by Barbara Beckley | March 01, 2017

Majestic mountains rising into big blue skies. An abundance of wildlife roaming the land. Beautiful rivers. Endless landscapes. Adventures as big as all outdoors. These are just a few of the wonders that inspire association groups gathering in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

“Seeing moose and the Grand Teton Mountains was my biggest thrill,” said Jean Johnson of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, who hails from Washington, D.C. “Our Cheyenne meeting drew the largest attendance of any convention ever,” said Candy Moulton, executive director of the Western Writers of America.

Whether it’s natural enticements or the states’ dedication to a growing number of event venues and memorable outdoor experiences (including the total solar eclipse that will sweep through Idaho and Wyoming on August 21), this region perennially promises inspired meetings and awesome adventures.

Wyoming: Hundreds of Ways to Wow

“My attendees loved Wyoming. It’s a great destination, especially for those coming from the Midwestern states,” said Johnson, meeting and event adviser for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Other fans of the state’s meetings scene include the Western Governors’ Association, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, the Flying Dentists Association and the Astronomical League.

Casper, on the banks of the North Platte River, has been declared one of the top spots to witness this summer’s eclipse, an occasion duly noted by the Astronomical League, which will hold its annual convention, AstroCon 2017, at the Casper Parkway Plaza Hotel & Convention Center in the days leading up to the phenomenon. Overflow is already booked at many other local properties including the Ramkota Hotel & Conference Center, the Ramada Plaza Casper Hotel & Convention Center and the new Residence Inn by Marriott, which opened last fall.

The city is expecting some 50,000 people for the eclipse and has planned a festival to celebrate beginning August 17. Downtown, a new outdoor plaza called the David Street Station is under construction and scheduled to open its western half in time for the eclipse gathering. When fully complete, the venue will feature 43,000 square feet of space. A popular year-round venue is the hilltop Casper Events Center, which can seat up to 10,000, has a full-service kitchen and affords spectacular valley views.

While Mother Nature will darken the skies above Wyoming for a few amazing moments, her handiwork has attracted visitors to Yellowstone National Park for centuries. The park, located in the northwestern corner of the state, is home to grizzlies, wolves, bison, geologic wonders and meeting facilities for up to 100 attendees. Favorite stays include the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins near the eponymous geyser and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, which began a $7.9 million renovation in October (though the first phase is expected to finish in July, services will remain limited throughout the summer, according to park officials). The Mammoth Hotel dining room recently became the first restaurant in the national park system to earn the 4-Star Green Restaurant Association certification, which recognizes its sustainable operations. On the east side of the park, the Canyon Lodge & Cabins now offers more than 500 guest rooms and cabins as the result of a two-year renovation that added five new lodges last year; additional food-and-beverage and landscape enhancements are expected wrap up this spring.

Another Wild West experience can be had in Cody, which was founded by showman Buffalo Bill Cody in 1896 and is 50 miles from Yellowstone’s east entrance. Last year the town welcomed the Wyoming Association of Realtors and the Flying Dentists Association.

Must-see sites include the historic Irma Hotel, which was named after Cody’s daughter and can host events of up to 200. A half-mile away, the multi-museum Buffalo Bill Center of the West has indoor gathering space for up to 300 and outdoor space for up to 700. Year-round, the Buffalo Bill Village Resort offers 10,000 square feet of special-event space, a Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn and a collection of cabins.

South of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park saw a record number of visitors in 2016 for the third consecutive year. Its towering iconic spires, Snake River and glacial Jenny Lake are just some of its highlights. The park’s hub is the Jackson Lake Lodge, which is open May to October and features meeting space for up to 600 attendees.

Jackson Hole Airport is also within the park, 30 miles south of the lodge. It’s another 10 miles to the town of Jackson, where planners will find several options for events and entertainment.

Large area properties for groups include the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which offers roughly 13,000 square feet of event space, and the Snow King Hotel (and its sister property, the Grand View Lodge), with 10,000 square feet of meeting space. From the Snow King, it’s a short walk to downtown, where attendees can visit the shops and restaurants surrounding Town Square or enjoy the famed Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, which welcomes events of up to 400.

New hotels in Jackson include Hotel Jackson, a luxury property that opened in mid-2015 with a rooftop hot tub, fireplaces in every room and event space for up to 80, and the Springhill Suites/Jackson Hole, scheduled to open in April with 121 guest rooms and 1,500 square feet of meeting space.

For a high-end gathering, Teton Village is just 12 miles to the northwest at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Meeting properties include the Four Seasons Resort/Jackson Hole, the Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa and the Snake River Lodge & Spa.

Cheyenne, Wyoming’s capital, proved it was made for meetings when it hosted the Western Writers of America Convention last June. An “outstanding offer of support” was made by the Cheyenne Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said Candy Moulton, and the event was marked with record attendance.

The Western Writers took full advantage of Cheyenne’s cultural side, enjoying events at the Laramie County Public Library, the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum and a day tour to the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. The Nelson Museum of the West also proved to be a big hit with attendees.

Each summer, Cheyenne Frontier Days is a major event on the city calendar. The event (scheduled to run July 21–30 this year) is held at Frontier Park, which offers a 19,000-seat arena and 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall. Other local venues include the Ice & Event Center; the Cheyenne Civic Center Performing Arts Theatre; and the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, which is adding three new meeting rooms to its current event space for up to 150 people, a project expected to be complete later this year. The city’s largest meeting hotel is the 80-acre Little America Hotel & Resort, which can host functions of up to 1,475 people and has a nine-hole golf course.

Cowboy-themed dinner shows and guided trail rides are part of the package at the Bit-O-Wyo Ranch, 20 miles west of town. Groups can also stay and meet at the nearby Curt Gowdy State Park, which has an amphitheater and lodge accommodations open May through September. Another 120 miles west, near Saratoga, is the Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch.

Idaho: Expanding Opportunities

An expanding convention center and three new hotels are making Boise, the state capital, more meeting friendly than ever. The new and improved properties will better accommodate the city’s growing group market, which many planners attribute to Boise’s talented and enthusiastic convention bureau staff and its citizenry.

“What drew us to Boise was the great response and welcome we received from local community leaders. Everyone has been incredibly supportive,” said Ryan McGuinness, director of event development for ESPN, which will hold skateboard and BMX qualifying events for its 2017 X Games on June 10 at the city’s new Rhodes Skatepark. “The amazing scenery, the outdoor and action-sports enthusiasm and thriving skateboarding scene were also factors. And the park has all the features we look for in a course—and then some.”

Another notable venue is the downtown Boise Centre, which now offers 86,000 square feet of convention and exhibit space thanks to the September completion of the new Boise Centre East; this building features 36,000 square feet of meeting space including a 12,750-square-foot ballroom, a glass-enclosed lobby and pre-function space overlooking the Civic Plaza. The final elements of the project—a concourse and a renovation of the existing center—are expected to be finished late this summer when the entire center will offer nearly 93,000 square feet of usable space.

The first of the three new downtown hotels, the 112-room Inn at 500 Capitol, opened in January just steps from the Capitol building. Features include shuttle service in a Mercedes-Benz, meeting space for up to 150, a contemporary Italian restaurant and catering service. The 186-room Residence Inn/Downtown City Center, located down the street, and the 152-room Hyatt Place/Boise Downtown are both set to open this summer with four meeting rooms apiece.

The historic Adelmann Building now houses the Capital City Event Center and is composed of two ballrooms for up to 170 people. Other unique venues include the 5,400-seat CenturyLink Arena, Boise State University’s 2,037-seat Morrison Center for the Performing Arts and Taco Bell Arena, with 17,472 square feet of exhibit space and smaller meeting rooms. For a culinary view of the area, the new Indulge Boise offers walking and tasting tours around town.

South of downtown, Boise Airport has new daily nonstop service to Dallas-Fort Worth International on American Airlines and nonstop service to Sacramento, California, on Southwest Airlines. Nearby, the Wyndham Garden/Boise Airport can host meetings of up to 450 people, and the World Center for Birds of Prey offers outdoor event space and tours.

To the northeast, Garden City is home to the 240-acre Expo Idaho, which has more than a half-dozen indoor and outdoor spaces. For free-time fun or an off-site gathering, the Telaya and Coiled wineries’ new shared facility on the Boise River offers meeting space, a tasting room and is within walking distance of the Riverside Hotel, which has its own 21,276 square feet of special-event space.

Planners seeking large venues can head to Nampa, 20 miles west of Boise. There, the Ford Idaho Center welcomes groups with a 120,000-square-foot arena, a 100,000-square-foot sports center and a 11,000-seat amphitheater. Northwest Nazarene University and the Nampa Civic Center also welcome group events.

About 155 miles east of Boise, the resort town of Sun Valley attracts visitors from across the country and the world. For meetings, the Utah Bankers Association is just one group that has scheduled an event in town this year. Numerous direct flights serve the local Friedman Memorial Airport, the newest being Alaska Airlines’ twice-weekly direct flights to Portland, Oregon.

Popular properties include the remodeled Sun Valley Lodge, which offers meeting space for up to 1,000 people. Planners can also organize events at the resort itself; on-mountain buyouts have been introduced at the Trail Creek Cabin and the Roundhouse. And during the winter, attendees can enjoy sleigh rides to the cabin or rides in a snow groomer up to the Roundhouse. A newer winter activity is fat biking on miles of designated trails.

At the Sun Valley Gun Club, attendees can participate in a customized group skeet-or trap-shooting experience. And the par-3 Sawtooth Putting Course offers new team building and friendly competitive play, which can be followed by an evening event at the Sun Valley Club.

Nearby, in Ketchum, the new Limelight Hotel features 93 guest rooms, six suites and two- and three-bedroom residences as well as shuffleboard in its lounge and 4,000 square feet of meeting space inside and on its grounds.

In the northern Idaho Panhandle, the Coeur d’Alene Resort in the city of Coeur d’Alene charms associations with its lakefront setting, 18-hole golf course, spa and conference space for up to 1,800.

Montana: Monumental Meetings

With 5,800 skiable acres and a 4,350-foot vertical drop, the sky is not the only big thing at Big Sky Resort. Located in the southwestern Montana town of Big Sky, the resort is also increasingly a meetings favorite. “We’ve experienced record numbers of visitors in the last three years as a result of meetings and conventions,” said Chelsi Moy, a spokesperson for the resort.

Last year, the resort welcomed gatherings of the American Association of Family & Consumer Science, the Western Literature Association, the Northwest Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives and the National Association of State Budget Officers, among others. This summer, the National Bison Association will join the list. “We anticipate continuing to see group growth heading into this coming summer,” said Moy.

Future groups will enjoy an expanding infrastructure of state-of-the-art facilities, services and amenities, thanks to “Big Sky 2025: A Focused Vision for the Future,” announced last summer. The $150 million plan was established to keep the community moving forward with sustainable developments over the next 10 years. The resort has already added or upgraded 12 high-speed chairlifts, and ongoing phases call for an expansion of its Mountain Village and improvements to the 55,000-square-foot Yellowstone Conference Center and the Lone Peak Pavilion, an outdoor summer venue that can host up to 500 people. Upgrades also are planned at Big Sky’s hotels, condos and cabins, which can presently host up to 2,000 people.

Equally large facilities, but with a college-town energy, can be found in Bozeman, 50 miles north. The largest such facility is Montana State University’s 50,000-square-foot Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

Wilderness meets the city in Billings, the state’s biggest metropolis, which was developed along the Yellowstone River and is now home to about 115,000 residents. MetraPark is home to Billings’ largest gathering spaces; its choices include (but are not limited to) the 77,400-square-foot Expo Center, the 28,800-square-foot Montana Pavilion, a 12,000-seat arena, a three-acre plaza and grandstands that can seat as many as 6,200 people. For smaller affairs, the Billings Petroleum Club welcomes up to 350 and both the Yellowstone Art Museum and the historic Billings Depot can host up to 300 people.

In hotel news, the DoubleTree by Hilton/Billings, formerly a Crowne Plaza, has opened after a multimillion-dollar renovation. Meanwhile, the Billings Hotel & Convention Center has been rebranded the Red Lion Hotel & Convention Center, and the Radisson/Billings (formerly the Holiday Inn The Grand Montana) is undergoing a renovation. The Big Horn Resort features a 13,000-square-foot conference center and Montana’s largest indoor waterpark.

Helena, the state capital, is also a cultural destination. Downtown, the Holter Museum of Art has seven event spaces. Also popular are tours through the Helena Historic District or boat rides down the Missouri River’s “Gates of the Mountains,” a narrow rock passage chronicled by the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1805.

Helena’s largest meeting hotel is the Radisson Colonial, with event space for up to 500. Carroll College also welcomes groups. The Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds have a 36,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 24,000-square-foot multiuse building.

About 80 miles southwest, near Butte, the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort has a newly expanded, 11,000-square-foot conference center, an 18-hole golf course and an outdoor waterpark.

In Missoula, to the northwest, groups will find the phenomenal scenery of five mountain ranges and the playfulness of a university town—it’s home to the University of Montana, which offers 37,000 square feet of event space. For large gatherings, planners also regularly turn to the Hilton Garden Inn/Missoula, which can host up to 1,600 attendees; the DoubleTree by Hilton/Missoula Edgewater, set on the banks of the Clark Fork River, with function space for up to 1,100; and the Holiday Inn/Missoula Downtown, with 10 meeting rooms for up to 500.

Continuing north to Kalispell, new hotels include the Springhill Suites by Marriott, with 1,285 square feet of meeting space. The Best Western Plus Flathead Lake Inn & Suites, which offers space for up to 500, recently completed a renovation. Associations that have met recently include the Professional Outdoor Media Association, which held its annual business conference in Kalispell last June. Shelly Moore, the group’s membership director, reported that the marketing efforts by the Kalispell CVB were the “best of any conference we’ve held” and that the local volunteers were “critical to the success of the event.”

Whitefish, in the Flathead Valley, is the largest gateway city to Glacier National Park. Two hotels with meeting space have opened over the last year: the 86-room Firebrand Hotel downtown, which offers meeting space for up to 48 people, a rooftop patio and a spa, and the 76-room Hampton Inn & Suites, just south of town, with a meeting space for up to 96 people and an indoor pool. Longtime meetings favorites continue to be the Grouse Mountain Lodge, the Whitefish Lake Golf Club, the Whitefish Mountain Resort and the downtown Whitefish Performing Arts Center.

All variety of natural wonders await attendees inside Glacier National Park. Memories of riding along the famed and newly improved Going-to-the-Sun Road in the park’s vintage, open-top Red Buses are sure to last a lifetime. Within the park, Lake McDonald Lodge has completed a $3 million renovation.

Outside the west entrance to Glacier National Park, in Columbia Falls, the Cedar Creek Lodge & Conference Center opened last summer with 64 guest rooms, an indoor pool and 3,000 square feet of conference space. And in East Glacier Park, the century-old Glacier Park Lodge is ideal for retreats from June through September. It’s worth noting that attendees can arrive via train—the local Amtrak station is across the street.

Shaped by Western Idealism

Surrounded by some of the grandest geography in the West, with wildlife and one-of-a-kind experiences right outside the meeting room, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana create high expectations. Record turnouts aren’t uncommon and feedback tends to be full of praise. Groups that haven’t yet discovered all the benefits of these mountain states are in for a world of discovery.