The cities of Northern Indiana are vibrant college towns with proud athletic traditions and strong values focusing on family and faith. Scenic lakes and unique natural features like the Indiana Dunes provide a range of outdoor activities, and casino boats inject a bit of glitz into the mix.
The twin cities of South Bend and Mishawaka offer three separate convention districts, more than 4,000 hotel rooms and the Fighting Irish as a perennial attraction.
"Of course, our primary claim to fame is the University of Notre Dame," says Carolyne Wallace, director of sales at Visit South Bend Mishawaka. "It is a nearly automatic attendance booster. That being said, we are more than a college town. In addition to marvelous cultural and entertainment offerings and outstanding meeting facilities, we are a family-friendly community with deep roots based on faith and a diverse ethnic heritage."
South Bend Convention District features the 95,000-square-foot Century Center Convention Center located downtown within walking distance of hotels, attractions, restaurants, shopping and nightlife. For a more retreat-like setting, Notre Dame Convention District offers two university-based conference centers, Gillespie Conference and Special Event Center, and extensive on-campus facilities and amenities. Finally, Mishawaka Convention District is the most urban option, with conference space at Bethel College and Windsor Park Conference Center near a large selection of shops and restaurants. Each district is within 20 minutes of another, making it simple to hold events in multiple locations.
A new online and on-site registration service offered by Notre Dame Conference Services now enables planners to set up online registration with photos and links, direct assistance for attendees, mobile applications, badges, copy services and more. It's available for events at any location in the cities.
"I can't think of a better way to make a planner's job a little easier than by taking the headaches of registration and convention servicing out of their hands and into Notre Dame's," Wallace says.
Meetings-friendly hotels include the 298-room Doubletree by Hilton South Bend; the 200-room Waterford Estates Lodge; the 135-room Comfort Suites University Area; and the 106-suite Residence Inn Mishawaka.
Downtown, the College Football Hall of Fame can welcome groups as large as 400 and is connected to the Hilton. Studebaker National Museum, which celebrates the area's history as home to the automobile factory, is suitable for gatherings of up to 200. The Center for History presents the rich heritage of the St. Joseph River Valley region and includes Copshaholm, an elegant 38-room mansion. Rental spaces include a 125-person auditorium, a 60-person carriage house and a 12-person boardroom.
Other meetings properties in the area include Swan Lake Resort in Plymouth, with more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space, and Potawatomi Inn Resort & Conference Center in Angola, with a 6,000-square-foot ballroom and five meeting rooms.
Near the Chicago area, the cities of Lake Michigan's south shore are rife with outdoor activities, casino boats and event space with pleasingly smaller price tags. Gary, Hammond, Merrillville and Michigan City are the largest communities in the area.
"The hospitality along the South Shore not only attracts groups to our area but keeps them returning," says Megan Langel, sales manager at South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. "Once you have experienced the affordable accommodations, friendly workforce, many restaurants and unique attractions, you realize that Northwest Indiana is a gem to behold."
Radisson Star Plaza Merrillville offers 30,000 square feet of event space. Purdue University-Calumet offers conference space at Purdue Calumet Conference Center, and Ramada Conference Center of Hammond has 18,000 square feet of meeting space.
The casinos along the shore of Lake Michigan make great event sites. Horseshoe Casino in Hammond offers 100,000 square feet of meeting space, and Blue Chip Casino, Hotel and Spa in Michigan City has more than 15,000 square feet in its Stardust Event Center.
Another unique space is the 28,000-square-foot timber frame barn at County Line Orchard. Besides the rustic venue, the orchard can offer group activities such as you-pick apples, pumpkins and sunflowers in the fall, musical concerts and campfires.
A must-visit for religious meetings, the Shrine of Christ's Passion is an interactive attraction featuring 40 life-size bronze statues along a winding path that follows Christ from the Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane through the Stations of the Cross. Admission is free.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore comprises 15 miles of coastline and 15,000 acres. This beautiful park space welcomes groups for ranger-led hikes and picnics in six reservable shelters.
Fort Wayne/Allen County
Indiana's second-largest city and home to four minor-league sports teams, Fort Wayne is a family-friendly community with a special draw for youth and sports gatherings.
"Our downtown revitalization is in full swing, with a brand new hotel, baseball stadium and more restaurants," says Josie O'Donnell, convention sales manager at Visit Fort Wayne. "There is a new buzz to the downtown. Sports event planners will be very excited about the new Sport One Parkview Fieldhouse because we're attracting all types of sporting events, which typically occur on weekends when hotels need to be filled."
The new fieldhouse will be able to host soccer and volleyball tournaments year-round, and is expected to be completed in late 2012. The portfolio of existing sports venues includes The Plex South, with 100,000 square feet of indoor and 40 acres of outdoor facilities; Hefner Soccer Complex, with 14 regulation-sized outdoor and two indoor fields; and the Academy of Sports and Health (ASH) Centre, a 26-acre campus with a variety of facilities.
Allen County War Memorial Coliseum offers one of the largest exhibition spaces in the region, with nearly 1 million square feet of flexible space. Grand Wayne Convention Center, with 225,000 square feet of event space, is conveniently connected to the recently renovated, 246-room Hilton Fort Wayne and the 250-room Courtyard Fort Wayne Downtown.
The downtown Allen County Public Library contains one of the country's largest genealogy centers. The library can accommodate groups as large as 378 in its meeting rooms.
Local handbag manufacturer cinda b recently began offering a factory tour. Groups as large as 40 can watch a purse develop from design to finished product, and then shop in the factory store.
Rich in lakes and natural beauty, Kosciusko County is abundant with nontraditional meeting spaces such as universities and camps.
"Kosciusko County has a great future in the meetings market," says Mary Kittrell, executive director of the Kosciusko County CVB. "With the renovation and reopening of Oakwood Inn and Conference Center, the addition of meeting space at the Orthopaedic Capital Center, and the updated Wyndham Garden, Kosciusko County is very well prepared to host meetings and special events."
Many of the county's larger meeting spaces can be found at its colleges. Orthopaedic Capital Center, located on the campus of Grace College and Seminary in Winona Lake, offers a 13,000-square-foot arena, a 7,722-square-foot auditorium and several meeting rooms. Manchester University in North Manchester has a number of space options welcoming groups as large as 1,250.
Camp meetings make for wonderful team-building events. Groups can bond over campfires at facilities like Epworth Forest Conference Center, which has lodging and meeting spaces for as many as 600. Quaker Haven Camp can host retreats as large as 200.
Meanwhile, waterborne activities are also popular with groups, including private cruises on Lake Wawasee aboard the SS Lillypad. The 110-passenger dinner boat plies Indiana's largest natural lake for dinner and sunset cruises throughout the summer months.
Small towns with a big school, West Lafayette and Lafayette burst with the energy and cultural diversity of Purdue University.
"We are a Big 10 University town, which attracts a lot of great restaurants, events throughout the year and great nightlife," says Ashley Gregory, group tours and meetings manager at the Lafayette-West Lafayette CVB. "We have some unique experiences such as tailgate parties, college sporting events and breakfast club, where students dress up in costumes and visit the bars at 6 a.m. on a home football game day."
Purdue Conferences can welcome groups as large as 6,000. The 192-room Union Club Hotel is connected to the Purdue Memorial Union and Stewart Center.
Best Western Lafayette Executive Plaza and Conference Center offers 7,000 square feet of meeting space. The 149-room Four Points by Sheraton, formerly University Plaza Hotel, has 11,500 square feet of event facilities. Holiday Inn City Centre offers 147 guest rooms and 7,500 square feet of meeting space.
At Wolf Park, groups as large as 100 can enjoy private guided tours of wolf, fox and bison habitats and Howl Night events that allow visitors to witness evening behavior, including howling. Meeting space for 100 is available.
Prophetstown State Park preserves the battleground where Native Americans fought the Battle of Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison's army, and explores 1920s farming life. Picnic shelters are available for gatherings.
Muncie was nicknamed Middletown, USA in the 1920s by sociologists who selected it as a typical Middle American town. Today it prides itself on the old-fashioned values of friendliness, good service and value for money as a meetings destination.
The 47,000-square-foot Horizon Convention Center is located in Muncie's downtown historic district and specializes in theme meetings.
Ball State University offers Pittenger Student Center, with meeting space for 500 and 24 guest rooms and a bowling alley. The Alumni Center has meeting space for 64.
Groups can take a guided tour or do a scavenger hunt at the National Model Aviation Museum. Ball State Planetarium and Observatory offers private programs and group tours. The planetarium can seat 70.
Kelly Crumrin is a freelance travel writer who grew up in Clark County, Ill., just across the Wabash River from Terre Haute.