Hotel opened in June in a former bank building, complete with a vault signed by J. Edgar Hoover. It offers 18 guest rooms, a French restaurant, a bar, small meeting space and access to a golf club. Another 10 miles south, in University Park, Governors State University makes available its 1,171-seat theater at the Center for Performing Arts.

Northeastern Illinois: attractive offerings

Aurora, Illinois' second-largest city, is an easy 40 miles west of Chicago. Its downtown is full of eye-catching architecture and popular nightlife options, all within walking distance of meeting hotels. Venues include the brewery and entertainment venue, Two Brothers Roundhouse, and the historic 1931 Paramount Theatre. The North Island Center has four event spaces, the largest of which is a ballroom for up to 350. And two-year-old RiverEdge Park on the Fox River has an 8,500-seat amphitheater. Meeting hotels include the Hampton Inn & Suites/Chicago-Aurora, with 5,000 square feet of space, and the Timber Creek Inn & Suites & Convention Center in Sandwich, home to the 25,000-square-foot RedBerri Convention Center.

Just north of Aurora, Geneva boasts more than 600 historic sites along with event sites such as Fifth Third Bank Ballpark and the Eagle Brook Country Club. One of the more unique attractions is the Fermilab particle physics and accelerator laboratory in neighboring Batavia. The 6,800-acre site offers free daily tours and sweeping views of Chicagoland.

In St. Charles, the 95-acre Q Center offers more than 150,000 square feet of meeting space. Another major venue is the Pheasant Run Resort. Ten miles away, in Elgin, planners can turn to the Hemmens Cultural Center or Elgin Community College.

From Rockford to the Quad Cities: Green Destinations

Award-winning gardens, intriguing attractions and ample meeting facilities have made Rockford a go-to for groups such as the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, the Illinois Association of Museums and the Illinois Aviation Trades Association. Large meeting properties in town include the Cliffbreakers Riverside Hotel & Conference Center, with space for up to 1,200; the new Garden Hotel & Conference Center, with 11,000 square feet of space; and the Holiday Inn/Rockford, with 6,000 square feet of meeting space. Two new hotels are expected to open next year, as is Sportscore Downtown, a 105,000-square-foot, multiuse sports facility.

The 12-acre Anderson Japanese Gardens and the Klehm Arboretum & Botanical Garden both feature tranquil settings for gatherings, and the Rockford Country Club welcomes groups of up to 250. Near the Rock River is the Coronado Performing Arts Center, and a block away is the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center. Also downtown is the BMO Harris Bank Center, which can seat up to 7,200. The Prairie Street Brewhouse and the Hoffman House Restaurant can both can host special events of up to 500.

On the Illinois side of the Quad Cities area, which is bisected by the Mississippi River, Moline is the world headquarters of John Deere & Company, which offers groups tours. For events, the newly renovated Radisson on John Deere Commons has space for up to 40, or the adjacent, 12,000-seat iWireless Center offers 62,000 square feet of space. Another local option is the Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center. For free-time fun, the Celebration Belle cruises the Mississippi River, or golf aficionados can tee off at the TPC Deere Run in nearby Silvis, home to the PGA Tour John Deere Classic. The course offers a 14,000-square-foot clubhouse for special events.

On nearby Rock Island, the Holiday Inn/Rock Island-Quad Cities has been newly redesigned. The Quad City Conservation Alliance Expo Center offers 60,000 square feet of exhibit space and an auditorium that seats up to 500 people.

Central Illinois: Wooing the Masses

"Will it play in Peoria?" The phrase, which asks whether something will appeal to mainstream America, has made this central river city famous for nearly a century. The residents were a tough audience and so any event had to be great to succeed. Modern meetings are just as tried and true today, many held at the 900,000-square-foot Peoria Civic Center. The Illinois Association of Fire Protection Districts held its annual convention at the center recently. The civic center is connected by skywalks to the year-old Courtyard/Peoria Downtown and the Peoria Marriott Pere Marquette Hotel, which gleams like new following a renovation two years ago.

Planners looking for unique sites need look no farther than the dome planetarium at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Spirit of Peoria paddle wheeler. In East Peoria, the Bass Pro Shops complex offers restaurants, a 12-lane bowling alley, a 25,000-gallon aquarium, an archery range, a shooting arcade, a boat showroom, and of course, shopping.

In Galesburg, some 50 miles west, venues include the 946-seat Orpheum Theatre and the Lake Storey Pavilion, which can seat up to 350. To the southwest, Macomb is home to Western Illinois University, whose University Union can host as many as 1,200 people.

As twin meetings hubs, Bloomington and Normal offer many venues. The Illinois State University campus has 74,000 square feet of gathering space and is convenient to the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. The hotel is also attached to the historic, 385-seat Normal Theater. Alternately, groups can head to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, with 14,500 square feet of space, including theater seating for up to 1,200 people, or to the 8,000-seat U.S. Cellular Coliseum, which has 25,000 square feet of space.

In Decatur, 45 miles south of Bloomington, the Decatur Civic Center offers a 28,000-square-foot arena, a 460-seat theater, a 40,000-square-foot lawn and more than 5,000 square feet of additional indoor meeting space. Also in town is the 300-acre Progress City USA complex, an outdoor exposition center that hosts the Farm Progress Show. Southeast of Bloomington is Champaign, home to the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign and its 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium, where groups can book its luxury boxes or space at its Colonnades Club.

About 60 miles north of Bloomington, the Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center boasts the only lodge inside Starved Rock State Park. The property features six meeting rooms for up to 200 people, including a log cabin, as well as outdoor event space and team-building activities.

Springfield &Southern Illinois: Land of Lincoln

Springfield is synonymous with Abraham Lincoln, who got his start in politics here. Springfield boasts more Abraham Lincoln sites and attractions than anywhere else in the world, with group tours available at the Lincoln Home, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum and the Lincoln Tomb. And, as the state capital, more than 150 state and local associations are headquartered in town.

Julie Weichert, director of the Illinois Principals Association, chose Springfield for the group's 2016, 2017 and 2018 annual conferences, citing its historical value, friendliness and affordability. The city's central location is also a bonus for the anticipated 650 delegates and the vendors of the group's 100-booth trade show. Weichert is not alone in choosing Springfield. Other groups that have met in the city recently include the American Association of Meat Processors, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Maine-Anjou Association, the American Baptist Association and the U.S. Police Canine Association.

Major venues include the newly renovated, 65,000-square-foot Prairie Capital Convention Center and the nearby President Abraham Lincoln Springfield DoubleTree by Hilton and Hilton/Springfield. Other sites that can host special events include the Public Affairs Center at the University of Illinois/Springfield; the 60,000-square-foot Exposition Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds; and the 40,000-square-foot Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, which offers several areas for receptions, dinners and meetings.

Hitting the Bull's-eye

As a hub of commerce, transportation, culture and history, Illinois is a center of attraction for all types of associations. With a plethora of convention centers and meeting properties and fun free-time activities to round out any agenda or attendee interest, choosing Illinois for your next meeting is right on target.