by Rachel Juarez-Carr | February 01, 2016

From the gleaming white snow of winter to the glistening sun shimmering off the lakes in the summer months, Minnesota and Wisconsin are year-round hosts where the spotlight shines on meetings regardless of the weather.

These two Upper Midwest states offer an ever-increasing array of first-class event venues and accommodation options to suit every association’s budget and, as a result, have been a top choice for gatherings for decades.

Minnesota: Sites That Sparkle in the North Star State

Minnesota is a vast state, so groups will have no problem finding some prairie spaces to call their own if a far-flung retreat is in order. That said, more than half of the population is concentrated in the Twin Cities metro area, and the state’s largest city, Minneapolis, keeps improving its event options. The biggest project is U.S. Bank Stadium (future home for the Minnesota Vikings), scheduled to open in July with 65,000 seats that can be expanded to more than 72,000 seats for larger events. The site will also include a three-acre plaza that can be used for gatherings. Downtown Minneapolis is also adding a number of new hotels, including the new 211-room Hampton Inn & Suites, which opened last April and brings the number of guest rooms downtown to 7,112. Other plans in the works include an AC Hotel by Marriott and a Radisson Red Hotel.

The biggest dedicated meeting space downtown is the Minneapolis Convention Center, with 475,000 square feet of exhibit space and 87 meeting rooms. Other venues include Target Field, which welcomes groups in its 39,504-seat stadium, 10 special-event venues and the Legends Club, which can host up to 1,800. Groups that have met recently in Minneapolis include the National Council of Teachers of English and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Minneapolis’s sister city, St. Paul, is home to a plethora of meeting sites of its own. The St. Paul RiverCentre has 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, 15 meeting rooms and a 28,000-square-foot ballroom. In recent years, it has hosted numerous organizations including the Breast Cancer Education Association, the Minnesota Weapons Collectors Association and the Midwest Poultry Federation. Next door are two other major options: the 18,064-seat Xcel Energy Center and the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, which offers 44,800 square feet of space.

Bloomington, just south of Minneapolis (and less than four hours by plane from either coast), is famously home to the vast Mall of America, which has event spaces for groups of up to 700 and attractions that include the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium. The mall continues to expand, as well, including the recent opening of the 342-room JW Marriott, which features the city’s largest ballroom and will host Meetings Quest this July.

The mall is also connected to a Radisson Blu hotel, which is LEED certified and offers 500 guest rooms, a spa, an indoor pool and 26,300 square feet of meeting space. Bloomington continues to add hotels and meeting space and this year is expected to offer more than 9,000 guest rooms and meeting space for groups of up to 2,000. New hotels also include the 302-room Hyatt Regency/Central Station, scheduled to debut this spring with 17,000 square feet of space, an indoor pool and a restaurant.

Rochester, to the east, regularly hosts state and regional events; recent groups that have visited include the Allied Charities Of Minnesota and the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. Construction is underway on an expansion to the Mayo Civic Center, which currently has 120,000 square feet of space and is connected via a skyway to more than 1,700 hotel rooms. The $79 million expansion project is expected to increase the center’s event space to more than 200,000 square feet when it is completed in 2017.

When the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association held its Executive Training Institute in Rochester with 500 attendees, it used the Mayo Civic Center for meetings and exhibits and the Kahler Grand Hotel, DoubleTree by Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn for accommodations. Margaret Winchell, the group’s meeting manager, said there was a lot to like about the city. “Rochester is close to the Twin Cities and has an airport, and the staff at the convention center is outstanding and provides excellent and knowledgeable customer service,” she said.

The Allied Charities of Minnesota held its annual convention in Rochester in November 2013, using the DoubleTree for an evening reception, the Mayo Civic Center for meetings, and a ballroom at the Kahler for a banquet, said Al Lund, its executive director. The convention, which was attended by 850 people, also included a city tour by the Rochester Trolley & Tour company and a cooking demonstration by chef Pasquale Presa, managing director of food and beverage operations for the Kahler companies, both of which were huge hits, Lund said.

The seaport city of Duluth, about 150 miles north of Minneapolis, was developed along the shores of Lake Superior (where particularly adventurous event attendees can try their hand at surfing, believe it or not). Along its downtown waterfront, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center is a top spot for groups, with 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, 30 meeting rooms and two ballrooms. It is also home to Amsoil Arena, a silver LEED–certified venue that can seat up to 8,500 people. Not far from downtown, the year-old Grand Avenue Chalet near the base of Spirit Mountain has event space for up to 150.

Southern Wisconsin: From City Lights to Great Lakes

The lights of Madison, the Wisconsin state capital, are glowing even brighter now with the addition of the New Holland Pavilions at the Alliant Energy Center Campus. The 290,000 square feet of indoor space—constructed at a cost of almost $25 million—replaced the nine agricultural barns, and though the pavilions are marketed as a multiuse space, they are still considered major sites for agricultural shows. Other venues within the 164-acre campus include Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which can seat up to 10,000 people or host up to 360 trade-show booths; a 255,000-square-foot exhibition hall; a 22,000-square-foot arena; and a 29-acre outdoor festival space called Willow Island.

The Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center added a new museum gallery last year, replaced carpeting and enhanced interiors with new artwork and workstations throughout. The gold LEED–certified venue has a wide range of meeting spaces, from boardrooms to a 37,000-square-foot exhibition hall. Just two miles away, at the University of Wisconsin, the Kohl Center can seat up to 17,230.

Two new hotels with meeting space opened a year ago: the 111-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Madison Center, which is within walking distance of the Alliant Energy Center and offers a small boardroom for up to 16 people, and the historic Edgewater Hotel, which reopened after a $100 million renovation. The Madison Concourse Hotel—one of the city’s largest convention hotels with 27,000 square feet of event space—wrapped up its property renovations last year, while the Best Western Plus Inn on the Park and the Best Western InnTowner & Highland Club have both recently undergone multimillion-dollar improvements. Under construction is the AC Hotel Madison.

Medical groups that have met in the city recently include the Geological Society of America, the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Nurses Association and the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin. Other associations meeting in the city recently include the Wisconsin School Counselor Association, the Wisconsin State Musical Educators Association, the Family Motor Coach Association and the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts.

Milwaukee is another city with a number of new projects on the horizon, including a new arena. Current meeting facilities include the downtown Wisconsin Center, with 667,475 square feet of space; the 4,086-seat Milwaukee Theatre; the renamed UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena (formerly known as U.S. Cellular Arena), which has 12,700 seats and 24,000 square feet of space; and the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s 210,000-square-foot Kern Center. Popular cultural choices include the Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum, which can host up to 800 people; the Milwaukee Public Museum, which can accommodate up to 3,500; and Discovery World, a 120,000-square-foot museum at Pier Wisconsin, which can host up to 450 in its Pilot House. Other nearby facilities include the Harley-Davidson Museum, which has indoor and outdoor event spaces for up to 15,000 people, and the Marcus Amphitheater, which can accommodate upwards of 23,000.

In West Allis, Wisconsin State Fair Park is available for groups when it’s not hosting the annual state fair (in August). The complex is home to more than a dozen venues including a 200,000-square-foot exposition center and a 3,120-seat arena. In development nearby is a Hampton Inn & Suites, which opened last year with 101 guest rooms, a pool and 8,000 square feet of meeting space.

Farther west, in Waukesha, groups of up to 80 can meet within the Waukesha County Museum. Other options include Carroll University and the Milwaukee Marriott West, which recently upgraded its guest rooms and public spaces. Another local venue is the Country Springs Hotel, Water Park & Conference Center in Pewaukee, just to the north, which has 40,000 square feet of event space. Organizations that have held events in the area include the Felician Sisters of North America, the Wisconsin Concrete Pavement Association and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

On the lakefront south of Milwaukee, many a group has been taken with Kenosha, the state’s fourth-largest city; guests have included the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Wisconsin Federation of Museums and the Wisconsin County Treasurers’ Association (WCTA).

“Kenosha is a great place for conferences,” said Teri Jacobson of the WCTA. “The view of Lake Michigan is breathtaking, and there are many great restaurants and bars that often have great entertainment.” Jacobson said her group enjoyed a tour of the Kenosha Public Museum (which offers 7,425 square feet of event space) and held a wine tasting there one evening. “It also is great that you can draw from both Chicago and Milwaukee for speakers and entertainment,” she said of the city.

Lake Geneva, a resort town about 35 miles west of Kenosha, appeals to planners thanks to a combination of recreational options and meeting properties with all kinds of on-site amenities. The American Society of Association Executives, the American Public Works Association, the National Association of Realtors, the Iowa Limestone Producers Association and the Midwest Chapter of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals are just a few of the organizations that have enjoyed their time in town.

Small groups can look to the historic Horticultural Hall, which can host events of up to 200 people; Maxwell Mansion, which dates back to 1856, has been renovated and now offers meeting space for up to 150 people; or the Geneva Lake Museum of History, which can accommodate events of up to 100. Larger meeting space, though, is available at the area resorts. Notable choices include the Geneva Ridge Resort, which will change its name this spring to the Ridge Hotel following an extensive renovation; the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa; the Abbey Resort in Fontana, which has completed a redesign of its Avani Spa and has improved its 40,000 square feet of meeting space; and the Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan.

Green Bay, Door County & Points South: Renewed Energy

Green Bay’s meeting scene continues to grow, much of it in the downtown area surrounding the KI Convention Center, which recently completed an expansion that doubled its meeting space to 80,000 square feet. In addition to the Hyatt Regency Green Bay (formerly the Hyatt on Main), which is connected to the center, a 136-room Hampton Inn (formerly a Clarion) opened in August with access to the center. Other new openings downtown include “Backstage at the Meyer,” a new meeting and event space adjacent to the historic Meyer Theatre, and the new Cannery Public Market in the Titletown Brewery Company’s new expansion, which also features Titletown’s new rooftop space called, cleverly, the “Rooftap.” Also new is the Automobile Gallery, a gallery filled with classic cars that is specifically designed for meetings and events.

Additional options include the newly remodeled and expanded Green Bay Botanical Garden, the National Railroad Museum and the F.K. Bemus Conference Center on the campus of St. Norbert College in nearby De Pere.

Additional hotels include the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center and the Tundra Lodge Resort & Conference Center, which is planning an expansion that will add an outdoor pavilion for group events.

Sports fans wouldn’t turn down a special event at Lambeau Field, which can host groups from five to 1,500 in venues that include the newly reopened Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and the new 1919 Kitchen & Tap. The Green Bay Packers also recently announced plans for the Titletown District, which will be created on the approximately 34 acres of land immediately west of Lambeau Field and is expected to include a hotel to be built and managed by Kohler Company.

Up in the Door County peninsula, just north of Green Bay, the county seat of Sturgeon Bay is home to the waterfront Stone Harbor Resort & Conference Center. In Egg Harbor, the 40-acre Landmark Resort has 10,496 square feet of meeting space, or planners can rent the Woodwalk Gallery, which welcomes special events of up to 100. On the eastern side of the peninsula, in Baileys Harbor, the Gordon Lodge has a private beach.

Southwest of Green Bay is the Fox Cities region, composed of 20 communities along the Fox River. Two groups who met in the area in recent years, the Wisconsin Urban & Rural Transit Association and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, both held their events at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton, with 70 and 200 attendees, respectively. In 2014, the hotel completed a $1 million renovation project.

Nikki Voelzke, community relations specialist for the Appleton-based Valley Transit, said that the Wisconsin Transportation Conference held most of its activities at the Radisson, though off-site events included an evening activity at Anduzzi’s, a nearby sports bar. “Downtown Appleton worked particularly well for our group as (attendees) were within walking distance to a number of restaurants and entertainment facilities as well as unique shops, not to mention the close proximity to our local public transportation transit hub,” Voelzke said.

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center is also in Appleton, with a half-dozen available spaces, the largest of which can seat up to 2,072 people. The History Museum at the Castle has special-event space for up to 165. The local Wingate by Wyndham and Comfort Suites/Appleton Airport have both been upgraded, and the CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa has opened a new restaurant; all offer small meeting space.

In Oshkosh, the main facility for meetings is the 24,000-square-foot Oshkosh Convention Center. Smaller options in town include the Grand Opera House, built in 1883 and designed with a 660-seat theater and a lounge that can accommodate up to 218, and The Waters, a Georgian-style event facility that has indoor space for up to 300 and additional lawn space overlooking Lake Winnebago.

At the south end of the lake is Fond du Lac. Its largest venues in town are the Holiday Inn/Fond du Lac, which has 7,000 square feet of meeting space, and the Fond du Lac County Fairgrounds, with three venues including a 28,000-square-foot expo center.

When the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers held its 57th annual conference in Fond du Lac a few years ago, the Holiday Inn served as its host lodging facility, with many of the scheduled events held at its conference center.

“Approximately 200 of our members attended one or more days of the four-day conference, and when you have that many people in for an event, complaints from the membership are not uncommon,” said Josh Lantz, the group’s executive director. “But I did not hear a single complaint.”

Lantz said Fond du Lac appealed as a host destination for various reasons. “Fond du Lac was selected not only because of its great outdoor recreation resources—Lake Winnebago, Horicon Marsh and others—but because the Fond du Lac Area CVB understands the value of those resources and knows how to promote them in their marketing efforts. That means a lot to our organization, whose mission is to communicate about wildlife conservation, outdoor recreation and the responsible use of our natural resources.”

In Sheboygan, 40 miles east, groups can meet at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, whose Festival Green can be used for outdoor receptions of up to 1,000. And in the nearby village of Kohler, the main attraction is the Kohler Waters Spa and the adjacent, five-star American Club Resort. The resort has several meeting spaces, including a ballroom for up to 600 guests, as well as four championship golf courses.

Central Wisconsin: Dairyland’s Brightest Spots

The water parks of Wisconsin Dells are a big attraction for plenty of association members because they can bring along the whole family and treat the event as a vacation. Groups who have visited in recent years include the Wisconsin Soybean Association, the Wisconsin Bankers Association and League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Properties with large water parks and an equally impressive amount of event space include the Kalahari Resort & Convention Center, with 100,000 square feet of gathering space; the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, with 56,000 square feet of event space; and the Chula Vista Resort, with 200,000 square feet of function space.

For a more natural take on Wisconsin’s water world, Dells Boat Tours offers rides through Cold Water Canyon, a retreat area home to an event space for up to 100 people. Farther south, in Baraboo, the Ho-Chunk Gaming/Wisconsin Dells has 32,000 square feet of meeting space.

The 100,000-square-foot La Crosse Center is the main meeting space in the town of La Crosse, located on the banks of the Mississippi. Additional local venues for events include the Weber Center for the Performing Arts, which has two spaces for groups of up to 450 people; the University of Wisconsin/La Crosse’s 6,250-seat Roger Harring Stadium; and Western Technical College’s Lunda Center, which has meeting space for up to 600.

In nearby Onalaska, groups gather at the OmniCenter, which provides more than 50,000 square feet of event space that is available between the months of March and October. Alternatively, it also offers 5,500 square feet of banquet space and a 4,000-square-foot outdoor shelter.

In the Spotlight

Winter meeting? Warm welcomes await. Summer stay? The sun’s shining on the lakes. If you’re after a destination that will make your meeting a highlight of your association’s annual calendar, Minnesota and Wisconsin have plenty to offer. The settings vary, from city highs to lakeside resorts, but what they all have in common is communities standing ready to help you host your event.