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Off-site venues spice up the Heartlands

A coastal city on Lake Macatawa, which is fed by the Macatawa River, Holland, Michigan, is a destination for boaters and beachcombers. For meeting planners, however, it’s also a city where their guests can experience both America and Europe at the same time.

The city was settled in 1847 by Dutch Calvinist separatists escaping persecution in the Netherlands, and it remains steeped in Dutch culture. “With a taste of Dutch foods … and an authentic Dutch windmill from the Netherlands, Holland guarantees a warm Dutch ‘welkom’ and a meeting to remember,” said Wendy Link, sales director at the Holland Area Visitors Bureau.

Holland’s decidedly Dutch aura also offers planners some novel venues for off-site meetings or events. And it’s not the only city in the Heartlands to do so. The Midwest is laced with picturesque and often playful places for off-site activities.


Dutch Culture

Holland, Michigan

Home to the Tulip Time festival, scheduled this year for May 3 to May 10, Holland wears its Dutch heritage proudly all year long.

“Holland exemplifies that friendly Dutch hospitality,” Link said.

Up to 300 people can dine in the shadow of the DeZwaan Windmill at Windmill Island Gardens. The grain-grinding mill, which is more than 250 years old, was moved to Holland from the Netherlands 50 years ago.

“Attendees can tour the mill and the garden before or after a specially planned dinner or event held in the permanent pavilion,” Link said.

She also recommended Nelis’ Dutch Village, a theme park that re-creates the Netherlands around the turn of the 20th century, complete with Amsterdam street organs, staff in native costume — right down to the wooden shoes — a wooden shoe factory and a 200-year-old scale that tips if the person standing on it is a witch.

The village offers groups a class in making “bankets,” a flaky, almond-flavored pastry.

Village banquet facilities include the Queen’s Inn Restaurant, available by reservation for groups of 30 or more. To start, consider “saucijzenbroodjes,” spiced sausage-filled pastries, Link said.


Riverfront Music and Art

Quad Cities

In the Quad Cities, which includes Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois, the music of the Mississippi takes center stage at the River Music Experience (RME) in Davenport.

“It’s a great place for live music at night when planners want an evening activity,” said Jessica Waytenick, marketing manager at the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau.

RME also has rooms for rent. Book the 2,280-square-foot RME Hall alone or with the 1,844 Redstone Room. Both are on the second floor, which is also outfitted with six LCD projectors. Full bars are available, and RME has an in-house decorator.

Also in Davenport, the Figge Art Museum hosts group tours of the city’s architecture, after which groups can adjourn to the 140,000-square-foot museum, which has river views. A 140-seat auditorium is ideal for presentations and lectures. A 20-seat boardroom can accommodate small-group strategy sessions. For receptions and dinners, the Grand Lobby can seat 200 people. For a better view of the Mississippi River, incorporate the terrace into the event.


Flora and Fauna

Greater Columbus, Ohio

At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, team-building exercises take groups across the globe. The attraction is divided into regions, including Australia and the islands; “shores,” meaning the aquarium; Asia; the Congo; and North America.

A variety of scenic venues are available for rent, whether you have 30 attendees or up to 10,000. A hundred people, for instance, can gather in an open-air shelter near the tigers in the new Asia Quest region. Up to 1,300 can mingle in the Water’s Edge Event Park, located on the banks of the Scioto River. The park has separate rental areas, including heated boardwalk pavilions along the river for up to 320 guests.

Planners can augment the natural attractions with animal interactions, keeper talks, behind-the-scenes tours and stingray feedings, said Sara Blatnick, communications manager for the Dublin Convention and Visitors Bureau. A new Safari Africa exhibit is scheduled to open in May, she said.

For those who favor flora, consider the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, located two miles east of Columbus. Venues include the elegant Victorian-era John F. Wolfe Palm House, which can seat up to 170.

The venue’s Scotts Miracle-Gro Community Garden Campus, which contains an education pavilion, suits seminars, workshops and receptions. The AEP Education Pavilion has a full demonstration kitchen and Wi-Fi capabilities.


Playtime at the Lanes

Buffalo Grove, Illinois

When it comes to getting down to business, a little playtime can go a long way.

Buffalo Grove, Illinois, in October welcomed Brunswick’s, a 56,000-square-foot bowling alley and entertainment center, located about 45 minutes outside Chicago. Groups are welcome to buy out the entire complex for an event or simply book space, said Kristina Perez-Thomas, director of sales and marketing.

With 32 lanes, Brunswick’s is often used for team building, Perez-Thomas said. But corporate guests aren’t limited to knocking down pins.

“When groups call us, they’re concerned that some of their guests aren’t into bowling,” Perez-Thomas said. “We have many other activities, including laser tag, which is a unique experience for groups. The whole premise is that you have to work together.” The laser tag arena, known as Urban Mission, has a Chicago theme.

Groups can hold a meeting in two meeting rooms, and the event staff will prepare a special food and beverage package; there’s a restaurant on-site.


Mall of America

Bloomington, Minnesota

Playtime happens all the time at Mall of America, which is so much more than shopping. The complex, located in Bloomington, Minneapolis, is an entertainment metropolis featuring Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, the Nickelodeon Universe and A.C.E.S. Flight Simulators.

Hold a presentation on the stage in the 4,000-square-foot great room in Nickelodeon Universe, or schedule a reception for 250 on the Terrace, which overlooks Nickelodeon Universe.

Focus group rooms with two-way walls and cameras are available for research, and the mall’s executive center, on level four, has private rooms for between 15 and 140 guests.


After-Hours Play

St. Louis

In St. Louis children play by day in the City Museum, situated in the former warehouse of the International Shoe Company. But adults can play by night.

Don’t be fooled by the name. The facility showcases art and science with items found in the city; it’s not about the city.

“Everything in it is recycled or reclaimed,” said Donna Andrews, director of public relations for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.

The rooftop, for instance, features Big Eli, a restored four-story Ferris wheel; a rope ramp slide; and a rope swing. The “Beatnik Bob” exhibit is a tribute to a carnival midway, and MonstroCity is part sculpture and part playground.

There are five spaces available for events, among them Architecture Hall, which displays salvaged architectural pieces and seats up to 300. The more intimate Cabin Inn, a log cabin from the early 19th century, seats up to 40 inside and up to 60 with the patio.

“It’s a beautiful setup for groups,” Andrews said of the museum. “It’s an attraction meant to be experienced.”