College campuses can define a city or a town. Many attract people from all around the globe, bringing diversity and culture in the form of art, food and architecture. Here are a handful of Illinois towns that come to life because of their college campuses.
The fastest-growing city in Illinois, Champaign is an easy drive from Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis and is an epicenter for meetings and conferences both statewide and regionally.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is a big draw to the area and is within walking distance of downtown Champaign, which has museums, theaters, boutique shopping, fine dining and attractions.
Champaign is a foodie destination, said Caitlyn Floyd, director of sales for Visit Champaign County, the local convention and visitors bureau.
“We’re finding a lot of conventions and groups wanting to go outside the traditional banquet at the hotel or venue where they are hosting,” she said. “They want to incorporate the town and its local flavor. Having a huge, diverse, award-winning culinary scene sets us apart in terms of experience for meeting attendees.”
With more than 4,500 hotel rooms and 240,000 square feet of meeting space, the area is a meeting planner’s paradise. The I-Hotel and Conference Center, which is owned by the university, is Champaign’s largest conference property, with 38,000 square feet of meeting space and 125 guest rooms. The property is adding an additional 14,000 square feet of meeting space by fall of 2020. The Hilton Garden Inn, Home2 Suites by Hilton and Homewood Suites by Hilton properties have 20,000 square feet of meeting space and 301 guest rooms among them.
Many conferences offer tours of the university campus; Blue Waters, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world; and the Research Park at the University of Illinois.
In the middle of Illinois, Springfield is best known for its ties to Abraham Lincoln, who lived there before he became the 16th president of the United States.
Springfield is also home to the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), which sits on the south side of town.
Between the college campus and Springfield’s downtown area, there is plenty to offer meeting and event planners. The beautiful campus is home to the UIS Performing Arts Center, which is where the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the Springfield Ballet Company and the UIS Theater and Music programs perform. The center is a great place to host private events, from lectures and meetings to dance recitals. The venue does a lot to bring the residents and visitors into the university fold.
The student union at UIS is also open for meetings and banquets, and if university venues won’t do, Springfield has its Bank of Springfield Convention Center, which has 70,000 square feet of meeting space and 288 guest rooms. In total, Springfield has 4,000 hotel rooms, “which is pretty lucrative for the size of the city,” said Amy Beadle, sales and marketing manager for the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A lot of it goes to the fact we have a heavy convention base and a very large leisure travel and tourism base because of the sites we are fortunate to have here.”
Evanston has the best of both worlds: Besides being a college town — it is the home of Northwestern University — it borders the city of Chicago.
“We kind of blend with the city,” said Gina Speckman, executive director for Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Many conference planners flock to Evanston because they want to be close to all that Chicago has to offer but host their event in a more intimate setting.
Evanston is a “very urban/suburban area with all the options you have in a city,” said Speckman. Within Evanston’s downtown city center, there are more than 100 restaurants, representing a diversity of cuisines. It also has late-night entertainment that you don’t find in other areas outside a city, like music and theater, and beautiful Lake Michigan beaches.
The largest hotel in Evanston is the Hilton Orrington, with 269 rooms and 26,705 square feet of meeting space. The Holiday Inn North Shore has 244 rooms and more than 18,000 square feet of meeting space. If planners want to get outside the hotel setting, the James L. Allen Center at Northwestern is a great spot, with 150 guest rooms, a 220-seat auditorium, tiered and flat classrooms for meetings and many dining spaces.
The Charles Gates Dawes House is a mansion from the early 1900s that was turned into the Evanston History Center. Planners can host special events there as well as take attendees on a tour of the home.
Charleston is the home of Eastern Illinois University and, along with Springfield, has a very strong Lincoln connection. Meeting planners that want a more intimate location and are interested in learning more about the life of Lincoln should consider Charleston for their next event.
The university, which was established in 1895 as a teaching college, has since expanded to a broader curriculum, offering degrees in education, business, arts, sciences and humanities. Campus is a great place to host a meeting. The most popular spot is the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union, which has two ballrooms and 12 meeting rooms that can hold groups of 60 to 650 people. The Unique Suites Hotel is less than one mile from campus and has 77 guest rooms; it can host up to 300 guests banquet style in its 4,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.
The Charleston Carnegie Public Library also has two event rooms that can hold up to 200 guests.
When attendees are not participating in conference events, they can spend time learning more about Lincoln and his connection to Charleston.
Lincoln practiced law at the previous courthouse that graced Charleston’s Downtown Square, and the Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum tells the story of his 1858 senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas through artifacts, photos, interactive displays, film and audio clips.
Charleston is also a short drive from the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, which was the 1840s home of Lincoln’s father and stepmother.
Bloomington and Normal, Illinois, are sister cities that are steeped in Lincoln and Route 66 history. Together, they are also a large college town with two major universities — Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University— and one community college, Heartland Community College.
Meeting planners that want to host events in the area can do so at any of the three colleges, but Illinois State University is the biggest, with facilities that can accommodate up to 10,000 people. Braden Auditorium, on the Illinois State campus, can host 3,457 guests, and the Brown Ballroom can host 640 guests banquet style.
Illinois Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school minutes from downtown Bloomington and uptown Normal, has more than 60 meeting spaces and a state-of-the-art recreation facility that can accommodate groups of up to 500 people. Wesleyan just renovated its student center, said Brie Lohr, communications and marketing manager for the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and “it looks wonderful.”
Bloomington-Normal attracts many business conferences because State Farm Insurance and Country Financial both call the area home. It also plays host to several events, including the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which is presented at the Ewing Cultural Center, a mansion that was built in the 1920s that has an outdoor theater attached to it. The site can also host smaller meetings.