Readers' Choice Best Of Winners

Anyone who’s worked with meetings and events professionals knows they can be a pretty wild bunch at times. So, it’s no surprise this year voters chose the wildest place in the state, the MINNESOTA ZOO, as Best Attraction. This Apple Valley site hosts many corporate and social events each year, allowing attendees to enjoy exclusive glimpses of animals, or even participate in a private showing of the World of Birds Show to see magnificent birds of prey.

"We’re the Goldilocks audio-visual company-not too small, not too big," says Josh Reitan, owner of AV FOR YOU, the voters’ choice for Best Audio-Visual/Visual Presentation Provider. Reitan’s firm, which has won this category for four years running, specializes in 50- to 1,000-person shows, fundraisers and annual benefits. "We have incredibly low staff turnover, and many customers who have been with us for years," says Reitan. "So, that means that we gain a great understanding of what our customers need."

With a fleet of luxury yachts that cruise in three seasons, AL & ALMA’S SUPPER CLUB AND CHARTER CRUISES was the readers’ top pick for Best Boats/Cruises/Charters. Lake Minnetonka’s largest and most experienced fleet can accommodate a group as large as 400 on cruises as long as three hours. With expansive lake views and a strong attention to detail, the company promises, "exceptional service in an unforgettable setting."

The voters’ choice for Best Catering Company (On- or Off-Site) was MINTÁHOE CATERING & EVENTS, one of the biggest privately owned catering and event companies in the state. As the operator of some of the most popular venues in Minnesota, the company caters events at locations that include local hot spots like St. Paul’s A’BULAE and Minneapolis’ Van Dusen Mansion, as well as more out-of-the way settings like Château at Medicine Lake and Saint Croix National. With mouthwatering cuisine, unique event spaces and outstanding customer service, Mintáhoe makes a memorable mark with clients, and the same can be said for our voters.


It’s a brand-new category, but an age-old favorite. This year, the MINNESOTA STATE FAIR was chosen as Best Event. For Amy Leyden, director of marketing and sales for the McNamara Alumni Center, her choice as a voter was clear. "We go as part of our family tradition-it’s guaranteed food and fun," she says. "But since I work at an event venue for my job, I completely appreciate the logistics of orchestrating an event with so many people." According to Lara Hughes, the fair’s communications supervisor, "Even though people already love the fair, there are always ways to make things better," she says. "The planning never stops, and we work all year long to prepare for the next year’s fair, with the goal of providing the best family entertainment and complete guest satisfaction."

The days of décor being nothing more than centerpieces are long over, so meeting and event planners rely on Minneapolis-based company METROCONNECTIONS, voted No. 1 in the Best Event Décor category, for its extensive stock of fixtures, wall treatments, furniture and more. The firm’s designers and production staff also create custom-designed event environments for customers’ unique requirements.

Known for its consistently full blooms and uniformity from every angle, FESTIVITIES was voted Best Florist this year. "Clients actually get more bloom for their dollar with us," says owner Jennifer Braun. "Our designs aren’t just a recipe of a certain number of stems that are then filled with greenery to reach the selected size. Festivities’ designers guide clients to flower selections that maximize their budget to truly get the look they want."

In business for 24 years, LINEN EFFECTS won this year for Best Rental Service Provider. "We enjoy a critical mass of very loyal event planners in town who really appreciate our service and selection," says Kurt Silton, general manager. The locally owned and managed company specializes in high-end items to adorn elegant tables. From its beginnings as a supplier of linens, the company now offers everything from a set of custom-made chandeliers to 25 different kinds of candelabras. Plus, promises Silton, "You will never see a stainless steel table number holder at one of our events."

In the brand-new category of Best Social Media Presence (CVB, Venue or Company), MADDEN’S ON GULL LAKE proved that even a resort that has been drawing vacationers for more than 85 years can master the nuances of communicating in a new era. A recent success combined a quintessential summer activity, golf, with that Minnesota weather inevitability- snow. According to Kathy Reichenbach,Madden’s marketing director, "We created a video to promote our new caddy program and walking initiative, and it featured our golf pros, dressed as caddies, and standing knee-deep in the snow. The video was picked up and broadcast on the Golf Channel, and then received mentions in Golf Digest and Golfweek."

This was METROCONNECTIONS’ year to shine, claiming Best Transportation as its second winning category. Transportation may not be the most glamorous aspect of meeting and event operation, but it needs to run flawlessly no matter what. Voters clearly enjoy the ride when working with this organization, which recently transported 30,000 people between 90 hotels, a conference center and sightseeing tours for one client in one day.

Sheree Bochenek, creative director at Après Party and Tent Rental, voted for G.L. BERG ENTERTAINMENT, PERFORMING ARTISTS & SPEAKERS as Best Entertainment (Performer or Talent Agency) because of Owner and CEO Gary Berg’s knowhow within the industry. "I’ve been working on a committee for the International Special Events Society (ISES), and I’ve gotten to know Gary Berg through that group," says Bochenek. "We’ve booked him to speak at events, and he’s been very willing to offer his expertise and share his knowledge with colleagues," she says. Berg says, "We’ve won this award four times before, which is fantastic. It’s especially great since we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, which is quite an achievement in our industry." When asked to describe his company, which has a roster of entertainers that includes everything from salsa bands to dueling guitar acts, Gary chooses three words: "trusted, dependable and fun."

With team-building events that include game shows, giveback events, chili cook-offs and garage wars, it’s clear why METROCONNECTIONS was voted Best Team-Building Activity/Facilitator/Organizer, completing a three-peat in winning categories. The company, which has offices in Minneapolis and Orlando, also works with customers to create personalized team-building activities that are themed to customer goals and culture. metroConnections strives to create indelible events, which aligns with their tagline: "This is where memories are made."

Kristen Montag, marketing communications manager for MEET MINNEAPOLIS, knows 2014 is going to be a big year for Minneapolis events, but she is happy to look back for a moment at some reasons why her organization was the top choice for Best Convention + Visitors Bureau (Town/Area More than 25,000 in Population). "We’re well known for our large and experienced staff, as well as our strong relationships with the City of Minneapolis, convention center, hotels, restaurants, attractions and service partners." Montag adds, "We have a huge year coming up, and many events will bring thousands of people and attention to the area."

When Richard Polipnick started his position as executive director for VISIT BRAINERD, the convention and visitors bureau had only 850 likes on Facebook. Now, they’re up to more than 10,000. For the second year in a row, the CVB has been named the Best Convention + Visitors Bureau (Town/Area Less than 25,000 in Population). According to Polipnick, the bureau’s growth has been achieved through "adherence to our strategic plan, quality posts and plenty of interaction," he says. "We want to be the go-to source for fun information in the area."

Lauren Falk, owner of LAUREN B PHOTOGRAPHY, says she approaches her work with a focus on "telling a story, preserving a moment and creating art." This approach earned her recognition as Best Photography/Videography by appreciative voters. "I use a variety of styles to bring all the beauty and potential into the images," says Falk. "And I help clients look both amazing in a totally relaxed, fun setting."

 

GRAND VIEW LODGE came out on top in three categories this year, but its first award was, no surprise, Best Golf Venue. With three top-rated championship courses, the resort offers plenty of variety and flexibility for a golf-focused meeting or event.

For the seventh time, the downtown HILTON MINNEAPOLIS was awarded Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (More than 300 Guest Rooms). John Luke, the property’s general manager, shares one big reason: The property was designed after consultation with local industry leaders. "We’re a meetings and events hotel that was designed by meetings and events professionals," he says. The largest hotel in Minnesota, it also boasts the largest ballroom, at 25,000 square feet, plus a major renovation of all 821 guest rooms is just wrapping up.

"Where Business Gets Done" is the tagline for the meetings team at THE SAINT PAUL HOTEL, voted Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (Less than 300 Guest Rooms). Minnesota’s landmark hotel is conveniently located in the heart of downtown St. Paul, bordering Rice Park and facing the Ordway. Last year, the hotel hosted more than 800 business meetings, conferences and banquets, and welcomed another 200 groups visiting the Twin Cities.

This year, ARIA dominated in the Best Meeting/Event Space (No Hotel) category. Since opening in 2012, it’s been the go-to location for fun, funky and artsy events, including the Hope Rocks Concert, Children’s Hospital Starry Night Gala and former Mayor R.T. Rybak’s New Year’s Eve Open House. An eclectic ambiance is a big part of the venue’s popularity, says Stephanie Guidera, sales manager, who cites the original brick walls, cavernous ceilings, crystal chandeliers, unique artwork and decadent furniture as part of what gives the space "Old-World elegance with New-World chic, so our attendees can enjoy a contemporary experience within a historic context."

In addition to loving its golf offerings, voters also declared GRAND VIEW LODGE to be the Best Resort with Meeting/Event Space. Frank Soukup, director of marketing, notes meeting and event professionals especially appreciate the resort’s year-round appeal. "We’ve got a wide range of activities for every season," he says, listing everything from summer favorites like 2,500 feet of sandy beach, golf and pontoon excursions to wintertime dog sledding and ice fishing tournaments.

SEVEN takes home Best Restaurant/Bar with Private Dining Space this year, and when asked why he thinks his restaurant was selected, David Koch, chief manager, says, "I can only tell you what I hear, and we’re often told that we have high-quality product, great menu variety and spacious rooms. Most importantly, we’ve gotten a reputation for exceeding people’s expectations for a great event." He notes planners appreciate the flexibility of a space that has private rooms of various sizes that can accommodate groups of 24, 70, 125 and 150, with 1,500 seats in the entire venue. "We just did an event for 800 this past fall, and that’s really something we can pull off with ease," he says.

GRAND VIEW LODGE also picked up a nod in the category of Best Venue Outside of the Twin Cities Metro Area. The resort, which has been operating on Gull Lake in Nisswa for 98 years, was the voting choice of Dick Whitbeck, musical director of the band Synergy. "I was first there as a guest at a wedding, and thought it was just a gorgeous location," he says. Later, Synergy was booked for a gig at the resort, and Whitbeck found new reasons to appreciate the location. "It was a great place to perform, and the staff was so helpful and pleasant," he says. "Synergy plays 80 to 100 events every year, and we’ve performed in just about every venue around the state, but we all really appreciated the wonderfully woodsy, wilderness vibe up there."