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Dubuque: River town renaissance

Mississippi River towns are special. There are hundreds of them, beginning in northern Minnesota and rolling south 2,350 miles to the Delta region and the Gulf of Mexico. All those riverside communities have something different to offer. Dubuque, Iowa, has its own mix of river history and charisma, plus impressive, modern meeting facilities, to make the city an attractive destination.

Dubuque, with 58,000 residents, is a tri-state community on the west side of the Mississippi River near the Illinois and Wisconsin state lines.

“Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest community,” said Julie Kronlage, director of sales for the Dubuque Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We blend a lot of old-school charm with state-of-the-art technology and meeting facilities. In the past 15 years, we’ve put more than $500 million into our community to renovate and revitalize a lot of what we have here, including the Port of Dubuque.”


Meeting Spaces To Envy

In 2003, Dubuque built the 86,000-square-foot Grand River Center, the city’s main convention center. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, it overlooks the waterway and Dubuque’s downtown. The center is a few blocks from hotels and other off-site activities. The center has already undergone updates since opening a decade ago.

Grand River Center features a 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall. “You’re able to break that space down into two pieces: one 18,000 square feet, the other 12,000 square feet. If attendees want a theater-style meeting space, we can fit almost 3,000 people in that room, or we break it down into a banquet room and seat 2,200 people,” said Kronlage.

On the second level, there are six breakout rooms and a large ballroom that can be chopped into smaller rooms to meet client needs.

There are easy-load-in and -load-out areas to get big stuff into the place. “Recently, we had large equipment in the exhibit hall, like a dump truck and a garbage truck,” Kronlage said. “We’ll accommodate almost anything.”

As for the views, one whole side of the Grand River Center, including the atrium and the concourse, has huge windows, and visitors or meeting attendees can gaze right out onto the Mississippi River. “Breathtaking” is how Kronlage describes it. Occasionally, you can watch an eagle soar by the windows. In warmer weather, delegates can see the boaters darting along the river below.

There’s a second, smaller convention center in Dubuque. The Five Flags Center is a 24,000-square-foot facility with an arena floor and theater-style seats. It’s the reconfiguration of the old Five Flags Theater. Though renovated primarily to be home to a professional hockey team, the center hosts conventions, meetings, concerts and events.

Recent meetings in Dubuque include several hundred attendees from across Iowa for the Petroleum Marketers Association meeting. But the best catch for the city was the Iowa Grocers Association, a group that met for 20 years elsewhere in Iowa until Dubuque convinced them to try its locale.

“Once we opened up the center, that was one of the groups we were after for years,” said Sue Moran, director of sales for the Grand River Center and Grand Harbor Hotel.

Why did the grocers make the switch? Moran thinks it’s because of all the improvements Dubuque has made in recent years. The Grocers Association promised to return to town in 2015.

Arriving in June in Dubuque is a big agriculture meeting: the National Holstein Convention, a gathering of 1,000 adults and young people. Both convention centers will be serving those groups.


Historic and New Hotels

Dubuque’s Old Main Street District has made a comeback, particularly since the $30 million renovation of the historic Hotel Julien Dubuque. It’s a 133-room boutique hotel full of character but with modern refinements. It boasts luxury, sophistication and quality service as well as meeting and event space, catering and accommodations.

Also located nearby is the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark, which is attached to the Grand River Center by way of an enclosed skywalk. It offers 193 newly remodeled rooms. The Waterpark has a Mississippi River theme and 25,000 square feet of water slides, chutes, tubes and pools for family fun. The resort also has a Tony Roma’s restaurant.

The Holiday Inn Dubuque/Galena, also downtown, is attached to the Five Flags Center. In addition to its 193 rooms, the hotel has two ballrooms. One has 10,000 square feet and can seat 300 people theater-style. Banquets, receptions and classroom sessions are common there.

Altogether, these three downtown hotels offer 519 rooms within a five-block walk from the Grand River Center.


Fun After Meetings

Being right along America’s mightiest river, Dubuque embraces its heritage. Much of it can be enjoyed in the interesting National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

“We have two buildings on our 10-acre campus. One is the Mississippi River Center that includes the culture, conservation and living environments of the Mississippi,” said John Sutter, director of marketing and sales for the complex. “Our other building is the National River Center, which tells the story of all rivers in America, including fur trading with Native Americans, the canal system and how our rivers flow into the sea.” There are numerous aquariums for visitors to explore.

Sutter said the museum and aquarium often host after-hours events. Meeting planners can rent the building and invite their delegates for a social hour or an ice breaker.

“We have several theater environments,” he said. “Our largest one seats 135 people and has a 40-by-22-foot screen that can be used for multimedia presentations. Any convention opening and closing ceremony can take place here as well.”

A fun activity at the museum and aquarium is Dining With the Fish. Guests are served either a full meal or just appetizers. “You walk around with a beverage in your hand and have entertainment. We’ll keep it all private for your group,” said Sutter.

The museum and aquariums are within walking distance of both convention centers and the three full-service downtown hotels.

Iowa legalized riverboat casino gambling in 1991, and Dubuque has two casinos for visitors to enjoy. The Mystique Casino has more than 1,000 slots to play, and the Diamond Jo Casino has 975. Both offer the usual array of table games ranging from blackjack, craps and poker to roulette and Mississippi stud. Groups might enjoy being set free in the casino after the day’s business is concluded.

Iowa’s oldest paddleboat, the Spirit of Dubuque, cruises the Mississippi River several times a day in season, May through October. Conventions or smaller meeting groups rent the boat for evening receptions on the river or for breakout sessions. Another option for smaller groups is the sleek motor yacht known as Miss Dubuque.

Dubuque claims to have the world’s shortest and steepest railroad. It’s known as the Fenelon Place Elevator. Occupants travel just 296 feet in one of two cable cars up or down a steep bluff near the downtown area. Eight people can ride at a time. At the top you’ll find two observation decks with commanding views of the city and the Mississippi River. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In summer, there are plenty of outdoor events for meeting attendees to enjoy. For example, every other Friday night, the city closes down about five blocks of downtown to traffic and provides live entertainment, food vendors and more. June is when the three-day America’s River Festival takes place in the Port of Dubuque. It includes loads of live music and many activities for all ages.

Spotlight on Dubuque, Iowa

Location: Tri-States of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin

Access: Dubuque Regional Airport, Highway 151/61, Highway 20

Major meeting spaces: Grand River Center (86,000 sq. ft.); Five Flags Center (24,000 sq. ft.)

Hotel Rooms: Total 1,670

Offsite Venues: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque River Rides, Diamond Jo Casino, Mystique Casino, Stone Cliff Winery, American Lady Cruises

Contact Info:

Dubuque CVB

Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.