The lakes of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the legacy of glaciers that dug out tens of thousands of basins during the last few Ice Ages. Melting ice and rain flowed in to create spaces ranging from modest ponds to the world’s largest freshwater lake—Superior—which is lined with dozens of shipping ports and recreational marinas.
Realizing that all this open water exerts an almost uncanny pull on visitors, Midwest destinations have created myriad activities for groups that take maximum advantage of their lakeside locations.
Between Chicago and Milwaukee in Lake County, the Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center in Zion is located on Lake Michigan amidst Illinois Beach State Park. The resort offers outdoor team-building activities on the beach, beachfront yoga and zumba classes, volleyball, hiking, bonfires—and s’mores to top it all off.
A few miles inland in Lincolnshire, the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort has a unique attraction that groups will want to consider: 20 beehives that are expected to produce 3,000 pounds of honey this year. The Marriott puts it all to good use in food and beer-brewing; tours of the beehives and surrounding gardens are available.
Back at lakeside, the Chicago North Shore CVB and the Evanston History Center are promoting a new history and architecture tour program to groups staying at the Hilton Garden Inn Chicago North Shore/Evanston and the Hilton Orrington/Evanston. The tours include the historic homes of former Vice President Charles Dawes and 19th century social reformer Frances Willard.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is nearby in Glencoe and is connected to Lake Michigan by park land and golf courses. Tours of the Garden are available and planners will note that it has several terraces, pavilions and indoor spaces available for functions.
In Michigan, Traverse City faces Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, and features a white-sand shoreline that can look positively Caribbean. It’s relaxing in a way that enhances group productivity, says Tori Piersante, vice president of sales at the Traverse City CVB.
“When you can look out over that water—or better yet, get out and enjoy it personally—your whole experience of the meeting changes,” she says. “It bumps up your creativity. We never have our best ideas sitting around a conference table, we have them when we’re doing something we love.”
The Grand Traverse Resort is the largest meetings-capable hotel here and features a private beach club, The Shores, serving refreshments between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Groups that have a Native American theme or interest will note that Grand Traverse is run by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
The nearby Holiday Inn West Bay is on the waterfront, too, and has its own strip of beach and several miles of adjoining public beach. Visiting groups can get out onto the Bay aboard the Nauti-Cat, a 47-foot catamaran.
The Hagerty Conference Center at Northwest Michigan College seats 380 amid state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and shares the space with the Great Lakes Culinary Institute and the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, providing both great catering and hands-on nautical training.
A bit further south, Muskegon lies on Muskegon Lake, which is connected to Lake Michigan via canal. Its watery location and scenic beauty make it the scene of seemingly nonstop festivals in 2012, including Muskegon Bike Time, the Michigan Irish Music Festival, the Unity Christian Music Festival and Hot Rod Magazine’s Power Tour.
Getting here is easy: From May to October, the Lake Express auto ferry connects Milwaukee to Muskegon, turning the normally grueling 275-mile drive around Lake Michigan into a pleasant three-and-a-half hour excursion where you and your car get to relax on board.
Right on the water is the Shoreline Inn & Conference Center, which hosts the Terrace Point Marina; visitors can rent pontoon boats, kayaks and bicycles, or relax at the Lake House Waterfront Grille.
Just inland is the Holiday Inn Muskegon Harbor, where 10,000 square feet of meeting space is across the street from the restored, 1927 Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, a popular venue for touring theater groups, musical acts, symphonies and opera.
Asked about the attraction of meeting on Muskegon Lake or Lake Michigan, Stephanie Simonelli, catering manager at the Holiday Inn Muskegon Harbor, mentions variety as well as affordability.
“When the business day is done, there’s no lack of things for people to do to unwind—on any budget,” she says. “You can hire a dinner cruise, go to a lakeside golf course, hire a charter to go fishing or just sit at the beach and watch the sunset.”
Duluth is a Lake Superior port with an oversized share of Victorian architecture and an outdoorsy reputation. Canal Park Lodge and the Inn on Lake Superior both offer superb lakeside views plus amenities such as lakeside dining, massage and access to a miles-long walkway that visitors can traverse either by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. They also can call Lake Superior Helicopters to see both the lake and the surrounding Paul Bunyan-esque forests from the air.
“Our location is affordable, easy to get to, there’s great outdoor opportunities for team building and strategic planning, and none of us charge attrition in Duluth,” says Leanne Joynes, vice president for marketing at ZMC Hotels, which owns the Inn on Lake Superior.
A few hours’ drive north of Minneapolis, the area around Brainerd and Baxter offers not just meetings-friendly properties (Breezy Point Resort, Cragun’s Resort and Hotel on Gull Lake, Grandview Resort, Madden’s on Gull Lake and Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge in Deerwood all have event space), but outdoor recreation opportunities galore. Groups can ride on the Breezy Belle paddleboat across Pelican Lake, numerous guided fishing options are available, and boats on Lake Mille Lacs can accommodate large groups.
Back on land, visitors can enjoy horseback riding in Pillsbury State Forest or the newly constructed mountain-biking trails at the Cuyuna County State Recreation Area; bike rentals are available nearby. On more level ground, world-class golf courses such as The Classic (at Madden’s), Dutch Legacy and Bobby’s Legacy (both at Cragun’s) abound.
All of Door County lies on a peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, meaning that scenic views are never far away.
The Door County Maritime Museum has three sites that celebrate Great Lakes shipping and shipbuilding: Sturgeon Bay Museum, Cana Island Lighthouse and Gills Rock Museum. A new exhibit in Sturgeon Bay, Pirates: Ship to Shore, celebrates the exploits of East Coast and Caribbean pirates and buccaneers who menaced the North American and Caribbean coastlines.
The area has numerous sailing charter companies, including Sail Door County, which recently acquired the 27-passenger, 62-foot wooden schooner Edith M. Becker. In the same vein, Shoreline Charters recently acquired a 36-passenger boat that will be offering boat tours out of the Sister Bay marina.
Back on shore, the new Door County Wine Trail lets groups follow their nose (and palate) to sipping and tasting events at seven area wineries.
On the shores of Lake Winnebago, the Holiday Inn Neenah Riverwalk, in Neenah, is across the street from Shattuck Park, offering easy access to summer concerts, a Riverwalk, Neenah Lighthouse and the marina.
The landforms around Sheboygan have combined with prevailing Lake Michigan winds to create something unique: the world’s most popular freshwater surfing destination. While seasonal wind patterns make fall and winter the top surfing season, a walk around this stretch of Lake Michigan is the next best thing to an oceanside stroll.
Sheboygan’s premier waterside destination is Blue Harbor Resort and Spa, which is expanding its outdoor spaces with a poolside tiki bar, lakeside putting green and bocce-ball court. Visitors can wander over about two miles of public beach or eat at Blue Harbor’s lakeside terrace—and it doesn’t get better than being on the shore on Lake Michigan, according to David Sanderson, Blue Harbor’s general manager.
“The challenge for a planner is to stay in the experience business and show the attendee something different,” he says. “In Sheboygan’s case, with the beaches, the charter fishing, the largest resort on Lake Michigan, one of the best arts centers in the Midwest and a clean vibrant downtown with antique shops, it’s a place that when people come to it they’re totally surprised.”
Groups can sail Lake Michigan courtesy of outfits such as U.S. Sailing Center Sheboygan, one of just four Olympic sailing training centers. Stand-up paddleboarding is also popular, inspiring a national race series here that showcases the sport. Team-building activities abound, including chartered fishing excursions and outdoor survival experiences, while Elkhart Lake’s Road America racetrack also offers non-racing activities.
Longtime Meetings Focus MidAmerica contributor Paul D. Kretkowski looks forward to relaxing and eating walleye on Lake Superior this summer.