Every year, we ask you—our faithful readers—to tell us the best of the best in the Illinois meetings and events world. Your votes always result in a diverse crop of winners, from F&B to event décor to A/V and more, and this year is no exception.
Our winners are located all over the state, from Schiller Park and Chicago to Galena and Northbrook. Some have recently opened while others are passing decades in the business. A team of five work at one company, while another has thousands of employees.
So sit down, take notes and consider this your guidebook to planning all your vendors for your upcoming events.
The Support Systems
In 2017, Visit Galena joined forces with the rest of Jo Daviess County and its CVB, rebranding as the Greater Galena Marketing Inc. The expanded five-person team now promotes Galena and 10 surrounding towns. “We have an amazing product to work with,” says Rose Noble, director of marketing. “[The rebranding] was beneficial to us as far as what we can offer.” You could venture a guess that the work resulted in its win of Best Convention & Visitors Bureau outside Chicagoland.
While the offerings of Chicago itself may intrigue a potential client to host a meeting in the Windy City, to incentivize people further, Choose Chicago, this year’s Best Convention & Visitors Bureau in Chicagoland, implemented a program wherein those who book meetings with at least 250 hotel rooms in Chicago from 2018-2021 will receive American Express gift cards of up to $1,000, United Airlines miles or complimentary registration to the 2018 ASAE Annual Meeting. The CVB also hired a strategic housing manager to work with customers on room blocks and provide additional support. “We are known throughout the industry for taking the extra step in assisting customers,” says Marc Anderson, executive vice president of Choose Chicago. “We do a great job of strategizing and working with customers.”
This year a number of large association meetings are coming to Chicago, and 2018’s Best Destination Management Company, 360 Destination Group, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. “We have established a reputation for being very forward thinking,” says Michelle Castady Orlando, DCMP, general manager. “We get to know our clients and gain an understanding of why they’re bringing people to Chicago.”
Blue Plate Catering
PSAV doesn’t only deliver its award-winning service to clients in Illinois—the 80-year-old company employs 9,000 people across 1,500 venues in 13 countries. The Best AudioVisual /Visual Presentation Provider services clients like the Chicago Blackhawks, White Sox and Cubs. “PSAV offers a commitment to excellence that is second to none,” says Bob Niersbach, director of communications. “Our highly trained professionals are passionate about delivering exceptional event experiences.”
Food is Blue Plate Catering’s business, but people is its mission. “We are happy people making people happy,” says Brandy Gonsoulin, brand manager. “Our business is rooted in relationships and providing people with great experiences. The food is one thing, but it always comes back to the people.” In 2016 this year’s Best Catering Company moved to the Fulton Market District and opened a stellar event venue. This year they’re moving on up with a rooftop venue slated for completion at the end of 2018.
As in years past, Kehoe Designs is the winner of Best Event Décor/Florist. “Clients appreciate our insatiable sense of curiosity and wonder,” says Tom Kehoe, founder. “Each event has personal significance, and our job is to identify what that is, then connect with that in a singular and compelling fashion.”
BeatMix Music opened six years ago and only just launched a website. That seems almost unfathomable in today’s environment, especially when you consider the company’s success, which is demonstrated by its win for Best Entertainment (Performer or Talent Agency). “Mostly, we’ve been word of mouth and we’ve been at industry events to showcase our unique ensembles,” says Becca Kaufman, owner. “Our goal is to match every client with a personalized music experience.” With a roster that includes three- to 20-piece bands, they know what they’re doing.
The 25-year-old Rick Aguilar Studios can add one more award to its long list of wins: Best Photography/Videography. “We have the willingness to work with the client in any capacity,” says Rick Aguilar, president. “We have a friendliness to our studio and great organizational skills.” Those skills are so strong that Aguilar and his team were able to grab cameras and head over to an event within the hour after the client realized they never booked a photographer.
Just like last year, BBJ Linen has been named Best Rental Service Provider. To celebrate its 35th anniversary this year, the company is diving deep into 35 things that motivate and excite them every month on its blog. They’re also continuing to add new products as fast as they can get their hands on them including, recently, gold and silver sequin table linens and cerise agate tablecloths.
The name aside, you don’t have to actually be good at golf to enjoy yourself at Topgolf, this year’s Best Team-Building winner. There are two locations in Illinois: The Naperville venue can host up to 1,200 guests, while the Wood Dale space has room for up to 1,000. New this year is a competition called Top Contender available only to events and leagues. “Our big focus is creating the best times of your life,” says Mary Sprow, director of sales for the Naperville location. “We want to create moments that matter.”
We all need to get somewhere, and Windy City Limousine can take you there—whether it be in a Tesla, an Escalade or a 55-passenger motor coach (plus more than 300 other options). Voted Best Transportation, the company chauffeurs clients around for corporate events, simple airport transfers and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Chicago Athletic Association
The Classic Spots
Just two-and-a-half hours from Chicago is Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa atop 6,800 acres of rolling hills in Galena. “It’s a totally different world out here,” says Colin Sanderson, director of sales and marketing. “It’s an unbelievable place.” This beauty helped contribute to the resort’s win for Best Conference or Resort Venue, with 15,000 square feet of meeting space. Last year, they completed a renovation of the resort, capping off a four-year project.
While many people leave their workouts behind on vacation, not so in the case at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel this year’s Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (Less than 350 Guest Rooms). Leaning into its name, the 241-room hotel has launched a number of new fitness programs, including personal trainers and athletic breaks for groups. “We’ve worked to mindfully reshape the face of loyalty in the hospitality community and of those in the area,” says Patrick Hatton, general manager. “The team has crafted a docket of inclusive, accessible and historic programs where everyone belongs, and the spirit of play never ends.”
Palmer House Hilton in Chicago just celebrated its 147th year. But this Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (More than 350 Guest Rooms) winner definitely isn’t stuck in the past, becoming more tech savvy with a scheduled HSIA upgrade that will give it the fastest Wi-Fi in Illinois with support for more users and traffic. “The Palmer House continues to add technological advances, making it as up to date as any hotel built within the last 10 years,” says Detraiter Love, director of catering and events. “The hotel has a philosophy of change for the purpose of growth.”
Located on the second floor of Little Goat, its private event space that holds 40 seated and 75 reception-style allows guests to watch all of the food—including favorites like shrimp and cheesy grits—cooked live. “We have a very unique space,” says Tiffany Pruitt, private events and catering coordinator of this year’s Best Private Dining Space in a Restaurant. “It almost operates as renting out someone’s apartment.”
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is a staple in our Best of readers’ choice awards. This year, they’re bringing home Best Venue outside Chicagoland. “We position ourselves as the ultimate all-season resort offering exceptional accommodations, exciting amenities and activities, and delicious dining,” says Brad Lyles, director of sales and marketing. “The resort is not only a must-visit Midwestern destination, but one for the whole country.” Located 90 minutes outside of Chicago, the 355-room resort sits on 1,300 acres of land and even has its own airport.
The Fresh Ideas
The Marriott Marquis Chicago in the South Loop took its location seriously when it came time to decorate the 1,205-room hotel, which likely helped it win Best New Venue. (The 93,000 square feet of event space doesn’t hurt either.) “One of the things that differentiates our hotel from many around the city is that it’s really Chicago-centric,” says Cindy Ruchman, director of sales and marketing. There are curated pieces from 30 local artists that feature QR codes, allowing guests to get information on the artwork; guest rooms feature artwork of Chicago bridges and graffiti pieces. The hotel has hosted famous Chicagoans since its September 2017 opening, including President Obama and Jennifer Hudson.
Only a few years ago, Theater on the Lake was a dilapidated 100-year-old building that sat lost on the shores of Lake Michigan in Lincoln Park. Today, the completely gutted and rehabbed venue, which opened last September, has floor-to-ceiling windows, an outdoor veranda, an impressive stage, a modern bar area and space for 1,500 people—all with unparalleled views of the lakeshore. For good reason, they’ve won Best Renovation. “We tried to create a place for Chicago to be proud of,” says John Wrenn, president of Lakefront Hospitality Group, which led the renovation. “We created something that people enjoy and that feels right.”
The Outside-the-Box Venues
Looking to host your event in a scholarly location? The 30,000-square-foot Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum at UIC is your best bet, named Best College or University Venue. Aside from rentals, the venue also hosts a number of events itself. This year that includes the Good Food Trade Show, a discussion with political pundit Ana Navarro, Baconfest and more.
SUE the T. rex guarded the hall of the Field Museum (celebrating its 125th anniversary this year), for 18 years, but their reign has come to an end. A cast of the largest dinosaur ever discovered will take their place. Fans need not worry: SUE is not leaving, only moving to a private exhibition gallery within this year’s Best Historic or Cultural Venue. “The move is a great opportunity because the main hall is now a new event space that gets everyone’s attention,” says Ellyn Nugent, manager of special events. “We’ve been around for 125 years and now we’ll be the new kid again.”
Kehoe Designs pops up again this year in an unexpected category: Best Holiday Party Venue for The Geraghty, the venue Kehoe opened almost three years ago and named in honor of his mom. “The holidays harken of joy, child-like wonder and spirited celebrations,” says Kehoe, “and these feelings permeate every experience at The Geraghty.”
This year’s Best Nightlife Event Venue sits on the corner of Michigan Avenue with views of the Chicago skyline and the Chicago River. “The overall experience is something you won’t forget,” says John Belter, director of food and beverage. “An event at the LH Rooftop will go down as one of the handful of events you remember months or even years later.” The 3,500-square-foot space can host up to 300, and the Cupola can hold 15.
Chicago may have more meeting and event space than anyone could ever need, but sometimes you need to get away and take in the great outdoors. That’s where the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe comes in. “Our location is stunning,” says Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor experience and business development. “There is nothing quite like us in the Chicagoland area.” Fittingly winning Best Outdoor or Rooftop Venue, the 385-acre garden has space for up to 1,500 people across a number of indoor and outdoor spaces.
There’s no place like Chicago in the summer, especially with the resplendent Lake Michigan where some of the best events can take place atop any of the Odyssey Chicago cruises, winner of Best Venue on the Water. “When you think water in Chicago, you think Odyssey,” says Gia Skiba, corporate team leader. “The ship is a well-known location to celebrate personal and professional special occasions.” In 2018, the ship is expanding to the river with a glass-enclosed vessel that will travel from Chinatown to Goose Island.