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Meet Up in Southwest Michigan

Wherever you host your event, there's always a spot for group fun in Kalamazoo and nearby.

By Amy S. Eckert

New Buffalo Lighthouse and Beach in New Buffalo CREDIT Adobe Stock

Towering lighthouses conjure images of Great Lakes sailors, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with roadside produce stands. Craft breweries and family-owned wineries add local flavor. And wherever visitors head in south- west Michigan, they’re never far from a Lake Michigan beach. These very same attractions and sites that draw travelers to southwest Michigan for cozy romantic getaways or family-friendly escapes captivate meeting planners.

When it comes to accessibility between work and play for corporate events, one city comes to mind: Kalamazoo. The city is midway between Detroit and Chicago at the intersection of Interstate Highway 94 and U.S. Highway 131, giving the city a decided edge when it comes to corporate gatherings, according to Holly Lee, manager of groups and events at the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Museum there. Meeting attendees appreciate the ease of travel to the educational and meeting venue, she says.

A variety of hotels, which regularly partner with the Air Zoo for package discounts, is nearby. On-site meeting spaces at the Air Zoo range from intimate boardrooms to large banquet facilities.

The Warhawk, Corsair, and Wildcat rooms, each overlooking the Air Zoo’s scenic grounds, have a capacity for 32 attendees or may be combined into a single 125-seat conference room. The recently remodeled Missions Theater is ideal for business presentations and keynote addresses, with seating for as many as 62.

Lee emphasizes that the fun factor of destinations like the Air Zoo shouldn’t be overlooked by meeting planners.

“We are in an era when it’s so important to connect and engage with business colleagues in person again,” she says. “And yet we see that for many of those busi- ness travelers who are meeting in person, people are out of practice when it comes to that face-to-face networking experience.”

Participating in the activities on tap at the Air Zoo serves as something of an icebreaker for many meeting attendees. Lee has watched clients playfully competing in paper airplane-flying tournaments and trying to best one another in the facility’s simulated fighter and stunt planes.

“Once clients have become acquainted through these activities, they seem eager to get down to business,” says Lee.

NATURAL MEETING INCENTIVES

For many meetings and event planners, the draw of southwest Michigan’s natural attractions proves to be the key in con- vincing travelers to attend a corporate gathering—and once they have arrived, to stay a while.

St. Julian Winery, the largest, longest- running, and most-awarded family-owned winery in the state, manages multiple tast- ing rooms across southern Michigan. But its home base and headquarters in Paw Paw rank as St. Julian’s most popular for small corporate gatherings and receptions. Centered within a 50-mile radius of the winery’s vineyards and fruit orchards, St. Julian’s Paw Paw location allows clients to combine the business at hand with the pleasure of the region’s acclaimed wines.

Meeting participants typically attend receptions in either the facility’s Apollo event space or the tasting room itself to socialize and network. Occasionally, gatherings move outdoors, where tidy rows of riesling, cabernet franc, and pinot grigio vines provide a scenic backdrop to networking events.

“Some of our corporate guests take a tour of the production facility that includes wine tasting and charcuterie,” says Amy Bobo, lead marketing designer at St. Julian. “Other meeting planners may choose to hold their business functions elsewhere in southwest Michigan and just head to St. Julian for an afternoon tour or an evening wine-tasting event.”

Natural beauty is a key draw at Harbor Shores Resort in St. Joseph. Notable for its Jack Nicklaus Signature Course in Benton Harbor, the resort draws meeting planners whether they opt to offer tee times as an after-hours amenity or to include an organized golf tournament as part of the conference agenda.

In addition to golf, Harbor Shores Resort has access to 12 miles of hiking trails as well as bike rentals, indoor and outdoor pools, swimming at Lake Michigan’s Jean Klock Beach, and charter fishing excursions. The waterfront Inn at Harbor Shores also includes 92 guest rooms, meeting rooms to accommodate as many as 300, four restaurants, and catering facilities, all just a 90-minute drive from Chicago.

Another beachside meeting venue is Shadowland on Silver Beach in St. Joseph. Located right on the Lake Michigan shoreline and within an easy walk to area hotels and restaurants, Shadowland offers meeting facilities for as many as 300 guests and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a bluff and Compass Fountain Park. Event organizers can opt to rent the Silver Beach Carousel with its 48 hand-carved figures.

While many of southwest Michigan’s corporate meeting venues tout the area’s natural beauty, the region is also home to stellar artistic attractions. The Mendel Center at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor is known for its cultural performances, ranging from stand-up comedy to inspirational lecture series and holiday concerts.

The Mendel Center’s 250-seat Hanson Theatre offers an intimate space for performances, ceremonies, and speaking engagements. CREDIT The Mendel Center

Meeting planners can combine these entertainment options with a corporate event at The Mendel Center. Facilities include space for as few as 25 and as many as 900 attendees, and catering services incorporate Michigan’s celebrated craft beers and wines. The center’s Great Upton Hall offers one of the region’s largest indoor gathering spaces. With nearly 14,500 square feet of open floor space and portable stage facilities, Upton Hall can easily accommodate trade shows and large exhibitions.

The waterfront Shadowland on Silver Beach offers
meeting facilities for as many as 300 guests. CREDIT Joshua Nowicki

AT THE CROSSROADS

Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo is one of southwest Michi-
gan’s largest event venues. Four Winds’ Silver Creek Event
Center boasts more than 17,000 square feet of event space, with banquet seating for as many as 1,000 and theater seating for up to 1,600. The property’s Kankakee Grill is a popular casual meeting space with two bars, dining facilities for up to 300, a live stage, and an outdoor patio furnished with fire pits.

Diverse meeting spaces, 415 hotel rooms, and varied options
are key components for corporate meeting planners. Yet Tim
Adams, Four Winds’ director of sales and catering, notes that
southwest Michigan’s Great Lakes location often seals the deal for corporate travel offices.

“I like to tell meeting planners that here in New Buffalo, we’re in the middle of nowhere, and the middle of everywhere,” says Adams, referencing the area’s combination of lush outdoor spaces and access to transportation hubs.

Meeting planners can organize picnics along the Lake Michigan shore (less than 5 miles away) and wine-tasting dinners at nearby Tabor Hill Winery. Within the casino, they can take advantage of Four Winds’ built-in entertainment rock concerts, gaming tutorials, slot tourneys, and cooking demonstrations.

Four Winds Casino
provides banquet seating for up to 1,000. CREDIT Four Winds Casino

And once business is concluded, Adam says it’s not unusual for attendees to stay longer in southwest Michigan. What begins as a corporate retreat can quickly become a family getaway with a day or two spent beach combing, visiting U-pick orchards, renting kayaks, or taking in Lake Michigan sunsets.

“This region of the state is truly a hidden gem,” says Adams. “And it’s easy to relay that. Corporate groups understand that in southwest Michigan, they can organize a true getaway that’s not far away.”

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