There’s something endlessly inspiring about meeting in and around the mountains. It’s hard not to be motivated at a venue surrounded by grandeur, active with wildlife, where the beauty of the rugged outdoors beckons with time for both recreation and quiet reflection.
Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are full of retreat destinations like these, while their bigger cities offer all the high energy and development one might expect of a region that has been called the Wild West, a descriptor which naturally and historically still fits.
Western Montana: Mountain Time
Up on the Canadian border, and encompassing more than a million acres of mountains and lakes, the majestic Glacier National Park began to take shape more than 170 million years ago. Today, it’s an incredible place to get away from it all, and if you’re gathering anywhere in this part of the state, a park visit is a must.
A gateway to Glacier is the city of Whitefish, where one of the most popular choices for group gatherings is Grouse Mountain Lodge, with 11,000 square feet of meeting space. In June, it welcomed the Montana Broadcasters Association Convention, which attracted 175 attendees. In addition to business and awards, the group enjoyed rafting on the Flathead River and golfing at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club (which began a renovation of its restaurant and lounge in January).
“The beauty, the ability to do outdoor activities and the tremendous service you receive from all of the venues make the area a great host for meetings,” said Dewey Bruce, association president and CEO, who planned to return with his family for the annual Winter Carnival in February.
Updated options include the Best Western Rocky Mountain Lodge, with 2,522 square feet of event space; the Lodge at Whitefish Lake (which recently hosted the National Association of State Conservation Agencies), with 8,000 square feet of event space, a lakeside pavilion and a new spa; and the Whitefish Performing Arts Center, now featuring 490 seats and 16,000 square feet of space. The 300-seat O’Shaughnessy Center can also host special events. North of town, the Whitefish Mountain Resort has renovated and expanded its base lodge. It can welcome up to 200 for meetings and, in addition to skiing and snowboarding, offers zip line experiences.
In Kalispell, south of Whitefish, the Hilton Garden Inn is the largest meeting hotel, with 14,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 8,500-square-foot ballroom for up to 700. The Best Western Plus Flathead Lake Inn & Suites has 9,555 square feet of function space for up to 650 people. At the southern tip of Lake Flathead is Polson, where a new Red Lion Hotel is currently being built with 80 guest rooms and nearly 3,500 square feet of meeting space. It is expected to open this June.
Tucked neatly into an area where five mountain ranges meet, Missoula has a long heritage of taking care of traveling groups. Today the city boasts 170,000 square feet of meeting space and more than 3,200 guest rooms. The university is home to the largest combined space—some 37,000 square feet that can be used for meetings and exhibits—but there are several other notable venues downtown: Caras Park Pavilion, located on the banks of the Clark Fork River and able to host up to 3,500 people; the Roxy Theater, site of the annual International Wildlife Film Festival, with seating for up to 140; and the Missoula Art Museum, ideal for events of up to 200. North of downtown, the Hilton Garden Inn has 22,000 square feet of event space.
Central Montana: Historic Hosts
A history of success is evident in Montana’s boomtowns, which were developed in times of prosperity. In the capital city of Helena, a wealth of 19th-century mansions offer tours and some host special events. One historic venue is the 1920 Moorish Revival–style Helena Civic Center, with its 1,925-seat auditorium and a ballroom for up to 1,500. Additional space is available at the 15,000-square-foot Gateway Center or the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds, which has a 36,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 5,000-square-foot pre-function area. The largest meeting hotel in town is the Red Lion Colonial Hotel, which has 15,000 square feet of event space.
To the south is Butte, where copper raised the status of the settlement back in the day. The aptly named Copper King Hotel & Convention Center is the town’s main meeting venue; it offers 17,000 square feet of meeting space and can host banquets of up to 2,700 people in its Copper Dome.
Ninety miles north of Helena is Great Falls, where the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center has a 5,500-square-foot exhibit hall, a 158-seat theater and a small meeting room. Or surround your group with paintings of the American West at the C.M. Russell Museum, which can host gatherings of up to 100. Great Falls is also home to the Montana ExpoPark, site of the Montana State Fair. It can accommodate up to 7,400 people. Other choices include the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts, which houses a 1,782-seat theater as well as the Mansfield Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 2,200 people or up to 92 trade-show booths. And closer to the city’s international airport, the Best Western Plus Heritage Inn can accommodate groups of five to 15,000.
Southern Montana: Big Bounty
If your attendees and their families are the skiing sort, Big Sky is the place for you. The Big Sky Resort now boasts the nation’s largest ski complex and of particular note for visiting groups is its new “Master the Mountain” program, which takes place in January and February and is designed to help participants become more adept at tackling ungroomed (read: powder) sections of the mountain. The resort includes lodging for more than 2,000 attendees and function space that includes the 46,000-square-foot Yellowstone Conference Center and the Lone Peak Pavilion, which can host outdoor receptions in the summertime.
Another top destination for outdoorsy groups is Bozeman, where locals are able to regularly golf, ski, hike, bike and take advantage of the surrounding hillsides. When it’s time to get down to business, the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Montana State University has 50,000 square feet of space. At the resort of Bridger Bowl, 16 miles north, the mid-mountain Deer Park Chalet can host summer conferences of up to 300 people, and the Jim Bridger Lodge, at the resort’s base, has facilities for up to 150. Just 13 miles southwest of Bozeman, in Gallatin Gateway, the 320 Guest Ranch on the Gallatin River has a new conference center for up to 250 and log cabin-style accommodations for up to 200.
Prefer to get together in the state’s biggest city? It’s Billings, where you’ll have more than 360,000 square feet of function space and 4,000 hotel rooms from which to choose. The largest facility is MetraPark, which features an arena for up to 12,000 people, a 6,500-seat grandstand, a 77,400-square-foot Expo Center and a 28,800-square-foot pavilion. More intimate spaces downtown include the Petroleum Club, available for groups of up to 300; the nearby Yellowstone Art Museum, for events of up to 400 people; and the 1,400-seat Alberta Bair Theater.
The largest convention hotel in town is the Holiday Inn Grand Montana, with 50,000 square feet of meeting space. Other options include the Northern Hotel, a historic property that was completely renovated and opened last year, and the Big Horn Resort, which has indoor event space in addition to a large indoor water park.
Northern Wyoming: Wondrous Wilds & Cowboy Country
If you’re seeking a truly unforgettable setting, Yellowstone National Park should be near the top of your list, no matter the season. In the winter months, attendees can take a snow-surrounded dip in geothermally heated waters or snowshoe their way around geysers, and the summer opens up a wonderland of epic hiking trails and rock-climbing sites. The park also has two notable meeting properties: the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, each of which offers event space for up to 100 people.
Another spectacular option is just south: Grand Teton National Park. The Jackson Lake Lodge is the hub of the park, boasting the largest of its lodging options. It offers meeting and banquet space that can accommodate up to 600.
Farther south, in Jackson, one of the must-see attractions includes the 11,000-strong herd of migrating elk at the National Elk Refuge. Or if your group consists of more city slickers than wildlife watchers, there’s plenty of chic shopping to be done in town. Overlooking the refuge is the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which features more than 13,000 square feet of event space, including a 200-seat auditorium. For meetings, the Snow King Resort Hotel & Grand View Lodge offers function space at the hotel and an additional 9,000 square feet of event space in its lodge condominiums. Six miles away, at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Teton Village is home to the newly renovated Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa, which can host up to 150 people for events. There’s also the Four Seasons Resort/Jackson Hole, which has newly renovated guest rooms and event space for up to 280.
In north-central Wyoming, several cities are popular with anyone who holds the Wild West dear to their heart, one of which is Cody, founded in 1896 by Buffalo Bill. Attractions include the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a multi-museum complex that hosts all kinds of functions and is designed to host groups of up to 700. And each year from June 1 to August 31, there is a nightly rodeo action at Stampede Park. Another venue of interest to planners is the Buffalo Bill Village Resort, with 10,000 square feet of special-event space and three on-site hotels.
In the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains is Sheridan, a town proud of its ranching and cowboy legacy (interested attendees might pay a visit to the Don King Museum, filled with saddlery and cowboy memorabilia). The Historic Sheridan Inn, a National Historic Landmark, is still in the process of renovations—11 of 22 planned guest rooms are expected to be finished by this spring—but a new, 146-seat restaurant opened at the inn in January. Major spaces for events include the Sheridan County Fairgrounds, whose largest spaces are a 9,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a grandstand for up to 4,200 people; the Holiday Inn Sheridan Convention Center, with 12,000 square feet of function space; and Sheridan College, which has event space for up to 263 people.
Buffalo, 35 miles south, can host groups of up to 60 at the historic Occidental Hotel (its saloon has been frequented by cowboys for more than 100 years), or up to 200 can gather at the Historic Bozeman Crossing & Conference Center. Larger events can be held at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. Farther east, in Gillette, the 1,100-acre Cam-Plex offers 202,887 square feet of event space, while the Boss Lodge Restaurant & Business Center has 19,000 square feet of space. On the campus of Gillette College, groups are welcome to use the 91,000-square-foot Technical Education Center, which is home to a culinary training center that has banquet space for up to 300.
Southern & Central Wyoming: Eager to Please
There are rodeo towns and then there are rodeo cities. Cheyenne is a standout of the latter category thanks to its annual Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration, which for the last 10 consecutive years has been awarded the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year Award. The summertime event continues to improve on various levels, most notably bringing in big-name performers as an enticement, one of the ways the city does its part to draw and please visitors.
Visiting associations will find that the city’s hospitality extends to the meetings industry as well. Recent guests have included the Wyoming Taxpayers Association and the Wyoming Optometric Association.
Planners who want their group’s event to coincide with the famed summer event (this year scheduled to run July 17-26), however, should note that accommodations should be booked well in advance. At any other time of year, the rodeo’s host, Frontier Park, can be all yours (or partially yours, depending on the size of your group). Its facilities include an arena for up to 19,000 people and a 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall that can support as many as 123 trade-show booths. Nearby, the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum is available for events of up to 100. Additional venues in town include the 2,100-seat Ice & Event Center, the 1,500-seat Cheyenne Civic Center Performing Arts Theatre and the restored 1886 Cheyenne Depot Museum, which can host up to 300 people.
About 25 miles west of town, Curt Gowdy State Park has a new welcome center with sweeping views of the Rockies. The park is home to an amphitheater, and its Hynds Lodge (open from May through September) offers overnight accommodations, a kitchen, a covered porch and dining and event space.
In hotel news, construction has begun downtown on a 130-room Hilton Garden Inn that’s expected to include 8,000 square feet of meeting space when it opens in 2016. Last year, the 96-room TownePlace Suites made its debut with a 300-square-foot meeting room. The 72-room Comfort Inn & Suites also opened with two small event spaces, and the SpringHill Suites by Marriott recently finished lobby and guest-room renovations. A new Staybridge Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites are expected to open later this year. Existing hotels with sizeable conference space include the Little America Hotel & Resort, with 32,000 square feet of event space; the Holiday Inn, with 19,000 square feet of space for functions; and the Historic Plains Hotel, a landmark property with 9,000 square feet of meeting space.
Some 180 miles north, on the banks of the North Platte River, Casper has more than 180,000 square feet of meeting space. Top options for events include the Parkway Plaza Hotel & Convention Centre, with more than 25,000 square feet of meeting space; the recently renovated Best Western Ramkota Hotel, with 14,000 square feet of special-event space; and the Ramada Plaza Casper Hotel & Convention Center, with 11,726 square feet of meeting facilities. The expansive hillside Casper Events Center overlooks the Platte River Valley, making it popular with planners; it can seat nearly 10,000 people and boasts more than 29,000 square feet of exhibit space.
Because of the region’s wealth of oil- and gas-related endeavors, Casper has gained a reputation as an energy-industry hub, which helped lure the 2015 Wyoming Oil & Gas Fair to town. General Manager Dave Hutton reported receiving 100 emails suggesting Casper as the ideal host.
Back in the early 20th century, the slogan of Lander was “where rails end and trails begin.” Though it has progressed over time, visitors can still find a handful of thoroughly western attractions like the Fremont County Pioneer Museum and the Museum of the American West. And Lander’s location at the foot of the Wind River Mountains makes it a mecca for climbers. Options for small group meetings include the Sinks Canyon Center at Central Wyoming College, which can host up to 300, and the Pronghorn Lodge, with event space for up to 200.
Idaho: A gem for Meetings
Idaho got its glittering nickname—the Gem State—due to a diversity of gemstones found there. Today, the state attracts a similarly diverse number of visiting organizations. The Botanical Society of America, the American Society for Nondestructive Testing, the Great Basin Anthropological Association and the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association are just a few groups that have held events in Idaho of late.
Last year, Boise was ranked as one of the country’s top 10 small- to mid-sized cities in which to live by Livability.com and Forbes named it one of the best places to retire. The city was praised for its active recreational environment, its walkability and the economic cost of doing business.
Downtown, the Boise Centre currently offers 50,000 square feet of exhibit and convention space (including a 349-seat auditorium) but is going to benefit from a $70 million expansion and renovation that is expected to double the size of the facility when the project finishes late next year. Plans include a new 15,000-square-foot ballroom and 14,000 square feet of meeting space. Next to the Boise Centre is the Grove Hotel, which has its own event space and is attached to the 5,000-seat CenturyLink Arena. The arena, in turn, is next to Grove Plaza, which hosts more than 60 events each year.
Also in development downtown is Jack’s Urban Meeting Place, a not-for-profit, creative center and gathering place that is scheduled to open this fall. JUMP will feature indoor and outdoor space including the 10,300-square-foot JUMP Room, a kitchen studio and a multimedia studio.
The unique Basque Museum & Cultural Center is the heart of what’s called the Basque Block, a neighborhood filled with thousands of people during the annual Jaialdi Festival, one of the largest Basque events in the world (this year scheduled to run July 28 to August 2). Both the center and the entire block itself can host events for hundreds of attendees.
Boise State University has three notable venues that can be used for special events: the Student Union, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people; the 2,037-seat Morrison Center for the Performing Arts; and Taco Bell Arena, which has 7,472 square feet of exhibit space (for up to 110 booths) or seating for upwards of 12,000 people, as well as five additional multipurpose rooms. To the west of campus, the historic Boise Depot can accommodate up to 300 guests in its Great Hall.
South of downtown, near the airport, the Boise Hotel & Conference Center is undergoing a major renovation and will be rebranded as the Wyndham Garden Boise Airport by this summer. A few miles away, the World Center for Birds of Prey has outdoor function space and offers various educational programs or flight demonstrations.
Northwest of the downtown is Expo Idaho, which offers 84,000 square feet of event space. It recently hosted events for the Southwest Idaho Cycling Association, the Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America and the Idaho Herpetological Society. A few miles west, in Meridian, the 60-acre Bogus Creek Outfitters has outdoor spaces for up to 1,500 people and in the winter months offers sleigh rides and dinner outings for up to 56 people.
In Nampa, the 100,000-square-foot Idaho Center has an arena that can seat up to 12,279 and a 10,500-seat outdoor amphitheater. Other venues include a 1,500-seat auditorium at Northwest Nazarene University and the Nampa Civic Center, with an auditorium for up to 640 people (or up to 110 trade-show booths) and a banquet room for up to 1,200. Military-minded organizations might like to explore the Warhawk Air Museum, which has a 20,000-square-foot wing dedicated to both World Wars and an 18,000-square-foot Cold War wing.
Down in Coeur d’Alene, the Coeur d’Alene Resort offers event space including the 11,000-square-foot Hagadone Event Center at the Resort Golf Course. Groups of up to 5,000 can hold their event at the Silverwood Theme Park in nearby Athol, and in Worley, 40,000 square feet of conference space awaits guests at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel.
Considerable upgrades are taking place in Sun Valley. At the Sun Valley Resort, the Sun Valley Lodge closed in September to undergo a major renovation and expansion. It is expected to reopen mid-June with a new spa, a new outdoor pool and pool cafe, a restaurant, larger guest rooms (many are being doubled in size), a refurbished lobby and meeting space for up to 1,000. The Knob Hill Inn features meeting space for up to 150 people with views of Bald Mountain.
In Stanley, 60 miles northwest, the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has a swimming pool fed by hot springs and can host up to 50 for retreats in its cabins and lodge.
Pocatello, in the southeast corner of the state, is home to Idaho State University. Its L.E. & Thelma E. Stephens Performing Arts Center welcomes groups with a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 450-seat theater and a 200-seat theater. Additionally, the university’s Pond Student Union offers 19 meeting rooms. Less than an hour’s drive to the north is the city of Idaho Falls, where the Shilo Inn Suites Hotel has 10,900 square feet of function space and the Hilton Garden Inn near Idaho Falls Regional Airport has 16,520 square feet of meeting space. There’s also the Civic Auditorium, which can seat up to 1,612 attendees.
Moved by Mountains
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” said John Muir, the American naturalist who believed anyone could benefit from time spent in the wild outdoors. Many association groups can attest to the stirring powers of retreats and events held in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, all of which offer inspirational vistas, fresh air, active recreational options and venues set amid areas of natural splendor. There are few better places to set your sights.