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Prairie Appeal in Peoria, Illinois

Some cities are defined by a major business within their city limits. In central Illinois, Peoria is proud to be the world headquarters for Caterpillar Inc. Caterpillar is one of the leading manufacturers of construction and mining equipment and various industrial engines, turbines and locomotives. But when most people think of Caterpillar, they envision those mammoth earth-moving vehicles at work.

The Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau wants corporate and association executives and conference planners around the nation to know that Peoria is also a great meetings destination.

“We have an incredible convention center with 110,000 square feet of unobstructed exhibit space, along with the support spaces like ballrooms and meeting rooms,” said Don Welch, president and CEO of the Peoria Area CVB. “It is under the same roof with a 2,200-seat fine-arts theater and a 12,000-seat sports arena. We have all kinds of possibilities for setups of different types.”

Peoria is situated in the middle of the triangle of Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis and is serviced by interstates 74 and 55. Its airport, General Wayne A. Downing International Airport, has about a dozen direct flights and is located just 15 minutes from downtown. “We will even be at the airport with welcome signs for your group and offer transportation into town,” said Cara Allen, director of marketing for the CVB. “We host you, not just book you. We want to provide that welcoming hometown feel.”

Peoria has the Illinois River at its doorstep and often shares conference host duties with its neighbor city across the river, East Peoria, Illinois. The river is just four blocks from the convention center.

As for meeting types, Peoria is open to just about anything. “We’re pretty diverse,” said Allen. “Our civic center can hold so much. For example, sports are big here, and we pride ourselves on being a high school state-championship destination.” Peoria has several state-of-the-art sports facilities, parks, complexes and college campuses and a dome, and encourages amateur teams to travel there for tournaments and games and bring their families along and make a vacation of it.

One recent winter week, Peoria hosted one of its largest groups of the year: 10,000 people for the Illinois Music Education Conference that has been coming to the city for decades. Teachers, students and family members filled up the downtown area. Students held performances and competitions, and their teachers and families watched.

Typically, the CVB will communicate continually with local merchants and hotel and restaurant operators, especially in the downtown area, about the upcoming meeting and conference schedule to help them be prepared.

Welch said the city’s “sweet spot” for a meeting and conference size is between 500 and 3,000, but it will gladly accommodate whatever number of delegates comes to town.

Service is a big selling point for the Peoria CVB. “We don’t just sign a contract and leave you hanging,” said Allen. “We have two full-time staff members who are totally dedicated to servicing clients with everything from customized itineraries, media buys and placement or free media [to] coordination of speakers and entertainment. And we have a staff of hostesses who can easily handle your registration.”

Hotels for Meeting and Sleeping

Among the best-known hotels in Peoria’s downtown core is the Peoria Marriott Pere Marquette, with 402 guest rooms and 20,000 square feet of ballroom space. It is connected to the convention center by a climate-controlled skywalk. There is also the Four Points by Sheraton Peoria with 320 rooms, just a block from the convention center, but the hotel is closed at the moment as it undergoes a massive renovation that will culminate in its reopening this summer. The hotel will then have 25,000 square feet of fresh, new meeting space available.

Staybridge Suites Peoria-Downtown has 106 suites. Though Staybridge is often used by businesspeople for long-term stays, the CVB says it can easily be used for two- to four-day conference stays. Another downtown Peoria choice is the Mark Twain Boutique Hotel, with 111 rooms and nice meeting and banquet facilities.

A short walk or drive over the bridge to East Peoria will bring visitors to the Embassy Suites by Hilton East Peoria, with 226 suites and 30,000 square feet of space for meetings and events.

“When the Sheraton reopens, we will have a total of 1,000 hotel rooms in the downtown core,” said Welch. “We will then have about 4,000 rooms in the entire metro area.”

The hotels are easy to get to as well. “You’re looking at a drive time of 10 to 15 minutes max from the outlying hotels to the civic center and the downtown core,” Welch said. “That’s unlike larger cities where you have all of the traffic congestion. We also have ample parking in the downtown area.”

Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.