by Melanie Wynne | September 01, 2016

At the heart of the Midwest, Illinois is a major hub for the industries that define America, from agriculture to publishing and from machinery to McDonald's, making it a top meetings destination for associations from across the country.

Greater Chicago's arts and culture inspire creativity and excitement, while the state's smaller towns are known for warm, hospitable environments that set the scene for lasting connections. And throughout the state, a legacy of ingenuity continues to motivate groups to come together in the spirit of progress.

Chicago: Master of Reinvention

Already a magnet for innovation by the time the 1893 World's Fair arrived with a flourish, Chicago is still a vanguard of everything from restaurant trends to unique attractions and modern meeting spaces. One of the city's most iconic attractions, Navy Pier, is celebrating its 100th anniversary with the completion of a major redevelopment that upgraded its features and amenities. Event space includes two exhibit halls, 36 meeting rooms, the historic Aon Grand Ballroom, Lakeview Terrace and a tented Rooftop Terrace.

Also serving the event industry in a big way is McCormick Place, the country's largest convention center, which features 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space and annually welcomes some 3 million attendees. And greatly anticipated is the scheduled 2017 opening of the 1,205-room Marriott Marquis/Chicago, which will be connected to McCormick Place and offer its own 90,000 square feet of event space.

The Chicago hotel scene is booming with debuts and renovations. Last September, Starwood's Luxury Collection took over the former Conrad/Chicago on the Magnificent Mile and has converted it to The Gwen, a glamorous Art Deco property with more than a dozen meeting rooms and a lobby lounge and rooftop terrace that just opened in May. The Conrad has a new home a few blocks north and is scheduled to open this month with 287 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space. Other new properties include the 452-room LondonHouse (part of Hilton's luxury Curio Collection), housed in the 22-story, landmark London Guarantee Building and offering 25,000 square feet of meeting space and a tri-level rooftop bar and restaurant, and the 239-room Kimpton Gray Hotel, located in the Financial District's former New York Life Insurance Building and offering nearly 13,000 square feet of meeting space. Robert De Niro and sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa's Nobu Hotel is scheduled to debut in the West Loop in late 2017, offering 103 guest rooms, a Nobu restaurant and a 3,000-square-foot suite available for meetings and events.

In April, the Renaissance/Chicago Downtown completed a $32 million renovation, which added a new 3,000-square-foot ballroom with views of the Chicago River, an additional 4,000 square feet of meeting space and a new rooftop bar with fire pits and a private event area. In June, the Hyatt Regency/Chicago (the brand's largest property) completed an expansion of its meeting and event space, increasing its total to 240,000 square feet, and in July it opened a new second-floor lounge and bar called The Living Room. Recent improvements at the Ritz-Carlton/Chicago have introduced a 2,600-square-foot Club Lounge.

In other hotel news, the Sheraton/Chicago has been rebranded as the Sheraton Grand. It offers the city's largest ballroom (40,000 square feet) and five dining options. The Fairmont/ Chicago-Millennium Park has introduced the option of booking a private lunch or dinner for up to 125 guests in its Millennium Room restaurant. And at the Peninsula/Chicago, a new "Keys to the City" program offers insider and/or discounted access to various local attractions.

When it comes to off-site soirees in Chicago, planners are spoiled for choice. Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower) offers 360-degree panoramic views of four states from its 99th-floor event space, which can accommodate up to 300 guests and provides the option of VIP access to the glass-floor Ledge, which rests 1,353 feet above Wacker Drive. Millennium Park features several event spaces, the largest of which is the 4,000-seat, Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The nearby Field Museum can host upwards of 15,000 people, and both the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium each have event space for up to 1,200. The Gallery at GreenRiver opened last fall as a special-event venue with 6,700 square feet of space for up to 320 guests. Another popular pick is Shoreline Sightseeing, which offers group tours and cruises.

For groups with sports fans, Chicago is a home run. Wrigley Field can seat up to 42,495 and its private-event areas can host up to 1,000, U.S. Cellular Field can seat upwards of 40,000 and has a Conference & Learning Center for up to 160, and the 63,000-seat Soldier Field offers a half-dozen areas for group gatherings.

Greater O'Hare: Suburbs Supreme

The sheer volume of traffic at O'Hare International Airport (ORD) makes it the second busiest hub in the world, and a meeting destination in its own right. Connected through underground walkways, the renovated Hilton/Chicago O'Hare offers space for up to 400.

O'Hare's surrounding suburbs host a wide array of meeting options as well. In Rosemont, the Donald E. Stephens Conference Center has 840,000 square feet of exhibit space and is connected to the Hyatt Regency/O'Hare. Also in Rosemont is Allstate Arena, which can seat up to 18,500 people, has 48 luxury suites and is adjacent to the new, 200-room Hyatt Place/Chicago O'Hare, which has 4,000 square feet of meeting space.

Gatherings in the Chicagoland suburbs are made easier with Meet Chicago Northwest (chicagonorthwest.com), the website for Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Itasca, Rolling Meadows, Roselle, Schaumburg, Streamwood and Wood Dale, with direct access to information on the region's 62 hotels, including the 104-acre Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Itasca, which completed a $7.5 million renovation last year. Just south of O'Hare, the 130,000-square-foot Odeum Expo Center in Addison seats up to 5,000. And in Glen Ellyn, the College of DuPage offers 40,000 square feet of meeting space and an 850-seat auditorium.

In Oak Brook, 15 miles south of the airport, one of the largest meeting options is the Hilton Chicago Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, which completed a major renovation this spring, including a refresh of much of its 42,500 square feet of meeting space. In neighboring Oakbrook Terrace, groups can use the Drury Lane Theatre & Conference Center for private events.

At the Northern Illinois University campus in Naperville, the Naperville Conference Center welcomes associations with more than 27,000 square feet of IACC-approved meeting space. Another scholastic setting is that of Governors State University in University Park; groups can use its 1,171-seat theater at the Center for Performing Arts.

Northeastern Illinois: A Solid Foundation

This region of the state is best known for landmark architecture, largely built between 1850 and 1950, and Aurora, Illinois' second-largest city, is home to its fair share of historic places. Those that welcome groups for special events include the 1856 Two Brothers Roundhouse, which can host banquets of up to 600, and the 1931 Paramount Theatre, which offers 1,851 seats and an additional gallery for up to 550. More modern venues include the North Island Center, which has four event spaces, including a renovated ballroom for up to 350 people, and RiverEdge Park, set on the Fox River and featuring an 8,500-seat pavilion. Area meeting hotels include the Timber Creek Inn & Suites in Sandwich, home to the 25,000-square-foot RedBerri Convention Center.

Just north of Aurora, Geneva boasts upwards of 600 historic sites as well as event venues that draw various groups such as the Fifth Third Bank Ballpark and the Eagle Brook Country Club. Neighboring Batavia is home to one of the area's more unique attractions, the 6,800-acre Fermilab particle physics and accelerator laboratory, which offers tours, educational events and lectures and sweeping views.

In St. Charles, major venues include the 95-acre Q Center, with more than 150,000 square feet of meeting space, and the Pheasant Run Resort, with 80,000 square feet of indoor space and 250 acres of outdoor space. Ten miles north, in Elgin, planners can turn to the Hemmens Cultural Center, with a 1,200-seat theater and an exhibition hall, or Elgin Community College.

From Rockford to the Quad Cities: Green Gatherings

With lush gardens and a fascinating mix of historic architecture, Rockford easily fills an agenda. The UW Health Sports Factory (formerly Sportscore Downtown), a 105,000-square-foot, multiuse facility designed for tournaments, trade shows and meetings, completed a $24.4 million renovation in June, reinforcing the city's moniker as the Midwest's "Amateur Sports Capital."

Helping planners create the best meetings possible is a mission the city takes seriously. Matt Woodstrup, event chairman for the American Motors Owners Association, started working with Greta Spencer of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, two years before the annual meeting, scheduled to take place later this year, and has had a positive experience. "The ideas and relationships the CVB brought to us were all top-notch," said Woodstrup.

With Spencer's help, Woodstrup chose the Holiday Inn/Rockford as the headquarters hotel, but a need for more space led him to the nearby Tebala Event Center, which has 9,300 square feet of event space. Rockford has a wealth of other off-site options, as well, including the 12-acre Anderson Japanese Gardens, the Rockford Country Club and the charming Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum. Originally built in the 1850s, the renovated Prairie Street Brewhouse offers event space for up to 600. Near the Rock River, the 1927 Coronado Performing Arts Center can seat up to 2,310, and the adjacent, historic Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center can host up to 400. Also downtown is Riverfront Museum Park, an arts and humanities campus that's home to two museums and various spaces that can be used for special events. Down the street, the BMO Harris Bank Center has 45,000 square feet of exhibition space and can be configured to seat up to 7,200.

A little more than 100 miles to the southwest is the Quad Cities area, straddling the Illinois-Iowa border and bisected by the Mississippi River. On the Illinois side, the region's largest city is Moline, home to the world headquarters of John Deere & Company, which offers group tours. Moline is busy revitalizing its riverfront and downtown, and part of this development is the Element/Moline, a 90-room hotel scheduled to open in April in the historic O'Rourke Building with small meeting space. Meanwhile, the Residence Inn/Moline-Quad Cities recently completed a full remodel, and the 12,000-seat iWireless Center finished a $5 million renovation last year that included new lighting, a new craft-beer garden and an outdoor patio. A fun, casual off-site option is the QC Family Entertainment Center.

In nearby Silvis, golfers can tee off at the TPC Deere Run, home to the PGA Tour John Deere Classic and a 14,000-square-foot clubhouse that can host special events. Oenophiles can enjoy wine tastings at the Lavender Crest Winery in Colona, which offers settings for up to 250 guests and can customize wine labels to mark a special event.

Central Illinois: Forging Ahead

As home to the heavy-equipment giant Caterpillar, Inc., Peoria is no stranger to clearing obstacles and creating new paths. Dedicated event venues include the Peoria Civic Center, which offers 900,000 square feet of space and is connected by skywalks to two hotels: the Courtyard/Peoria Downtown and the Peoria Marriott Pere Marquette Hotel. Also popular with planners is the 80-acre, multipurpose Expo Gardens. Entertaining attractions that welcome events include the Peoria Riverfront Museum, the Caterpillar Visitors Center and the Spirit of Peoria paddle wheeler.

About 50 miles northwest, Galesburg venues include the 946-seat Orpheum Theatre, celebrating its 100th anniversary, as well as the Lake Storey Pavilion, which can seat up to 350. Seventy miles southwest of Peoria, Macomb is home to Western Illinois University, whose University Union has a 27-room hotel and can host events as large as 1,200 people.

Illinois' Twin Cities, neighboring Bloomington and Normal, offer many a meeting venue. The Illinois State University campus has 74,000 square feet of gathering space and is near the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, which has space for up to 2,000 and is attached to the 385-seat Normal Theater, a renovated Art Deco gem built in 1937. Alternately, the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts has 14,500 square feet of space, while the 8,000-seat U.S. Cellular Coliseum has 25,000 square feet of event 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 space. Also in town is the 300-acre Progress City USA complex, an outdoor exposition center that hosts the huge Farm Progress Show.

Champaign is home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium, where groups can book luxury boxes or space at its 15,000-square-foot Colonnades Club. Two new hotels near campus are the year-old, 95-room TownePlace Suites/Champaign-Urbana-Campustown and the 104-room Home2 Suites by Hilton/Champaign-Urbana, which opened earlier this year. Each has a small meeting room. The domed State Farm Center, scheduled to complete a $169.5 million renovation in October, can host up to 15,500 and offers multiple private rooms as well. And last year saw the opening of The City Center, a performance venue with 9,000 square feet of event space.

Springfield: Land of Lincoln

The state capital, Springfield, was Abraham Lincoln's home for 17 years, and the city is home to several key Lincoln sites. In all, Springfield offers 47 different historic attractions, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana-Thomas House. Major meeting properties include the 65,000-square-foot Prairie Capital Convention Center. Planners can also turn to 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.

Groups that have chosen to host their events in Springfield in 2016 include the Red Angus Association of America, the International Flying Farmers, the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the Fire Mark Circle of the Americas. "We're thrilled to host such a diverse group of organizations, and I think it speaks to our ability to accommodate a wide variety of event sizes and market segments," said Gina Gemberling, executive director of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We work diligently with meeting planners to provide an outstanding experience for their attendees."

Magnificent Mile After Mile

As a hub of American industry, transportation, culture and history, Illinois is a strong draw for associations. With a slew of convention centers, historic venues and fun free-time activities to pique attendees' interests, choosing Illinois for a meeting isn't just a sensible decision-it's bound to be a successful one.