The Event Environment
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.
Audubon Center of the North Woods
Meeting space: Dining hall seats 205; other facilities accommodate up to 70 people
Natural amenities: 535 acres of forest and wetlands on Grindstone Lake
As an environmental education center, the Audubon Center of the North Woods regularly hosts school groups. Over the years, however, businesses also have discovered the site to be an ideal place to mix meetings with nature. Situated on Grindstone Lake 90 minutes north of the Twin Cities, the center’s 535 acres comprise old-growth and managed forests, restored prairie, woodlands, and wetlands laced with seven miles of trails.
Audubon’s largest meeting space, the dining hall, seats more than 200 guests and features windows on three sides overlooking the lake and woods. In an adjacent building are two classrooms and the Crosby Lounge, which accommodates 70 people and offers views through large windows. A large classroom on the site’s southern campus seats up to 60. The center recently renovated a 60-seat classroom in the property’s barn. Or you can opt for space in a remote yurt or log cabin.
The center also provides nature-oriented programming. Activities include a low ropes course, high ropes zip-line, climbing wall, and birds of prey presentations. Guests can attend educational programs at the center’s wildlife rehabilitation facility, which houses animals that cannot be released back into nature. Fishing and canoe rentals are popular options with visitors.
Whether they’re visiting the center for brainstorming sessions or a retreat, companies should think casual, notes Laurie Fenner. “We are more denim and flannel up here,” she says. “It’s not like renting a hotel or traditional conference center. But every once in a while, businesses should consider ditching the chrome and glass.”
Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center of the University of St. Thomas
Meeting space: Three buildings accommodate up to 70 people; outdoor patios
Natural amenities: Straight River, walking paths, rolling countryside
The Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center of the University of St. Thomas boasts a rich blend of history and nature. In the 1940s, Minnesota businessman Daniel Gainey purchased 180 acres in Owatonna to breed and raise Arabian horses. A decade later, he worked with St. Paul architect Edwin Lundie to build a French Norman–style residence. These days, the historic estate draws companies looking to do business in a tranquil, natural setting.
The site offers several standard meeting areas: The main center comprises a large conference room, dining room, and lounge, and 35 guest rooms for overnight stays. Gainey’s home, which adjoins the conference center, features an executive boardroom, fireside boardroom, and a patio, all decorated with the home’s original furnishings. A former horse stable also serves as meeting space. Events often spill outdoors onto the manicured South Lawn or into a courtyard.
On the grounds, guests have access to five miles of walking trails, as well as the Straight River. Also available: a golf driving range, horseshoes, volleyball and tennis courts, bocce ball, and croquet. In addition, the site boards horses and offers an equine guided education program, where attendees can interact with the animals as part of, say, a team development exercise.
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Meeting space: 10,900 square feet of meeting rooms, including two auditoriums
Natural amenities: More than 1,000 acres of gardens, trees, and plants
A visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum offers a nearby escape from the city. The site attracts a number of business conferences, annual meetings, and corporate brainstorming sessions. The 1,137-acre arboretum showcases 32 display and specialty gardens, 48 plant collections, and more than 5,000 plant species and varieties in its woodlands, wetlands, and prairie areas. Guests can tour the site on 12.5 miles of trails, and even meet outdoors in certain spots.
The 10,900 square feet of meeting space in 10 rooms reflect the lush surroundings. The McQuinn Great Hall, in the visitor center, boasts 40-foot ceilings, large Douglas fir timber trusses, and views of six gardens and terraces. The MacMillan Auditorium holds up to 400 people; the adjacent Reedy Gallery overlooks gingko trees and landscaped flower beds. Next door, the more rustic Snyder Building’s massive timbers and cathedral ceiling house another auditorium and more meeting spaces. Some of the rooms have outdoor terraces, which can be used as breakout rooms on nice days.
The arboretum staff can coordinate activities that allow visitors to commune with nature. One popular event reinterprets the TV show The Amazing Race, in which teams receive clues about 10 different stops and activities along the site’s three-mile drive. Companies also have participated in scavenger hunts, apple tastings, bulb plantings, and guided tours. “We spend so much time inside hunkered over our computers,” says the Arboretum’s manager of marketing and communications Judy Hohmann. “This environment is so freeing and helps accomplish meeting goals.”
Superior Shores Resort & Conference Center
Meeting space: 3,700 square feet of divisible space
Natural amenities: Lake Superior
When Jenna Pederson books meetings for corporate guests at Superior Shores Resort & Conference Center in Two Harbors, she knows that location plays a big role. “The North Shore holds a lot of memories for people,” says the resort’s director of sales. “When I put out proposals, everyone seems excited to be back up here.”
Superior Shores’ 3,700-square-foot lakeside meeting facility can divide into five separate rooms, all of which lead to a patio area, a lawn, and 2,000 feet of pebble beach. Guests can take advantage of the idyllic setting in many ways—a footbridge that leads to a wooded bird sanctuary, walking paths, stunning views of Lake Superior’s rocky cliffs, not to mention the expansive horizon of the great lake itself.
And nearby, visitors will find Lakeview National Golf Course, biking along the North Shore, tours of Minnesota’s only operational lighthouse, trout and salmon fishing, and sightseeing cruises.
Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer living in Pine City.