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Amazing Ann Arbor

The quintessential college town offers culture, walkability, and charm

By Wensdy Von Buskirk

Thanks to the University of Michigan (U-M), people around the world have heard of Ann Arbor. Yet, part of what makes the city so well-known is also what makes it a popular destination for meetings and events. It’s walkable and full of eateries, breweries, boutiques, and museums. Also culturally diverse, it offers entertainment options for students that translate to team-building opportunities for attendees. And with a deep pool of academics, there are experts in virtually every field to tap into for one-of-a-kind keynote addresses. 

Ann Arbor is the fifth-largest city in Michigan and is the county seat for Washtenaw County. || Photo by Jacob, courtesy of Adobe Stock

“I think primarily we are a great draw because of the University of Michigan,” says Kristy Poore, national sales account executive of Destination Ann Arbor. “The downtown area runs right into campus, so there’s lots of synergy.” According to a visitor profile study by Destination Ann Arbor and Equation Research, 53% of people visiting Ann Arbor have some tie to the university. 

And the area is easy to get to. Just 25 miles from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which offers international and direct domestic flights, there’s easy access from major thoroughfares Interstate 94 and U.S. Route 23. Exit the freeways and you’re in “Tree Town,” with beautiful canopies lining Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods, parks, banks of the Huron River, and eclectic downtown streets.

The Heart of It All

Many event-goers want walkability to both downtown and “The Diag”—the center of U-M’s campus. The city core features the Graduate Ann Arbor, Bell Tower Hotel, and Residence Inn Ann Arbor Downtown, although there are multiple other hotels and motels throughout the area.

Lobby at the Graduate Ann Arbor. August 17, 2023
Lobby at the Graduate Ann Arbor || Photo by Christian Horan Photography, courtesy of Graduate Hotels

Near campus, the Graduate has made a business model out of serving college towns with 30-plus hotels around the U.S. and England. Each property reflects the culture and charm of the nearby university. The Ann Arbor location’s 10,000 square feet of flexible meeting space consists of three main meeting rooms including the Terrace Ballroom, which can accommodate up to 200 people with access to a beautiful outdoor veranda perfect for cocktail receptions. A third-floor boardroom attaches to a hospitality suite that can be stocked with refreshments and works well for casual gatherings. “It’s a great landing space for groups,” says Emily MacIntyre, Graduate Hotels’ area director of sales.

The Bell Tower Hotel, close to Hill Auditorium, is named for U-M’s iconic landmark, with its carillon bells striking the hour and noon concerts ringing out each school day. Family-owned and celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, Bell Tower Hotel can accommodate up to 80 in its 9,600-square-foot restaurant space, along with executive meetings, conferences, and trainings for up to 32 people in three boardrooms. 

The Residence Inn Ann Arbor Downtown can host up to 45 for business gatherings and networking, with 2,124 square feet of total event space. The pet-friendly, all-suite hotel has an indoor pool and fitness center, too. 

Meeting area at The Kensington Hotel. August 17, 2023
Meeting area at The Kensington Hotel || Courtesy of The Kensington Hotel/Inspired Video Marketing, LLC

For larger conferences, the Sheraton Ann Arbor and Weber’s Boutique Hotel can be found along the State Street corridor off I-94. Also nearby is The Kensington Hotel, with more than 10,000 square feet of event space and its on-site Rel-Ish restaurant and bar. 

A bit farther afield in Ann Arbor’s sister city Ypsilanti is the resort-style Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Marriott at Eagle Crest. Located on Ford Lake and boasting an 18-hole golf course, the hotel includes 40,000 square feet of meeting space with a ballroom that holds 600 and features an auditorium. Two years ago, the property added the popular Garden Marquis overlooking the water and rolling greenery of the serene surroundings. “There are concrete floors, Edison light bulb chandeliers, and sliding doors that open to a grassy area with a gazebo and fire pits. It’s very lovely,” Poore says. “It’s a hit with corporate groups and association groups for cocktail reception hours and smaller dinners.”

The Sporting Life

One word of caution: If you’re planning a visit during football season, book early. U-M Wolverine games attract more than 600,000 people to the city, including ticketholders as well as those who just come to visit, according to a study by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). Capacity at “The Big House” is 107,601, making Michigan Stadium the largest in the U.S. Not just for football, the stadium has hosted soccer games, ice hockey, and even weddings, and it also offers tours. 

University of Michigan stadium. August 17, 2023
Michigan stadium || Courtesy of Destination Ann Arbor

Other sports venues are located on campus at Concordia University in Ann Arbor and at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Ann Arbor Sports Commission Executive Director Mike Malach helps sports-related tournaments, fundraisers, and conventions find everything they need for successful events. 

For example, the sports commission helped organize 2023’s Hoops for ALS, a fundraising weekend with a dinner reception and golf scramble hosted by former U-M basketball players and staff. In addition, Coaches Site Live hosted its annual conference in Ann Arbor for the second time in 2023. Malach’s staff set up the 500 attendees with hockey skills training at Yost Ice Arena, hotel rooms, restaurant reservations, and gift bags.

Out and About

Destination Ann Arbor can help arrange shuttles and executive motorcoaches for outings. Stops might include the newly opened University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. Host a cocktail reception at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum or catered dinner at the U-M Museum of Art.

Zingerman’s is a must for any itinerary. What started in 1982 as a scrappy delicatessen has expanded into an empire including Zingerman’s Roadhouse (try the barbecue) and Greyline event space, bakeshop, creamery, coffee-roasting plant, and confectionary. Personalized ZingTrain seminars share the organization’s customer service-oriented recipe for success.

Zingerman’s Greyline Event Space || Destination Ann Arbor

Best in Games is an indoor wonderland with ax throwing, go-karting, selfie miniature golf, laser tag, and arcade games for groups of 30 to 300. Full facility rentals can accommodate up to 1,500. Football bowling at Ypsi’s Fowling Warehouse is also a draw.

Arcade at Best in Games in Ypsilanti. August 17, 2023
Arcade at Best in Games in Ypsilanti || Courtesy of Destination Ann Arbor

Outdoor recreation opportunities abound. Argo Livery offers canoe, kayak, paddleboard, and tube rentals on the Huron River. Hiking trails wind through the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. E-scooter and e-bike rentals make it easy to get around and visit downtown boutiques, bookshops, breweries, and restaurants. The farmers market fills Detroit Street every Saturday. 

For private meals, Dixboro Project accommodates up to 125 people in adjoining barns overlooking Fleming Creek and woodlands. Sava’s serves up to 70 with a Mediterranean-inspired Mix and Mingle Menu. “Unlike other college towns, Ann Arbor is unique because it doesn’t really slow down,” Poore says. “It stays busy, and there’s something to do all year-round.”