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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Iowa’s Small Towns Have Big Personalities

The phrase “tiny but mighty” can easily apply to meetings and their locales. Smaller cities can bring advantages — from affordability and walkability to eclectic histories and interesting venues — as they shirk small-town stereotypes.



Decorah has the bluffs and cold-water streams typical of the region of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin known as the Driftless Area. Add an energetic craft beverage scene and rich history and Decorah, in Iowa’s northeast corner, becomes a draw.

“It’s a spot that not only can you meet in, but you can also retreat along the way too,” said Alyssa Ritter, marketing and community engagement specialist at Visit Decorah.

Downtown, the historic 34-room Hotel Winneshiek is one of the city’s premier venues, dazzling throughout, adorned with an octagonal lobby, a stained-glass ceiling and other stately architectural features. Next door, the hotel’s Opera House, dating to 1870, is versatile, with a stage and mezzanine for receptions of up to 300. The Winneshiek Meeting Room accommodates 125 guests while the hotel dining room seats 25.

North of downtown, Luther College, a private liberal arts school, offers dining, and sometimes in the summer, lodging with its meeting spaces. Its Peace Dining Room overlooks the Oneota River Valley and seats 300; six other meeting rooms in the same building accommodate from five to 75 attendees. The college’s Center for Faith and Life attracts larger events, with a 1,400-person capacity.

A number of Decorah’s breweries and cideries offer event space. Pulpit Rock Brewing Company, halfway between downtown and Luther College, has an event space for up to 50 people. A few blocks from the Hotel Winneshiek, Convergence CiderWorks will rent its entire facility. Toppling Goliath Brewing Company, a renowned brewery south of the city, has a taproom and large upstairs event space.

Mason City/Clear Lake

In North Central Iowa off Interstate 35, two small
cities that are less than ten miles apart — Mason City and Clear Lake — offer venues with famous connections.

Mason City was the inspiration for the fictional town River City in the 1957 Broadway production “The Music Man,” and its Music Man Square, a replica 1912 streetscape, makes an entertaining venue for up to 350. The city is also home to the North Iowa Events Center, an indoor-outdoor venue for fairs and other large events.

Mason City’s crown jewel is the Historic Park Inn Hotel, designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s. After a $20 million restoration, it reopened in 2011 as a 27-room boutique hotel. The Hampton Inn and Suites Mason City and the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Mason City offer additional rooms. At the Mason City Art Museum, a meeting room with a large wall of windows overlooks Willow Creek.

“We’re easy to get to; it’s easy to get around and navigate our community; it’s affordable and we just have a lot of unique offerings,” said Lindsey James, executive director of Visit Mason City.

Twenty minutes away, Clear Lake is known for lakeside leisure. Meetings or off-site events for up to 150 attendees can be held aboard the Lady of the Lake, Clear Lake’s vintage paddleboat. Clear Lake State Park Lodge, on the waterfront, can handle up to 60 for events.

“You get that vacation-like atmosphere when you’re here in Clear Lake,” said Libbey Hohn, director of tourism at the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the Key West in the Midwest.”

The historic Surf Ballroom, the last place Buddy Holly played before he died in a plane crash, can handle events, accommodating up to 500 people. At the recently renovated 136-room Best Western Holiday Lodge, meeting spaces include a ballroom for 400. The Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott Clear Lake has 84 guest rooms and is next to the Clear Lake Events Center.

Amana Colonies

German immigrants established the Amana Colonies’ seven villages, linked by a 17-mile loop, as a communal society in 1855. That history sets the Amana Colonies apart from other small towns in Iowa.

For over a century, people have come to the villages to taste true German foods, drink wines and beers, buy handcrafted wares and art, and attend the many festivals. But they also make the villages a base for their meetings.

“We actually have more event venues than we have villages,” said Stacey Colledge, executive director of the Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Wineries to rustic barns to high-tech fully functional spaces.”

The villages, located a few miles north of Interstate 80, 20 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids, are no more than a couple miles apart, but most of meeting spaces are in Amana, the central village. North of downtown, the Amana RV Park and Events Center and its 5,600-square-foot Pioneer Building and nearly 13,000-square-foot Morton Building are climate controlled for expos and trade shows. Next door, the Amana Performing Arts Center offers a 250-seat auditorium and a lobby for up to 100.

In downtown Amana, the Festhalle Barn is a versatile 100-year-old former dairy barn for gatherings from May to October of up to 500 people. The Price Creek Event Center, next to the barn, has two event spaces, on-site catering and bar service. Amana’s newest edition, the 65-room Hotel Millwright, a few blocks south, has an industrial vibe that reflects its past as a woolen mill as well as 8,000 square feet of event space.

Fort Dodge

With more than 30 locally owned restaurants, public art installations and outdoor recreation, Fort Dodge naturally blends work and play. With 11 branded hotels and over 800 rooms, Fort Dodge offers events a wide range of lodging price points.

“Visitors are pleasantly surprised when they arrive and see the places to visit, whether it’s outdoor trails or the diversity of indoor activities” said Tiffany Conrad, community sales manager at Visit Fort Dodge.

On the eastern edge of the city, the Cardiff Event Center at Fort Frenzy is a reception and banquet space attached to an entertainment center. The venue’s largest space seats 400 and three additional meeting rooms can accommodate 15 to 60 attendees. The entertainment center includes mini golf, laser tag, go-carts and a full arcade. Groups can stay next door at the city’s newest hotel, the 64-room Brookstone Inn and Suites Fort Dodge.

On the west side of town, the Best Western Starlite Village has five meeting rooms, a ballroom for banquets up to 425 and 99 guest rooms. For rustic charm, the Fort Museum offers the Opera House venue for events.

In addition to restaurants and shops, historic downtown Fort Dodge is home to popular breweries Shiny Top Brewing and River Hops Brewing. Both offer after-hours networking, live music and fun for guests. Located three blocks from downtown, the Blanden Art Museum is available for morning and afternoon tours and networking opportunities.

Slightly north of Fort Dodge, family-owned Soldier Creek Winery has wine tastings and live music, which are local staples at the 6.5-acre, award-winning vineyard.


In the early 1900s, Muscatine made 1.5 billion mother-of-pearl buttons a year, more than anyplace else. Being the Pearl Button Capital of the World, it earned the nickname Pearl City. Today, the Mississippi River town of about 25,000, 30 miles southwest of Davenport, is known for meeting spaces with river views and history. 

The finest example may be the Merrill Hotel, Muscatine, a Tribute Portfolio, AAA Four-Diamond boutique hotel that overlooks the river and has been ranked the No. 2 hotel in Iowa by U.S. News and World Report. The 122-room luxury hotel has a modern decor with plenty of natural light and fine dining at its restaurant, Maxwell’s on the River. Its 12,000 square feet of meeting space make it the city’s go-to meeting hotel. The largest of its three ballrooms, the Mississippi, can handle a cocktail reception of 500 or be divided into three smaller rooms.

“The meeting space at the Merrill has a river view, so you can see the river and the bridge,” said Rebecca Paulsen, vice president of operations and tourism at the Muscatine Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The National Pearl Button Museum, where visitors can learn about the workers, the buttons and the mussels that put Muscatine on the map, also has event space overlooking the river. Other local treasures worth investigating include the Muscatine Arts Center, the Environmental Learning Center, the city’s riverfront and Wildcat Den State Park.