The “bubbly” city of Champaign, Illinois, has become a Midwestern high-tech hub and a foodie paradise, as well as a vibrant metropolitan area with two distinct downtown districts. Almost exactly in the middle of the country and one to two and a half hours’ driving distance from Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis, Champaign offers everything that makes a Tier One city great — including the service — without the hefty price tag.
With 4,200 hotel rooms and 240,000 square feet of venue meeting space, the area has quite a burgeoning conference and special-event scene.
“The University of Illinois, the hub of our city, has been the catalyst that propelled us into where we are currently and also where we’re going,” said Caitlyn Floyd, director of sales for Visit Champaign County, the local convention and visitors bureau. “We are the fastest-growing city in Illinois three years running. That is extremely exciting for us.”
A Smart City
The university has one of the top engineering schools in the country, ranked sixth in undergraduate and ninth in graduate programs nationally. Because of that, the government decided the Urbana-Champaign campus was the perfect place to locate Blue Waters, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. That partnership has fueled the region’s growth as a mini-Silicone Valley with the likes of Intel, Yahoo, John Deere and other Fortune 500 companies opening incubators in the area.
Many conferences offer tours of the University of Illinois campus, the Research Park at the University of Illinois and Blue Waters.
Downtown Champaign is made up of four city blocks with 40 locally owned restaurants and bars, offering everything from fine dining to brewpubs and cafes. It also boasts a lively music scene, numerous shopping districts, major street festivals and art shows. Nearby Campustown, on the west side of the university campus, offers its own eclectic, vibrant scene that caters to a younger crowd and offers a melting pot of diversity from all over the world. Both are within easy walking distance of the major conference hotels in the area.
Nearby, conferencegoers can visit the famed Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, Illinois, or check out the craftsmanship of central Illinois’ Amish culture in Arthur. The area is also host to native son Roger Ebert’s Film Festival at the historic Virginia Theatre.
Major Meeting Hotels
The I Hotel and Conference Center is Champaign’s largest conference property. The boutique hotel, with 125 rooms, is right across the street from the city’s sports complex and is attached to the university’s Research Park, so it is “very innovative and very modern and sleek,” said Floyd. “It is a beautiful property.”
The complex uses state-of-the-art technology throughout its 38,000 square feet of meeting space, which includes 12 conference rooms, two ballrooms and 10 meeting rooms. It also features an on-site bar and restaurant called Houlihan’s and has a full spa on property.
The nearby trio of Hilton-branded hotels make up the area’s second-largest conference venue, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space scattered throughout the city’s Hilton Garden Inn, Home2 Suites by Hilton and Homewood Suites by Hilton properties. Combined, the hotels have 301 guest rooms. The properties are about a decade old, but the meeting space and guest rooms were recently renovated.
“They have great ownership that invests in the property,” said Floyd.
For smaller meetings or events, the Hyatt Place Champaign/Urbana in the heart of downtown has 145 rooms, including five corner suites with 180-degree views of downtown Champaign and Campustown. Many planners from the surrounding big cities use the space for board retreats because of the area’s accessibility by interstate highway and regional airport.
The Illini Union Hotel is in the heart of the University of Illinois campus overlooking the Quad. It has 72 rooms and two VIP suites, and it can accommodate up to 900 guests in its main ballroom. It also has 24 breakout rooms.
Champaign’s Unique Venues
If planners are looking for a more intimate conference setting, Champaign has three unique spaces within a short drive of downtown.
The Pear Tree Estate is a nationally recognized meeting space that can accommodate 400 people. It was founded by a local sister duo, Annie and Lauren Murray, who have made a name for themselves in the industry because of their culinary talents and high level of service. With the help of friends and family, the sisters built the property from the ground up.
“The space is fantastic,” said Floyd. “We’ve been finding a lot of meetings and conventions looking for unique stand-alone facilities. They are one of our favorites.”
The Pear Tree is a beautiful property with wooden exposed beams, stained concrete, Edison bulbs, stone fireplaces and flexible meeting space. And although the service is exceptional, Floyd said the sisters knock it out of the park with their phenomenal food.
Many conference planners are looking for more creative spaces that give attendees outdoor experiences, as well as traditional meeting spaces for getting down to business, said Floyd.
“They are really intrigued with the space, and the food is great,” she said. “Everything is done on-site which lets them be more creative surrounded by a beautiful atmosphere.”
Willow Creek Farm is a sustainable farm-to-table venue about two miles from Urbana, Illinois, that provides a one-of-a-kind experience. Everything served on the farm, including beef, lamb and chicken, is grown or raised on the property. Seating for 250 people is in a rustic barn that is elegantly appointed. The space offers free on-site Wi-Fi and audiovisual equipment.
“This has also been a really popular option for groups looking to do something outside the venue where they are hosting their meeting,” Floyd said.
The venue offers five-course meals and wine pairings for large groups. Attendees can also take a tour of the farm, which is beautifully perched on a small lake.
Willow Creek is popular with Chicago groups that come down to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
“It has been very well received,” Floyd said.
One of the more festive venues is the Colonnades Club, on the third floor of the university’s Memorial Stadium. The space stretches from end zone to end zone and can host events for up to 500 people in its 15,750-square-foot event space — just not on game days.
The Colonnades Club features vaulted ceilings, exposed brick and access to outdoor terraces facing both into the stadium and outside looking toward Campustown. Event planners can put their conference logos on the scoreboards and use the stadium lights.
“It is a really popular place for people who are alumni to the college or a sports fan in general or looking for an impressive and unique space,” Floyd said.
Outside the City
About 18 miles away from downtown, Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch offers group tours that allow participants to feed graham crackers to the reindeer and even get a kiss from their favorite animal. It has a Western-themed banquet hall reminiscent of a Wild West saloon that serves chuck-wagon-style meals on tin plates. Visitors can also dress up in Western wear and pose for pictures.
A nearby area, Arthur, is part of Champaign County. It has Illinois’ largest Amish population and the fourth-largest Amish population in the country.
“A lot of people are coming here, especially international groups,” said Floyd. “It is definitely on their bucket list to make a half day over there and get to experience all that.”
A tour of Amish country includes visiting Amish homes, lunch on a farm where an Amish family prepares the meal and talks about the Amish culture and experience. Arthur’s downtown business district has numerous shops selling Amish handicrafts, handmade furniture, gifts and clothing.
The Amish community is about 40 minutes outside Champaign proper.
Of course, convention attendees aren’t sitting in meetings the whole time. During their downtime, they can take pedal tours of either downtown Champaign or Campustown. Passengers pedal a large vehicle that looks like an open-air, covered tram, all while enjoying the history of the area and adult beverages. Planners can also organize brewery tours and tastings trails in Champaign, with eight local breweries to choose from.
Nearby Tuscola has an outlet mall and a 100-year-old family-owned candy factory that visitors can tour. Champaign also has a thriving arts scene and some world-class museums.
The area attracts thousands of visitors to its many festivals, including Pygmalion, a music, food, literature and technology festival that attracts more than 5,000 attendees every year in Urbana. The area also plays host to Illinois’ second-largest Pride Festival, outside of Chicago, and Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, which features films the organizers believe didn’t do as well at the box office as they should have. The 12 films are shown over five days in the historic Virginia Theatre, a 1920s-era movie house. Ebertfest also highlights the writers, actors, directors and producers of the various films and offers question-and-answer sessions with the audience.
Location: East central Illinois
Access: University of Illinois Willard Airport, interstates 74, 72 and 57
Major Meeting Spaces: I Hotel and Conference Center; Hilton Garden Inn Champaign/Urbana; Hyatt Place Champaign/Urbana; Illini Union Hotel
Hotel Rooms: 4,200
Offsite Venues: Pear Tree Estate, Willow Creek Farm, Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch
Visit Champaign County