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Heartland U

College towns have their own vibe: full of school pride, youthful energy, eclectic dining and entertainment options and easy access to sporting events and cultural opportunities that only universities can provide.

America’s Heartland has no shortage of great university towns, where college spirit mingles with state-of-the-art venues and facilities, making them a great option for your group’s next meeting destination.

Carbondale, Illinois

Home of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale offers visitors a chance to enjoy Saluki pride while meandering within a bustling, vibrant community. Easily accessed by car, thanks to its location just 25 miles west of Interstate 57, or by train — Amtrak offers daily “Saluki Express” service between Chicago and Carbondale — the town has multiple meeting venues, including the 8,000-square-foot Carbondale Civic Center and the Varsity Center, a historic downtown movie theater that can seat 650.

On campus, the SIU Student Center has more than 21,000 square feet of meeting space, including a ballroom; on-site catering; AV services; and 28 multifunction meeting rooms that can accommodate groups of 12 to 300 guests.

For groups looking for team-building opportunities, the Touch of Nature Environmental Center offers facilitated team experiences on its 3,100 acres of rolling, forested land and more than 8,200 square feet of indoor meeting space.

During downtime, meeting attendees can enjoy the nearby Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and the Shawnee National Forest. In town, Jordan Wren, executive director of Carbondale Tourism, advises visitors to take a few minutes to enjoy Carbondale’s signature fare.

“A few must-do items are having the delicious pink cookies at Cristaudo’s bakery and grabbing a slice of pizza at local favorite Quatro’s Pizza,” Wren said.

Lafayette-West Lafayette, Indiana

Home to Purdue University, the side-by-side communities of Lafayette and West Lafayette, Indiana, come alive with Boilermakers pride during football and basketball seasons. But when it comes to meetings, summer can be an ideal time to visit, since the communities’ various meeting venues have added flexibility to work with groups, said Ashley Gregory, director of sales for Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette. Purdue classrooms and even 7,500 residence hall beds are available to groups for rental between June 1 and August 1.

On campus, the Purdue Union Club Hotel, built in 1929 and set to soon undergo a $30 million revitalization, has 192 guest rooms and is connected by underground tunnel to nearby conference facilities at Stewart Center, Fowler Hall and the Purdue Memorial Union, which together can accommodate groups of from 10 to 6,000 with 40,000 square feet of meeting space. Off-campus, several area hotels, including a Courtyard by Marriott, DoubleTree by Hilton and Four Points by Sheraton, offer conference and meeting facilities.

While in the area, guests should make time to visit Wolf Park — a research and education facility that is home to wolves, coyotes, foxes and bison — and the Tippecanoe Battlefield Museum, which explains the history of the 1811 battle between William Henry Harrison and Native Americans forces affiliated with Shawnee chief Tecumseh.

“We also have more than 100 pieces of public art in our downtown area and lots of art galleries and art museums as well,” Gregory said.

Ames, Iowa

In Ames, home to Iowa State University, the so-called “Town and Gown” city-campus partnership is strong, so strong that the convention and visitors bureau there serves both the campus and the city through a joint initiative known as CYtes of Ames, a nod to the university’s mascot, Cy the Cardinal.

“We’re very lucky to have this collaboration between the city and the university,” said Eve Lederhouse, communications director for the Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau, which can help meeting planners secure venue space both on and off campus. “People often talk about experiencing ‘Iowa Nice,’ and large groups tend to book their events with us year after year because of the hospitality and customer service they receive here.”

On campus, planners can host events at one of several venues, including the Hilton Coliseum, which features 30,000 square feet of pillar-free meeting space, and the Iowa State Center, which includes the 2,600-seat Stephens Auditorium.

Off campus, the Gateway Hotel and Conference Center has 16,000 square feet of event space that can accommodate groups of up to 850. In all, Ames has more than 1,500 hotel rooms, with three additional hotels slated to open in 2019.

Easily reached via Interstate 35 or Des Moines International Airport, 40 minutes away, downtown Ames has a host of boutique shopping and dining options, offering an enjoyable way to spend a free evening.

Rochester, Minnesota

Home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic and the affiliated Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, as well as the University of Minnesota-Rochester, with its degree paths exclusively in the health sciences, Rochester, Minnesota, is a health-conscious sort of town. This fact is driven home by the 100 parks and 85 miles of paved trails that wind through the city.

The area has become a hot spot for medical and health services conventions, which often use Rochester’s community of professors and physicians as keynote speakers, said Megan Malugani, communications manager for Experience Rochester MN.

In 2017, the Mayo Civic Center, Rochester’s downtown convention center, underwent an $84 million expansion and renovation that added a new ballroom, the largest in the state of Minnesota, and 23 breakout rooms. It now has more than 200,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, including outdoor areas that overlook nearby 11-acre Mayo Park.

“Since our winters can be harsh here, our convention center is attached via enclosed skyway and underground walkways to all of our downtown hotels and restaurants, as well as entertainment and shopping,” Malugani said. In all, some 2,000 of the area’s 6,000 total hotel rooms are connected to the Mayo Center by climate-controlled passageways.

For those hearty enough to brave the Minnesota chill, February’s annual SocialICE winter ice-bar festival lets visitors experience Rochester’s downtown alongside ice sculptures, music and signature cocktails.

Accessible by car via Interstate 90 or by plane to Rochester International Airport or the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, 90 miles away, Rochester brims with after-meeting entertainment options, from local craft breweries to downtown shopping boutiques and cafes.

Toledo, Ohio

Home to the University of Toledo and its roughly 16,000 students, Toledo is a city with something for all ages, often surprising first-time visitors with its accessibility, affordability and wealth of attractions — including the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium and the world-renowned Toledo Museum of Art

“One of the things that makes Toledo stand out is that it’s a midsize city with big-city attractions,” said Cathy Miller, director of tourism for Destination Toledo.

Toledo has an array of unique meeting venues. The 50,000-square-foot Lancelot Thompson Student Union on the University of Toledo campus features breakout meeting rooms for groups of 32 to 1,200. Other interesting options include the Malawi Event Center at the Toledo Zoo and the architecturally iconic, 63,000-square-foot Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, where groups of up to 200 can enjoy glassblowing demonstrations and even try their hand at glassblowing.

More traditional meeting space is available at the SeaGate Convention Centre in downtown Toledo, where nearly 75,000 square feet of unobstructed meeting space can accommodate groups of up to 9,000. For sports fans, the convention center couldn’t be better located: It’s adjacent to the Huntington Center, home of Toledo Walleye Hockey, and a short walk from Fifth Third Field, home to the Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball team.

“We call it the trifecta,” said Miller. “There’s a real synergy between those three downtown entertainment centers.”