Guests at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Ill., are occasionally hailed by an elderly man walking a little bulldog. He works at the resort, he says, and he wants to hear about what they think of the place. As they share their thoughts, the man listens attentively.
Later, the dog comes flying up the stairs of the resort’s administrative offices, not far ahead of his owner, Edward J. McArdle, 85, who is ready to tell the staff about the casual conversations he just conducted with guests of the resort, which he founded 47 years ago.
Among large resorts, Pheasant Run is a different animal, and not just because its founder lives on the property, which is still owned by his family’s Oakbrook Hotels.
When McArdle turned a dairy farm into an escape for city people, he “wanted to create a destination where people could have a great experience and feel like they were getting away,” said Gene Hare, director of sales and marketing.
Although most developers would have been satisfied with nice guest rooms, a restaurant or two, a swimming pool and maybe a golf course, McArdle had other ideas.
He realized that beyond Chicago, the Midwest was lacking in quality live entertainment, and so, a year after he opened the resort, he built a theater, where Robert Wagner, Leonard Nimoy, Phyllis Diller and other stars of the day took the stage and where today, the nonprofit theater troupe Noble Fool Theatricals presents a season of plays.
A few years later, McArdle added what has become known as the resort’s entertainment district, a replica of a New Orleans street, complete with cobbles, balconies, wrought iron and streetlamps, lined with several shops and restaurants, and a few steps away from most of the resort’s meeting spaces.
Pheasant Run’s entertaining features — which now also include a Mario Trioci Hair Salon and Day Spa, a resort golf course and exclusive partnership with another top area course — make it sound more like a weekend getaway than a major meeting place, yet the resort really is more the latter.
With more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space and 473 guest rooms, not including the 120 rooms at a sister Hilton Garden Inn on site, Pheasant Run is a logical fit for regional companies and associations, which often bring in gatherings that are national in scope. About 75 percent of business at the resort is labeled as group; one-third of it falls into the SMERF (social, military, education, religious and fraternal) category, according to Hare.
Pheasant Run has multiple appeals. Its location, one hour west of Chicago, is convenient. Because its meeting space is expansive, it can handle multiple meetings and still guarantees privacy. And, its meeting space is not only vast, but also varied.
Among the four ballrooms is the 5,500-square-foot New Orleans Ballroom, adjacent to Bourbon Street and popular for fancy functions. More than a dozen small meeting rooms are clustered near Bourbon Street and the resort’s largest ballroom, the 12,230-square-foot St. Charles.
Some of the space at the resort does double duty, like the Mega Center, a 38,000-square-foot expo hall adjacent to the St. Charles Ballroom and home to tradeshows and the occasional big-name concert, and the original Mainstage Theater, completely redone to the tune of $4.5 million a few years ago with the guidance of experts from Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn.
“We lowered the stage by three feet to get better sight lines, added more comfortable seating and state-of-the-art lighting and sound,” said Hare. The upgraded technology allowed one group to broadcast a video conference from the 330-seat theater for two weeks straight.
Pheasant Run also manages the Dupage Expo Center, across the street from the 250-acre resort, and for the last decade, it has operated the Center for Advanced Training, a conference center accredited by the International Association of Conference Centers. The 18,000-square-foot facility was originally built in partnership with a corporate client; as that client’s business has changed, Pheasant Run has made the center available to other clients, according to Hare.
The resort’s meeting space has been a major beneficiary of $40 million in improvements made over the past decade. The resort added technology, upgrading capacity of its wired and wireless Internet systems.
“We have one user group that comes in and has as many as 1,400 to1,600 connections at any one time,” said Hare.
Guest rooms were renovated and the evolution of the mainstay Bourbon Street began.
One restaurant was converted to a regional steakhouse called Harvest, which relies on local suppliers; a Ben and Jerry’s Scoop Shop was added and a new arcade, with pool tables, virtual reality and other games that appeal to adults, was opened.
Still to come are a beignet cafe and two new shops. Bourbon Street is also home to the resort’s comedy club.
Most meeting groups find themselves making their way to Bourbon Street for a show at the theater, a stand-up comic at Zanies, drinks at Jambalaya’s or a reception or dinner on Bourbon Street, which can accommodate parties of up to 750.
Given the New Orleans theme, meeting planners often opt for Mardi Gras parties. The resort’s entertainment director – “kind of like a cruise director on a ship,” according to Hare — can help arrange Second Line Parades, blues bands and other flourishes.
With all the built-in New Orleans-style decor, there’s no need to decorate. “The money you would usually spend to decorate, you can put toward food, entertainment, or you can just save it,” Hare said.
That emphasis on value is part of what has kept many of Pheasant Run’s meeting groups coming back decade after decade. Hare hopes that many regulars will make a point to return to Pheasant Run in 2013, when the resort celebrates its golden anniversary.
Already, plans are being made for special events as well as permanent enhancements to the property.
“We are hoping to make the announcements in three to six months because we want our groups to find out what we are doing and plan for 2013,” said Hare.