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Heartland Waterfronts

Many people only consider the coasts when looking for waterfront destinations. But because of its location on the Great Lakes and its rivers, America’s Heartland  has plenty of fun waterfront destinations to visit. Here are some that make great locales for meetings.

Traverse City, Michigan

Perched on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, with tropical green Caribbean-clear water and sugar sand beaches, Traverse City is a summertime playground, said Tori Piersante, vice president of sales for Traverse City Tourism.

“The Cherry Capital of the World” is also home to apple and peach orchards, vineyards and hops farms that fuel Michigan’s burgeoning craft beer industry.

Meeting planners that want to come to the area can choose from many options, several of them right on the water. The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, with 85,000 square feet of conference space, is the largest meeting hotel in the area. In total, Traverse City has 4,500 hotel rooms and 220,000 square feet of meeting space.

Groups can rent either a catamaran or a large wooden schooner for a regular sail or a specialty sail with entertainment and food.

There are many unique off-site venues where groups can host dinners or other events. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is a former state asylum that is now one of the largest redevelopment projects in the country. One of the renovated buildings is a half-mile long and is full of retail shops and excellent food.

If groups want teambuilding options, Traverse City offers everything from ropes courses, kayaking and biking to wine tastings and scavenger hunts through the city.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Lake Geneva is a resort city on Lake Geneva in southeastern Wisconsin. The area used to be a playground for the rich, as evidenced by the great mansions that dot the shoreline, many of which make great off-site venues for meetings and conferences.

The largest meeting property on the lake is the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, with 14,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 7,500-square-foot ballroom. The Abbey Resort, with 10,000 square feet of meeting space, is another good option.

Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers dinner and cocktail cruises around the lake. The company has two boats that can seat up to 250 people. The Baker House mansion and the Maxwell Mansion, both built in the 1800s, are now boutique hotels that make excellent off-site venues. At the Maxwell Mansion, a group can take over the entire building. Food stations are set up throughout, and the parties can have different themes, like murder mystery or 1920s flapper.

“We have a lot of things that other places don’t have,” said Susan Smolarek, group sales manager for Visit Lake Geneva. “You can’t go to a city and have the types of things we offer here.” The area has a 150-seat magic theater with a Vegas-style show, the Dancing Horses Theatre, as well as teambuilding opportunities like zip-lining and cooking schools. And because of its location on the water, guests can do everything from walking the lakeshore path to learning  stand-up paddleboarding.

Stillwater, Minnesota

On the St. Croix River, Stillwater, Minnesota, is considered the birthplace of Minnesota. Only 30 minutes from Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Mall of America, the area caters to groups of up to 700 people.

Its downtown district, which is a block and a half off the water, is where all the event hotels, restaurants and shops are located. There are 20 venues in town that range from an intimate executive conference room in a restored historic mansion to the JX Venue, a historic-shoe-factory-turned-event-venue that hosts groups of up to 700 in its third-floor event space.

Authentic paddle-wheel boats cruise the St. Croix River and make wonderful meeting venues. The boats can handle groups of as many as 600 for scenic cruises, dinner or cocktails. A private yacht can be rented for groups of fewer than 50 people.

“We don’t have huge hotels with conference centers,” said Christie Rosckes, marketing director for Discover Stillwater. “We are perfect for the creative meeting planner.”

The area is walkable, making it easy to host a meeting at the Water Street Inn, the Lora Hotel or the Hotel Crosby and then schedule a meal in one of the funky restaurants that call downtown Stillwater home.

Stillwater has 525 lodge rooms in town. It also offers many teambuilding opportunities, from historic trolley tours past mansions built by lumber barons in the 1800s to three different escape rooms, an ax-throwing bar and Segway tours.

Branson, Missouri

When people think of Branson, they usually think of entertainment. The city has amazing theaters that offer every genre of music and Broadway-style shows. But Branson is also a popular outdoor destination, situated on three beautiful lakes, said Samantha Gutting, senior vice president and chief sales officer for Explore Branson.

Groups that plan events in Branson can rent a large showboat on Table Rock Lake for dinner and a show, or partake in other water activities, like kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, water skiing and jet skiing.

Chateau on the Lake is one of the largest hotels on the lake, with 300 guest rooms and 43,000 square feet of meeting space. Big Cedar Lodge is a boutique resort on the lake that is a huge golf destination with a private marina and charter boats.

Branson can host groups of more than 5,000 people. The Branson Convention Center has 220,000 square feet of meeting space. It is connected to the 500-room Hilton Branson Convention Center. Both properties sit on Lake Taneycomo, a chilly lake with some of the world’s best trout fishing. Groups that visit the area can take fly-fishing lessons or take a jet boat ride around the lake to view eagles and other wildlife.

Teambuilding activities include rock climbing, as well as indoor and outdoor ropes courses. A new $53 million aquarium is opening this summer in the heart of the entertainment district.

People love Branson because “it is genuine,” Gutting said. “People are happy you are here. Tourism is how this area developed from the early 1900s.”

Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Half of the fun of Put-in-Bay is the journey to get there. Whether it is by vehicle or passenger ferry or jet boat, the trip to South Bass Island is beautiful, said Amanda Smith Rasnick, director of group accounts for Lake Erie Shores and Islands.

The island is about a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland in Lake Erie. It is small but has a proud history. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial is a 352-foot-tall Doric column that can be seen from all over the island and the mainland. It commemorates the exploits of Oliver Hazard Perry and those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Meeting planners love to bring groups on tours or host meals on the lawn surrounding the monument.

“Everybody usually wants to take an opportunity to go to the top to get their photos. It is a beautiful vantage point from the top,” said Smith Rasnick.

There are plenty of hotels on the island that can accommodate groups, including the Put-in-Bay Resort and Conference Center, which can host groups of up to 400 people, and the Commodore Resort. The Niagara Event Center is the largest event space on the island, hosting groups of as many as 500 people.

Many groups just travel to Put-in-Bay for a meal or an off-site event “to get people out of the mainland convention spaces,” she said.

Several restaurants can accommodate large groups, including The Keys and The Boardwalk. A hop-on/hop-off tram tour allows groups to experience all the island has to offer, including two caves and a winery.