by Linda Hayes | December 01, 2016

From small but remarkable Minot up north to the burgeoning meetings hub of Sioux Falls down south, destinations in the Dakotas continue to improve upon a long history of hospitality with various appealing meeting options.

Modern venues and unique accommodations offer a sense of place and often a nod toward regional heritage, while grand natural attractions and monuments improve the attendee experience. And locals have a way of enhancing events with small details that are bound to please as much as they surprise, turning that quick two- or three-day meeting into a memorable gathering between colleagues that ended too soon.

Southern North Dakota: Upscale & Energized

As North Dakota's largest city, Fargo steps it up a notch when it comes to hosting group events, which is why so many regional organizations have met here over the last year, including the Minnesota Dental Association, the Automobile Dealers Association of North Dakota, the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, the North Country Trail Association and, more recently, the Association for Rural & Small Libraries.

Planners can take their pick from more than 5,200 guest rooms in 10 convention hotels and unique venues such as the Fargo Air Museum, with two expansive hangars; the Plains Art Museum; the Red River Zoo, which welcomes everything from corporate meetings to company picnics; and the Fargo Brewing Company, which recently opened a second, 85-seat taproom southwest of downtown called the Ale House.

The Fargodome at North Dakota State University is a popular option, with 115,000 square feet of exhibit space or seating for up to 25,000. Other top meeting venues include the Fargo Civic Memorial Auditorium & Centennial Hall, with three public-use areas totaling 34,000 square feet of space; the 18,000-square-foot Avalon Events Center, renovated last year; and the Sanctuary Events Center, which features the 4,600-square-foot Great Hall & Balcony and the 5,100-square-foot Lower Hall.

In hotel news, the Four Points by Sheraton/Fargo opened late last year with 90 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 150 people, and the Holiday Inn/Fargo is undergoing a $7.5 million remodel of guest rooms, public areas and meeting facilities.

In the state capital of Bismarck, the Bismarck Event Center Arena and Exhibit Hall is conveniently located just three miles from the Bismarck Airport and offers 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, an 8,600-seat indoor multiuse arena and nearly 20 additional meeting rooms. More than 3,500 guest rooms are also located within 15 miles of the airport in the Bismarck-Mandan area.

The 34th annual National Sunflower Association Summer Seminar was held in Bismarck in June with 165 attendees, including sunflower growers, researchers and industry personnel. Functions were held at both the Ramada Hotel and the North Dakota Heritage Center, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people for special events and features a year-old amphitheater.

Northern North Dakota: Heritage & Hospitality

Near the Canadian border, Minot is known for its Scandinavian heritage. Each year, it puts on the continent's biggest Scandinavian festival, held at the North Dakota State Fair Center, which features more than 250,000 square feet of display and support areas. While the center is used for everything from conventions to rodeos, other sizable sites in town include Minot State University's 10,000-seat MSU Dome; the nearby Grand Hotel, which has more than 17,000 square feet of meeting space for up to 660 people; and the downtown Municipal Auditorium, which can seat up to 5,000.

About 100 miles northeast, in the small city of Dunseith, the 2,339-acre International Peace Garden is dedicated to the friendship between the United States and Canada and welcomes special group events as well as overnight accommodations.

On the eastern side of the state, near the border with Minnesota, Grand Forks is home to the University of North Dakota, whose campus welcomes many outside meetings and events each year. Venues include Ralph Engelstad Arena, which can seat upwards of 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 offers more than 160,000 square feet of event space, a 30,000-square-foot divisible ballroom and an arena that can be configured for up to 22,560. Cultural options in town include the North Dakota Museum of Art, with space for up to 350, and the historic, 416-seat Empire Art Center. Attendees will enjoy the city's prolific mix of sports events, a vibrant arts scene and a revitalized downtown. Additionally, a plan to improve and expand pedestrian and bicycle paths in the greater Grand Forks area is scheduled to move forward early next year.

Eastern South Dakota: Hubs of Activity

With a growing economy, nearly 5,000 hotel accommodations, multipurpose venues, plenty of green spaces on the Big Sioux River and service by the recently upgraded Sioux Falls Regional Airport, Sioux Falls hits all the bases for meeting planners.

Downtown, the Sioux Falls Convention Center offers more than 71,000 square feet of flexible space, including a 16,800-square-foot ballroom and 13 breakout rooms. It's connected to a Sheraton, an 8,000-seat arena and the Denny Sanford Premier Center, which can seat up to 12,000. And nearby is a new hot spot: Badlands Pawn, Gold & Jewelry, a concert venue for up to 1,600 people that opened in November.

Two major upcoming events scheduled to be held in the city include the Catholic Daughters of the Americas' 2018 National Convention, expected to bring in 1,000 attendees, and the 2018 Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic, a trade show that could draw as many as 25,000 attendees.

The Washington Pavilion, a center for arts and science, features a dozen spaces for events including the 1,800-seat Mary W. Sommervold Hall, home to the South Dakota Symphony. A few blocks away, the 1913 Orpheum Theater has three separate spaces for events, the largest of which is a 686-seat theater.

At the University of Sioux Falls, groups can use the 800-seat auditorium within Jeschke Fine Arts Center. And the Prairie Center, affiliated with the Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, is available for group use as well.

For extracurricular events and entertainment, attendees can enjoy an array of dining options (some 650 restaurants), cultural experiences such as the downtown SculptureWalk and time spent meandering the famed Sioux Falls Bike Trail. And a recent microbrew trend has taken hold; stops worth a visit include the new Fernson Brewing Company, which has a contemporary tap room for tastings and special events of up to 200.

The 162-acre Sanford Sports Complex, home to the Scheels Ice Plex, a fieldhouse and a tennis facility with bleacher seating, also offers six conference and meeting spaces as well as a variety of other multipurpose areas. Less than three miles south, at the newly renovated Elmwood Golf Course, a $13 million hotel-and-restaurant complex is under construction and is expected to open in fall 2017 with 116 guest rooms, a conference center for up to 300 people, a pub and a 200-seat restaurant.

West of Sioux Falls, Mitchell is known for its Corn Palace, which was recently renovated and is decorated each year with thousands of bushels of corns, grains and native grasses. The city's main convention facilities include the Davison County Fairgrounds & Activities Center and the Ramada Inn & Suites Conference Center. The Highland Conference Center, which is attached to the Hampton Inn, recently hosted the South Dakota Local Foods conference.

Pierre, located in the geographic center of the state, is the nation's second-smallest capital city. That said, it and its sister city, Fort Pierre, are big on outdoor recreation, and groups can easily head out for a day of fishing and kayaking on Lake Oahe or an afternoon of hiking and biking at Fort Pierre National Grassland. In the winter, locals hit the snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails at the Oahe Downstream and Farm Island recreation areas or LaFramboise Island Nature Area. When business calls, the Ramkota Hotel & Conference Center answers with 151 guest rooms and more than 24,000 square feet of event space for up to 1,500 attendees.

About 160 miles northeast, in Aberdeen, the Dakota Event Center has 17,000 square feet of meeting space, two hotels and a restaurant all under one roof. Other local options include the 28,800-square-foot Holum Expo Building at the Brown County Fairgrounds and an 8,000-seat arena at Northern State University's Joseph H. Barnett Center.

Hunting and fishing are popular pastimes, as are walking or biking any of the newly developed trails in and around the city. Fans of former Aberdeen resident L. Frank Baum can check out Storybook Land theme park, which has a Land of Oz attraction.

Southwestern South Dakota: Room for Thought

Grand-scale attractions rule in this corner of the state. On the top of the list is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which can host groups at its amphitheater from May 1 through October 31; a café and a terrace are also available for special events. Visiting the giant Crazy Horse Memorial is a can't-miss experience as well.

A less high-profile (and more remote) option is the 71,000-acre Custer State Park in Custer, with a new visitor center, meeting facilities for up to 1,200 attendees and four lodges for overnight stays. And within Badlands National Park, the Cedar Pass Lodge has guest cabins built to gold LEED-certified standards yet reminiscent of the park's original 1928 accommodations.

Known as the Gateway to Mount Rushmore, Rapid City welcomes groups with more than 5,000 guest rooms, plenty of outdoor recreational options (golf, hiking, mountain biking) and a variety of meeting facilities. Its Rushmore Plaza Civic Center is the prime venue, with more than 175,000 square feet of event space, including a 9,173-seat arena and a 7,637-seat arena. Another option is the Central States Fairgrounds, whose features include a 4,500-seat grandstand, an 118,000-square-foot Event Center and several smaller buildings. About 55 miles south, Hot Springs and its spa resorts are ideal for groups that want to relax and recharge.

Destined for the Dakotas

With eyes on the future yet still honoring a historic past, North and South Dakota offer association groups a singular experience. Association meetings in these two states are destined to be unforgettable and productive in every way imaginable.