Wisconsin is as historically interesting as it is ethnically diverse. It is the home of Pabst and Miller brewing companies, Frank Lloyd Wright and Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and it’s a place where visitors can explore everything from Great Lakes shipwrecks to Prohibition-era gangster hideouts.
"Wisconsin is a state rich in history and heritage," says Kelli Trumble, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. "From Native Americans to Irish, German, Norwegian, Polish, French and Hmong, Wisconsin is a true melting pot of people."
Together, Trumble adds, these groups make up a state brimming with stories to tell, and to showcase them, there are a variety of events and festivals, from powwows to Hmong New Year celebrations to Oktoberfest and Polka Days.
"There is much to learn in Wisconsin," she says.
The state’s variety of off-site venues further highlight its unique history and heritage and act as a springboard for groups to tap that knowledge, while also paving the way for memorable meetings.
Milwaukee boasts a rich ethnic ambience, handsome historic buildings and attractions celebrating its unique heritage.
One of Milwaukee’s most prominent off-site venues is the Harley-Davidson Museum, which opened in 2008 with indoor event space for up to 1,000 people and outdoor space that accommodates up to 5,000.
"In 1903 Milwaukeeans William Harley and Arthur Davidson developed their first motorbike in a backyard shed," says Brent Foerster, vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Milwaukee. "Today Harley-Davidson is a world-renowned brand known for innovation and inspiration, and the spectacular Harley-Davidson Museum invites all to experience the call of the open road in its flexible indoor/outdoor space for events ranging from board meetings up to street parties of 5,000 people."
For Great Lakes heritage, planners should book an off-site soiree at Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, which features fresh and saltwater aquariums, touch tanks and high-tech interactive displays. From its Pilot House, which accommodates up to 450 theater style, are fantastic 360-degree views of both the city’s skyline and Lake Michigan. Also available for private charters is the S/V Denis Sullivan, a recreated 19th century sailing ship.
The Milwaukee Public Museum, which accommodates up to 5,000 people, and Best Place at the historic Pabst Brewery, which welcomes groups of up to 300 people, are two more noteworthy off-sites in Milwaukee that celebrate the city’s heritage.
"In the 1850s, German beer barons Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz joined other smaller breweries to make Milwaukee the brewing capital of the country," Foerster says. "To this day both the historic Miller Caves and Best Place, the former Gasthaus-style tasting room of the Pabst Brewery, provide unique reception venues where the city’s German and brewing heritage come alive for participants."
Further reflecting that heritage is Milwaukee’s Pabst Mansion, one of the city’s most spectacular off-site event venues. The Flemish Renaissance mansion of Capt. Frederick Pabst was built in 1892 along the city’s Grand Avenue. Today, it hosts meetings, private dinners, receptions and other events.
Another event-ready historic mansion is Villa Terrace, designed by architect David Adler in 1923 and featuring a formal garden and terrace with views of Lake Michigan.
Within Waukesha and Pewaukee, Milwaukee’s popular suburban area, is the nation’s largest living history museum of the 19th century, Old World Wisconsin, which welcomes spectators to view and experience rural Wisconsin life, and the national landmark Ten Chimneys, former home to Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Both venues are available for off-site events, according to Tiffany Zamora, marketing manager at the Waukesha and Pewaukee CVB, who adds that groups also enjoy exploring historic downtown Waukesha.
Also situated west of Milwaukee is Brookfield, where the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center has been promoting the arts via a calendar of events since 2002. The venue is also available for private gatherings.
Wisconsin’s state capital is as lovely as it is smart. The home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) is situated on an isthmus between two glacial lakes.
"By the time Madison became a city in 1856, the community had grown to more than 9,000 residents," says Diane Morgenthaler, director of marketing at the Greater Madison CVB. "Today, Madison is known for everything from Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings to Native American burial mounds, historic walking tours of neighborhoods and historical sites that celebrate our cultural heritage."
One popular off-site venue, the Wisconsin Union, has been a meeting place for UWM students since 1907, and according to Morgenthaler is a must-visit facility that’s also an ideal location for group receptions overlooking Lake Mendota.
At the Cesar Pelli-designed Overture Center for the Arts is the Capitol Theater, originally built in 1928 in an opulent Moorish/Spanish style.
"Blending this historic gem of a theater into a modern arts and culture showcase allows visitors to experience the best of both Old and New World craftsmanship," Morgenthaler says.
And the circa-1857 Mansion Hill Inn, with an elegantly renovated parlor and beautiful garden spaces, according to Morgenthaler, provides charm and tranquility in the heart of downtown for special events.
The centrally located, family-friendly "Waterpark Capital of the World" has been in the tourism business for more than 150 years.
It was famed landscape photographer H.H. Bennett who first captured the scenic beauty of the area back in the late-1800s and is credited with making the Dells famous. Today, the H.H. Bennett Studio is available for small group functions.
Another popular off-site gathering spot is Cold Water Canyon Pavilion on the Wisconsin River. The only way to get to this historic stone pavilion is by a charter boat excursion on the Upper Dells.
"It inspires creativity while reminding visitors of the importance of paying homage to the past, making it a special place for small group retreats and annual planning meetings," says Tifani Jones, director of sales at the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau (WDVCB).
And overlooking the Wisconsin River is Chula Vista Resort, which has been in the Kaminski family for 70-plus years and, according to the WDVCB, exemplifies all that is good about Wisconsin Dells—locally owned and scenic with loads of amenities, including indoor and outdoor waterparks.
Another scenic meetings-friendly destination, popular for golf, fishing and lake views, is Sheboygan.
A standout off-site venue in nearby Kohler is the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, according to Amy Gutierrez, tourism director at Sheboygan County Chamber Tourism.
Founded in the historic 1882 Italianate mansion of John Michael Kohler, founder of Kohler Co., it is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Meeting spaces range from the Founders Room, the home’s original formal dining room, to the modern Matrix, which Gutierrez says is a blank canvas that can be decorated, lit and arranged in an endless array of combinations."
The Kohler Design Center is another unique off-site venue that showcases Kohler products and tells the Kohler story from 1873 to 2010.
Green Bay/Door County
World-famous for NFL football, Green Bay offers big-city amenities with small-city prices, according to Brenda Krainik, director of marketing at the Greater Green Bay CVB.
Green Bay is also the oldest city in Wisconsin. Off-site venues that tell the history of the area include Heritage Hill State Historical Park, a 54-acre living history park where attendees can tour buildings from the 1600s to the early 1900s; the National Railroad Museum; and the Packers home, Lambeau Field.
"For football-themed events, Lambeau is a hit," Krainik says, explaining the venue’s atrium is perfectly suited for receptions and banquets.
With 300 miles of shoreline, Door County boasts a maritime history dating to the 1800s that sets the area apart, says Jon Jarosh, spokesperson for the Door County Visitor Bureau.
The Door County Maritime Museum is an educational venue for off-site events that tie in an interactive maritime history-themed experience.
"Located on Sturgeon Bay’s historic downtown waterfront, guests can explore the museum’s floating tugboat exhibit, look through a working periscope, learn about the county’s lighthouses and more, all in a beautiful waterfront setting," Jarosh says.
Safe, affordable and convenient, the Fox Cities of East Central Wisconsin, including Appleton, Kaukauna and Neenah, welcomes groups of 10 to 2,000 people.
Appleton’s Paper Discovery Center, a museum dedicated to the legacy and science of papermaking, is one of the area’s most booked off-site venues, where visitors can learn the papermaking process and even make their own paper by hand.
"Meeting planners like this facility because of the historic feel and ambience," says Mae Ibe, director of convention sales at Fox Cities CVB, adding the 19th century architectural gem has an amazing view of the Fox River.
Also in Appleton, the History Museum at the Castle features standing exhibits on the tools of the papermaking trade and the impact of the industry on the area, as well as an exhibit dedicated to illusionist Harry Houdini, who lived in Appleton.
"The museum is located in the original Appleton Masonic Temple and offers meeting planners a unique venue for hosting social and educational gatherings," Ibe says.
Located on the western shore of Lake Winnebago, Oshkosh has a rich architectural history that can be seen in several buildings throughout the city, including the circa-1903 Waters, the Grand Opera House and the Paine Art Center and Gardens.
"When groups come to these historical venues to hold their meetings, they not only have a beautiful location rich in culture, but will come away with a feeling of stepping back in time and taking with them a piece of its history," says Dana Ecker, director of sales at the Oshkosh CVB.
Built back in the day as a clubhouse for the Oshkosh Yacht Club, The Waters was renovated in 2007 and is now used as a special events facility.
The circa-1883 Grand Opera House underwent a major renovation in 2007, and its new Grand Lounge is a full-service hospitality center that is available for standalone events and private receptions associated with a performance.
And revered as an "American Castle," the Paine Art Center and Gardens features a 1920s mansion with historic interiors, an art collection and gardens.
The Lake Geneva area is located in the Kettle Moraine, formed from ancient glaciers. According to Grace Eckland, spokesperson for the Lake Geneva Area CVB, picturesque surroundings include rolling countryside, historic estates and three lakes: Geneva, Como and Delavan.
"Today, visitors to Lake Geneva can view historical and modern-day estates via boat cruises or via the 21-mile Geneva Lake shore path," Eckland says.
Located on the shores of Geneva Lake, the Riviera Ballroom offers groups prestige and nostalgic memories of a bygone era, she adds, citing the ballroom once played host to big bands including Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Two other off-sites are the Geneva Lake Museum, housed in the former circa-1920s Wisconsin Power and Light building, and Horticultural Hall, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and available for group functions.
La Crosse and Central Wisconsin
La Crosse grew up as a river town, with steamboats and the railroad driving the growth of the community, says Dave Clements, spokesperson for the La Crosse Area CVB.
Today, the area’s Norwegian heritage is highlighted at the Norskedalen Heritage and Nature Center, which has meeting space for off-site events.
"Norskedalen is the perfect setting for weddings, group tours, reunions and company meetings," Clements says. "This year-round facility provides a great stroll through the 1800s pioneer log homestead."
In the Wausau area, planners are encouraged to look to the circa-1927 Grand Theater and the circa-1911 Rothschild Pavilion.
According to Tracy Baltz, spokesperson for the Wausau/Central Wisconsin CVB, the Grand Theater, with seating for over 1,200 guests, welcomes Broadway shows, musical performances, films and business conferences. The Rothschild Pavilion, originally built as a terminal for the Wausau Street Railway Co., has a 6,000-square-foot dance floor supported by 28 railroad car springs set on top of granite stone foundations that gives it a floating dance floor effect.
And in Stevens Point, according to Tom Coleman, group sales and services manager at the Stevens Point Area CVB, the Pfiffner Building, once used to mill lumber, is set along the shores of the Wisconsin River and accommodates group gatherings of up to 150 people.
Carolyn Blackburn is a frequent contributor to Meetings MidAmerica.