Northwest Business Magazine

Six Ideal Spots for Your Next Business Retreat

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Sometimes we need to get away from the daily grind, so we can celebrate success and strategize for the future. Discover six ideal locations for your next meeting and learn from the pros how to host a successful event.

The main ballrooms at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa offer sweeping views of the lakeside property.

As we launch into a new year, many businesses are setting their goals and expectations for the coming months. Positive changes don’t happen overnight – indeed, many times they’re the result of careful planning and brainstorming.

What better way to fuel your staff’s creativity and feed its energy than by hosting a business meeting, far away from the fluorescent lights and gray cubes? While it’s tempting to jet off to Vegas or some other exotic location, it’s often more productive – and cost-effective – to host that meeting a little closer to home.

We’ve selected six great locations that offer just what you’re looking for – quiet and convenience, with a host of options for meetings both big and small.

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, Galena, Ill.

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa is a getaway unto itself. Located on 6,800 acres in the hills just east of Galena, this full-service retreat caters to businesses of all sizes.

This resort dedicates about 15,000 square feet of space to business clients, in the form of conference centers, small meeting rooms, outdoor venues and private villas. Ballrooms overlook the sweeping terrain; outdoor patios offer views of the 225-acre private lake.

Some businesses choose a getaway at the resort homes and villas, an ideal setting for small meetings or families that join in.

In between meetings, many groups enjoy the amenities, which include four golf courses, 25 miles of hiking and biking trails, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a fitness center. Teambuilding activities are standard fare, and director Luke Peters is wholly dedicated to recreation. He can assemble activities around the resort or schedule a getaway to historic downtown Galena.

“He can customize the activities to your group,” says Lara LeGrand, senior sales manager. “Luke will customize the games to your industry, so he can develop appropriate questions for a game of Jeopardy, or play another game show that relates to your business.”

The creative staff may host a casino night in which guests gamble with paper money imprinted with the image of their company’s president, for example, or work around a custom theme.

“If you’re bringing attendees for an award, like a salesperson who made his or her targets, we’ll create a red carpet entrance for them and have imitation paparazzi there,” says LeGrand. “We will perform the whole thing like an Oscars event.”

Activities here are family-friendly, and LeGrand finds that many guests bring spouses and children along. Staff can organize daily camps for children, with activities such as “movies and tubies,” where a kid-friendly movie is projected while kids splash around in the pool. Spouse-only events include a day at the spa, golfing or fishing competitions.

“We try to pay equal attention to spouse activities, like a cooking demonstration, wine tours or scrapbooking,” says LeGrand. “You want to make it a fun experience for them, too.”

Business travelers visit from all over the Midwest, though the resort is especially popular for guests from Chicagoland, Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities, Madison and northern Illinois. It’s also an ideal midpoint for associations representing Midwestern states.

Eagle Ridge is about a 2.5-hour drive from Chicago. Shuttle service is available for fliers coming into Dubuque or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The resort’s peak season is between May and October; June is the most popular for conferences. November and March are often the easiest months to schedule business meetings, says LeGrand. But, she warns, plan ahead.

“Some of our clients are booked as far in advance as 2017,” she says. “It can never hurt to think ahead. Some groups have consistent schedules, and they’ll book years in advance. But I’ve also helped a group to start planning in March for an August event.”

The staff prides itself on service, and it’s telling that the resort has won numerous awards. During the past 10 years, the resort and its golf courses have won the Pinnacle Award and the Gold Tee Award from Successful Meetings Magazine, the Best of MidAmerica from Meetings MidAmerica, the Greens of Distinction from Corporate & Incentive Travel, the Premium Circle Award from Insurance Conference Planner and the Gala Award from Special Events Magazine, among others.

For meeting planners preparing a big outing, LeGrand says that a complementary visit can seal the deal and excite employees.

“Get out here and see it for yourself,” she says. “We’ll give you a tour, so bring a spouse or a meeting planner. Try the spa on us, or we’ll set you up with a round of golf. If event planners can touch and feel the resort, they’ll know if it’s best for them.”

Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva, Wis.

Grand Geneva is so big that it has something for everyone. Whether your group is 1,800 people or 10, there’s no shortage of options among the resort’s 62,000 square feet of meeting space. That space includes enormous ballrooms, convention centers and private break areas totaling 35 rooms.

This massive 1,300-acre campus also includes the Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, a smaller hotel with meeting space that includes the 3,500-square-foot Cascades Ballroom. At this resort, meetings easily spill outside of the meeting room. The goal is to make an event that’s productive, educational and fun, says Ed Svitak, director of sales and marketing.

“It used to be that you’d hold a meet-and-eat,” he says. “You’d have dinner on one end of the room, and then you’d have a bar and social hour on the other side. Now, planning an experience tends to be more prevalent, because the planner’s name is on this event.”

For Svitak’s clients, it’s easy to create a unique experience. The campus includes two award-winning golf courses, a wellness spa, hiking trails, ski hills, an indoor waterpark, signature restaurants and more. If those amenities aren’t enough, Svitak offers to connect clients with other local services, such as boat tours around nearby Lake Geneva.

Event planners can also set up teambuilding activities, including a rock climbing wall, chef dinners and charity projects.

The resort’s many experiences often come with perks. Evening golfers can enjoy the “After Five” deal, where for $55, they get club rental and all the holes they can play before sunset. The Geneva ChopHouse restaurant features a private bar and fireplace overlooking the resort property. Both Geneva ChopHouse and Ristorante Brissago can accommodate groups up to 20; some large groups can rent the entire space. Some programs also accommodate spouses and family members that tag along.

In 28 years of resort sales, Svitak says he’s seen a lot of creative meetings, including Coca-Cola collectors’ conventions and “Star Trek” conventions. But a January murder mystery dinner brought a significant challenge.

“I have this meeting that has 575 people doing a murder mystery,” he says. “Usually, these are fairly small in nature. But this is being done for 575 people throughout the resort. We have about 30 to 40 teams doing this, so it’s a lot to handle.”

The resort and its amenities fill up fast between May and October, the peak tourist season. While most business meetings occur during this time, there’s a cost benefit to waiting until the off-season, say late fall or winter, and on weekdays.

“Any time you arrive on Sunday or Monday, your negotiations are easier,” says Svitak. “Flexibility is key. If you come in with specific dates, you’ll have more trouble, but if you’re flexible and open to ideas, you can get some good deals.”

Those deals often involve lower prices, but they also include easier access – to event dates, meeting spaces and resort amenities. Grand Geneva is about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee and within 90 minutes of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Because it’s close to home, it’s an attractive choice for budget-conscious companies.

“They want the ability to get in and out quickly,” says Svitak. “Not relying on airfare complements their budgets, so they can use the money for other things, like upgrading their food or their accommodations.”

This resort was once the Playboy Club, and high-class service is still part of its appeal. In the past 20 years, it’s won several awards for service, including multiple Gold Tee Awards and Gold Key Awards from Meetings and Conventions Magazine, Best Venue Outside of Chicagoland from Illinois Meetings and Events Magazine, several Pinnacle Awards from Successful Meetings Magazine, and TripAdvisor.com’s Certificate of Excellence.

“It really speaks to the quality here,” says Svitak.

Starved Rock Lodge, Utica, Ill.

While many business getaways offer lots of activities, Starved Rock State Park offers something very different: peace and quiet. It’s readily available in this heavily wooded 2,630-acre park, and for many business travelers, that’s a huge advantage.

“Starved Rock has features many people have never seen before,” says Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, marketing director for the Lodge. “There’s a wow factor here. The geological stratus is completely unexpected and surprising to people who have grown up in Illinois. They don’t expect these gorgeous canyons to appear in the middle of cornfields.”

The Lodge and park offer six meeting spaces, from the 200-capacity Starved Rock Room down to the Peru Room, a boardroom that holds 14. Some spaces, like the standalone Canyonside Cabin, offer a more personal setting.

Some businesses choose an even greater teamwork setting by lodging in the standalone and quad cabins, some of which have fireplaces. Others opt for more luxurious accommodations inside the 70-room lodge, which includes comfy beds and wireless Internet.

The lodge’s activities staff members can help to create custom events, though they also plan some 700 other events throughout the year. Business travelers often take a seasonal trolley tour to see eagles, fall scenery or the park’s natural canyons. They can join megahikes around the park, or visit the entertainment and educational events on-site. In some cases, the staff will also connect guests with off-site ziplining or skydiving adventures.

Staff can help to create themed dining or special services, but the most memorable experience for Casstevens-Jasiek was watching a cardboard regatta in the lodge’s swimming pool. Another group used out-of-this-world technology.

“The Maze Nail company invited an astronaut/medical doctor to speak, and he downloaded video, in real time, of a rarely seen meteor shower for that group to watch,” she says.

It’s events like that, and time spent outdoors, that spark the creative thinking needed for a productive meeting.

“You can’t have teamwork until you have camaraderie,” Casstevens-Jasiek says. “It’s the platform for healthy teambuilding, when you have the time to work together. In today’s work world, it’s common for people not to share details about themselves, their families, their outside lives, but when you’re close, you’ll be more respectful and successful.”

While modern conveniences are everywhere in the lodge, the woods offer an escape. Outside sales rep Jeremy Reed finds that the natural setting is popular among his Chicago-area clients.

“Here, you can refocus on your work away from the distractions of the city,” he says. “Any hotel can do a big meeting, but we can do it better because we can keep peoples’ focus.”

As with most other retreats, it’s important to schedule early. This is a hotspot for summer weddings, so warm-weather dates fill up fast. Weekdays and winter dates often come with significant discounts, but the lodge stays busy all winter.

The park has been named one of the seven wonders of Illinois and a fan favorite destination by the Illinois Office of Tourism. This is a favorite attraction for companies large and small, throughout Chicagoland and the Midwest.

“We have a nice balance of companies,” says Reed. “I got a call today from a big corporation that’s been here before, but then I had a meeting with a guy who said, ‘I have 20 people. Can you take care of us?’ Of course we can.”

These days, some businesses may be less interested in paying for a corporate retreat, but Casstevens-Jasiek and Reed find that it’s been worthwhile for many guests.

“Due to the economic downturn, they think they can’t afford it, so their employees never really get a break,” she says. “When you schedule the meeting, family can come too. Corporations don’t have to schedule off-site meetings, but those who do say it was extremely helpful.”

Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, Rockford

Sometimes, a long-planned extended meeting isn’t what businesses need. Rather, they need a quick getaway for brainstorming and strategizing. When that’s the case, more localized destinations are preferred.

At Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, in Rockford, up to 14 spaces are available for big team meetings or quick bull sessions. Whether it’s a six-month or a 24-hour notice, the staff remains highly flexible.

“Sometimes, we get advanced notice, and sometimes we get a call that day from someone saying they’d like to host lunch, and do we have space for them,” says general manager Jaymie Nelson. Most times, the answer is yes.

The main ballroom’s 12,000 square feet can be used as one large space or broken up into as many as seven rooms. An additional seven rooms can host smaller groups, typically around 25 or 30. The complex includes both a bar and dining room, both of which are open to the public daily. All catering is performed in-house, and dining options range from simple to complex. Food needs ultimately depend on the group and the nature of the retreat.

“A lot of groups that are here from 9 to 5 do an all-day package, so your meals are taken care of, but it depends on how much interaction or disturbance they want,” says Nelson. “If they want diners to choose a meal, then they can order from the menu, just like they’d order lunch in the dining room. Or we can just prepare a set meal for the group. We really try to make everything easy for meeting planners.”

Most of Giovanni’s clients – about 75 percent – hail from the Rockford area. They’re often looking for someplace quick, convenient and cost-effective.

“If they keep their meeting here, they can keep their costs down,” says Nelson. “They don’t have to stay in hotels. They like to do things close to the office, so that, in case someone has to do a plant tour or another meeting, that person can run and do that and then come back.”

Another 25 percent of clients come from outside the Rockford area, mostly from southern Wisconsin and Northwest Chicagoland. They most often consider location – someplace close, with amenities and easy access to home. Located barely a mile from Interstate 90, Giovanni’s is surrounded by several hotels and is a quick drive to downtown Rockford.

Ultimately, Nelson says, choosing a meeting location depends on how you answer a few basic questions.
“They need to consider what they’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “Do they want to have a working lunch? They need to look at the space and see how it fits. Then, they need to make sure it has all of the audio/visual equipment needed.”

These days, Nelson sees more businesses seeking quick retreats, in an effort to get employees outside of the day-to-day environment. That most often means training, either in specific skills or in teamwork.

“People are hosting a lot more training sessions,” she says. “With the economy the way it is, people are trying to bring more value and do it as efficiently as possible.”

While she doesn’t often observe clients’ meetings, Nelson occasionally glimpses some unique use of the ballroom space.

“One local company did teambuilding and the employees had to build a bridge,” she says. “They had to work in the banquet center and out in the parking lot to make this happen. It was awesome to see it come together.”

Nelson has worked with Giovanni’s for 15 years, and she’s had a lot of practice helping to plan perfect meetings. For her less-experienced clients, she’s happy to provide advice and ideas. Because many customers visit time and again, some faces have grown familiar.

“For people who haven’t planned this before, we’re here to guide them as well. Some people are new to the company, but we have a history with that group, so we can make suggestions and help them out.”

Lake Lawn Resort, Delavan, Wis.

As its name indicates, this Wisconsin resort takes its waterside fun seriously. It maintains 250 acres along 2.5 miles of Lake Delavan shoreline, and many business meeting planners inevitably turn to the lake for recreation and team bonding activities.

During summer months, guests can reserve jet skis, paddle boats, speed boats or an 18-seat pontoon boat. Personal watercrafts are also welcome at the resort’s 165-slip marina. During winter months, guests can enjoy ice skating, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

So why add recreation to a business retreat?

“It makes meetings more fun,” says Tom Hyslop, director of sales and marketing. “It’s not just all work and no play. Whether it’s a new product reveal or a business association gathering, it’s a perfect time to network with similar businesses and fellow employees.”

The massive resort also includes a spa, an 18-hole golf course and three restaurants, but it’s more than a playtime destination. Business clients will find nearly 32,000 square feet of meeting space, with up to 22 rooms available.

“Many of those rooms have windows that overlook the lake,” says Hyslop. “It really captures that beautiful setting.”

While the larger, 271-room resort offers many amenities, some groups also choose to rent out a smaller, 48-room lodge that includes a swimming pool and bar. Still others prefer the newly renovated Lakewood Estates, a four-bedroom home with a secluded setting for private groups.

Hyslop has helped groups at Lake Lawn for about 15 years, and spent nearly 20 in the industry. Compared with 5 or even 10 years ago, he says, clients are looking for extraordinary value in their outings.

“They’re more focused on what needs to be accomplished,” he says. “Ten years ago, meetings were secondary to recreation. They did more playing than meeting – it was a reward. Today there’s more purpose to a meeting.”

But it’s hard to resist a little recreation, and at Lake Lawn, an entire department is ready to help clients to organize teambuilding activities or lakeside outings. In most cases, Hyslop says, a client’s meeting planner coordinates activities with the resort’s recreation staff. It helps if that meeting planner knows who from the company will attend and what the company hopes to accomplish from its retreat.

“The recreation staff will ask each planner what they’re trying to accomplish, and gear activities toward that,” says Hyslop. “Is it more physical or mental? Would kayak racing or a marathon activity or team sports be appropriate, or do they want to do a teamwork activity that benefits a common cause?”

Like most resorts, Lake Lawn fills up quickly in the summer. Groups book far in advance, and often face competition from some of the nearly 70 weddings that happen here in summer months. Budget-conscious companies enjoy incentive packages available in off-peak times, between November and April.

“Just from a price standpoint, there’s a big advantage,” says Hyslop. “Right now we’re doing a group ‘corporate cabin fever’ package that’s available now through April 30, with special hotel rates, drink specials, equipment discounts and spa packages. Sundays and weekdays are your best bet for any meeting.”

Lake Lawn opened under new management in June 2011, and several parts of the 130-year-old resort are undergoing renovation and updating. Currently, customers can enjoy free Wi-Fi and a business center with computers, printers and a fax machine.

Most guests hail from Chicagoland and other parts of Illinois; the resort is about 90 minutes north of Chicago, located just off Interstate 43. Many guests also come from Madison, about 1 hour and 15 minutes away, and from Milwaukee, about an hour away.

“Our guests look at Lake Lawn as a rustic setting with modern amenities,” says Hyslop. “We have flat-screen TVs, stone countertops and modern facilities. You get the lodge feeling along with everything that’s modern.”

Eclipse Center, Beloit

A former shopping mall isn’t a conventional location for a business retreat, but the Eclipse Center in Beloit offers wide-open, flexible spacing and a great story, too. Formerly the Beloit Mall, this unique banquet and convention center draws lots of attention from eco-conscious businesses.

“This is a repurposed facility, and many of our clients are really keen to that,” says Rodney Oksuita, catering director for Best Events Catering, the event coordinator for Eclipse Center. “We have low-environmental impact businesses that come here and others that are interested in being green.”

Banquet space at the Eclipse Center is about 50,000 square feet, and can hold about 1,100 people for a sit-down occasion. Also ideal for trade shows, the plaza has space for nearly 200 booths, and the parking lot can hold about 1,500 cars.

Since re-opening in 2008, this renovated space has been popular for regional trade shows, local banquets and unique meetings. It’s been the hub for the annual Beloit International Film Festival. It’s been a Martian landscape, complete with a Klingon menu and a Starship Enterprise stage. It’s also been a staging area for Humvees and vintage military equipment. Most popular with business clients around the Beloit/Janesville and Rockford areas, this space is easily accessible to a wider, more regional crowd.

“It’s nice that we’re in the Interstate 90 corridor,” says Oksuita. “We’re close to Madison, Milwaukee and Rockford, and we’re central to a multi-state area. We have close access to hotels, we have all the facilities you need, and we can get whatever supplies and equipment you need.”

Best Events supports about 25 venues around the region, and offers each a unique array of “extra” services, including fresh floral arrangements, chairs and chair covers, and 72 colors of linen.

Clients also can get help from skilled contractors and carpenters through ABC Supply, a home improvement wholesale company, whose owners also maintain Eclipse Center. For certain trade shows, ABC’s inside connections make the event possible.

“During our Taste of Home event, we have to stage several kitchens, and the equipment has to be working, yet the stages also have to be supported,” says Oksuita. “The contractors we can hire will make sure it’s done right.”

Oksuita has spent nearly 30 years in events planning, and he’s seen tastes gradually evolve over the years. Today, many businesses prefer greener, healthier options for their menus. Technology is essential, and many meetings can’t begin without audio/visual or Internet connections. Some groups even choose to hold videoconferences with faraway groups.

“Some events may want to have 400 iPads all connected to a network at once,” says Oksuita.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the need to produce a high-quality meeting. Every year, meeting planners should consider new ways to get the most from a gathering.

“People want a bigger, grander, livelier event,” says Oksuita. “You have to bring people your A-game. Things that were cutting-edge five years ago are pretty standard now. The expectation of the customer is so much more – what’s unique or different is very important.”

Make it Something Special

The possibilities are endless for your next big business retreat. Whether it’s something small and quick at a local spot, or something large and over-the-top at a grand retreat, your next business meeting is likely to be the talk of the office. Why not make it something special?

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