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Home MI Places MI Destinations Holland and Grand Haven Prove Colorful Conference Settings

Holland and Grand Haven Prove Colorful Conference Settings

By Bill Semion

Think of Holland and Grand Haven along the southwest Lake Michigan coast of our Great Lakes state, and it’s those fantastic squeaky sand beaches, outstanding charter fishing, Dutch heritage, and a downtown atmosphere in both that first come to mind.

You’ll also want to add this: great downtown hotels, innovative conference centers and some unique city services that also make them both great spots for a large conference or intimate business retreat.

Let’s focus on downtown Holland first. It’s ready for you summer, or winter, says Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. For good reason.

“Holland’s list of accolades is very, very long. And, we’re generally snow-free in the winter,” Laukitis says.

Now that doesn’t mean that winter skips over the lakefront town. Downtown actually has the largest municipally run snowmelt system in North America, installed in 1986. Streets and sidewalks are literally heated with hot water from the city-owned power company through 190 miles of tubing. 

As a result, she says, downtown retail occupancy is at or near 100 percent, most are locally owned, and you’re virtually guaranteed being able to move snow-free on downtown’s streets and sidewalks.

“Among the more than 100 shops and galleries, only about five are national retailers,” she adds. The farmers market in the summer operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays, but doesn’t stop there.

“We also continue our farmers market with an annual Dutch WinterFest, complete with an open-air European-style Christmas market. Sinter Klaas arrives in downtown on his white horse, just like in the Netherlands.”

Holland’s Fall Fest takes place at the market in mid-October. 

Events Galore

“Live Mannequin Night” is another downtown draw, featuring local folks who strike a pose in 25 storefronts in mid-September.

Laukitis also highlights other draws to this Dutch-settled city, which celebrates its heritage in early May during the Tulip Time Festival. Four million tulip bulbs are planted each fall, and pop in blooming color, usually in time for the event. 

And here’s an extra tip not many outside of town know about: the community bulb dig. In June, when the blooms are off, show up with a 5-gallon bucket and a spade, pay $10 and you can bring home all the tulip bulbs you can carry to enjoy next year. Stop by in fall and take part in the community-wide effort to replant the beds. 

“Then, of course, you’ll have to return in the spring and see them bloom,” Laukitis says. 

You can also see it all on your bike, or do as the locals do and use an electric rental bike. “They are available through bike shops and a couple will even deliver a bike to your hotel and pick it up when you’re done,” Laukitis adds. There are more than 150 miles of paved bike paths throughout the area. 

Downtown also benefits from having a college campus. Hope College’s Summer Repertory Theater combines both student and equity actor performances, which begin each June. The college’s Knickerbocker Theater seats 500 for its classic movie series. 

For a great Lake Michigan view, head to the Mount Pisgah climb near Holland State Park on the north side of Lake Macatawa. “It’s an easy 157-foot climb, and at the top, see 14 miles into the lake on a clear day,” Laukitis says. 

Breweries and Distilleries

Other things to take up your down time include the city’s newest tradition: brewing great beers and spirits. There are 11 breweries, brewpubs and distillers in and around town, including three downtown.

“We just started a beer passport and that’s wildly popular, and there also are tours available,” Laukitis continues. “Tuesdays and Fridays nights in summer there are free concerts and Thursday nights is our Street Performer Series. Musicians, caricature artists, face painters, jugglers, magicians and even aerial acrobats entertain visitors strolling along 8th Street.”

Holland’s Veldheer Tulip Farm is the perfect spot for gardeners. Bulbs are sold at the store in fall, and the farm’s millions of tulips bloom in spring, with colorful perennial gardens in summer. The Holland Bowl Mill, north of Lake Macatawa, is one of only four of its kind left in the U.S., with a recycling process that results in virtually no scrap. 

Holland’s signature connection with its Dutch past and those who settled the area is its 260-year-old Dutch windmill. It grinds about 7 tons of grain each year that’s sold at the mill, which operates mid-April to late October.

South of Holland, the artsy town of Saugatuck also beckons. Star of Saugatuck operates riverboat tours on the lower Kalamazoo River, and also can host your group for lunch, or buffet or sit-down meals. 

Now you know some of the highlights that await you in Holland. Here’s a look at some of the downtown hotels and meetings spaces waiting to help make your event. 

Holland’s Civic Center, just 4 blocks from downtown, reopened in September 2018 after a complete renovation. Boatwerks, on the Lake Macatawa shore, opened new banquet facilities in 2015 and can accommodate groups up to 300

Another concept that Holland brings to the table is event sharing. If a hotel can’t accommodate your meeting size, you can combine staying at one, with meeting space just blocks away. One of those that will help is the 140- room Courtyard by Marriott, which opened in 2016. 

Besides its two restaurants, there’s meeting space for 20-25 guests, says Courtyard manager Grant Hirst. “Our main advantage is being right on 8th street downtown so everything’s within walking distance,” regardless of weather, since there are nearly 5 miles of snowmelted sidewalks downtown.

Besides its two restaurants, there’s meeting space for 20-25 guests, says Courtyard manager Grant Hirst. “Our main advantage is being right on 8th street downtown so everything’s within walking distance,” regardless of weather, since there are nearly 5 miles of snowmelted sidewalks downtown.

Personal Attention

CityFlatsHotel is downtown’s LEED GoldCertified space. Its five floors hold 56 sleeping rooms, says General Manager Jared McGraw. It has events space on its entire top floor.

“We’ve been open for 11 years now and we’re considered a boutique hotel. Each one of our rooms is designed differently. We deal with a lot of local businesses, with a conference and boardroom for 10-50. The Loungers Room has 25 reclining chairs with a projector screen and four flat-screen TVs,” he says. “You’re in the heart of downtown here, a beautiful place to be.”

Also downtown, the Haworth (pronounced Hayworth) Inn and Conference Center on the campus of Hope College, can handle groups up to 350. It has 50 sleeping rooms, says Derek Emerson, Hope College’s director of public affairs and events. 

The center is college-owned and is named after Haworth, one of the nation’s largest office furniture makers. Haworth provided its furnishings when it opened, and also will be involved in a major renovation that’s in the works. Here’s where that venue-sharing cooperation between properties again comes into play.

“Quite often, if someone holds a meeting here, we can send the overnight overflow to, say, CityFlats, a block away, or Courtyard by Marriott. We’re competitors, but we work together to pull off great events,” Emerson says. “People love that we’re a block away from restaurants and the rest of downtown.”

Hope College, for example, hosted a major academic conference at the center in October with the Lilly Foundation, filling up the inn and using the other hotels.

Outside town, Macatawa Legends, one of the area’s premier golf courses, can host groups up to 200. “We’re midway between Holland and Grand Haven, and for meetings, a lot of our functions will use the Founder’s Ballroom. We have a projector and screen there. That works best because it’s not overlooking the golf course, so that’ll keep their attention,” jokes Lacey Sheffer, director of membership and events. “If the group breaks, we’ll use the Legends Room to give them that nice view. We’re open for events all year.”

Another is the DoubleTree Hotel and Conference Center Holland, about three miles from downtown. It’s a full-service hotel that can host 650 guests banquet-style, with 168 sleeping rooms. A new Hilton Home2 opened in fall 2018 featuring 109 all-suite rooms, with great space for smaller meetings. 

Fun-Filled Grand Haven

Just 22 miles north of Holland, Grand Haven definitely has fun written all over it.

From its beautiful beachfront in Grand Haven State Park and bike and walking routes from downtown, it has repurposed itself from manufacturing to tourism, and the result is a beautiful thing to see, explains Marci Cisneros, executive director of the Grand Haven Area Convention and Visitors bureau.

“The Grand Haven area offers great small meeting opportunities and many recreational experiences. The attraction of our destination is driven by our leisure appeal,” she says.

“With beautiful soft sand beaches located on Lake Michigan as well as being surrounded by the Grand River and Spring Lake means time outside of meetings can equate to fun memories while exploring the beautiful landscape of West Michigan,” Cisneros adds.

She’s right. Grand Haven sits amidst hundreds of miles of public shoreline stretching from the Indiana border to Mackinaw City. The state park itself is a gem, with 48 acres of sand, sand and more sand. Campers set up their rigs steps away from the famous lighthouse pier. 

Downtown is a good place for breakout or meeting events. Porto Bello restaurant, for example, is located in part of the former Story & Clark piano works, and can seat up to 275 in its Grand Hall, 35 in another space. 

“Same is true of the old Grand Armory Building, a repurposed space now used for a brewery, coffee shop and restaurant. Keeping downtown storefronts occupied year-round with appealing shops for residents and visitors is the full job of the Grand Haven Downtown Development Authority,” Cisneros says.

Main Street Activities

The rest of downtown is equally charming, and its restaurants range from a seafood and oyster bar inside a former theater, The Grand, to the yummy Butch’s Beach Burritos. Join the line, order inside, and bring your lunch or dinner across the street to watch the Grand River, Michigan’s longest, as it disappears into Lake Michigan. There’s another location in nearby Spring Lake.

From there you can also just see where the Grand Haven Musical Fountain displays a multicolor light, water and music show nightly from May to September downtown. 

Book your group on a Grand Haven trolley to tour both this town and neighboring Spring Lake, Cisneros recommends. Pick it up from Chinook Pier, site of the city’s salmon charter fishing fleet, the historic Pere Marquette steam locomotive display, and Sweet Temptations, which features locally made small batch ice cream that’ll be love at first lick, guaranteed. 

The trolley route takes you around town with a stop at Grand Haven State Park. Rent bikes at spots such as Rock ‘n’ Road Cycle and follow the more than 100 miles of routes in the area with your map, including a 20-mile trek along the shoreline and treed dunes to Holland. Or join the walkers beside the Grand River from downtown to the harbor pier.

“We have one full-service hotel with meeting space and breakout areas for up to 200. The property also is host to a lounge and waterfront restaurant,” she adds. “There are several other properties in the area from quaint bed and breakfasts, to motels and hotels. These properties serve the leisure traveler—offering nearly 700 rooms/units with locations close to downtown or the beach—just visit our website for a full listing.”

Whether it’s a visit in fall when the salmon are biting or in spring when the tulips are in bloom, Grand Haven and Holland are spots to stay a while. 


Dutch settlers who founded Holland in 1847 quickly realized the potential in the region’s forests, initially cutting lumber for homes, and selling excess to purchase farming equip – ment. It was a glimpse of the future. Holland remains a world furniture-making pow – erhouse. There are more than a dozen furniture companies for home and office here, including names like Haworth, Herman Miller, Cento Anni and Benchmark. 

Like Grand Haven’s, Holland’s red lighthouse on its pier is a favorite subject for photographers.

Holland’s famous Tulip Time festival began with an idea from a local teacher as a community beautification project in 1927. 

Holland’s famous authentic Dutch windmill, De Zwann (meaning The Swan), dates from 1761. It was the last wind – mill that was allowed to leave The Netherlands, and was brought to Holland in 1964 and restored on Windmill Island Park, opening in 1965. 

Grand Haven’s first European settler was Rev. William Montague Ferry, for whom two nearby towns are named. It became a flourishing lumber and shipping town in the 1860s.

Grand Haven’s most famous event is the annual two-week Coast Guard Festival begin – ning in late July. Because of its historic connection, the city is recognized by the U.S. govern – ment as Coast Guard City USA. Grand Haven State Park’s beach was recognized as one of the top five in the nation by Good Morning America.