Michigan’s university and college towns earn more than a passing grade when it comes to the venues and amenities they offer for meetings and conferences.
Go Spartans! Go Wildcats! Go Broncos! Go Blue!
Michigan has plenty to cheer about when it comes to campus life. According to Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the Great Lakes State ranks among the top 15 states in the country for the most post-high school institutions. Some 93 colleges and universities call Michigan home, with many of these schools operating multiple campuses.
Nearly every one of these institutions rents its facilities to outside conferences and corporate events. Planners will find meeting venues at college football stadiums and basketball arenas, auditoriums, museums, theatres and even gardens. They also will be able to take advantage of resources that include faculty speakers, collegiate event organizers, audio-visual staff and food services, all available to assist with the organization of corporate events.
While the options for corporate meetings on colleges increase in the summer months when students have largely left town, you’ll want to think beyond June, July and August as you consider a campus-centered event. Most university facilities have the capacity to host private events year-round.
What’s more, university event spaces frequently offer planners a level of flexibility that might be surprising. At a 2019 World Finals competition of Odyssey of the Mind, Michigan State University’s basketball arena was reconfigured into a creative problem-solving lab for 15,000 school-age students, their coaches and parents. The Breslin Center experienced a far different transformation in 2021, when the arena was converted into an 800-seat banquet hall for the Michigan Celebrates Small Business’ annual gala and awards banquet.
Theaters and auditoriums at colleges across the state morph from music and dance venues to auditoriums for keynote addresses; campus dining services transform into conference catering services; and student dormitories offer inexpensive lodging options for budget-conscious meeting planners.
Chris Rowley, executive director of Mt. Pleasant Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which includes the Central Michigan University campus, cites an additional benefit that college towns enjoy in the COVID era: the technology and expertise to include remote attendees seamlessly.
“Central Michigan and universities across Michigan have the know-how to produce hybrid meetings in a way that almost no other venues do, because they have had to offer hybrid learning to their students all along,” says Rowley. Even as most communities and educational institutions foresee an uptick in in-person conferences following the devastating effects of COVID-19 on travel, corporate planners’ optimism is best described as cautious. Knowing that a venue has the potential for providing a fusion of in-person and remote meeting options can allay concerns about moving forward with a conference or meeting.
A Symbiotic Relationship
In many college towns, the largest and most modern event spaces—indeed, sometimes a town’s only large-scale special event spaces—are located on college campuses. In Ann Arbor, for example, the city’s most spacious indoor meeting venue is Hill Auditorium with seating for 3,500. Its largest outdoor venue is Michigan Stadium, known as the “Big House,” with a capacity of more than 107,000. Both are part of University of Michigan’s campus. In Kalamazoo, the city’s largest special event space is Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium with a capacity of 3,500.
In Mount Pleasant, the city’s premier venues are Central Michigan University’s John H. Kulhavi Events Center with the ability to host 5,300 attendees and the new CMU Chippewa Champions Center, which includes arena space for 30,000. And in Marquette, the granddaddy of event spaces is Superior Dome, which ranks as the world’s largest wooden dome. The dome can accommodate as many as 16,000 people and sits on Northern Michigan University’s campus.
Without a strong collaboration with the local college or university, the ability of these cities to host large conferences would be extremely limited.
The relationship between college event venues and a city’s amenities is a well-trafficked, two-way street. Colleges and universities often rely on their CVB partners for lodging when it comes to large meetings and conferences. In Marquette, for example, there is no lodging on the NMU campus to accommodate conference attendees of even a moderate-sized event. Even in Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan manages two university hotels, Inn at the Michigan League and Bell Tower Hotel, the number of available on-campus guest rooms often falls short of corporate demand.
With locations in Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Graduate Hotels bridge the gap between the availability of campus housing and guest demand. Separate from their respective universities and located near, but not on, university property, Graduate emphasizes the local collegiate vibe: a maize and blue color scheme near University of Michigan, a green and white combination near Michigan State University, in-room stadium blankets and university-themed artwork.
Meeting planners shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of this evocation of bygone college days.
Nancy Harper, a national sales account executive for Destination Ann Arbor, says that nostalgia for college life is a big factor in boosting attendance at Ann Arbor events. “The university themes are extremely popular with our corporate guests,” she says. “And because of the Graduate Hotel’s proximity to campus, a lot of our guests don’t realize they aren’t actually on U of M property.”
On the other hand, for younger conference attendees or gatherings of nonprofits and others on limited budgets, the availability of on-campus dormitory space can be a key element in assuring a robust turnout for an event.
“In Holland, we have lodging within Hope College’s Haworth Hotel and Conference Center,” says Wendy Link, sales director for Holland Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s more lodging throughout the downtown and at hotels farther out, but Cook Hall dormitory is connected to the Haworth Center and considerably cheaper than hotel rooms would be.”
Far from the university dormitories of lore, with bunkbeds and communal restrooms, Cook Hall and its modern counterparts feature suites, standard beds, conversation nooks, coffee bars, and even small kitchens and laundry facilities. Using college dorm space, however, is typically an option only in summer months, when students are on break.
Museum Visits, Performing Arts and Sporting Events
The cultural attractions and sporting events that draw visitors to college towns are also big draws for conferences and attendees. “Being able to plan an evening event or a social gathering in one of Michigan State University’s cultural institutions definitely works in our favor when we’re trying to win a convention,” says David Buckenberger, senior vice president of business development for Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Buckenberger has seen professional associations hold cocktail receptions in the lobby of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, where guests are surrounded by contemporary sculpture and enjoy the striking steel-and-glass façade of the building, which was designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid. For daylong or multiday events at MSU, a corporate board might convene during the morning and afternoon in a conference room at Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, and then spend the evening entertained by a performance of “Hamilton” in the building’s 2,254-seat Cobb Great Hall. Or a corporate human resources department might hold a recruiting event in The 4th Floor, a meeting space for 800 that overlooks the Spartan Stadium.
Conference organizers, Buckenberger adds, shouldn’t forget the university’s chief asset: academic expertise. In some cases, scholarly reputation is precisely what draws conference participants. For example, Michigan State was chosen as the meeting location for a recent conference of the National Association of Particle Accelerators because MSU is home to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory and Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.
In Marquette, university sporting events draw after-hours attention, and they’re not always your typical university sports.
“We have meeting attendees take advantage of figure skating, hockey, luge, skiing, ski jumping and curling,” says Susan Estler, executive director of Travel Marquette. “Community events are really important in Marquette, too,” she adds, citing Fresh Coast Film Festival, Blues Fest, Noquemanon Ski Marathon and UP 200 sled dog races. “Many of these events are tied to NMU, and the great thing is visitors can combine those activities with the attractions of an urban center: good food, craft beer and shopping.”
Melding Campus and
Art festivals, microbreweries, outdoor activities and scores of interesting dining and retail shops … the amenities abound in college towns that are appealing to leisure and business visitors alike.
In Allendale, conference attendees can participate in an 18-hole scramble at The Meadows Golf Club on Grand Valley State University’s campus. In Ann Arbor, they can buy university apparel at The M Den or shop for books at Literati bookstore between meetings. The Traverse City Film Festival takes place annually near the Lake Michigan shore and Northwestern Michigan’s campus. And in downtown Big Rapids, guests can chat over beer and live music at Raven Brewing & BBQ, a hot spot blocks from Ferris State University and one that, thanks to its youthful student clientele, is likely to remain open well after a long day of meetings.
“Pitching the town of Holland as a destination is such an easy sell,” says Holland CVB’s Link, “and Hope College is a part of that. They are a part of the downtown to such a degree that people often don’t even know when they’ve stepped onto the campus and when they have left it.”
Holland’s downtown beautification efforts like lush flower beds, shade trees, patio dining and public art meld with campus enhancement projects. In winter, the downtown’s heated streets allow for snow- and ice-free shopping and dining. In summer, visitors can enjoy the nearby spectacular golden beaches on the Lake Michigan shore.
In the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), college towns like Houghton, home to Michigan Technological University, and Marquette, home to Northern Michigan University, can bank on the region’s numerous hiking, mountain biking and ski trails to draw university students and meetings alike. National and state parks, campgrounds and waterways for fishing and paddling are immensely popular with visitors, too, and they often serve as an added incentive to those considering whether to attend conferences and corporate events.
“People expect to move easily from their hotel to a trail when they come to the U.P.,” says Travel Marquette’s Estler. “They can find that here in Marquette, at a conference on the Northern Michigan campus.”
The appeal is greater than ever this year, when ongoing concerns about COVID-19 may make attendees more willing to schedule a walking meeting on the Iron Ore Heritage Trail or along the Lake Superior shore than a face-to-face meeting indoors over coffee.
From small campuses to sprawling universities and from institutions surrounded by woods and water to those set in urban centers, Michigan’s college and university towns offer planners an array of attractive meeting options. Add in a campus’s contagious college spirit, and these destinations earn a solid A.
Michigan’s college campuses are home to some of the state’s largest and most attractive meeting space. Here’s a quick look at just a few of these venues.
Michigan State University
Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center
35,000 square feet of flexible event space
32 event rooms that accommodate
12 to 1,200 guests
160 guest rooms
Northern Michigan University
25,000 square feet of flexible event space
10 event rooms that accommodate
20 to 1,000 people
More than 6,000 square feet
of flexible event space plus
Waterfront conference center
overlooking Grand Traverse Bay
Adjoins Great Lakes Culinary Institute for fine catering
University of Michigan
Seating for up to 3,500 guests
Perfect for keynote addresses and after-hours entertainment
Built by Art Deco architectural
master Albert Kahn in 1913
Wayne State University
Mike Ilitch School of Business
Event space accommodates
6 to 256 people
Located in District Detroit, near independent shopping, dining and sports venues
Rooftop terrace for outdoor
Western Michigan University
18,000 square feet of flexible event space
15 event rooms that accommodate up to 400 people