Northwest Business Magazine

Seven Ideal Spots for Your 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 seven great locations for your next meeting, and learn from the pros how to plan a successful event.

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

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

Positive changes don’t happen overnight. Indeed, many times, they’re the result of careful brainstorming and planning. What better way to fuel your staff’s creativity and energy than by hosting a business meeting, far away from the fluorescent lights and gray cubes?

It’s tempting to jet off to Vegas or some exotic location, but it’s often more productive – and cost-effective – to host that meeting a little closer to home. We’ve selected seven great locations that offer just what you’re looking for: quiet, convenience and a host of options.

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, Galena

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.

The 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 stay at the resort homes and villas, an ideal setting for small meetings or accompanying families. 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 fitness center. Teambuilding is standard fare, and Recreations Manager Luke Peters is wholly dedicated to providing activities specific to his clients. He can assemble adventures 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 customizes the games to your industry, so he’ll 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 salespeople who made their targets, we’ll create a red carpet entrance for them and have imitation paparazzi there,” says LeGrand. “We’ll 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. They also host spouse-only events.

“We try to pay equal attention to spouse activities, like cooking demonstrations, wine tours or scrapbooking,” says LeGrand. “We 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’s Regional Airport or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

The staff prides itself on service, and especially telling is the resort’s continued recognition from industry organizations. During the past 10 years, Eagle Ridge and its golf courses have won numerous awards from Successful Meetings Magazine, Meetings MidAmerica, Corporate & Incentive Travel, Insurance Conference Planner and 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

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. The resort’s 62,000 square feet of meeting space includes two enormous ballrooms, two convention centers and 35 private breakout meeting 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 building. 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, it’s easy to create a unique client 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; large groups can rent the entire space. Some programs also accommodate spouses and family members that tag along.

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 offseason, say late fall or winter, and scheduling an event 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.”

In addition to lower prices, 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, from sources including Meetings and Conventions Magazine, Illinois Meetings + Events Magazine, Successful Meetings Magazine and TripAdvisor.com.
“It really speaks to the quality here,” says Svitak.

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, Utica

While many business getaways offer lots of activities, Starved Rock State Park offers something very different: peace and quiet. Both are 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 stand-alone Canyonside Cabin, offer a more personal setting.

Some businesses choose an even greater teamwork setting by lodging in the stand-alone and quad cabins, some of which have fireplaces. Others opt for more luxurious accommodations inside the 70-room lodge, with 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.”

While modern conveniences are everywhere in the lodge, the woods offer an escape. Jeremy Reed, an outside sales rep for the Lodge, 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 for meeting planners considering a Starved Rock event 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 active all winter.
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,” Casstevens-Jasiek 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 really need. Rather, they need a quick getaway for brainstorming and strategizing. When that’s the case, nearby destinations with flexible spaces are preferred.

At Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, up to 14 spaces are available for big team meetings or quick bull sessions. Whether it’s a six-month or 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 into seven rooms. An additional seven rooms can host smaller groups, typically around 25 or 30. The complex includes both a bar and dining room, which are open daily to the public. All catering is performed in-house, and dining options range from simple to complex.

“A lot of groups that are here from 9 to 5 do an all-day package, so 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.”

While most clients come from the Rockford area, about 25 percent come 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.

Ultimately, says Nelson, choosing a meeting location depends on how meeting planners 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.”

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 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.”

During her 15 years of working at Giovanni’s, Nelson has had a lot of practice in helping to plan perfect meetings, and she’s happy to provide advice and ideas. “For people who haven’t planned this before, we’re here to guide them as well,” she says. “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 Delavan Lake shoreline, and many business meeting planners inevitably turn to the water for recreation and team bonding.

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

Why add recreation to a business retreat?

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

The 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 choose to rent a smaller, 48-room lodge that includes a swimming pool and bar. Still others prefer the newly renovated Lakewood Estates, a four-bedroom home in a secluded setting.

Hyslop has helped groups at Lake Lawn for about 15 years, and in recent years, he’s noted, 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 assist clients in organizing teambuilding activities or lakeside outings. It helps if a meeting planner knows who from the company will attend, and what the company hopes to accomplish during its retreat.

“Our 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?”

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 equipped with computers, printers and a fax machine.

Most guests hail from Chicagoland and other parts of Illinois; the resort is about 90 minutes northwest of Chicago, located off Interstate 43. Lake Lawn also host clients who come from Madison, about 1 hour and 15 minutes north of Delavan, 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.”

The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre, Hoffman Estates

General Manager Charles Baptist calls The Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre a “hotel without rooms,” for good reason. With so many services and flexible spaces, most anything is possible.

“A few years ago, we had Lions, Tigers and Bears – literally,” he says. “A client installed sod and had a Wizard of Oz theme. They brought in lions, tigers and bears for the event.”

The Stonegate’s nearly 17,000 square feet of space includes 11 rooms. The Grand Ballroom can hold up to 1,000 theater-style seats or be subdivided into four separate rooms. Other rooms can be small or opened wider, while the intimate boardroom holds 15. A unique space popular for weddings and social occasions, the Lakeside Pavilion is an elegant, temperature-controlled tent that’s used year-round.

While some clients book years ahead, Baptist finds that most are short-term planners, working with as few as two weeks to three months.

“A number of clients we cater to are here multiple times in the year, and others come multiple times over several years,” says Baptist, who spent six years as head chef before becoming manager last year.
All food and catering are handled in-house, and menus can include buffets, plated meals, boxed luncheons, bar service and custom desserts. Stonegate’s chefs can even provide group entertainment.

“Our chef has been involved with culinary projects, where we walk a group through a simple dessert, such as a baked apple,” Baptist says.

Stonegate remains flexible for special diets and ethnic celebrations. It has hosted everything from Nigerian and Muslim to Hindu and Kosher. Baptist finds that most clients travel within 25 miles of their businesses. Because of Stonegate’s location on Higgins Road, near several exits to Interstate 90, it’s a convenient midpoint for travelers in Chicago.

“Like those who come from Rockford, they want easy access and that quieter, suburban feel,” says Baptist. “We’re halfway between Rockford and downtown Chicago, and some companies don’t want to bring everyone downtown, or worry about parking and taking the ‘L.’ If they come here, they’re centrally located.”

For large events or quick brainstorming sessions, clients also enjoy the local connection. “Lots of our clients are dedicated to their position in the community and keeping their business dollars in the community,” says Baptist.

Weddings are extremely popular here, especially in the fall. For large-scale events, it may be easier to find a date in spring or winter.

“On the corporate side, there’s been a resurgence in holiday parties, so space is also popular around December,” he says. “Some clients like to wait and get their books in order, so they host a party in January or February.”

Today, cost-conscious businesses are finding more ways to cut expense on corporate meetings. With the available food service, audio/visual equipment and flexible space inside the Stonegate, there’s no need to bring outside help.

“People want to bundle their services – that’s become more popular over the past five to eight years,” says Baptist. “We do so much in-house that we’re really a one-stop shop for your event. You won’t even have to leave here.”

31 North Banquet & Conference Center, McHenry

McHenry’s newest banquet space is intimate and comfortable – just the way many businesses like it, whether hosting a company banquet or strategy session. Set inside the former Warsaw Inn, this 7,500-square foot building has just two spaces: a 200-seat ballroom and a 30-seat conference room.

Opened in mid-2011, the banquet center is freshly remodeled, with a stylish “urban chic” look that includes contemporary decor and fixtures.

“We’re a boutique venue, so it’s just one event at a time here,” says sole owner Bernice Zubrzycki, who previously owned Warsaw Inn with her brother. “Our guests have the entire space for themselves.”

Although this banquet center hosts nearly 30 events a month, some days may see as many as three or four events. Even so, banquet and kitchen staff provide personal attention at each event. Almost every table has its own server, and kitchen staff is happy to adjust a large menu for those with dietary restrictions.

“If they want something special, we can do that,” says Zubrzycki. “If they have a guest that is, say, gluten-free, or vegetarian or vegan, we’ll create a special meal just for them.”

The kitchen remains open throughout the day, depending on a guest’s needs. It can handle continental breakfasts, buffets and plated meals, or simple appetizers. For guests who are unsure about the menu, Zubrzycki suggests visiting for a taste test and a tour.

Because 31 North is also connected with an off-site catering company, the party can come to businesses that choose another space for get-togethers. No matter the location, it’s important to remember how alcohol can influence an event.

“We have a dual liquor license, for on- and off-site events, and we assume all liquor liability,” says Zubrzycki. “That’s very important, so that the clients – corporations or social groups – don’t have to worry about insurance. We’re licensed for both food and alcohol.”

Zubrzycki has hosted many a meeting in her nearly 30 years in the banquet and restaurant business, but lately, she’s seen a return to old traditions, like awards banquets. A little bit of employee recognition goes a long way.

“I think people are much more focused on their work, and it’s important to have awards banquets today,” she says. “Because of the economy, employees are doing more than ever. The businesses that do an awards banquet make their employees feel more appreciated.”

Make it Something Special

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

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