Wednesday, July 24, 2024
Home IL Places IL Destinations Gather in America’s Heartland

Gather in America’s Heartland

Peoria offers a healthy dose of Midwestern hospitality alongside a robust roster of meeting and event opportunities

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Downtown Peoria along the Illinois River
Downtown Peoria along the Illinois River || Courtesy of Discover Peoria

During the vaudeville days, entertainers would ask, “Will it play in Peoria?” The thinking was, if a show was successful in America’s heartland, it would be successful everywhere else. The question might be timeworn to Peorians, but it’s also a point of pride.

“We take ownership of it because it has given us global recognition,” says J.D.
Dalfonso, CEO at Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, also known as Discover Peoria. “It’s part of our history.”

Plenty of meeting planners find Peoria a great place to play as well as convene. Many return with their groups year after year—the Greater Peoria Farm Show, for instance, has been gathering in the city for four decades, reports Beau Sutherland, director of sales and marketing at the Peoria Civic Center.

Bisected by Interstate 74, Peoria is 160 miles southwest of Chicago and 170 miles north of St. Louis, Missouri. General Wayne E. Downing Peoria International Airport is home to American, Allegiant, and United airlines with nonstop flights to and from more than a dozen cities.

Peoria Civic Center
Peoria Civic Center || Courtesy of Peoria Civic Center

Historic & Modern

The draws are more plentiful than the credits on a theater playbill. Located in central Illinois, Peoria was settled in 1680 by French explorers as a fort on the Illinois River. Today, the vibrant downtown and picturesque waterfront are interspersed with dozens of murals and sculptures, lending an artsy vibe. The city lays claim to top-ranked Bradley University, the late funnyman Richard Pryor, and The Duryea Motor Wagon Co.—the first American company to commercially produce and sell gasoline-powered automobiles.

And speaking of cars, getting around the city is a breeze. “We don’t have the congestion and traffic jams a lot of other cities have,” says Peoria Mayor Rita Ali. “You can get to almost anywhere you want to go in Peoria in 10 or 15 minutes.”

Peoria-based Kayla Naab, co-founder and marketing and communications consultant at Mindful Dynamic Consulting, choreographs meetings and events throughout the Midwest and beyond. Her out-of-town clients have raved that Peoria exceeds their expectations.

“Peoria is a midsize river city that feels like a small town, but is big enough to provide venues and lodging for large events,” she says. “It’s rural and urban all at once.”

Getting Down to Business

Anchoring downtown is the Peoria Civic Center, a multipurpose entertainment and convention space managed by ASM Global. The venue, the largest exhibition facility in central Illinois, promotes an impressive schedule of sporting events, concerts, and Broadway shows. That’s all in addition to on-site indoor and outdoor meeting spaces, plus in-house catering and decorating teams.

“We’re a unique complex because we are three venues under one roof,” says Sutherland, who wears a second hat as regional marketing director for ASM Global. “We have an arena, theater, and convention center on 20 acres, so we can have a lot of events going on simultaneously.”

Peoria’s hotel stock runs the gamut, with 1,000 rooms downtown and 4,000 rooms within the surrounding area. The offerings include name-brand, boutique, and budget accommodations. Among them are the Peoria Marriott Pere Marquette, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Las Vegas-style Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino.

The largest hotel in the mix is the 323-room Four Points by Sheraton Peoria. The property offers 12 modular meeting rooms including a ballroom, fitness center, and Craft 309 Kitchen + Bar, featuring American pub fare and 30 beers on tap.

“We have the kinds of amenities you have in Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, although on a smaller scale,” Dalfonso says. “With that, you have more affordable pricing for dining, hotel stays, and overall business travel.”

Because Peoria’s downtown is compact, planners can book a variety of venues and experiences within a few blocks of each other. Attendees might enjoy the city’s walkability, and meeting planners may also coordinate with Discover Peoria and hotels to arrange shuttle service.

“You can park, stay at a hotel, conduct your business, eat at great restaurants, and never have to move that car again until you have to leave,” Dalfonso says.

Dining & Imbibing

Event planner Naab is a huge fan of the diverse Peoria foodie scene, from casual fare to fine dining. Unique twists on Midwestern classics infused with locally sourced ingredients are a focus for many culinary entrepreneurs in the city.

Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery
Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery || Photo by John Muchow

“Literally, we have everything from your favorite Southern-style diner or soul food to global cuisine to truly fantastic Italian food and pizza, thanks to our Chi-Town transplants,” she says.

Dining options are prevalent along the riverfront, which make planning dine-arounds smooth sailing. A popular neighborhood for creative cuisine is the on-trend Warehouse District, a former industrial center undergoing revitalization. A number of vintage buildings see new life as chic restaurants and bars.   

Thyme Kitchen + Craft Beer is an upscale gastropub with an extensive beverage menu of craft beers, wines, and distilled spirits. The upstairs loft is available for private functions but accessible by stairs only. A longtime staple among locals, Kelleher’s Irish Pub serves hearty American and Irish fare in a rustic setting with a brick-paved patio overlooking the riverfront. The libations menu is robust, emphasizing more than 100 different beers.

Before Prohibition, whiskey flowed through Peoria’s veins. Dozens of distilleries and breweries populated the region, giving the city the nickname “Whiskey Capital of the World.” This legacy carries on with modern interpretations.

Rustic brick interior of  Venue Chisca
Rustic brick interior of Venue Chisca || Photo by Pam Cooley Photographer

Black Band Distillery, an organic craft distillery, offers tastings, tours, and a full-service bar with a menu of elevated small plates. Obed & Isaac’s Micro-brewery and Eatery, housed in an 1889 church, presents a menu of upscale pub fare and rotating small-batch craft beers. It also has a private dining room and a bocce-courted beer garden.

For larger groups, consider a venue that specializes in banquets and events. Three innovative establishments with in-house catering to consider include Venue Chisca, a renovated warehouse with private outdoor space; The Warehouse on State, which exudes an industrial ambience; and The Gateway Building by Childers, featuring fabulous views of the Illinois River.

Gear Up for Downtime

After meetings and workshops wind down, there’s much more to see and do. Two mainstays are the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Doug Oberhelman Caterpillar Visitors Center and Museum.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum displays a Duryea Motor Trap, one of the earliest gasoline-powered automobiles. It was manufactured by Peoria brothers Charles and J. Frank Duryea, who in 1896 founded America’s first car manufacturing company, The Duryea Motor Wagon Co. Also on permanent exhibition are collections of fine art and archaeological specimens, among others. A Smith-sonian affiliate, the museum features a 40-foot dome planetarium, auditorium, 70-foot-wide film screen, and various event spaces for gatherings.

The first Caterpillar tractors rolled off the Peoria line in 1910, and the Caterpillar Visitors Center and Museum tells the story of the renowned heavy construction equipment manufacturer. Self-guided tours start with a virtual ride in the bed of a massive mining truck and continue through more interactive exhibits. Attendees can test their skills on a simulator or design their own Cat machine.

The Peoria Historical Society maintains two historic homes that offer group tours: The John C. Flanagan House Museum, built in 1837 in the American Federalist style and the oldest home in Peoria; and the Pettengill-Morron House, built in 1868 in the Second Empire style. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The society also presents public and private walking and bus tours on topics such as Peoria history, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and the city’s whiskey heritage.

The historic Pettengill-Morron House
The historic Pettengill-Morron House || Courtesy of Collection of Peoria Historical Society

Meet With Nature

Outdoor fun begins at Dozer Park, home to Minor League Baseball’s Peoria Chiefs, a St. Louis Cardinals (MLB) affiliate. The stadium, named to reference Caterpillar’s bulldozers, has a party deck and indoor suites with catering options.

Nature lovers and walking enthusiasts are sure to enjoy the Peoria Park District’s more than 50 trail miles for hiking and biking, says Ali. A local favorite is the 13-mile Rock Island Trail, which can be accessed from the riverfront. “It’s a very safe trail in a beautiful natural environment,” she says. “It has been very well-protected and invested in.” Additional outdoor attractions to explore include the Peoria Zoo and George L. Luthy Memorial Botanical Garden, both offering meeting and event spaces for groups.

Dozer Park
Dozer Park || Courtesy of Discover Peoria

The Professional Disc Golf Association has been holding tournaments in Peoria for about a decade. A major event, the Ledgestone Open in August is expected to bring in 2,500 players and 6,000 spectators from around the world, says the association’s board president Nate Heinold. “Disc golf is the fastest-growing recreational sport in the country besidespickleball,” he says.

Stoney Creek Hotel is the host hotel for the event, but the group reserves room blocks at a dozen more. When not tossing Frisbees at targets, players and their cohorts often attend Peoria Chiefs baseball games, sip vino at Tres Rojas Winery in nearby Washington, and visit the Caterpillar museum. As a fundraiser for charity, a disc golf-themed escape room was set up at the host hotel by Escapetown Peoria.

The tournament has junior divisions, “so a lot of families come and make it their annual vacation,” Heinold says. As an aside, Escapetown Peoria also has permanent escape-game rooms, and the Peoria Park District maintains indoor and outdoor pickleball courts.