Wisconsin is known for its Northwoods and its many rivers and lakes. Meeting planners that would like to tap into some of Wisconsin’s best scenery and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities should consider hosting their conferences in these smaller towns that offer first-class meeting spaces and lodging, plenty of attractions and a slower pace than the state’s nearby urban centers.
Fox Cities encompasses 19 communities along the Fox River and at the north end of Lake Winnebago, so boating is popular. Trails, boardwalks and bridges connect the cities, towns and waterways in the area. Papermaking was king in the 1900s, with many mills using the river to generate electricity to power their machinery. The Hearthstone Historic House Museum is a remnant of that era, the first Victorian home in the world to use hydroelectric power. Visitors can see original Edison electroliers, light switches and wiring on their tour of the home.
Each community hosts festivals throughout the year, giving meeting planners something fun to plan their events around nearly every weekend. Top attractions include the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton, which brings in Broadway shows, and Fox Cities Stadium, home to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers minor league baseball team.
The Red Lion Hotel Paper Valley is the top meeting hotel in Fox Cities, with 300 guest rooms and 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. It is connected to the Fox Cities Exhibition Center, which opened in January 2018. The hotel has a grand ballroom and several breakout spaces and can host groups of up to 1,000 people. The exhibition center boasts 37,250 square feet of trade show space in three exhibition halls and 17,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space alongside Jones Park. Copper Leaf, a 90-room boutique hotel across the street, has meeting space for 100 people.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Neenah has 107 guest rooms and 8,558 square feet of event space. Unique venues include the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve, with event spaces that can host groups of four to 250 guests, and Givens Farm, which offers a more rustic setting for smaller groups of under 100 people.
A suburb of Milwaukee, Brookfield is about 20 minutes from General Mitchell International Airport. The area boasts 12 hotels with 1,850 guest rooms and the new Brookfield Conference Center, which opened in July 2020 with 54,000 square feet of meeting space. The city built the center to attract new business to the area and to better compete with larger, second-tier cities. The center has two ballrooms, one 18,000 square feet and the other 6,000 square feet. In addition, groups can plan events in the 8,000-square-foot Celebration Atrium or the center’s 9,000-square-foot outdoor Celebration Plaza.
The conference center is across from the Brookfield Square mall, with myriad dining and shopping options, and shares a parking lot with the 389-room Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel, the largest full-service hotel in the city. The Sheraton has 21 event rooms with a total of 18,782 square feet. The largest space can hold 900 people. The Hilton Garden Inn, which opened in March 2020, has 168 guest rooms and is attached to the conference center by a glass-enclosed walkway. It also has a 1,700-square-foot meeting room.
Brookfield is close to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which is a popular off-site meeting venue for up to 500 guests, and is minutes away from American Family Field, where the Milwaukee Brewers play baseball. Groups that want to try something a little different should plan an event at WhirlyBall, an entertainment venue in the mall that has bowling, laser tag, hyperbowling, pop-up games and two WhirlyBall courts.
La Crosse is one of the biggest cities in the region that is on the Mississippi River, making it a desirable meeting destination. Groups planning an event in the area should make time to experience the river; Riverside Park, which sits at the confluence of three rivers; and the beautiful bluffs for which the area is known. At 600 feet in elevation, Grandad Bluff is the largest and most visited one in the area. On a clear day, guests who climb to the top get fantastic views of La Crosse, the Mississippi River, Iowa and Minnesota.
The La Crosse Center, the city’s main convention facility, is in the middle of a renovation. It added a brand-new state-of-the-art ballroom that can be split into three rooms, as well as additional meeting spaces. The ballroom has huge windows that overlook the river. A new rooftop terrace makes a great prefunction space, with a roll-out bar and wonderful views of the river and Pearl Street, which is the heart of historic downtown La Crosse. The center also has a 6,500-seat arena with 21,000 square feet of floor space.
The Radisson Hotel La Crosse is adjacent to the La Crosse Center and within walking distance of Riverside Park. It has 165 guest rooms and 11,500 square feet of flexible meeting space for up to 500 guests. The Stony Creek Hotel La Crosse-Onalaska is another option with 157 guest rooms and a 7,000-square-foot ballroom. Unique venues include the La Crosse Queen paddle-wheeler, which takes groups on sightseeing, lunch or dinner cruises on the Mississippi River.
Waukesha is known for its charming and historic downtown, with eclectic shops and locally owned restaurants. It also is the birthplace of Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar. Throughout downtown Waukesha, there are 15 10-foot-tall Gibson guitars that have been painted by local artists and more than a dozen wall murals that pay homage to Paul and the history of Waukesha. Pewaukee, Waukesha’s sister city across Interstate 94, is home to Pewaukee Lake, one of the best lakes for muskie fishing in south and central Wisconsin. Visitors can rent boats or paddleboards and take part in other water-based activities at the lake.
The Ingleside Hotel is the largest meeting facility in Waukesha, with 40,000 square feet of traditional indoor space and an outdoor pavilion and grounds that can be used for a variety of events. The hotel has 192 rooms and an attached water park. The Marriott Milwaukee West has 281 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space that includes a ballroom and a private dining room. The Holiday Inn, built in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, has 119 guest rooms and 2,500 square feet of meeting space. Its sister property, Wildwood Lodge, has two smaller meeting rooms and 94 all-suite guest rooms.
The Waukesha County Museum is on the first floor of the city’s historic courthouse. The upper level was turned into a meeting facility for up to 300 people. Nearby Old World Wisconsin is an outdoor living-history museum in the middle of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. It has an 1890s octagonal barn that can be used for social events and meetings.
Situated on Lake Michigan, Manitowoc has been a shipbuilding hub since the 1800s. Its maritime industry started with wooden sailing ships and fishing boats and then, during World War II, expanded into wartime marine vessels such as submarines, tankers and landing craft. Now the area is known for building spectacular yachts.
Groups that want to tap into the area’s nautical past can host an event at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. The Roof Deck offers 3,100 square feet of outdoor space with panoramic views of Lake Michigan and downtown Manitowoc, and the 1,800-square-foot Riverview Room can hold groups of up to 150 theater-style.
The Holiday Inn Manitowoc Hotel and Conference Center is the largest facility in town, with 204 guest rooms and 20,000 square feet of meeting space. The Baymont by Wyndham Manitowoc Lakefront has 109 rooms and can accommodate 180 banquet guests, and the Lighthouse Inn has 66 rooms and meeting space for up to 200 people.
The Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center is another popular conference space. Visitors can learn where their food comes from through interactive exhibits and even watch a cow giving birth in the birthing barn. A cafe divides the museum from the center’s conference space, which can host groups of up to 300 people. Meeting groups can tour the museum as part of their rental.