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Eye-Catching Conference Centers in the Heartland

Conference and convention centers sometimes get a bad rap as being ho-hum options for meetings. Not so at these venues in the Heartland states.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed one center, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built another during the throes of the Great Depression. Guests may sleep on furniture built by Amish hands or sit on chairs made by Illinois inmates. Each of these Heartland conference and convention centers has a story to tell.

Mystic Lake Center

Prior Lake, Minnesota

The new Mystic Lake Center is scheduled to open this month, and when it does, it will bump the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel to the Twin Cities’ second-largest hotel and make it the area’s only full-service resort, said group sales manager Holland Tudor.

“The community’s leaders recognized the need for the center, both in the region and for the property’s own guests,” but there was also a need for “an experience that was different than downtown and spoke to what the Shakopee Mdewakanton community believes in,” she said.

The Mystic Lake Center expansion includes a new 70,000-square-foot conference center as well as a new, nine-story, 180-room hotel tower that will bring the hotel’s total number of guest rooms to 766. The event center will have a 17,000-square-foot ballroom and a 13,000-square-foot junior ballroom. The entire west wall of the 20,000-square-foot prefunction area is made of sage glass, flooding the space with natural light and views of the resort’s golf course.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community owns the hotel and casino, which sits on the community’s 4,000 acres about 25 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis. OPOS Tours and Travel can customize group tours for 10 to 200 people to educate visitors about sacred sites and indigenous art and culture. A sustainability tour may showcase the community’s organic garden, recycling plant, beehives, honey bottling, and green roofs on the fire station and the on-site Dakotah! Sport and Fitness buildings.

Group gaming options include blackjack lessons and tournaments, slot tournaments and a private casino night in a ballroom.

Monona Terrace

Madison, Wisconsin

About 2,500 people visit Monona Terrace every year simply to tour the building, which is saying something for a community and convention center. The iconic structure in Madison, Wisconsin, was originally designed in 1938 by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, even though construction wasn’t completed and the doors didn’t open until nearly 60 years after Wright first proposed the plan — and almost 40 years after his death.

The center offers specialty guided group tours that allow visitors and meeting attendees to delve into the history of the architecture and of Wright, as well as the building’s newer sustainability efforts, said director of sales Laura MacIsaac.

The building sits on the banks of Lake Monona; its curving white walls and arching building-high windows front the water. The semicircular building has five indoor levels and is topped by rooftop gardens. The first level includes the 3,500-square-foot Lakeside Commons with water views, as well as a 37,000-square-foot divisible exhibit hall. On the second level, the 5,500-square-foot Community Terrace overlooks the lake, and the fourth level features the 7,000-square-foot Grand Terrace with lake views as well as a flexible ballroom, an event hall and several meeting rooms.

The sprawling rooftop terrace and gardens offer groups more than 40,000 square feet of event space, as well as expansive views of Lake Monona and the city skyline. The rooftop Lake Vista Café menu features casual gourmet fare.

White River Conference Center

Springfield, Missouri

Stepping into the White River Conference Center in Springfield, Missouri, feels like stepping into a sportsman’s Disneyland. The rustic decor highlights wildlife and woodlands and is “a very unique space,” said Marissa Carnevale, banquet sales coordinator for the conference center.

Guests are greeted by a woodland habitat diorama with a waterfall, hewn timber walls, handmade iron and deerskin chandeliers, and a three-story, freestanding stone fireplace that, as the story goes, had to be built three times before it was just right.

“The fireplace was built first, then the room was built around it,” Carnevale said.

The conference center has a full-service catering staff and is connected to a Bass Pro Shops and adjacent to the Wonders of Wildlife Aquarium. Groups that meet at the center often venture to Bass or arrange for group pricing to “go enjoy themselves over at the aquarium,” she said.

The conference center’s 9,700-square-foot Grand Ballroom can seat 600 guests for meals and can be separated into three smaller rooms. Across the hallway, which doubles as a prefunction area for registration and receptions beneath antler chandeliers and elk heads, is the Sportsman’s Lodge room, where guests find the massive indoor-outdoor Arkansas stone fireplace. The 2,590-square-foot room also opens onto a three-sided patio.

Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center

Grafton, Illinois

From 1933 through 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built Pere Marquette Lodge by hand using massive timbers some three feet in diameter and limestone from a nearby quarry. In the Great Room, the 700-ton stone fireplace, vaulted ceilings, timber beams and life-size chess set command attention. CCC workers did all the metal work, such as the chandeliers and door handles, and Illinois inmates built the lodge’s furniture.

Although the Great Room is about 10,000 square feet, the space can only accommodate events for up to 150 people, as it must remain open to other lodge guests. However, groups that buy out all 72 guest rooms get exclusive access to the space, said Taylor Hamberg, director of marketing and events.

There are guest rooms in the historic section of the lodge as well as in the two-story wing that was added in 1988 and in the nearby original cabins, each of which houses three separate guest rooms.

The 2,900-square-foot Grand Ballroom can seat up to 250 people or can be split into four smaller rooms, each with access to a terrace that provides views of the Illinois River. A boardroom is also available for 12-person meetings.

Because the lodge is in Pere Marquette State Park, just outside of Grafton, Illinois, there’s no shortage of recreation for guests. Groups can cross the street to the park’s visitor center, arrange for guided hikes and horseback rides, and rent boats and jet skis from a nearby marina.

Essenhaus Inn and Conference Center

Middlebury, Indiana

Northern Indiana’s Amish Country can feel like a world apart from the usual busyness of daily life, which is why having a meeting there can be an experience.

Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury, Indiana, is one of the region’s largest hubs of Amish experiences. The white farmhouse-style Essenhaus Inn and Conference Center has 94 guest rooms; some rooms have balconies, and suites offer living rooms, kitchenettes and fireplaces. Each room features Amish-made furniture and quilts.

The 4,000-square-foot conference center can accommodate meetings for up to 400 people, and the space can be split into three smaller rooms.

On campus, visitors will find several stores in the original farm outbuildings, among them a bakery, a quilt shop and gift shops selling handmade candles, crafts and furniture. The campus is also home to Indiana’s largest restaurant, which dishes up Amish specialties during lunch and dinner buffets or family-style dinners. In their off time, attendees can rent bikes, play a round of miniature golf or catch a performance at Heritage Hall.

Das Dutchman Essenhaus is also home to the largest of numerous local quilt gardens, which have become a signature attraction of the area. Since planting the first two quilt gardens in 2007, the project has grown to include 19 gardens at sites along the 90-mile Heritage Trail that winds through six cities and towns.