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Southern Illinois: Land of Hills and Rivers

The rolling hills and rushing rivers of southern Illinois are a powerful draw for meeting groups that want to enjoy nature and history during a conference. Alton, Effingham and Carbondale each give groups a different perspective on this region of the state.



If your group or organization wants to meet in the midst of nature’s splendor but have modern amenities all around, the Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center in Grafton is worth investigating.

“It’s in the largest state park in Illinois, with a rustic feel: huge wooden beams and stone fireplaces,” said Sissy McClain, meeting sales manager for the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The center, with 72 guest rooms, has a nearly 3,000-square-foot ballroom with partitioning into four smaller rooms. The Holiday Inn Alton has a 4,500-square-foot ballroom and a conference room and has 137 guest rooms.

The Lewis and Clark Community College offers several meeting spaces, including its Commons, with 9,400 square feet, and its Advanced Technology Center, with raised theater-style seating for nearly 200 and a retractable stage. Hatheway Cultural Center has a stage and a theater, and historic Benjamin Godfrey Memorial Chapel is available for events.

Alton is minutes from Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. Alton also boasts an Amtrak stop. “Sunup to sundown, we have the amenities needed for successful meetings,” said McClain.

Alton is National Trail Site One on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Trail and is where three of America’s mightiest rivers — the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois — meet. There’s a huge lock-and-dam system with tours, interactive displays and exhibits.

Alton provides river canoeing, kayaking, boating and fishing; hiking and biking on abundant local trails; excellent golf courses; an antique row; and plenty of live music and performing arts. Add to that wineries, Civil War sites and living-history tours. For fast-paced fun, there’s Argosy Casino Alton.

“Those are options for groups needing a break from their meetings,” said McClain.



Some small to midsize communities are lucky to sit at the crossroads of multiple interstate highways. It’s something planners should consider when organizing a meeting.

“We run the full spectrum of meetings because we’re at the intersection of interstates 57 and 70 and an easy place to get to,” said Jodi Jackson, tourism director for the Effingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re a smaller community, but you’ll get big-city amenities. We have 17 hotels and 65 restaurants, with great attractions.”

Meeting planners can book the Thelma Keller Convention Center and Hotel, a 20,000-square-foot facility with seven main rooms and 17 breakout rooms. An exhibit hall fits 111 booths. The facility can handle groups of up to 1,500. The center adjoins the Holiday Inn, which has 8,000 square feet of meeting space of its own and 112 guest rooms.

The Knights of Columbus Hall has 10,000 square feet and divides into two rooms. The Comfort Inn and Suites, across the street, has 100 rooms.

Two other hotels have meeting facilities: The Fairfield Inn and Suites has 1,900 square feet of conference space and 68 guest rooms. The Hampton Inn and Suites presents various meeting spaces and 92 guest rooms.

Fun things to do outside of meetings include visiting the fun Firefly Grill, a modern farm-to-table roadhouse described as “a culinary experience.”

“If a convention comes, we arrange an event there,” said Jackson. “You tour the restaurant and the gardens by the lake. The owner-chef does a cooking demonstration, and everyone has a three-course tasting. It’s all about the experience.”

The Tuscan Hills Winery is popular, with catering available, tastings, tours and live music.

Another unusual and frequently visited site in Effingham is the Cross at the Crossroads, a 198-foot-tall steel cross, one of the tallest freestanding crosses in the country.

“There’s a visitors center. Many groups are attracted to the site,” said Jackson. “There’s a video room where you can watch how and why the cross was built. It’s nondenominational, with no evangelizing.”

Mid-America Motorworks’ My Garage Museum and Retail Store is a popular stop. The center houses thousands of pieces of automotive collectibles and memorabilia, heavy on Corvettes and Volkswagens. There’s a period gas station, circa 1910, restored on-site.

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.