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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Outdoors in the Heartland

Sometimes, an afternoon unplugged and immersed in the outdoors, whether it’s a quiet walk in the woods or an adrenaline-fueled slide down a zip-line course, can be just the thing to clear the mind and fuel creative thinking and team building. It’s no surprise, then, that destinations best known for their outdoor appeal make good meeting and retreat venues.

Here are five great places in America’s Heartland to bring the outdoors into your meetings.

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Situated on the Missouri River, Council Bluffs, Iowa, offers ample opportunities for outdoor fun. Home to the trailhead for the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, a 60-mile-long converted railroad right-of-way closed to motorized vehicles, the community has limitless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, bird-watching and more.

With three casinos in town, there are plenty of indoor entertainment options as well.

The city is well equipped to handle groups, with 90,000 total square feet of meeting space, including a 66,000-square-foot convention center. There are over 2,300 hotel rooms in Council Bluffs, with 1,300 of those within one mile of the convention center, said Alicia Frieze, director of sales for the Council Bluffs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

For those looking for a less traditional meeting venue, Council Bluff has no shortage of options. Its River’s Edge Pavilion in Tom Hanafan Park, which opened in 2017, overlooks both the Missouri River and ample green space. It can accommodate just under 70 guests in its ground-floor enclosed space or 120 on its rooftop deck. First-floor decks can accommodate guests as well, and the entire pavilion can handle around 315 attendees.

While in town, guests should make time to visit the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge spanning the Missouri River. “That’s always very fun. It’s on people’s bucket list when they’re here. You can actually stand on the bridge and be on the border between Iowa and Nebraska, and be in both states at the same time,” Frieze said.

Brown County, Indiana

It’s not hard to become immersed in outdoor beauty in Brown County, Indiana, home of The Hoosier State’s largest state park, a state forest, a national forest and several nature preserves. Area guides can lead groups on treks to bird-watch, hike, canoe, mountain bike, zip line, kayak, horseback ride and more.

When it’s time to harness all the outdoor-infused creative energy into productive meeting sessions, many of the area’s hotels, including the Brown County Inn, Creekside Retreat and the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County State Park, among others, offer meeting space on site. The Seasons Lodge in Nashville, Indiana, operates a conference center and can seat groups of up to 1,000, or 600 for banquets, in its eight dedicated meeting rooms.

For meeting venues that are especially outdoor-focused, planners may want to consider Rawhide Ranch, “an Indiana dude ranch complete with private cabins to rent, as well as hotel rooms fashioned from the second floor of a 32-stall horse barn, where cowboy games are incorporated into group members’ stay as team-building exercises,” said Aubrey Sitzman, public relations coordinator for the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

For those who want an even more rustic feel, Explore Brown County offers primitive cabins and tent camping, along with a meeting hall to host large groups.

“Explore Brown County is really a mecca for outdoor activities,” Sitzman said. “You can zip line, play paintball or arrow tag, go on an ATV tour and more there.”

Traverse City, Michigan

Hugging the shores of Lake Michigan, Traverse City, Michigan, is known for its stunning natural scenery. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has been called one of the most beautiful places in the country. It’s also easy to get outside for fun there: From fishing or Jet Skiing in the summer to fat biking, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and tubing in the winter, Traverse City is a year-round outdoor destination.

Several resorts in the area offer conference and meeting facilities, including the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, which features 86,500 square feet of flexible meeting space and 600 guest rooms, and Shanty Creek Resorts, where guests can enjoy 36,000 square feet of meeting space and 400 guest rooms.

There’s no shortage of nontraditional meeting venues, including the downtown City Opera House, built in 1891 and now restored to its original beauty; the 160-acre Black Star Farms Winery and Vineyard; and the Hagerty Conference Center, which can accommodate groups of up to 340 for unparalleled views of Grand Traverse Bay.

There’s no bad time to visit the area.

“Spring is a popular time,” said Jenny Jenness, public relations manager for Traverse City Tourism. “May is when we have all of our cherry blossoms in bloom — Traverse City is known as the Cherry Capital of the World. We also offer wine packages, and May is Michigan Wine Month, where guests are encouraged to explore our area’s more than 40 wineries. Then, in September and October, we also have fall color tours and wine harvest itineraries.”

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

With more than 1,150 miles of shoreline covering 54,000 acres, it’s no surprise that Lake of the Ozarks offers unlimited opportunities for boating, fishing, water skiing and more. Visitors flock to the area not just for watersports, but also for the natural beauty of the region.

“We have the beauty of the lake but also the nearby rolling hills,” said Lagina Fitzpatrick, director of sales for the Lake of the Ozarks Tri-County Lodging Association and Convention and Visitor Bureau.

The region’s Ha Ha Tonka State Park, home to ample hiking and mountain biking trails, was named the most beautiful spot in Missouri by Condé Nast Traveler and the No. 4 Best State Park in the Nation by USA Today. USA Today also ranked Lake of the Ozarks among the best spots in the nation to enjoy foliage and dubbed its lake the top recreation lake in the U.S. in 2016.

The area includes more than 200 resorts with over 350,000 square feet of meeting space. The Tan-Tar-A Resort, for example, has its own golf club, marina and indoor water park, along with over 90,000 square feet of meeting space and 32 meeting rooms to accommodate up to 3,500 guests. Camden on the Lake Resort has 116 guest room suites, 19,000 square feet of meeting space and a ballroom with panoramic lakefront views.

There’s a festival on the lake nearly every month of the year, from the Dogwood Festival in April to an air show in September to holiday lights in November and December, making it an exciting year-round destination.

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Dells dubs itself the Waterpark Capital of the World, and for good reason. It’s home to six major indoor and outdoor water parks, including the largest one in the country: Noah’s Ark Waterpark. There are numerous smaller water parks, too. In all, guests can swoosh their way through more than 200 waterslides during their stay in the city.

But Wisconsin Dells has more than waterslides to keep visitors busy. The region is also home to an array of wineries and breweries, six golf courses, zip-lining courses, horseback riding trails and more.

Even the meeting facilities there do their best to bring the outside in.

“Our beautiful scenery along the Wisconsin River is really what originally put us on the map,” said Rhonda Parchem, assistant director of marketing and communications for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. “So a lot of our meeting facilities try to capitalize on incorporating those views into their meeting rooms.”

The city’s Kalahari Resorts and Conventions hotel, which has 756 guest rooms, is being expanded, and in 2019 will add 112,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, including a 52,000-square-foot ballroom, bringing its total meeting space to 212,000 square feet.

While there, guests should make time for a Dells boat tour on the Wisconsin River, which Parchem called the best way to take in the area’s stunning rock cliff formations. The CVB can assist meeting planners with incorporating river cruises for groups of up to 200 into their itineraries.