Situated halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago, Lake Geneva, Wis., brims with history while emphasizing the distinctive seasons and the great outdoors.
Stately resorts blanket the landscape, a 21-mile trail surrounds the lake itself, and a plethora of outdoor activities can be incorporated into any business function, no matter what time of the year.
As a whole, the Lake Geneva area encompasses the communities of Lake Geneva, Lake Como, Fontana and Delevan. The destination, with nicknames including the “Newport of the Midwest” and the “Myrtle Beach of Wisconsin,” caters to a variety of interests. Delegates who appreciate historical architecture, for instance, will enjoy the old mansions. Golfers have access to 22 courses, about half of which are championship quality.
George Hennerly, president of the Lake Geneva Area CVB and a native, points to the area’s original allure for wealthy Chicagoans around the turn of the 20th century.
“The big industrialists in Chicago during the industrial revolution discovered this as a great place to get away,” Hennerly says. “Big mansions were built. From that, we then had a cottage industry of lodging, and from that, then Playboy built a big resort here in 1968, which subsequently became the Grand Geneva Resort. We have a very sophisticated service aspect, but we’re in a very rural area.”
It’s true. Walworth County’s population is just over 100,000 while Lake Geneva itself has around 7,500 residents. O’Hare International Airport is a 90-minute drive away, but once visitors arrive in Lake Geneva, they are a world apart from the urban way of life. As a result, the destination is popular with groups consisting of delegates from Illinois and Wisconsin, but since Lake Geneva can deliver 2,300 hotel rooms, the area is also common for national and international conventions.
Hennerly says what surprises planners the most about Lake Geneva is the genuine turn-of-the-20th-century atmosphere. The place looks straight out of 1910.
“There are many boat cruises that go around the lake,” he says. “And on many of these, you actually see something—these mansions are magnificent. We also have a mail boat that delivers the mail while there are passengers aboard. It’s unique. People expect us to look like the rest of the Midwest, and when they come in here, there’s an element of sophistication that you otherwise only see when you visit the bigger cities.”
History permeates everything in Lake Geneva, especially the meeting venues. In 1968, Hugh Hefner built the 1,300-acre Playboy Club, an unprecedented endeavor for the area. One could ski, swim, golf and throw together any sort of opulent party. At that time, Hef probably didn’t take into account things like convention center square footage or corporate conference rooms, but the resort became the stuff of legend before finally closing in 1983. During its 15-year run, the club provided guests with the ultimate high-society experience. It was even the subject of a Guns ’n’ Roses tune, Paradise City.
Nowadays, the property is known as the 355-room Grand Geneva Resort. The community’s only AAA Four Diamond resort, the Grand Geneva is a time-tested meetings venue, offering 62,000 square feet of function space accommodating up to 1,500 guests. Included are a whopping 35 breakout rooms, the 7,680-square-foot Grand Ballroom, the 13,500-square-foot Convention Center and the 5,400-square-foot Outdoor Pavilion overlooking the countryside. In addition, there is a separate conference center providing 12,000 square feet of space. Leftover from the Playboy Club is a landing strip, so guests can even fly a private aircraft to the property.
Despite its prestigious history, the Grand Geneva was not the first property to emerge in the modern era. The Abbey Resort can make that claim. In existence for almost 50 years, the waterfront property provides a welcoming ambience that lures back many returning planners. It offers 334 guest units, 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space, a spa and a marina for boat charters.
Other popular properties include the locally owned and recently revived Lake Lawn Resort, located on 275 wooded lakeside acres along 2.5 miles of Delavan Lake shoreline. Originally founded in 1878, the resort recently underwent a dramatic resurrection following a bankruptcy and features 283 guest rooms, lofts and suites. Particulars for groups include 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor conference space, 22 conference rooms, plus 18 holes of championship golf designed by Dick Nugent.
As with Lake Lawn, The Lodge at Geneva Ridge has catered to families for multiple generations. People just keep returning. Groups are also well taken care of. Attendees have access to 80 wooded acres along Lake Como plus 16,000 square feet of meeting space. The property also includes 146 suites, plus a new restaurant, lounge and bar, all with striking views of Lake Geneva. As with any resort in the area, access to boat cruises, fishing and hiking is simply part of the destination.
For small to midsize groups, Bella Vista Suites offers 4,000 square feet of function space, Delevan Lake Resort accommodates groups of up to 50 people, and Geneva Inn offers 2,000 square feet of meeting space.
Off-site venues include the Geneva Lake Museum, the entire facility of which is available for groups. A great setting at which to incorporate backdrops of turn-of-the-century architecture, the museum is common for group events.
Golf being plentiful in the Lake Geneva area, several courses lend themselves to any group function. Near the Abbey Resort, for example, is the Country Club Estates Golf Course, a par-35, 3011-yard course designed by Thomas Bendelow. The Geneva National Golf Club offers an Arnold Palmer-designed course, a Gary Player-designed course and a Lee Trevino-designed course. Options for groups include a 4,000-square-foot ballroom, the newer Legends Room, an outdoor pavilion and a luxurious lounge.
On a Roll
Hennerly says while the economy has slowed down, Lake Geneva has not. It is faring well because people have been traveling closer to home in recent years, and it is near Milwaukee; Chicago; Madison, Wis.; and Rockford, Ill. As a result, business is actually increasing.
What’s more, Lake Geneva remains a place where historical pride reigns. Period streetscapes continue to emerge, all the way to the overhead lighting, the benches and the trash receptacles. Every detail is taken into account.
“We have a $75,000 flower budget,” Hennerly added.
When all is said and done, a destination simply isn’t a destination without its share of eccentric celebrities, and Lake Geneva is no exception. For example, Gary Gygax founded the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game in Lake Geneva and he lived in the community until he passed away in 2008. Also, William Bell and Lee Phillips developed The Young and the Restless soap opera while setting up shop in Lake Geneva, and filmmaker George Lucas once owned property here, as did Axl Rose.
Gary Singh is a newspaper columnist, travel writer and freelance journalist.