Perhaps open sky and open spaces help open minds. That’s what seems to happen when planners take their meetings to a dude ranch, working farm or lakefront lodge.
Gathering at a farm or ranch gets groups out of the conference room and around a campfire. It gets people away from PowerPoints and into cattle pens. It gets attendees out of the chair and into the saddle.
These farms and ranches help meeting groups disconnect from the world and connect with each other.
Flathead Lake Lodge
Big fork, Montana
The Flathead Lake Lodge sits on the northeastern shores of Montana’s Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the lower 48. The lodge has about 2,000 acres, with the main lodge and accommodations on the lakefront; the remainder of the acreage — where guests take trail rides and shoot sporting clays — sits just across state Highway 35.
The Flathead Lake Lodge offers meeting groups exclusivity and connection because “when we do a group, it’s basically a property buyout, and we can tailor things to what they want to do,” said group coordinator Deb Kampsula. The lodge welcomes corporate groups from mid-May to early June and again in fall. Accommodations include about 20 one- to three-bedroom cabins, as well as individual rooms in three lodges, so groups of 60 to 70 people work well. The South Lodge has 15 guest rooms as well as a “beautiful central lobby with a fireplace and sofas,” said Kampsula, that works well for receptions.
The property’s 5,500-square-foot conference center includes the 2,400-square-foot Ponderosa Room, which has lake views and a stone fireplace, and a smaller breakout space. The Main Lodge has a boardroom, and a barn can accommodate dinners and barn dances.
All meals are included, and groups can work with the chef to coordinate their food and beverage. During a steak fry cookout, guests load up in the lodge’s fire truck and ride to the mountain camp to grill steaks over a charcoal fire while listening to a country singer croon.
Groups can have lakeside campfires; take lake cruises; go mountain biking, paddleboarding, canoeing, kayaking and fishing; and play basketball, tennis, beach volleyball and more.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Meeting groups come to Tanque Verde Ranch, which sits on 166 acres bordering both the city of Tucson, Arizona, and Saguaro National Park, because “they want to get away from doing the same thing all the time,” said director of sales Mary Ellen McBee. “Coming to a dude ranch is something very different than what people are used to.”
The 153-year-old working dude ranch has 69 guest rooms housed in lodging buildings situated in a U-shape around the property. Quail Hollow has 12 rooms that surround a grassy courtyard where groups can gather around a campfire.
Though the ranch can host events for up to 400 at the Barn, which opened in 2019, the average size for multiday meeting groups is about 30 to 40 people. Event spaces include a variety of meeting rooms, dining rooms and boardrooms, such as the 2,300-square-foot Saguaro Room, with a stone fireplace and wood beam ceilings, that can be divided into three separate rooms.
Cottonwood Grove sits along Rincon Creek, with cottonwood trees, bistro lighting, picnic tables, fire pits, cornhole and horseshoes, and is where ranch guests have dinner Wednesday and Saturday nights. Thursday and Sunday mornings mean cowboy cookout breakfasts at the original homestead, and groups can arrange a private breakfast ride, which includes a trail ride to the old homestead for a pancake breakfast.
Team penning is popular with corporate groups, which can also take riding lessons and loping rides. Other activities include mountain biking, hiking, archery, tennis and guided fishing. Groups can also arrange an off-property Jeep rally or rent RZR and all-terrain vehicles for guided adventures in the national park.
KD Guest Ranch
Kari and Dave Burkey have been the “K” and “D” of KD Guest Ranch in Adamsville, Ohio, since 2007. The husband-wife duo run the 50-acre working guest ranch, which sits in the middle of Kari’s family farm of about 600 acres.
“You’re tucked out here in the woods where the biggest distraction is looking outside at the greenery,” Dave said of meeting groups that gather at the ranch.
The main lodge houses the dining room, kitchen, office, general store, library, saloon, game room and conference rooms. Meeting spaces include a classroom/movie theater next to a boardroom; groups also use the saloon area and the dining room, which can accommodate about 20 attendees for drive-in meetings.
The ranch has two cabin triplexes, for a total of six separate rooms that can each sleep four to six guests, plus one guest room in the main lodge.
The ranch offers roping demonstrations and can put on private rodeos. Team penning is a popular group activity, and there’s “nothing like seeing a group of salesmen working together to pen a cow,” he said.
Groups can also gather around bonfires, play foosball and basketball, or hop on the ranch’s fleet of mountain bikes to ride down country roads.
The ranch is basically all-inclusive, with three meals a day in the lodge, along with snacks and appetizers for break times. Because it’s an operating ranch with its own beef herd, “95% of our beef product comes from us,” and guests can even buy some beef to take home with them.
Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo
River Ranch, Florida
Westgate Resorts started an exhaustive redevelopment of Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo in River Ranch, Florida, several years ago, and “from the moment we redeveloped the property, it was built with groups in mind,” said Jared Saft, Westgate Resorts’ chief business officer. That started with new accommodations, new activities and reinvestment in the rodeo. Westgate has meeting spaces in major cities, but unlike a conference in Las Vegas, “when you’re at River Ranch, there are only two places to end up: the campfire or the saloon,” he said. “For meetings and events, it really creates the ability to connect.”
Most amenities and meeting spaces are clustered at the core of the 1,700-acre resort, with lodging spread out from there. Accommodations include Conestoga wagons, glamping tents, luxe tepees, a 100-room guest lodge and a variety of cottages and cabins.
The resort has 16,500 square feet of flexible meeting space, including the 2,744-square-foot Longhorn Center, the 2,500-square-foot Grand Hall and a conference center with six meeting rooms.
The ranch hosts a rodeo twice a week and can arrange private rodeos for groups. During a cattle drive, six or seven “city slickers” — usually executives, board members or VIPs — drive cows from one end of the ranch to the other on horseback, followed by a high-end wine tasting or meal. In the ranch’s Amazing Race experience, guests hop in golf carts and go on a scavenger hunt throughout the property. Other activities include cookoffs, horseback riding, archery, trap shooting and airboat rides.
Fair Oaks Farms
Fair Oaks, Indiana
Fair Oaks Farms is one of the largest dairy farms in the U.S., and the Indiana-based dairy produces milk for Coca-Cola’s ultrafiltered milk brand Fairlife. But the farm is also a major agritourism attraction, where visitors “can make the connection between a farmer and the food in their refrigerator,” as co-founder Sue McCloskey has described it.
The farm features three interactive, immersive experiences: Crop Adventure, Dairy Adventure and Pig Adventure. In the Dairy Adventure, groups can learn about the future of dairy farming in the robotic dairy and watch calves being born. In the Pig Adventure, visitors can learn about raising pigs, see piglets and try out the indoor ropes course.
During harvest season, groups can walk through sunflowers and zinnias in the flower field and pick apples in the apple orchard.
Fair Oaks Farms opened its first overnight accommodations in January 2019: the 99-room Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott. The hotel resembles a massive red barn and has two silos that house family, bridal and business suites.
The hotel connects to the Farmhouse Restaurant, Pub and Conference Center, which features farm-to-table fare and nearly 11,000 square feet of event space. The largest function space is the divisible 3,500-square-foot Fair Oaks ballroom, and the property has several classrooms, conference rooms and boardrooms, as well as outdoor venues.