Normal is not exactly the best way to describe this part of central Illinois. The home of two universities and big businesses like State Farm and Country Financial, as well as a central point between St. Louis and Chicago, Bloomington-Normal is the perfect midway meeting spot.
The twin cities’ rich history also means “there’s a lot to see and do,” says Terri Ryburn, a local historian who hosted a three-day conference in town last October for nearly 100 Route 66 preservationists, economic development experts and fans from 11 different states. Many “had no idea of the wealth of beautiful buildings and wonderful shops and restaurants” until they experienced it for themselves, she says.
In total, Bloomington-Normal has 24 historic and major attractions along its famous span of highway, including Funk’s Grove Pure Maple Sirup, the Normal Theater and the new Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center at the McLean County Museum of History. In fact, walking in President Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps is a favorite activity, with many planning visits to Rosie’s Pub (his former law office) and the David Davis Mansion (the historic home of the former Supreme Court justice, who was also Lincoln’s friend).
Another big draw is the high level of collaboration with city officials, including the Bloomington-Normal Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That’s one of the advantages of being in a slightly smaller community,” explains Michelle Wu, CCEP, director of conference services at Illinois Wesleyan University. She says everyone works together toward the greater goal of “bringing an event to BloomingtonNormal and making it a success.”
Meet: Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State Universities
Many planners like to book full-day conferences on the vibrant campuses of Illinois Wesleyan University and Illinois State University. The benefit is a mix of unique spaces, such as a large room for morning presentations and comfy lounges overlooking tree-filled quads for creative brainstorming sessions.
Meeting on campus “gives you state-of the-art technology that you may not find anywhere else,” explains Rebecca Lee Rich, director of conference services at Illinois State. That’s because the campuses have to keep up with student demands in terms of technology and learning styles, which delivers “huge benefits” for meetings, too, adds Wu.
The same can be said of catered, à la carte or traditional cafeteria meals. Because the universities have to meet the dietary needs of students on a daily basis, they are also well equipped to handle attendees’ restrictions, no matter how detailed.
Also check out: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, Normal Theater
Eat: Epiphany Farms
This farm-to-fork hospitality group really gives new meaning to “taking home the farm.” Not only do its many venues offer gorgeous private dining and special event spaces, but a good number of menu items also feature flora and fauna cultivated on one of the 80 acres of regenerative farmland (or otherwise sourced from local farmers).
Epiphany’s group of venues includes its namesake restaurant in downtown Bloomington, the Anju Above tapas bar, Epiphany on Main (a speakeasy-style event space adjacent to the group’s bakery and test kitchen), the Old Bank restaurant in the nearby town of Leroy and the Epiphany Farms Estate at Moraine View, a 70-acre farm with vineyard that will open this summer and accommodate groups up to 500 people
Chef Ken Myszka and Chef Stu Hummel are “outrageously talented,” says Director of Special Events Craig Cahan. Though they could work anywhere in the world, he furthers they remain in Bloomington because of the farm, and their care for the food they raise “goes into the preparation, on to the plate and out to the guests.”
Also check out: Medici in Normal, Baxter’s American Grille
Stay: Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center
Set in the heart of Uptown Normal, this fullservice hotel and conference center is steps away from an eclectic mix of locally owned boutiques, specialty shops and dining and entertainment options, as well as Uptown Station, a new hub for trains, buses and taxis. The Uptown community is full of character, says Lyndsey Raycraft, who works in sales and catering for the hotel. “There’s just something for everybody.”
The same can be said for the 9-story Marriott property, which has 228 guest rooms, 24,300 square feet of meeting and special event space (for up to 1,000 people), a restaurant and coffee shop, full gym, pool and adjacent parking garage with a sky bridge. A business lounge on the concierge floor is popular for small group gatherings, adds Raycraft.
Also check out: Hyatt Place, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Bloomington
Play: Ewing Cultural Center
Kick back here by touring the extensive gardens, attending a performance of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in a 430-seat outdoor theater or renting out the entire historic home and grounds for a cocktail reception.
Groups enjoy having the property to themselves and moving about the well-appointed rooms and outdoor gathering spaces. The pastoral setting offers a break from the daily grind because it “takes you out of the work environment,” says Director Toni Tucker.
Small groups often hold breakout sessions in the garden as attendees claim they’re “more creative when they’re out in nature,” adds Tucker. Although it was built in 1929, the house is equipped with modern amenities like Wi-Fi and the latest A/V equipment.
Also check out: Sprague’s Super Service Station/ Ryburn Place, the Constitution Bike Trail