In America’s Heartland, suburban destinations can be just as exciting as their big-city neighbors. Meeting planners that want to get away from the big city but still have plenty of fun things to do, top-notch hotels and a choice of meeting venues should consider these five Midwestern suburbs.
DuPage County, Illinois
DuPage County comprises 38 vibrant communities just outside of Chicago, between the O’Hare and Midway airports and near eight major interstates. Three commuter rail lines are available for visitors who want to stay in DuPage but take daytrips to the Chicago area.
Naperville, Downers Grove, Oakbrook Terrace, Lisle and Glen Ellyn all have something special to offer meeting groups that want to avoid the bustle of urban Chicago but need the amenities a larger city has to offer. With 115 hotels, several of them full-service, and plenty of cultural and family-friendly attractions, the area is worth a look.
The Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace brings in top Broadway productions, and Cantigny Park features the historic house museum of Robert McCormick, a colonel in the First Infantry Division in World War I and president of the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The property is also home to the First Division Museum. The Morton Arboretum, Oakbrook Center, one of the largest outdoor shopping centers in the country, and Lynfred Winery, Illinois’ first winery, round out some of the must-see places in the area.
Meeting planners have their pick of 2 million square feet of combined meeting space and 16,000 hotel rooms, including the full-service Westin Chicago Lombard, the Hilton Chicago Oak Brook Hills Resort and Conference Center and the Hyatt Lodge Oak Brook.
Fun activities include Puttshack, which is described as indoor miniature golf on steroids, and WhirlyBall, a team game that involves bumper cars, lacrosse-style sticks and a basketball hoop.
Zionsville and Boone County, Indiana
Unlike many suburbs of major urban centers, Zionsville, Lebanon and Whitestown, Indiana, have retained their small-town charm. Each town has its own distinctive downtown with unique shops, bars and restaurants. The area is known for its major festivals and events.
Just 11 miles outside Indianapolis, Boone County offers a less hectic location for small- to midsize meetings and events. The Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds in Lebanon, which is the county seat of Boone County, has indoor and outdoor meeting and event spaces that can host events with up to 200 vendors and 5,000 attendees.
Zionsville, one of the area’s most popular destinations, is home to the Fanimation Antique Fan Museum and Traders Point Creamery, an artisan creamery, organic dairy farm and restaurant that offers farm-to table meals and some beautiful event spaces, including the Red Barn, a historic 1870s barn that can host groups of up to 300 people; a garden lawn and deck for outside events; and two smaller event spaces. Groups can take a self-guided or guided tour of the organic dairy farm and beautiful grounds or see how cows are milked.
The Palomino Ballroom, also in Zionsville, has an elegant 5,000-square-foot ballroom, a terrace, a full bar and other small meeting space. Lebanon’s Golf Club of Indiana has indoor and outdoor meeting spaces. The top hotels in the area include the Holiday Inn Express Lebanon, the Econo Lodge, the Hampton Inn, WoodSpring Suites Indianapolis Zionsville and the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Indianapolis NW-Zionsville, which also has a small meeting room for up to 30 people.
Ohio’s herb capital, Gahanna is about 10 minutes outside Columbus. It has 20 miles of biking and walking trails and is host to the Creekside Blues and Jazz Festival. The Ohio Herb Center in Gahanna’s popular Creekside District offers group workshops about herbs, from tea blending to botanical beauty, as well as tours of its herb gardens. It also has a gift shop that sells blended teas, herbal products and bulk herbs.
Big Walnut Creek runs through the Creekside District, with its beautiful fountains, a lagoon, locally owned restaurants and shops. Several breweries and distilleries call the area home, including the area’s first Black-owned brewery, Crafted Culture Brewing. Visit Gahanna offers a passport to the Herbal Cocktail Trail, which features six to eight participating restaurants and breweries that each offer a unique herbal cocktail.
Meeting venues include the Gahanna Sanctuary, a restored 1875 church that can host meetings and receptions for up to 250 people, and the Peak at Edison, a new event space attached to the Edison Brewing Co., which offers stunning views of the Columbus skyline and a more modern and industrial aesthetic. It can host a banquet of up to 200 people. The Creekside Conference and Event Center overlooks Big Walnut Creek and has a ballroom that seats 450 people and several breakout rooms.
Top hotels include the SpringHill Suites, the TownPlace Suites, the Holiday Inn Express and Suites and the Sonesta Simply Suites, all near Columbus Airport.
The Mall of America in Bloomington is one of the most iconic destinations in Minnesota with more than 520 stores, the Nickelodeon Universe theme park and the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, but what many people don’t realize is that it’s also a major meeting and convention destination. An easy 15-minute drive from both Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and a short distance from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Bloomington is home to more than 45 hotels with 9,600 hotel rooms, including 21 that have a combined 283,491 square feet of meeting and convention space.
The largest is the DoubleTree by Hilton Bloomington-Minneapolis South at 78,000 square feet of meeting space and 569 rooms. The JW Marriott Minneapolis, with 342 rooms and 19,516 square feet of meeting space, and the Radisson Blu, with 500 rooms and 26,3000 square feet of meeting space, are both attached to the Mall of America. The Parkview Meeting and Event Center at the mall has 6,840 square feet of meeting space.
When not in meetings, groups can tour the aquarium and Nickelodeon theme park in the mall, spend a day at the Great Wolf Water Park, get out into nature at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge or find their way through the Amazing Mirror Maze, also in the Mall of America. Other options include visiting the Minnesota Zoo and attending a Minnesota Vikings football game or a Minnesota Twins baseball game nearby.
The small town of Dyersville, Iowa, made a name for itself when the movie “Field of Dreams” was filmed in the area. About 25 miles outside Dubuque, Iowa, the town is a pilgrimage spot for fans who come to see the iconic movie site with its baseball field and historic farmhouse.
In 2020, the town of 4,400 people opened the “If You Build It” exhibit about the movie, with a mural of the ghost players and exhibits that tell the history of the players and the Black Sox scandal. In 2021, Major League Baseball built a temporary 8,000-seat stadium in town to host a game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox, a tradition the town hopes to continue.
Baseball isn’t Dyersville’s only attraction. The Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, a huge Gothic church with two spires that stand 212 feet tall, is well worth a visit, and the National Farm Toy Museum has the largest collection of farm toys in the country, with exhibits about Ertl, now Tomy, the toymaker that has a factory in Dyersville, and a plethora of replica John Deere farm equipment.
The town has three hotels with a total of 176 rooms, plus Airbnbs and bed-and-breakfasts. It doesn’t have a standalone convention center, but it has plenty of community centers, meeting halls, restaurants and breweries that can host groups of up to 500 people, including Commercial Club Park and Events Center, a century-old pavilion, and Dyersville Oak Gardens. The Comfort Inn has meeting space for up to 90 people. The Textile Brewing Co. is a unique venue in a refurbished sewing factory that has an outdoor biergarten with fire pits. It serves traditional Bavarian pretzels and flatbread.