by Rachel Carter | February 01, 2017

Minnesota and Wisconsin are constantly changing colors: bright white snow in the winter, lush green forests and fields in the summer, and deep blue waters in the lakes and rivers that lace the land. These Upper Midwest sister states are popular year-round destinations for gatherings, and they're growing.

Convention centers are being expanded and event venues are being built, historic hotels are being restored and new ones are going up-all of which gives associations even more reason to meet in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Minnesota: the "Star of the North"

Minneapolis is the biggest city in Minnesota and, accordingly, boasts some of the region's biggest projects, many happening downtown. Locals are especially excited about the new, 66,200-seat U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in July as the new field of the NFL's Vikings. It welcomes group events with a range of meeting spaces. Connected to the stadium is a new 4.2-acre green space called the Commons, also with event spaces.

Also downtown is the 20,500-seat Target Center, the home arena of the NBA's Timberwolves and the WNBA's Lynx. Last year the center began a multimillion-dollar renovation that is expected to be complete this fall. The 39,504-seat Target Field also offers special-event venues.

Hotel development is booming, with 1,500 guest rooms in 10 properties currently under construction and more projects in the pipeline. Downtown alone now boasts more than 8,400 guest rooms in 33 properties, including several new hotels: the 290-room Embassy Suites by Hilton/Minneapolis Downtown, with meeting space for up to 400; the 245-room AC/Minneapolis Downtown, with four event rooms; the 164-room Radisson RED/Minneapolis, located across from the U.S. Bank Stadium, with a 1,000-square-foot event and games studio; and the 124-room Hewing Hotel, once a century-old warehouse and now featuring a restaurant and a rooftop bar.

But downtown's largest venue is still by far the Minneapolis Convention Center, with 475,000 square feet of exhibit space, 87 meeting rooms and a new lighting system on its four domes, which add a major splash of color to the skyline and can be programmed for events. The center hosted hundreds of events in 2016 including those of the American Federation of Teachers, the International Association of Venue Managers, Destination Marketing Association International and the National Sheriffs' Association.

"Minneapolis is an excellent destination from both logistical and service points of view," said Dina Weiss, associate director of conferences for the National Science Teachers Association, which held its Area Conference on Science Education in the city in October with 2,140 attendees. The group used the convention center for much of its program and the nearby Hilton/Minneapolis for concurrent sessions and meetings. "That convenience is very important to our attendees and exhibitors," Weiss said. Delegates also stayed at the Hyatt Regency and Holiday Inn Express and appreciated the local skywalks and the diverse restaurants, she added.

To the west of the convention center, in the Lowry Hill neighborhood, the Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is undergoing a renovation. The garden will be closed until June to facilitate the project but the Walker continues to welcome events with more than a half dozen spaces.

One can't talk about Minneapolis without including its sister city, St. Paul. The Twin Cities welcomed 31.6 million total visitors in 2015, a 2 percent increase over the previous record of 30.9 million convention and leisure travel visitors in 2014. The St. Paul RiverCentre has more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, 15 meeting rooms and a 27,000-square-foot ballroom. The 19,000-seat Xcel Energy Center and the 44,800-square-foot Roy Wilkins Auditorium are both next door. And the city's first Hyatt Place opened in September in the Custom House with 149 guest rooms and 2,900 square feet of event space.

Just 15 miles southwest, Bloomington sort of triangulates the Twin Cities into the "tri-cities." It's home to the famous Mall of America, which offers gathering space for up to 720 and is attached to the JW Marriott Minneapolis and the Radisson Blu. Nearby, the year-old Hyatt Regency/Bloomington-Minneapolis offers 11 meeting rooms, the largest of which can accommodate up to 840.

About 75 miles to the southwest, Minnesota State University in Mankato offers a number of spaces for group events. From there it's 80 miles east to Rochester, where an $84 million expansion at the Mayo Civic Center has added 100,000 square feet of space that is expected to debut this year. With the expansion, the center will offer 200,000 square feet of space, including the renovated, 1,100-seat Presentation Hall. Flanking the center are the Rochester Art Center, with space for up to 500, and the Rochester Civic Theatre, which recently opened a 3,300-square-foot studio.

Developed on the shores of Lake Superior, about 150 miles north of Minneapolis, the port city of Duluth is scheduled to host the Outdoor Writers Association of America's annual conference in June. Along the city's waterfront, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) has 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, 30 meeting rooms and two ballrooms, and the silver LEED-certified Amsoil Arena can seat up to 8,500.

Other nearby hotels with meeting space include the Inn on Lake Superior, a Hampton Inn and a Comfort Suites. And just down the street is the new Pier B Resort, a $30 million waterfront hotel that opened in June with 140 guest rooms, a restaurant and bar and a 3,400-square-feet ballroom that opens onto 6,000 square feet of lawn space.

Southern Wisconsin: Forward Momentum

Set on a strip of land between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, with Lake Waubesa and Lake Kegonsa to the south, Madison is the "City of Four Lakes," a state capital shaped by water. The shorefront Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace is the city's convention center, featuring a 37,000-square-foot divisible exhibit hall, the 7,000-square-foot Grand Terrace, a ballroom, meeting rooms, rooftop gardens and a café.

In July, the North America Congress for Conservation Biology was held at Monona Terrace and according to Carlos Carroll, president of the Society for Conservation Biology, many of the 950 attendees said it was "the best meeting of our group ever." All of the congress events were held on-site and its closing event was held on the rooftop with music and was a hit, he said.

Also popular is the Alliant Energy Center, a 164-acre meeting and entertainment campus that boasts several facilities. Alliant's newest addition is the New Holland Pavilions, which offer 290,000 square feet of indoor space.

At the University of Wisconsin, the Kohl Center can seat up to 17,230. And the historic Memorial Union is undergoing a restoration and renovation that is expected to be fully complete this fall.

The Best Western Premier Park Hotel (formerly the Best Western Plus Inn on the Park) reopened last summer following a $10 million renovation of its guest rooms, first-floor lobby, restaurant and lounge. Nearby, the AC/Madison Downtown is scheduled to open in April with 165 guest rooms and event space for up to 70. To the west, the Homewood Suites by Hilton/Madison West is undergoing a renovation scheduled to finish in March. In Verona, to the southwest, the year-old Fairfield Inn & Suites/Madison-Verona offers 660 square feet of function space and the Hyatt Place/Madison-Verona is scheduled to open this spring with 136 guest rooms and 1,532 square feet of meeting space.

Several new transportation options and hotels are driving changes in Milwaukee. Downtown, the Milwaukee Streetcar is expected to launch a two-mile loop in 2018, with a second, lakefront route expected to debut in 2019. Connected to the Wisconsin Center, which offers 667,475 square feet of space for conventions, are three meeting-hotel properties, the newest of which is the 155-room SpringHill Suites/Milwaukee Downtown, with three meeting rooms. Across the Milwaukee River, the 158-room Kimpton Journeyman opened last summer in the historic Third Ward. A half-mile north, the 220-room Westin/Milwaukee is scheduled to open in June with event space for up to 366 people.

Other group venues in the city center include the Milwaukee Theatre, the recently renovated University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee Panther Arena, the BMO Bradley Harris Center and the Kern Center at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Cultural venues that also welcome groups include the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee Public Museum and Discovery World.

In September, the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education held a joint conference at the Hyatt Regency with 700 attendees. All events were held at the hotel except for a "terrific" evening reception at the Harley-Davidson Museum, said Luann Purcell, CASE's executive director.

Purcell had attended a previous meeting in Milwaukee, where she said she fell in love with the city. She knew attendees would, too. Purcell said they loved the river, the restaurants and the friendliness of the locals, and many commented on how much they could do without taking a cab or a car.

The city also welcomed the four-day Arts Midwest Conference in September. Nearly 1,100 participants and performers attended, a conference record, said Angela Urbanz, senior program director for Arts Midwest. The Hilton/Milwaukee City Center housed most of the attendees and hosted more than 200 performing arts showcases, but the conference also used the Wisconsin Center, the Pabst Theater, the Harley-Davidson Museum and the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Nearly 100 attendees also took a private riverboat cruise to the Lakefront Brewery for a tour.

About 20 miles west, the city of Waukesha has hosted recent events for the Wisconsin Council of Religious & Independent Schools, the International Association of Administrative Professionals and the Wisconsin Association of Housing Authorities. Meeting venues in town include Carroll University, the Waukesha County Museum and the Milwaukee Marriott West, which offers function space for up to 1,100. Northwest of the Waukesha County Airport, in Pewaukee, the Country Springs Hotel, Water Park & Conference Center offers 40,000 square feet of event space. South of the city, in Franklin, a multimillion-dollar, mixed-use development has been approved at the Rock Sports Complex; plans include a 4,000-seat baseball stadium and restaurants.

Farther southeast, along the shores of Lake Michigan, is Kenosha, which impressed the attendees of the Wisconsin Harbor Towns Association, in town for its annual meeting in October. The group met at the Wyndham Garden/Kenosha Harborside, formerly the Best Western Harborside Inn & Kenosha Conference Center. Over the past two decades, Kenosha "has done an outstanding job of revitalizing its lakefront into a leisure-travel destination," including two museums, a large public area, a marina and an electric streetcar line, said Paul Holley, the group's president. "Attendees were very impressed with what they saw."

About 35 miles west of Kenosha, resorts surrounding Geneva Lake double as major meeting venues. In Lake Geneva, the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa has event space for up to 1,500. In Fontana, the Abbey Resort has 40,000 square feet of meeting space, and in Delavan, the Lake Lawn Resort offers space for group functions of up to 500. Also in Lake Geneva, the renovated and historic Maxwell Mansion and Baker House each offer event space for up to 150.

Green Bay, Door County & the Fox Cities: Community Spirit

In Green Bay, there's a lot of interest and pride in its professional football team. Home to the NFL's Green Bay Packers, the 81,435-seat Lambeau Field's premium seating areas are undergoing a $55 million renovation, scheduled to finish this year; groups that want to organize special events will find more than a dozen spaces to choose from, including the Legends Club Room, for up to 800. The year-old Packers Hall of Fame is also a popular attraction.

Across the street, construction has begun on the 144-room Lodge Kohler hotel, scheduled to open in July with a restaurant, two private dining rooms and tented outdoor event space. The lodge will be the anchor tenant and sole hotel of the Packers' Titletown District, a 34-acre development immediately west of Lambeau Field that will include the Hinterland Restaurant & Brewery, park space, a plaza and a skating rink. Also in the works is Johnsonville Tailgate Village, a 13,000-square-foot permanent tailgating and event structure that is set to open in Lambeau Field's east parking in August with room for up to 500 people.

The KI Convention Center is still fresh from a $23 million expansion that wrapped up in summer 2015, doubling the center's space to nearly 80,000 square feet. The convention center now offers a 25,000-square-foot ballroom, smaller rooms overlooking the Fox River and more than 35,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space. The center is connected to the Hyatt Regency/Green Bay and the year-old Hampton Inn/Green Bay Downtown. Nearby, renovation work continues at the historic Hotel Northland, scheduled to reopen this year with 160 guest rooms, two restaurants, a spa and a ballroom.

North of Green Bay, on the Door County peninsula, Sturgeon Bay is home to the waterfront Stone Harbor Resort & Conference Center, which welcomes events of up to 450. The 40-acre Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor has meeting space for up to 230 or the Woodwalk Gallery can host events for up to 250. On the eastern side of the peninsula, in Baileys Harbor, Gordon Lodge has 6,000 square feet of meeting space.

Southwest of Green Bay, 20 communities stretching along the Fox River and Lake Winnebago make up the Fox Cities region. In Appleton, the new Fox Cities Exhibition Center is scheduled to open this fall with 30,000 square feet of indoor space and a 17,600-square-foot plaza. It will be connected via a skywalk to the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, which has its own convention space for up to 2,000.

The Wisconsin Child Care Administrators Association and the Partners of Wisconsin Hospital Association, Inc. held its 2016 annual conferences at the Radisson. The WCCAA chose the "upcoming and busy" area so that its 250 attendees could do as much as possible within walking distance of the hotel, said Becky Helf, the conference's co-chair. The Partners of Wisconsin Hospital Association chose the hotel because it was affordable for the group's 300 attendees and because of the numerous free-time options including a nearby shopping mall and good restaurants, said Rose Raska, the convention chair.

Other Appleton venues include the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center and the History Museum at the Castle. A new, 95-room Courtyard by Marriott is scheduled to open this summer, and just south, in Neenah, the Riverwalk Hotel Downtown is undergoing a renovation and will be rebranded as a DoubleTree by Hilton this spring.

On the western side of Lake Winnebago, Oshkosh is home to the 24,000-square-foot Oshkosh Convention Center, while on the lake's southern side, in Fond du Lac, large venues include the Fond du Lac County Fairgrounds, which offers a 28,000-square-foot expo center.

Forty miles east, in Sheboygan, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center has indoor event space for up to 400 and outdoor space for up to 1,000. In Kohler, groups might consider the Kohler Waters Spa, the American Club (with space for up to 850) or golf at the Whistling Straits or Blackwolf Run courses.

Central Wisconsin: Water Works

Known as "The Waterpark Capital of the World," Wisconsin Dells is popular for association gatherings that welcome spouses and kids. Several large water parks that offer large amounts of function space include the Chula Vista Resort, the Kalahari Resort and the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort. The Wintergreen Resort & Conference Center and the Great Wolf Lodge also welcome group functions. A 95-suite SpringHill Suites opened last February with a meeting room for up to 40 people.

In Baraboo, the International Crane Foundation, open from mid-April to late October, is the only place to see all 15 of the world's crane species. Less than three miles away is Ho-Chunk Gaming, with casino entertainment, a hotel and meeting and trade-show space.

Some 100 miles west, on the Minnesota border, downtown La Crosse welcomes associations with nearly 100,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space. Preferred sites include the University of Wisconsin/La Crosse's Roger Harring Stadium, the Weber Center for the Performing Arts and Western Technical College's Lunda Center. The OmniCenter in nearby Onalaska is a convention center and sports arena with more than 50,000 square feet of event space available between March and October. It also offers 5,500 square feet of banquet space and a 4,000-square-foot, semi-enclosed outdoor shelter.

Forward Thinking

The meetings scenes in Wisconsin and Minnesota are well-reflected by the states' mottos: "Forward" and "L'Étoile du Nord" (Star of the North), respectively. Progressive thinking has benefited destinations in these states in many ways as each strives to offer modern event venues and sites where groups can shine. As a result, planners considering the region can look forward to even more creative, family-friendly and fun attractions that will entice attendees and enhance agendas year-round.