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Waterfront destinations in the Heartlands

The country’s heartland might be far from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, yet it still boasts plenty of cities and towns with a waterfront. In Wisconsin alone, for instance, there are more than 15,000 documented lakes, and Minnesota has been dubbed “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The Mississippi River, which winds through the Heartland, is fed by thousands of tributaries. And, of course, several states hug the Great Lakes.

These waterside towns provide both activities for meeting attendees and a scenic and often inspiring backdrop for the event. Here are a few to consider.


Grand Rapids, Michigan

Situated on the Grand River about 25 miles east of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is seeing a lot of activity lately in the hotel sector. The 126-room Wyndham Garden finished a multimillion-dollar remodel of the entire property last October. The project added a much-needed restaurant to the hotel, which has two meeting rooms: a boardroom for up to 15 and a multipurpose room for up to 45.

The 181-room Ramada Plaza Grand Rapids, which has more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space, is undergoing renovations to bring new carpet, paint and technology updates to the hotel.

And the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel recently completed the renovation of the 8,750-square-foot Ambassador Ballroom, which can hold up to 700. There are also three separate prefunction areas. Renovations on the Glass Tower guest rooms should be complete by October.

The hotel is part of the Amway Hotel Corporation, which also includes the JW Marriott Grand Rapids and Downtown Courtyard by Marriott. Located steps from each other, they offer a combined 1,100 guest rooms and 240,000 square feet of meeting space. The hotels are near the 12,000-plus capacity Van Andel Arena.

As for convention space, the DeVos Place Convention Center, built in 2003 on the river, holds 162,000 square feet of Class A exhibition hall space, a 40,000-square-foot flexible ballroom and 35,000 square feet of meeting space.

For an off-site excursion, there are at least 18 Lake Michigan beaches less than a 30-minute drive from downtown.

And because the thirsty city was named BeerCity USA 2013 in an annual poll conducted by, no trip is complete without a visit to one of the many breweries.

The Founders Brewing Company features the Centennial Room, which includes a staffed bar with eight taps and room for 60 people seated. The second-floor room, which has a projector and a podium with a mic, boasts a wall of windows facing the city so guests can sip with a skyline view.


Traverse City, Michigan

Beaches are the major draw for Traverse City, located on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, a freshwater fjord in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. More than 100 freshwater lakes and streams surround it.

“Because of our geography, very few of our facilities aren’t on the water,” said Michael Norton, media relations manager for Traverse City Tourism. “A huge amount of our town is right on the waterfront or within a mile of it, giving everyone access to swimming and sailing.”

Groups can canoe or kayak on the Boardsman, Betsie or Platte rivers; go fly-fishing; or take a trip aboard the tall ship Manitou, a replica of a 19th-century schooner that can accommodate 60 people.

Even the Haggerty Center, which has 8,000 square feet of flexible meeting and banquet space, takes advantage of the location. It’s right on the shore of West Grand Traverse Bay.

“It shares a building with the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, and there’s a ship docked right outside,” Norton said. “The views are stunning.”

The 179-room West Bay Beach, a Holiday Inn resort with 6,746 square feet of indoor banquet space, and the 120-room Bayshore Resort Hotel flank the center.

“This combination of conference facilities and adjacent lodging creates a unique waterfront ‘campus’ destination for small to midsize meetings,” Norton said.


St. Charles, Missouri

Located along the Missouri River and northwest of St. Louis, this town was a hub for westward expansion; it was the starting point in 1804 for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But the city was around long before the explorers launched their trip.

“St. Charles is known for its history, which started in 1769,” said Steve Powell, who, with Venetia McEntire, owns Boone’s Colonial Inn, which was renovated to reflect its appearance in the 1820s.

The inn, which can handle a reception for up to 40 and dinner for up to 35, features an 1804 dinner. Staff dressed in period clothing deliver historical tidbits as well as bread, butters and jams.

“All of our events are tailored to the client’s needs,” said Powell, who has hosted Microsoft at the inn.

As for the inn’s name, Daniel Boone and his family built a homestead in nearby Defiance, and Boone’s Lick Road later became the eastern starting point of the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

Planners will appreciate that the city is just 10 minutes from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s also home to the St. Charles Convention Center, which opened in 2005.

The 154,000-square-foot facility has 66,000 square feet of total exhibit space, including a 27,600-square-foot exhibit hall. It’s attached to the 296-suite Embassy Suites St. Louis-St. Charles, which sports a spa.

There are more than 500 hotel rooms within walking distance and nearly 2,000 all together in St. Charles; among them is the 397-room Ameristar Casino Resort Spa, an AAA Four-Diamond property with 19,000 square feet of meeting space.

No matter where you are in the city, you’re near the river. That’s particularly true in Frontier Park, a 16-acre long green space on the riverbank near the historic district.

A statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark has a place of honor in the park.

“The statue is definitely a photo opportunity in St. Charles,” said Carol Felzian, director of communication for the city of St. Charles.

Another off-site option is the Foundry Art Centre, located in a former train factory along the river and the Katy Trail.

“Rather than demolish the 36,800-square-foot building, the St. Charles community worked tirelessly to complete a $2.2 million renovation,” said Angela Fowle, the executive director.

The center now has 5,200 square feet of exhibition space for national exhibitions and working artists’ studios, which are open to the public. The studios are often open during private events.

The first-floor grand hall offers 6,000 square feet, and there’s an additional 1,400-square-foot space for more intimate affairs.

Come March, the historic district will welcome the Old Stone Chapel and Banquet Center. The rustic space, outfitted with exposed beams, will hold up to 125 people in the chapel and up to 200 in the attached banquet center.


Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Tucked in Kettle Moraine State Forest, this village surrounding a 300-acre lake is a destination for vacationers from Chicago, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, and Milwaukee, which is an hour away.

It’s also a destination for meeting planners, and some like to book events in winter, when the tourists are mostly gone and rates are down, said Kathleen Eickhoff, the Elkhart Lake director of tourism.

No matter the time of year, corporate and association guests appreciate the town’s walkability. “You can walk to shops pretty much anywhere,” Eickhoff said. “Planners don’t have to worry about moving people around town.”

For meetings, the premier property is the 245-room Osthoff Resort, an AAA Four-Diamond property. The resort is currently adding 10,000 square feet of dividable event space. An additional 10,000 square feet of prefunction and back-of-the-house prep space will wrap around it. The project, which should be completed by mid-year, augments the existing 16,000 square feet of function space, said general manager Lola Roeth.

“This will allow us to capture the business we have to turn away right now due to the size of the group,” she said. “We’ll be able to have several meeting rooms that are similar in size so clients can use them in different ways.”

The construction is close on the heels of the refurbishment of two buildings on the complex.

Planners with groups at Osthoff often book classes for attendees in the L’ecole de la Maison Culinary School at the resort.

“It’s very popular,” Roeth said. “Groups can engage in cooking competitions and team-building events.”

Team building is also on tap at Road America, a motorsports complex that dates back to the 1950s, when street racing in Elkhart Lake was common.

Road America offers an indoor meeting space for up to 100 people so groups can gather either before or after an activity, and there are plenty of activities from which to choose.

In addition to the road-racing circuit, the 640-acre site has geocaching — even in winter — Segway tours, hiking, snowshoeing, paintball, go-karts and, of course, driving classes.

This year, the venue plans to debut a zip line. “We have several groups who come back year after year,” said Mike Kertscher, programs manager for the facility. “We constantly have to come up with something new to keep things fresh.”

Combined with the fresh air of a waterside locale, these activities can spark collaboration, inspiration and motivation.