Small Meeting Spaces in the West

By: Linda Hagen Miller

From the Colorado Rockies to the Aloha State, the Western United States is big, bold, and spacious. And despite its grandeur, it's perfect for your next small meeting. (Titled "Wide-Open Spaces for Small Meeting Places" in print version.)

Looking to locate your next small meeting west of the Mississippi? Association planners who think outside of big cities like Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco will be rewarded with meeting sites brimming with local color and hospitality. The diverse Western landscape is more than just scenery: Your attendees can experience everything from a tropical paradise to powdery snow to moments in North American history.

Stormy Skies? No Problem

Tell your attendees to pack a slicker and prepare for rain. And assure them this is a good thing. From October through March, Oregon's Cannon Beach, 70 miles west of Portland, is one of the world's most magical rainy-weather destinations under regular stormy skies and frothy waves. Once summer fades to autumn, throngs of visitors depart and the artsy beach town takes on a calm that invites leisurely shopping and chatting up the locals over a glass of Oregon wine or a bowl of steaming chowder.

Meet and stay at one venue, Surfsand Resort for a window to a wide beach studded with monoliths, including the iconic 235-foot high Haystack Rock. Sleeping rooms have ocean views, fireplaces, bold décor, and whimsical art.

"Surfsand offers the ultimate in a beach experience," says Maggie Vohs, event director for the American Public Works Association. "The ballroom on the top floor is enclosed in large windows that allow beautiful views of the ocean. Fortunately for meeting facilitators, these awesome windows also have curtains when you need to remove the distractions of nature."

The ballroom accommodates 80 to 250 attendees, while the hotel's intimate Haystack Gardens, a one-acre parklike setting with an 806-square-foot banquet room, accommodates 24 to 60 people.

High-Tech Hub, Hidden Gems

Tips for planning your small meeting

No two events are alike, but two Western planning experts have some universal advice for making your next small meeting a success.

Below, Pat Moloney, founder and president of TMN Events in Boise, Idaho, and Wendi Haught, CMP, CTA, principal, Framework Meetings and Destinations, LLC in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, have four tips each for planning your small meeting.

Keep in touch. Once you have established your local hotel contact, nurture it. Small meetings do not have as much leverage as large groups and you need to have a solid, positive relationship with the lodging representative.

Crunch the numbers early. Do what you can to provide the hotel with solid food and beverage revenue. This can offset low numbers and reduce the overall room rate.

Disclose future plans. If it's appropriate, let the hotel know that future business may be in store if your clients like the venue.

Upgrade your primary client as much as possible. Do everything you can to have the hotel upgrade your client's lodging and provide extra amenities. The small things can mean repeat business for everyone.

—Pat Moloney

Be strategic. Use the small meeting as a type of site visit by placing it in a location or venue you may be considering for a larger meeting or event. You will get a better idea of the quality of location, food and beverage, service levels, and any possible pitfalls by trying it on a smaller scale first.

Be careful. Smaller meetings occasionally get overrun by larger events happening in the same vicinity. Before you book, ask your venue contact what other groups are in over the same dates. You may want to consider alternative dates.

Be flexible. If you can shift your meeting to alternate dates or times, it may open up some cost savings or alternate venue options. Do not schedule your meeting agenda too tightly—some of the most creative and productive meetings happen when there is time for fun and free-form discussions.

Be creative. By keeping your options open you may find some of the most memorable venues to hold your small meeting. Private boats, rustic cabins, and other venues like private homes or unoccupied business suites can present meetings your attendees will talk about for years to come.

—Wendi Haught

Serene escapes are a constant in the West, where you can find tranquility even in the center of big-city chaos. When an aging canine mascot greets you at the door and you see guests wheeling their bicycles through the lobby, it's hard to believe you are next door to Washington's "Silicon Forest," home to Microsoft and Nintendo.

The Willows Lodge in Woodinville, 30 minutes from downtown Seattle, may seem like an anomaly in this high-tech, high-energy corridor—until you realize the whole area is an oddity. This may be geek central, but it's also the epicenter of western Washington's wine country. Entertain your small group with a wine tasting, featuring samples from the 60 local wineries and tasting rooms like the venerable Columbia Winery and 75-year-old Chateau Ste. Michelle. Both are within walking distance of Willows Lodge.

The 84-room Willows Lodge oozes Pacific Northwest style with an oversized stone fireplace and reclaimed timber beams in the lobby. With 5,153 square feet of meeting space that includes fragrant garden venues, the Willows can accommodate up to 180. Attendees can take advantage of the inn's state-of-the-art high ropes challenge course and end the day with a visit to the spa or stroll to a nearby winery or the Red Hook Brewery.

More Than Just Potatoes

Sun Valley, Idaho, lives up to its reputation as a snow sports nirvana, so association planners are sometimes surprised to learn it's a four-season destination with several meeting facilities and an array of after-hours possibilities. Because winter's powdery slopes attract thousands of people and room demand rises accordingly, consider this town's other seasons. Ketchum, the walkable village at the base of Sun Valley's Bald Mountain, has perfected year-round recreation with more than 30 art galleries, at least 60 restaurants, snazzy shops, numerous outdoor concerts and easy access to golf, biking, hiking, horseback riding, and fishing.

"Sun Valley is our favorite for meetings," says Pat Moloney, president of Meeting Network Events, a company that books cities and venues across the United States. "The resort and town of Ketchum are tucked away in the beautiful Wind River Valley, so there just aren't a lot of distractions—besides the beautiful country—and the environment offers better opportunities to interact on a personal basis, to experience those teachable moments that close interface produces."

The Sun Valley Resort blends all of the above with state-of-the-art meeting facilities and a notable history. In 1935, railroad tycoon Averell Harriman sent Count Felix Schaffgotsch on a mission to travel the United States and find a site for Harriman to build a world-class ski resort. Harriman's Sun Valley Resort opened the following year, and today a grand Old World feeling lingers in the décor.

A strong farm-to-table movement throughout the state of Idaho brings an ever-changing array of seasonal favorites to the menu, along with fresh Idaho trout, Blue Ribbon Artisans beef and fresh cheeses, Lava Lake Lamb, and Idaho lentils. Fly into Boise and take a Sun Valley Express shuttle for the 2.5-hour drive across Camas Prairie.

Venues Worthy of an Olympic Event

Home to Vancouver International Airport, Richmond, British Columbia is a melting pot of Asian cultures located 25 minutes from downtown Vancouver via the new Canada Line high-speed rail.

"It is sometimes difficult to make simple travel arrangements to other BC locations," says Vivian Fraser, president of the British Columbia Association of Health-Care Auxiliaries, which conducts board meetings for six to 16 people and provincial conferences for up to 300. "Richmond saves time and money."

The city's out-of-the-box venues are where it shines for small meetings. Imagine convening at the Olympic Oval, the stunning $178 million venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics speed skating competition. Today the Oval offers high-tech meeting spaces plus team-building opportunities ranging from an indoor rowing room to ice skating.

Showing the scenery on a floating meeting space can be inspiring and exciting for your attendees. To list the square footage at the UBC Boathouse (2,640) doesn't do it justice. Floating on the Fraser River with views of the North Shore Mountains, the working boathouse builds cooperation through team-building exercises like paddling rowing skiffs or dragon boats.

The fish smell is long gone in the historic Gulf of Georgia Cannery, but walking along the replicated "slime line" is a fascinating glimpse into the late 1800s. Meeting space includes a 55-seat theater next to the cannery's original boilers and the outdoor Tank Farm Deck.

A Golden Meeting Opportunity

Even closer to a major airport is Golden, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and just 16 miles east of Denver. The city gets its name not for the gold rush that put it on the map in 1859 but for Tom Golden, who panned for treasure in the nearby Clear Creek Valley. Today the town of 17,000 feels more hometown than high-velocity, which makes it a novel and rewarding small-meeting destination.

"Golden is a lovely, scenic Western town where you can find something to do year-round," says Carol Brinson of HealthGrades, Inc., an independent healthcare ratings organization that holds frequent training and sales meetings at the 74-room Table Mountain Inn. Table Mountain's adobe balconies jutting over Washington Avenue, Golden's main street, give the inn a toothy-smile exterior. Inside, the Kokopelli Room features a waterscape courtyard and space for groups of 80 to 100 with additional meeting rooms to accommodate 10 to 200.

Quench your attendees' thirst for local sights by checking out the Coors Brewery, which has been cranking out beer for more than 137 years. In the 1870s, Adolph Coors, a German immigrant with brewer experience, spent days combing Denver's foothills in search of "perfect water." He found it in Golden, and much to the delight of the thousands of miners working claims in the region, Adolph opened Coors Brewery in 1874. The brewery, Golden's ten museums, and Clear Creek's white-water kayak park and walking trails all provide authentic Colorado downtime activities.

With relatively mild winters, Golden is a year-round destination, but summer sees the most visitors. If your association is value shopping, shoot for November through January (excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's) for the best availability and rates.

Try Some Tropical Flavor

If Hawaii is on your meeting radar screen, consider taking a look at a charming inn that is, literally, above the distracting beach scene. On a mountain slope 1,400 feet above bustling Kona on the Big Island's west coast, the tiny village of Holualoa shuffles from past to present in true Aloha fashion. No glitz here—just a single street of plantation homes that have been converted into art galleries and boutiques.

Hidden on a 30-acre coffee estate just off the main street, the six-room Holualoa Inn is surrounded by lush gardens and sits on the site of one of the few remaining holuas on the island.  (Prior to the 1800s, when the practice ended, Hawaiians would fly down rock and pili grass flumes on sleds called holuas in a hair-raising test of manhood.)

Small in stature but big on hospitality, the Holualoa Inn can accommodate up to 40 people in theater seating in the great room and 20 delegates in the dining room. Food service spotlights seasonal Hawaiian fruits and Kona coffee.

If your meeting requires more than six sleeping rooms, the Sheraton Keauhou Bay, 20 minutes makai (toward the ocean), has welcomed guests for decades and offers 521 ocean, pool, and garden-view rooms. Every night guests can watch manta rays with 14-foot wingspans glide offshore, feeding on plankton. For a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, adventure seekers shuttle to the manta feeding site aboard the Manta Experience trimaran, don a snorkel, and swim above the harmless giants.

At 4,028 square miles, Hawaii is the largest of the islands, bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Pre- and post-meeting opportunities include Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, jungle zip lining, botanical gardens, waterfalls, luaus, black-sand beaches, and more.

Ready for your own Western adventure? You're sure to impress your staff and your small-meeting attendees with a fresh take on what the West has to offer, be it skiing, storm chasing, or sandy beaches. 

Linda Hagen-Miller is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Email: [email protected]

Linda Hagen Miller