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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Head North to South Bend

When you think of South Bend and Mishawaka, Indiana, you can’t help but also think of the University of Notre Dame, the highly respected 12,000-student private college with a loyal alumni network and sports fan base. Notre Dame is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year and is a fascinating place to visit. Delegates will discover that school spirit and more when South Bend hosts the 2017 Small Market Meetings Conference, September 26-28.

If meeting planners and travel industry representatives are debating whether to attend this year’s meeting, the South Bend Mishawaka Convention and Visitors Bureau urges them to register. “It is definitely the year to go,” said Lindsay Ference, the CVB’s director of sales. “We have a lot of fun things planned for them, like sightseeing tours one afternoon so everyone can see the city. We can also provide additional information for anyone with extra downtime to explore before or after the conference.”

South Bend is on the St. Joseph River in north central Indiana, a few miles south of the Michigan state line. South Bend and its partner city, Mishawaka, are convenient to large nearby cities such as Indianapolis, Chicago and Detroit. The Indiana Toll Road (I-80-90), which runs east and west, and U.S. 31, which runs north and south, make that possible. The main airfield is South Bend International Airport.

Conference Venue

The Small Market Meetings Conference will be staged inside the Century Center, now in its 40th year, though you’d hardly know it. “Many people can’t believe it’s been that long,” said Julie Nowak, the center’s senior sales manager. “But we’re constantly improving and redoing things. We host everything from conferences to church groups to proms and weddings and anything else in between.”

The Century Center, located in the heart of downtown, has a total of 75,000 square feet of flexible and distinct event space. The main spaces are the 25,000-square-foot Exhibit Hall; the 12,000-square-foot Discovery Ballroom, which is divisible by two; and two theaters, the 700-seat Bendix Theatre and the 166-seat Recital Hall. But the most eye-catching feature of the Century Center is the 17,000-square-foot Great Hall.

“You can’t find a better spot to gather than in the Great Hall, which overlooks the St. Joseph River through a 38-foot floor-to-ceiling wall of glass,” said Nowak. Man-made rapids were created right outside the center, and the sight is breathtaking, especially in the evening when the rapids are splashed with color from tall, interactive light sculptures on both sides of the river. To get even closer to the ever-churning water, many people use Island Park Pavilion, a popular multipurpose park and concert venue just outside the Century Center’s big windows.

Parking is easy at the Century Center. The facility has 350 on-site parking spaces, and there are 2,000 additional spaces within two blocks.

The Century Center strives to keep visitors happy. “The best thing we offer is our customer service,” said Nowak. “We’re graded on every event that comes here by the people who have used it, and we always get grades from an eight to a 10. We have a sales team, event managers, catering and A/V on-site, all to assist any meeting planner. We’re a one-stop shop.”

Convenient Conference Hotel

The official Small Market Meetings Conference hotel is the 291-room DoubleTree by Hilton. The hotel is connected directly to the Century Center by the climate-controlled Green Sky Bridge, which has a community herb garden growing along its walkway.

“What is potentially important to meeting planners is that 200 of our rooms are doubles,” said hotel sales director Julie Egan. “So, we can accommodate a good mixture of delegates. We have a ballroom that will accommodate up to 350 people and four breakout rooms that will handle up to 30 each. Our covered atrium is a great space for meals or for breakout time.”

Egan said the Hilton Corporation is introducing new smartphone apps and technology at her hotel. Guests can check in on their phones and use them to open the gates to the hotel parking garage. They can also go straight to their room and open the door, all on the app.

Meanwhile, downtown South Bend is getting its first new hotels in decades, part of a hotel boom across the county. A 183-room Aloft Hotel is under construction and will be part of the major renovations underway at the former Chase Tower, the tallest building in town. The hotel will open this August. In early 2018, a new five-story Courtyard by Marriott will be completed across the street from the Century Center. The hotel will have 140 guest rooms. Both hotels will be convenient for meeting attendees.

“Downtown is very walkable, safe and easy to get around in,” said the Century Center’s Nowak. “I think meeting planners and their folks will also love all the restaurants we have downtown.”

Neighboring Hotels Shine

Several other hotels and conference centers will help meeting and event planners have successful gatherings. The University of Notre Dame has the Notre Dame Conference Center, which offers 40,000 square feet of space, 12 seminar rooms of varying sizes and a 375-seat auditorium. Also on campus is Morris Inn, with 150 guest rooms and suites. It has a ballroom with a capacity of 300.

Across the street from Notre Dame is the campus of St. Mary’s College, and both a Hilton Garden Inn and the Inn at St. Mary’s are solid meeting and sleeping venues.

“The Hilton is connected to the Gillespie Conference Center and can offer large spaces there, or we can section it off into smaller meeting rooms,” said Hannah Marti, corporate sales manager for both properties. The Inn at St. Mary’s has a small meeting room available for use. “You can get everything from us. We’re like a big package deal. We coordinate it all for you and take it off your hands so you can have a successful meeting.”

Planners can also arrange meetings and accommodations at the suburban Holiday Inn Mishawaka Conference Center.

“We are the newest and only full-service hotel in Mishawaka,” said Kristina Palmer, who does sales and marketing for the property. “We have 10,000 square feet of meeting space with 115 suites attached to it. It doesn’t get any better than that.” 

Free-Time Entertainment

Notre Dame enjoys a strong sports heritage, and game days are legendary, with so much going on across the tree-lined campus. But whether there’s a sporting event or not, groups can get to know the school on guided campus tours.

“It’s a very beautiful campus,” said Dick Tucker, a Notre Dame tour guide. “There’s a lot of history and interesting buildings, like the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Grotto and the Main Building, better known as the Golden Dome building. We take you through them and explain their significance. Also, Notre Dame Sports are big with alumni and fans nationwide, and most of the sports venues, like Notre Dame Stadium and the Joyce Center, are open for tours.”

Speaking of sports, the world champion Chicago Cubs have a Class A minor league baseball affiliate in South Bend, which plays at the recently renovated Four Winds Field.

“We love to host groups when they come see us,” said Joe Hart, the team’s president. “Groups are always looking for things to do, and there’s nothing better in the summer than a night at the ballpark.”

South Bend is blessed with some impressive museums. The Studebaker National Museum pays tribute to the wagon- and automobile-manufacturing companies that date back to the mid-1800s in South Bend. Automobile enthusiasts and other visitors will love the classic Studebaker cars on display and the historic wagons and carriages, too.

The History Museum contains interesting regional history, including exhibits on the founding and emergence of the University of Notre Dame, and is also the national depository for the All-American Girls Professional League, which inspired the movie “A League of Their Own.” The museum is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of the popular film.

“In the evening, guests could have a reception in the lobby area,” said Marilyn Thompson, who handles marketing and community relations for the site. “We can set up a bar, and people can mill around and visit with each other and enjoy the changing museum exhibits.” 

Groups can also visit the 38-room Oliver Mansion next door, which was built by a local industrialist in 1896.

“If you bring a group of 100 people, for example, every 20 minutes, a group of 12 could walk over to the mansion and tour all of it or just the first floor, which takes just 15 to 20 minutes,” said Thompson.

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.