Having a meeting in a hotel conference room gets the job done—no fuss, no surprises, no distractions. But is predictability always a good thing? Hosting a corporate function in a natural setting can provide the appropriate amount of diversion and maybe even inspiration.

Minnesota has a wealth of natural places, and meeting planners are making use of them. “Businesses often are looking for something a bit different,” says Laurie Fenner, marketing coordinator for the Audubon Center of the North Woods in Sandstone. “When they experience a change of scenery, it can feel like an escape. [Natural settings] help people open up their minds and have productive meetings with opportunities to immerse themselves in nature.”

Here are six meeting spaces around the state with gorgeous surroundings to enhance your next gathering.

Grand View Lodge

Meeting space: More than 25,000 square feet in 17 rooms; banquet seating for up to 500
Natural amenities: Gull Lake, three golf courses, walking trails

If you’re looking for a classic northern Minnesota resort setting, Grand View Lodge is a popular choice. Located on Gull Lake, the resort features 2,500 feet of sand beach and plenty of opportunities for fishing, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, pontoon cruises, and even early-morning yoga on the beach. Biking and walking trails meander through the resort’s 750 acres of thick pine forest. Another big draw for businesses: three championship golf courses, as well as the nine-hole Garden Golf Course, showcasing a beautiful garden at each tee box.

Corporate visitors incorporate a variety of activities into their meetings, such as raft-building competitions; photography, drawing, and painting classes; horseback riding; and guided nature hikes.

The meeting spaces take design cues from the surroundings. The Norway Center’s wooden walls and vaulted ceilings create a quaint setting for small conferences, cocktail receptions, and board meetings. Built in 2009, the Gull Lake Center offers a 6,400-square-foot ballroom and eight meeting rooms. A 10-foot-wide porch also draws meeting attendees outdoors. Other outdoor meeting spaces abound, including a beach pavilion, the deck off the main lodge, and a patio area located near an old rock fireplace that once was used for canning.

“You can be holed up someplace in a hotel or conference center in Minneapolis, or you can drive two hours to be in the forest and smell the fresh air,” notes Cindy Baysinger, director of sales at Grand View Lodge. “A lot of corporate groups will spend as much time as possible outdoors.”

Schaar's Bluff Gathering Center

Spring Lake Park Reserve, Hastings
Meeting space: Gathering room for 75 people
Natural amenities: Mississippi River bluff, prairie, woods

When Dakota County officials decided to build a facility for guests at the Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings, they knew it had to harmonize with the location’s history and surroundings. “There is archaeological proof of human use of the site along the shores of the Mississippi River for nearly 8,000 years,” notes Bruce Blair, manager, facility development and natural resources for Dakota County Parks. “The building reflects what has attracted people to this site all these millenniums.”

The 3,600-square-foot structure, known as Schaar’s Bluff Gathering Center—designed by Minneapolis architecture firm Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd.—makes very little impact on its natural surroundings. Some of its power is wind generated, it captures rainwater for flushing toilets, and some of the landscaping provides forage for local animals. The building is constructed with sustainable ironwood that requires no finishing or seals, and resists insects and rot. Inside, more than 80 percent of the oak and ash panels are from trees cut down in Dakota County parks for road construction and forestry thinning. And automated shading devices react to the sun’s path to help reduce heating and cooling costs. Anchoring the center is a cozy oval gathering room that seats 75 and provides uninterrupted vistas of the river valley. An outdoor terrace faces the bluff, while a small exterior gathering space surrounds the nearby bonfire circle.

A paved loop trail on which the building sits makes the most of Mississippi River bluff views with seating options along the way. The site also has 100-foot drops down to the river and a spot where visitors can walk to the bluff’s edge and peer over to see the river. A restored prairie area with native plants, woodlands, and nature trails make up the rest of the landscape.

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