The shores of Lake Michigan might be Illinois’ best-known waterfront, but it isn’t the only one.
Crisscrossed with rivers, from big names like the Illinois River and the Mississippi to smaller local waterways like the Rock River and the Des Plaines River, Illinois enjoys more miles of riverside shoreline than Lake Michigan lakefront.
These lakes and rivers make many of the smaller cities in Illinois attractive places for meetings and events.
Long the gateway to the North Shore, perfectly positioned at the juncture of Interstate 90, crossing the country, and Interstate 94, sweeping out to Detroit, Skokie has a new rapid transit link to Chicago that opened in 2012 and that has transformed it from one of the many outlying suburbs into a location that combines the best of North Lake Michigan with Chicago.
“When guests are coming from all over the country, they want to go to Chicago for the day, and access to the city is a make-or-break feature,” said Gina Speckman, executive director of the Chicago North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In terms of event space, Skokie also provides one-stop shopping. One intersection holds the DoubleTree by Hilton Chicago-North Shore Conference Center, with 22,000 square feet of International Association of Conference Centers-certified meeting space and one of the largest ballrooms on the shore; the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, ideal for larger events, with an 867-seat theater and a 318-seat theater that can be converted into a 7,400-square-foot ballroom; and the Westfield Old Orchard shopping complex, with multiple private dining spaces and a rooftop patio.
If you want to do a spring or fall event outdoors, the shores of Lake Michigan are the place to look, as the water tempers the usual Midwest chill setting in. “Everyone thinks September 1 is fall, but it’s 90 degrees here,” said Speckman. “Through Halloween or so, we’re doing events outside.” For wholly outdoor events, the two-mile Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park, which features 60 sculptures from a mix of local, national and international artists, offers several distinct spaces for receptions.
Skokie hotels feature prominently in bookings for Northeastern University in the next town over, Evanston, so meeting planners will have a hard time finding space graduation weekend and on home game weekends during the football season, said Speckman.
Located on Peoria Lake and Upper Peoria Lake, two calm, widened parts of the Illinois River, Peoria packs in practically everything you might want in a waterfront meeting destination, from private paddleboat rides for up to 400 to meeting rooms with sweeping river views.
Peoria’s riverfront has been experiencing a building boom for decades and lies just two blocks from the Peoria Civic Center, the state’s largest convention center south of Chicago, with 900,000 square feet of space that includes a 110,000-square-foot expo hall and a 27,000-square-foot ballroom.
Planners looking to bring the outside in or simply enjoy some inspiring views during their meeting have two options on the riverfront. The Peoria Riverfront Museum offers varied rental opportunities for meetings and receptions, among them a planetarium, a sculpture garden and a lobby atrium that can seat up to 250. The nearby Caterpillar Visitors Center, which tells the story of how the Caterpillar company’s machines helped build the West, also has rental space available for events.
Though it’s been around for a while — since the 1960s — Wildlife Prairie State Park is also still a favorite for local meetings and off-sites with unusual overnight accommodations like log cabins and train cabooses, as well as meeting rooms that look right out on animals roaming the prairie.
Peoria hosts the state basketball championships, which use the entire civic center and most area hotels, over two weekends in March, so Cory Hatfield, director of sales for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, recommends that planners avoid that month, if possible.