There are myriad ways to find the best of something. In races, it’s timing. For pies, it’s taste testing, and students, it’s exams. For weightlifters it’s, well, lifting the most weights. And in football, it’s whoever scores the most points. For the meetings and events industry, we have you. You, our readers, come together and vote on what’s the best of the best in our state. You select your favorite caterers and florists. You pick the company who entertained you the most and the golf course links you couldn’t resist. You tell us where you like to win (and lose) money and the best place to watch sports.
And for this, we’re thankful, because without your selections, we’d be lost. Herewith, your picks for the cream of the crop in 2016.
Picking a venue can be a gamble, so you might as well choose one where you actually gamble, specifically Prior Lake-based Mystic Lake Casino Hotel. OK, that was a cheesy casino pun, but it fit. And even more fitting is the 25-year-old casino winning Best Casino. With 60,000 square feet of event space, 14 meeting rooms and 150,000 square feet of gambling, there’s plenty of room to roam. Excitingly, later this year the casino will open Mystic Lake Center—a 180-room hotel and 70,000-squarefoot convention center on the property.
There’s no event too small or too big for the Minneapolis Convention Center—it has space for small events of 30 to huge conventions and trade shows of 10,000. And for that, it’s been voted the Best Convention/ Conference Center—a new category this year. With more than 475,000 square feet of space across 87 rooms, the convention center is the largest in the upper Midwest.
It’s likely that most golf clubs don’t see thousands of people walk through its doors in one week’s time. But last September Hazeltine National Golf Club—this year’s Best Golf Venue—crushed that, seeing 290,000 guests for the Ryder Cup, a national men’s golf competition. “Hazeltine’s championship résumé demonstrates that we deliver superb results for the world’s most high-profile events, but the club also prides itself on providing a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere,” says Ruth Glaser, senior director, sales and marketing. While Hazeltine is a private club, its meeting and event space is open to the public. The clubhouse features nine spaces that range in size from small meeting spaces to a ballroom that can fit up to 400 guests.
In one form or another, what is now known as the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, The Depot has been a Minneapolis landmark. The Milwaukee Road Depot train station opened 1899 and operated through 1971. It went vacant until 1999 when the first hotel opened. Now it’s a complex of two hotels, an event venue and ice rink. Such versatility has helped the Marriott hotel win this year’s title of Best Historic or Cultural Venue. “[Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, The Depot] is a centerpiece for the community,” says Michael Clark, managing director. “There is almost no one that doesn’t know at least where we are or have an understanding of some piece of its complex.”
Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, The Depot is undergoing a renovation that has added 110 guest rooms in 2016 and the complex will add 27,000 square feet of meeting space in 2018. Events as large as 2,000 to as small as 10 can be hosted here, with the capability to host trade shows, weddings, fundraising galas and business meetings.
Surley Brewing Company
You can’t find a more convenient place for an event than Breezy Point Resort. Voted this year’s Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (More than 300 Guest Rooms), the resort has three golf courses, its own convention center, a boat with space for 100 passengers, four restaurants and a coffee shop, a brand-new spa, live entertainment and a private island. The hotel sits on 3,000 acres of land, has 25,000 square feet of meeting and event space, and boasts 344 rooms, made up of 180 guest rooms and suites as well as multiple-bedroom condos and cabins. “[Breezy Point] is a one-stop shop,” says Bonnie Stroinski, director of marketing and group services. “Everything is very convenient and handy.”
It seems as though Grand View Lodge always winds up a winner on Minnesota’s Best of list. This year, the entire property was honored, winning Best Hotel with Meeting/ Event Space (Less than 300 Guest Rooms) and Best Resort with Meeting/Event Space. “Grand View Lodge has become a fan favorite because of the consistent quality of services as well as the amenities our guests have to choose from,” says Cindy Baysinger, director of sales. Celebrating its 100th anniversary last year, the resort has two event centers with the largest being able to host up to 400 guests. Gull Lake Center has a ballroom with 6,400 square feet and six other meeting/event spaces; Norway Center has four meeting rooms.
On New Year’s Eve 2016, Aria celebrated its 5th birthday and now celebrates another accomplishment—a third time winning Best Meeting/Event Space (No Hotel). The 122-year-old, industrial-type building, the venue can host 450 guests seated and 1,000 reception-style and has unique features such as high ceilings, exposed brick walls and a catwalk system. Katey Naylor, director of events for the space, credits its success to the way it allows clients to dream up whatever they may want for an event. “The building has such a blank canvas for events,” she says. “Everyone sees the space a bit differently or has their own take on how they want to dress it up.”
On July 12, 2015, a huge storm hit the Brainerd Lakes area. It was so intense that it knocked out 40 percent of the resort at Madden’s on Gull Lake. Guest rooms, the dining room, meeting facilities, trees—all gone. And while the wreckage was incredibly severe, the work the resort put into fixing the mess resulted in a beautiful makeover that has won it Best Renovation. “It’s fun to have a new product to sell,” says Kathy Reichenbach, marketing director—including 85 new guest rooms. “We’ve just received wonderful comments about the reconstruction that we’ve done.” The project started in October 2015 and finished in May 2016, just in time for the property’s 88th anniversary.
While Surly Brewing Company has been a staple in the Twin Cities brewery scene for the last 10 years, it only opened up a restaurant and event space less than three years ago. But in that short amount of time, the company has enjoyed much success, evidenced by its win of Best Restaurant/Bar with Private Dining Space. Surly’s destination brewery has two event spaces: Scheid Hall, which can hold up to 175 guests, and the Private Dining Room at Brewer’s Table which can hold up to 20 guests. While each event hosted at the space is customized to that group, beer, of course, is always a staple. “The experience you get here is so tailored,” says Andrea Graham, senior events and brand experience manager. “We integrate Surly as much as possible, but it’s tailored in a way that makes sense for guests.”
The opening of U.S. Bank Stadium in July 2016 was arguably one of the most anticipated events for our state in recent memory— Minnesotans love their sports, no matter the record of our teams. It comes as no surprise, then, that the stadium is this year’s Best Sports Venue. Meeting and event options at the stadium are endless. On top of the sporting events that’ll take place at the stadium, planners can also host events with up to 70,000 people. What truly makes the stadium stand out is the five doors on the west side, which weigh 57,000 pounds and take 8 minutes to open.
Madden's on Gull Lake
Minneapolis has much to look forward to these next couple of years. It’ll host the summer X Games both this year and next. In 2018, it’ll also host Super Bowl LII and 2019 will see the NCAA Men’s Final Four competition. Much of that work can be attributed to Meet Minneapolis, this year’s Best Convention and Visitors Bureau (Town/Area More than 80,000 in Population). But its work isn’t done. Currently, the Meet Minneapolis staff is participating in a bid to bring Expo 2023 to Minnesota and working on Destination Transformation 2030—a tourism master plan with a mission to develop the state as a destination. “We have a very experienced and diverse staff that has been able to adapt to lots of changing circumstances,” says Melvin Tennant, president and CEO. “All of our team knows it’s important to reflect the needs and wants of the customer.”
About halfway between Brainerd and Minneapolis, you’ll find St. Cloud—a city largely known for the granite products it produces. But there’s more to the city than granite. Its convenient location allows it to blend big-city amenities found in Minneapolis with the small-town feel of Brainerd with 100 parks, numerous lakes, craft breweries and wineries to boot. The organization that helps bring events in and promotes the area— St. Cloud Area Convention and Visitors Bureau—is this year’s Best Convention and Visitors Bureau (Town/Area 25,000–80,000 in Population). “Greater St. Cloud and the CVB offer a welcoming relationship while being able to offer the services and luxuries of a huge community,” says Rachel Thompson, sales and services coordinator.
The city of Stillwater has received a number of accolades: Top 10 Prettiest Small Towns in America by Forbes; Favorite Day Trip by Women’s Resource Directory; and 100 Best Midwest Small-Town Getaways by Midwest Living. It’s also listed as a destination in the book 1,000 Places to See before You Die. And now, the city’s CVB—Discover Stillwater— can add Best Convention and Visitors Bureau (Town/Area Less than 25,000 in Population) to the list. “We’re a unique CVB,” says Christie Rosckes, marketing director. “We’re small and mighty but very friendly, helpful and welcoming.” The city—known as the birthplace of Minnesota—has 20 distinct venues, which planners can learn about through the CVB.
AVEX, Lauren B Photography
Brave New Workshop is taking home Best Entertainment (Performer or Talent Agency). Home to the nation’s longest-running comedy theater, BNW also provides corporate training and keynotes, emcee and entertainment services, and video production services. It uses the same highly skilled, uniquely qualified talent pool who appear on stage to create and perform live entertainment for clients and events. BNW custom tailors each improv or entertainment performance to the event and the audience to help the client achieve their goals. Creative directors go through a discovery process with the client, including a questionnaire and preparatory interview call to learn about the culture of the organization. That information is used to create specialized entertainment for the event. “It brings the laughter up to a whole new level, which is very nice,” says Sean Barnard, event and entertainment solutions manager. “It shows that the company cares about the employees.”
Laurie Falk McVean fell in love with photography in high school. That interest led her to college, working for an on-campus photographer, and finally to her first job after college with a wedding photographer. Now, she owns her own company—Lauren B Photography—that is this year’s Best Photography/Videography. While weddings and events are her main focus—she does about 15 to 20 weddings a year and 50 events—she also dabbles in headshots, portraits and theater work. “I love the variety that photography brings to my life,” she says. “I love the different places it brings me and different experiences. I do it to capture moments and preserve them.”
Best Planning Company is just one of three awards Minneapolis-based Event Lab is taking home this year. “We are a full-service event and destination management company, which means we need to be excellent at the design of an event, the décor we send out or rent for events and the transportation services we provide,” says Becky Harris, vice president. “Our staff is dedicated to making each of our services exceptional.” Harris notes that the company is one of the only in the Twin Cities—and across the country—to both design events and provide floral, linens and other design elements. It truly is a one-stop shop.
With more than 1,000 acres and 293 guest rooms, it’s clear Madden’s on Gull Lake has space for almost anything. And this space provides ample opportunities for teambuilding activities. These opportunities have won the resort Best Team-Building/Activity/ Facilitator/Organizer. The number of options available for such events can be overwhelming, which is why the resort has an on-site rec director to facilitate events. Guests can dabble in cooking competitions, mountain biking, Madden Olympics, trapshooting and myriad water activities. “We’ve got such a beautiful setting here, and you’re able to get out and really appreciate all we have as not just coworkers but a team in these events and activities,” says Reichenbach.
At many companies, there is bound to be some sort of conflict between employees, but at AVEX—which offers all of the event production and technology you may need (as well as in-house audio-visual for hotels and corporate clients)—that’s not the case. The 22-person team has a strong bond. “Working in the event business can be a thankless, hard job,” says Tim McVean, director of sales and marketing. “What makes it easier is when you know the team you work with has all got your back.” All that camaraderie and teamwork has earned the 14-year-old company this year’s Best Audio-Visual Provider. Even though AVEX has been crowned the winner, McVean heaps praise on all others in the industry. “We’re so lucky to work in the market we work in with the competitors and partners we have,” he says. “I have all of the good things to say about the people we compete with.”
In the midst of winter, it’s sometimes hard to remember that summer in Minnesota does exist—and there’s nothing better to do during those warm months than get on a boat and sail the many rivers and lakes our state offers. One such option is the 35-year-old St. Croix Boat & Packet/Stillwater River Boats, which is this year’s Best Boats/Cruises/Charters. Located in Stillwater, the family-owned business has a fleet of six boats, with the largest boasting a capacity of an astounding 675. From May through October, excursions run for two hours while private rentals can last up to four to six hours when including the time it’s docked. “The absolute beauty of the river and calming paddle wheel sound creates memories for many generations,” says Karina Peterson, marketing/event sales.
Some of the most popular venues in Minnesota have exclusive catering contracts with D’Amico Catering—Calhoun Beach Club, Mill City Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Art, to name a few. This exposure, as well as their commitment to global yet local food, has won it Best Catering Company (Onor Off-Site). And while the 25-year-old company, which opened in 1992, is relatively seasoned and could be content sticking to what’s tried and true, it’s always seeking out new and exciting ways to serve food. “Our experience in the industry is a huge benefit to our clients,” says Rachel Bruzek, senior creative event and trend specialist. “We constantly reinvent ourselves to stay on top of trends.”
The second of Event Lab’s three wins is Best Event Décor. While many décor companies have an inventory base they reuse over and over again for events they’re hired for, Event Lab is different. It understands that every soiree is unique and needs its own design and feel. In its inventory warehouse on-site, everything is crafted, repurposed and customized for each event. “We design each event uniquely—even if it’s a theme we have done before,” says Harris. And, décor isn’t all it does—the company also has three florists on staff. Chances are, if your event needs it, Event Lab has it.
Surviving 132 years is no mean feat. But for Bachman’s, this year’s Best Florist, it’s simple. The key is maintaining a close relationship with the client throughout the entirety of the planning and the event as a whole. “Our main goal at Bachman’s is to really help people plan an event or wedding that captures their overall vision of what they’re looking for,” says Jennifer Bevan, special events manager. “We’re very in tune with each client to capture their personality and style. We work pretty closely with them and put our personal touches.” No matter the size of the event, Bevan says, each client gets the same amount of attention and floral advice he or she needs. Here’s to 132 more.
Event Lab, Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, The Depot
Completing Event Lab’s hat trick is Best Rental Service. And just like its décor inventory, its rental inventory is immense—an indication that the company understands the importance of providing clients with their own materials. Its stock includes big and small props, furniture, stage sets, linens, chair covers, centerpiece options and so much more. And, if Event Lab doesn’t own it, it’ll make it, meaning events are inspired by the design and not what is in the warehouse. Many rental companies, on the other hand, will only rent clients what is currently in their warehouse. “Our inventory is vast, but if we do not own what is needed for the event, we will find it or build it,” says Harris. “We do not create events based on what we currently own. We create based on what is needed to fulfill the client’s needs.”
In 1987 one man set out with one car to do one thing—provide chauffeur-driven transportation for weddings, birthday parties and the like. Thirty years later, that one car turned into 50 chauffeur-driven vehicles and that one man turned into a staff of 75-plus. That man, Dave Murray, turned that one car into Total Luxury Limousine Services, which is now this year’s winner for Best Transportation. Its largest car is a 20-passenger stretched Cadillac Escalade and the largest motor coach accommodates 56 passengers; the smallest is a corporate sedan that can hold three passengers. Prices vary, but your final destination is almost limitless; its affiliate network has over 450 cities worldwide. If you want, one car could take you all the way from Minneapolis to Miami—you just have to pay the price. Charlie Murray, COO and Dave’s eldest son, credits their success and growth to their staff, whose dedication to customer service is bar none. “Our staff are some of the best in the business,” he says. “We strive to do our best to provide a consistent product and exceed people’s expectations.”