by Rachel Juarez-Carr | December 01, 2015

The Dakotas have long been a place centered on business. The kind of business may have changed with the times-from fur traders at Fort Pierre, South Dakota, in 1817 to the recent oil boom in North Dakota-but no matter the industry, visiting groups have been met with enthusiasm and heartfelt hospitality.

Today, associations heading to these states will find destinations that are ideal when it comes to trade, building relationships and exchanging ideas that serve their group's best interests.

Southern North Dakota: Bright Lights, Big Ideas

As the biggest city in North Dakota, Fargo doesn't disappoint when it comes to hosting events. The North Dakota Petroleum Council and the North Dakota Grocers Association both visited recently, and the Association for Rural & Small Libraries has scheduled its annual conference in town next year.

"The Fargo area is a beautiful place to hold an event," said Mary Klein, administrative assistant for the North Dakota Grocers Association, whose most recent trade show and convention in September drew more than 250 people. "The people are so friendly and helpful! And there's lots of shopping and great restaurants."

Tessa Sandstrom, communications director for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, attributed the success of her group's event to the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The bureau worked hard to make sure we had the opportunity to see and experience wonderful, energetic downtown Fargo-its many fine-dining restaurants and up-and-coming establishments-while we were there," she said. Some of the more memorable functions included an educational session at the historic Fargo Theater ("which was just beautiful," Sandstrom said) and an evening pub crawl for interested attendees ("a fun way to experience the nightlife").

Major event venues include the Fargodome, which has 115,000 square feet of exhibit space or can be configured to seat up to 25,000; the 11,000-square-foot Fargo Civic Memorial Auditorium & Centennial Hall, the latter of which can host up to 2,700; the Fargo Air Museum, which can host up to 450 people; the Plains Art Museum, with event space for up to 250; and the historic Loretta Building, with meeting space for up to 100 and a rooftop terrace with first-class city views. The Fargo Brewing Company is also available for group gatherings.

In West Fargo, the Bonanzaville pioneer village and museum is open from May to October and has a variety of spaces including a country-western hall for up to 250 people and a more modern event center for up to 300.

On the hotel front, new properties with meeting space include the 110-room Holiday Inn Express/Fargo Southwest, the 100-room ClubHouse Hotel & Suites, a Microtel Inn & Suites and the 130-room Element by Westin, a short drive from the Sanford Fargo Medical Center development (expected to open in 2017). The Four Points by Sheraton/Fargo is scheduled to open December 3 with 90 guest rooms and 1,600 square feet of meeting space, and what was formerly the Best Western Doublewood Inn is now the Baymont Inn & Suites.

In Bismarck, the state capital and second-largest city, the Bismarck Civic Center offers more than 100,000 square feet of space and is conveniently located just 10 minutes from the Bismarck Airport. Another large event facility is the Best Western Plus Ramkota Hotel. Mandan, Bismarck's sister city, has an 8,600-seat arena and a park that frequently hosts rodeos and equine events, or planners can turn to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, whose Commissary Great Room is available for groups of up to 150.

About 100 miles west is Dickinson, which can host small to mid-sized association groups. The 132,000-square-foot West River Community Center has more than a half-dozen event spaces and the adjacent West River Ice Center can host up to 1,000. There's also the Henry Biesiot Activities Center at Dickinson State University (formerly the Badlands Activities Center), which has more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space.

Northern North Dakota: Euro-Midwest Sensibility

Welcome to "Norse Dakota"-a stretch of country near the Canadian border where Northern European influences still run strong. Nowhere is this more evident than in Minot, which sprang up in 1886 at the end of a railroad. Groups can tour its Scandinavian Heritage Park, which pays remembrance to five Scandinavian countries, or schedule events to coincide with the annual Norsk Høstfest, the country's biggest Scandinavian cultural festival, held each fall at the North Dakota State Fair Center.

The center is also home to the annual state fair and offers 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, an arena for up to 6,000 attendees and an outdoor grandstand that can seat up to 15,000. Other sizable sites in town include Minot State University's 10,000-seat MSU Dome and the downtown Municipal Auditorium, which can seat up to 5,000 and has another dozen smaller meeting rooms. Local attractions that welcome small groups include the Taube Museum of Art and the Roosevelt Park Zoo (open during the summer).

The International Peace Garden in the small city of Dunseith, by the international border, is a 2,339-acre botanical venue dedicated to the friendship between the United States and Canada. On-site venues include the Masonic Auditorium, which can host up to 2,000; the 510-seat Burdick Center; and a new interpretative center and conference room, which can seat up to 200 and 80 people, respectively. Groups can also stay overnight in 171 dorm-style rooms.

About 180 miles southeast, the city of Grand Forks is the proud home of the University of North Dakota. Its campus welcomes events each year at a variety of venues including the Ralph Engelstad Arena, which can seat more than 13,000 people; the adjacent, 3,300-seat Betty Engelstad Sioux Center; and the Chester Fritz Auditorium, which can host up to 2,384. Just south of campus, the Alerus Center features more than 160,000 square feet of event space, a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and an arena that can seat upwards of 12,000 people. Elsewhere in town, options include the North Dakota Museum of Art, which has event space for up to 500 people, and the historic Empire Art Center, which has a 416-seat theater.

Eastern South Dakota: Central Stars

Sioux Falls is on the rise: With one of the country's fastest-growing economies, South Dakota's largest city is an ever-growing meetings hub. Organizations that have held events in town recently include the National Institutes of Health, the Health Professions Network and the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA).

"Sioux Falls is a great location for meetings, primarily due to the central location in the United States and the costs for convention-service facilities," said Scott Hawbaker, executive director of the NACAA, which held its 100th annual meeting and professional-improvement conference in town last summer with 1,150 attendees. "Meals and transportation were very affordable, the local residents were very appreciative of our business, and there were numerous attractions to visit and explore."

Valarie Coyle, meetings director of the Alliance of Cardiovascular Professionals, is also a fan, following the spring conference of the Health Professions Network. "Sioux Falls is a growing city with much to offer. It has a vibrant downtown, excellent restaurants and wineries and is a very easy city to walk around," she said. "The experience allowed us to connect with locals-they graciously provided amazing meals and insightful dialogue and contributed to help us understand what their city is about, showing us around and being so welcoming and kind. I look forward to returning!"

Both the NACAA and the Health Professions Network held functions at the Sioux Falls Convention Center, a facility with more than 100,000 square feet of flexible space, including a 16,800-square-foot ballroom and 12 breakout rooms. It's connected to a Sheraton Hotel, which Coyle praised for its excellent service, and is attached to the new Denny Sanford Premier Center, which can seat up to 12,000 people. Closer to downtown and the Big Sioux River is the Washington Pavilion, with more than a half-dozen spaces for events, including the 1,800-seat Mary W. Sommervold Hall, home to the South Dakota Symphony. Nearby, the 1913 Orpheum Theater has three separate spaces for events, the largest of which is its main, 686-seat theater. At Augustana College, the Elmen Center can seat up to 4,500, Kresge Hall has space for up to 350 and the Gilbert Science Center has event space for up to 300. At the University of Sioux Falls, groups can use the 826-seat auditorium within Jeschke Fine Arts Center. And medical groups might be interested in the event space at the Prairie Center, affiliated with the Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center.

Just northwest of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, the 162-acre Sanford Sports Complex is home to the three-rink Scheels IcePlex, which opened late last year; the two-year-old Sanford Pentagon, with nine volleyball courts that can be used for all kinds of gatherings, as well as separate conference space for up to 300 people; a 62,000-square-foot turf field; and, new as of April, the 49,000-square-foot Huether Family Match Point tennis center, with bleacher seating and classroom space.

Roughly 70 miles to the west of Sioux Falls is Mitchell, where the Corn Palace is a must-see attraction, its murals recreated each year using more than 275,000 ears of corn. Groups of up to 3,250 can meet within this unique structure. Other major venues in town include the Highland Conference Center, for functions of up to 400, and the renovated Ramada Inn & Suites Conference Center, which has 20,000 square feet of meeting space. Another attraction in town is the Dakota Discovery Museum, which documents the lifestyle of prairie settlers.

The state capital, Pierre-smack-dab in the state's center-is a top spot for groups with attendees who like to fish: Just a few miles away is the man-made Lake Oahe, where attendees can while away their free time before or after business. The main meeting venue in Pierre is the Best Western Ramkota Hotel & Conference Center, which has event space for up to 1,500 attendees.

In Aberdeen, the Dakota Event Center has 17,000 square feet of meeting space and has hosted such groups as the South Dakota Soybean Association, the South Dakota Bankers Association and the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. Other options include the 28,800-square-foot Holum Expo Building at the Brown County Fairgrounds, Northern State University's 8,000-seat Joseph H. Barnett Center and the world's first Super 8 motel, Super 8/Aberdeen East. Hunting and fishing are popular pastimes, and fans of former Aberdeen resident L. Frank Baum can check out the Storybook Land theme park, which has a Land of Oz attraction.

The Codington County Extension Complex in Watertown has 20,000 square feet of expo space. Other options include the Watertown Civic Arena, with seating for up to 5,800; the Watertown Event Center, with 32,000 square feet of space; the 1,000-seat DD Miller Auditorium; and the County Fair Banquet Hall, which can host up to 300 people.

In Huron, the South Dakota State Fairgrounds offers more than 15,000 square feet of space and grandstand seating for as many as 10,000 people. Also available are the Huron Event Center, which has 34,000 square feet of meeting space and a connected hotel, and The Plains, which offers two banquet rooms and a bowling alley.

Southwestern South Dakota: Monumental Meetings

For memorable events in this corner of the state, head to the big-name attractions. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial can host events of up to 3,000, and groups visiting the area can't leave before visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial as well.

For a truly remote retreat, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park in Custer fits the bill. The park has meeting facilities for up to 1,200 attendees and also welcomes groups for overnight stays in any of its four lodges. Within Badlands National Park, the popular Cedar Pass Lodge has new guest cabins built to gold-LEED standards; exteriors resemble the park's original 1928 cabins and interiors are lined with local pine.

Rapid City is a base for many visiting groups and satisfies planners with more than 5,000 guest rooms. A top meeting venue is the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which features more than 175,000 square feet of event space including a 9,173-seat arena and a 7,637-seat arena. The center can host up to 6,000 attendees and boasts 3,000 free parking spaces. Also in Rapid City is the Central States Fairgrounds, which offers close to 143,000 square feet of space including a 6,000-square-foot grandstand.

The aptly named town of Hot Springs is about 55 miles south of Rapid City, and its spa resorts have been attracting visitors for decades. For business affairs, the Mueller Civic Center has five event spaces, the largest of which can accommodate up to 500 people. Another area option is the Prairie Wind Casino & Hotel on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where convention space includes the 21,000-square-foot Lakota Dome.

That's the Spirit

The northern reaches of the Great Plains offer perspective and inspire fresh thinking. And although communities tend to be spread out, there's a collective support system in the region that helps association planners organize the perfect event, be it a rural retreat or a big-city convention that spills over into the suburbs. All year round, North and South Dakota are ready to host groups with gusto. It's just good business.