by Rachel Juarez-Carr | May 01, 2016

What does the history of Michigan bring to mind? One may conjure up images of rows of factories turning out car after car or record studios producing hit after hit. But over time, Michigan has evolved into a well-rounded destination.

Today, welcoming meetings and events is just one of the things the state of Michigan does marvelously.

Detroit & Southern Michigan: always productive

Detroit has long been known as a productive city. Last year, more than 200,000 new visitors were expected to come to town for meetings and conventions, in addition to the usual 14.2 million visitors the Motor City attracts annually. Organizations who planned an event in 2015 included the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education, USA Volleyball, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the American Society of Association Executives. Collectively, group meetings are expected to bring about $214 million to the region.

One of the largest sites for events is the 2.4 million-square-foot Cobo Center, which has benefited from a $279 million renovation and expansion. The center features 723,000 square feet of exhibit space and 180,000 square feet of meeting space. Newer facilities include the Grant Riverview Ballroom and an adjoining atrium. The center was recently named a Sustainable Communities Champion by EcoWorks and received International Green Meeting Certification by the Convention Industry Council and Green Meeting Industry Council for its environmentally friendly practices.

Sports and cultural venues are also hot spots for private events. Options include the 65,000-seat Ford Field and the 20,058-seat Joe Louis Arena, which is down the street from Cobo Center. The Fox Theatre can seat up to 5,000, the nearby Fillmore/Detroit can host up to 2,888, and the Masonic Temple is home to more than a dozen spaces. For history buffs, the Detroit Historical Museum has private event spaces for up to 2,000, or north of downtown, the Motown Museum also welcomes groups.

Hotel space is plentiful, too. One of the larger options is the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, which underwent a $30 million renovation. A newer property is a 136-room Aloft, which opened a year and a half ago within the historic David Whitney Building with 6,670 square feet of meeting space.

The venue options don’t stop at the city limits, either. In nearby Dearborn, the Henry Ford Museum can host up to 700 people, and in Taylor, the Taylor Sportsplex has 44,000 square feet of exhibit space. In Livonia, the Laurel Manor Banquet & Conference Center has 25,500 square feet of column-free space, and in Novi, the Suburban Collection Showplace has 214,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 20,000-square-foot ballroom. North of downtown Detroit, in Warren, Macomb Community College’s Sports & Expo Center has 61,000 square feet of event space. Twenty miles away, in Auburn Hills, the 22,000-seat Palace of Auburn Hills welcomes events, and the 55,000-square-foot Walter P. Chrysler Museum can host up to 750. If your group is eager to get out of town, McMorran Place in the lakeside town of Port Huron offers a 1,157-seat theater and an arena with more than 15,000 square feet of space.

Alumni of the University of Michigan will love a return to Ann Arbor. Campus event spaces include the Crisler Center Hall of Honor, for up to 500, and the Junge Family Champions Center, for up to 400. Also in the region is Eastern Michigan University, located in Ypsilanti and able to host groups of up to 10,000.

About 100 miles farther west, in Kalamazoo, Western Michigan University offers event spaces such as the Fetzer Center, with 46,000 square feet of space, or the 3,667-seat Lawson Arena, which has benefited from an upgrade. Downtown, the four-story Epic Center has two function spaces, and the nearby Cityscape Event Center has space for up to 325. In Battle Creek, just east of Kalamazoo, is the 8,500-seat Kellogg Arena.

Central Michigan: Performance centered

Michigan’s second-largest city, Grand Rapids, welcomes a diverse range of groups each year, from the American Quilter’s Society (AQS) and the Michigan Library Association to the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Acton Institute, a local organization that holds an annual four-day conference, most recently with 800 attendees.

“Everyone says, ‘Do you realize how fortunate you are to live in this city?’” said Mike Cook, Acton Institute’s manager of programs and educational impact. “And I say, ‘Yes, I do! This is my town, and it continues to grow and get better.’ People can’t believe how great the city is.”

Many groups, including the Acton Institute and the American Quilter’s Society, organize their functions at DeVos Place, the city’s convention center, which offers a 162,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 2,404-seat theater. Bonnie Browning, executive show director for AQS, said that to accommodate the thousands who attend its annual QuiltWeek, the event utilizes the entire exhibit hall and meeting rooms.

“We have held AQS events in Grand Rapids for three years—2015 was our fourth annual QuiltWeek in Grand Rapids,” she said. “Grand Rapids was selected because it is a community that includes many art and cultural events, and the convention center is the right size for our event,” which usually attracts 15,000 to 18,000 attendees. Browning said she also appreciates the amount of parking and the number of restaurants near the convention center, adding, “The proximity to several museums is a plus, too, and the Experience Grand Rapids team is great to work with in putting together our events. Grand Rapids is a great place to hold meetings!”

Other spaces to meet include the Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park; the 54,000-square-foot Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, which is undergoing an expansion and renovation project and expected to reopen later this year; the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, which has event spaces in addition to its outdoor farmers’ market. The Van Andel Arena, the DeltaPlex Arena & Conference Center and the Ford Fieldhouse at Grand Rapids Community College are popular with large groups. The Ballroom at McKay Tower offers 10,900 square feet of remodeled space, and southeast of downtown is the Cultural Center.

Planners who keep an eye on new or improved hotels will note several such options. The Amway Grand Plaza is celebrating its 100th anniversary and recently completed a $14 million renovation to its Glass Tower and added a new restaurant. The former Hotel Royale has been reflagged as a Wyndham Garden property following the addition of a restaurant and a series of upgrades, and the DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Rapids Airport (formerly a Hilton) reopened following a five-month renovation. Across from Woodland Mall is a Ramada Plaza, which completed a $1.5 million renovation in 2014, and there’s a new ballroom that can host up to 200 at the CityFlatsHotel. In Walker, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Grand Rapids North reopened last year after the renovation of its 94 guest rooms and public spaces.

For a taste of Europe, venture southwest to Holland, a town on Lake Macatawa where the influence of the Netherlands is reflected at the Windmill Island Gardens, whose manicured gardens, Dutch architecture and 250-year-old windmill make a great backdrop for events of up to 300. State groups that met in town include the Arboriculture Society of Michigan, the Michigan Health Association of Training, the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents, the Automotive Recyclers of Michigan and the Michigan Association of Township Supervisors. “The location near Lake Michigan, the accommodations and the cost make the area a great host,” said Geri Root, executive director of the Michigan Association of Township Supervisors, who said the group was returning this year.

The largest event space in Holland is Hope College, which can host groups of up to 4,000. Other smaller venues include the Haworth Inn & Conference Center, with event space for up to 350, and the Boatwerks Waterfront Restaurant, which is adding a lakeside event center with seating for up to 300. Last fall, a new Courtyard by Marriott opened with a small meeting room for up to 20 attendees. And just north of town on the shores of Lake Michigan, Camp Geneva can host retreats of up to 175 people.

In Lansing, the state capital, the Lansing Center has 72,000 square feet of exhibit space and is just across the street from the 8,000-seat Cooley Law School Stadium. In East Lansing, Michigan State University offers spaces including the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center, the Breslin Student Events Center, the Pavilion for Agriculture & Livestock Education and the James B. Henry Center for Executive Development. About 10 miles west of campus, in Dimondale, the Summit Sports & Ice Complex has 54,300 square feet of space.

On the southern shores of Saginaw Bay, the body of water that separates Michigan’s Thumb from the eastern coast of the Lower Peninsula, is Bay City, where the waterfront Uptown at River’s Edge development features shops, restaurants and a new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year with two event spaces. Just west, in Midland, Dow Diamond is home to the Great Lakes Loons and offers more than 20,000 square feet of space. The H Hotel also regularly welcomes group events, such as the spring seminar of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, which drew 80 people. “The customer service at the hotel is the reason we keep coming back,” said Julie Welch, the association’s child abuse training director. “It’s a beautiful facility with a great downtown location. It is also centrally located in the state, which is a plus for planning statewide meetings.”

Even more venues are available in Saginaw, including the Dow Event Center and a block away is Temple Theater. Other event sites include FirstMerit Bank Event Park, with a 10,000-seat pavilion and lawn seating; the Horizons Conference Center, just west of downtown, with 40,000 square feet of space; and the Four Points by Sheraton, north of town, which completed an $8.5 million renovation. In Birch Run, the Birch Run Expo Center has 110,000 square feet of space.

About 50 miles west of Saginaw, in Mount Pleasant, Central Michigan University offers several event spaces. And just down the street is the Comfort Inn & Suites Hotel & Conference Center.

Northern Michigan: time to recharge

In the waterfront resort towns of northern Michigan, top options for groups include the Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs or the year-round attractions of Boyne Falls. One of the region’s largest meeting spaces is in Acme at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, which completed a $7 million renovation of the guest rooms and hospitality areas in its 17-story, glass-encased tower. It has meeting space for groups of up to 2,500 as well as a 100,000-square-foot health club. Meeting hotels in nearby Traverse City include the Great Wolf Lodge and a Holiday Inn Resort (formerly the West Bay Beach Resort). About 35 miles northeast of town, in Bellaire, is the Shanty Creek Resorts.

When nothing but the far north will do, head up to Mackinac Island. Though just 3.8 square miles in size, the island offers 1,300 guest rooms. One notable property is the 18-acre Mission Point Resort, which completed a multimillion-dollar renovation last year after changing ownership. Improvements include an upgrade of all guest rooms and an expansion of its spa and pool.

Taking Events Seriously

It’s not easy planning a meeting, so a host city that’s ready to roll up its sleeves and get to work on your association’s event with gusto is a boon for any organizer. In Michigan, there are uncountable destinations and meeting sites that fit this bill, from one-time industrial powerhouses to lakefront resort towns. With a history of hard work and hospitality, Michigan continues to shine.