Minnesota has so many venues, hotels and destinations, you could stay here forever and still not visit them all. But sometimes, it’s good to get away. And by “get away,” we mean leave the state and travel to South Dakota on a good old-fashioned road trip. With Interstate 90 as our guide and Rapid City as our final destination, we’re cruising through Mankato and Sioux Falls, passing a number of must-see stops along the way. So hop in and join us on a route that will take us to one of America’s most iconic attractions, a drugstore with free ice water and sweets from a Top Chef contestant.
Our starting point is Mankato, just a short drive from Minneapolis. And while some might think the town is small and plain, the community begs to differ.
“A lot of people don’t understand that Mankato isn’t a Little House on the Prairie community anymore,” says Anna Thill, president of Visit Mankato. “The perception people have is we’re this little podunk in the prairie, and we’re actually quite metro and urban.”
Thill is right. The city is much more than what some people might imagine. To start with, City Center—a thriving community of sorts in the middle of the city—is surrounded by shops, restaurants and living areas. It’s really the heart of the city and ups the ante in terms of modern things to do and places to visit.
City Center Campus—which is comprised of the Verizon Wireless Center, Hilton Garden Inn and City Center Hotel—is smack dab in the middle of this bustling area with more than enough space for any event. In total, there are 75,000 square feet of space with a 2,000-seat auditorium and 25 meeting rooms.
Currently undergoing a renovation and expansion, the center will be even more of an attraction come later this year.
Connected to the center are 269 guest rooms made up of a number of hotels. Mankato City Center Hotel, which takes up 150 of those rooms, has seating for up to 400 guests and has 10,000 square feet of meeting and event space, all of which can be separated into six separate rooms.
Also connected to the center is the Hilton Garden Inn Mankato Downtown. The hotel has five meeting rooms (fitting up to 40 in one space), and boasts views of the Minnesota River and a direct connection to the convention center.
Mankato also has some unique team-building activities. Old Town Escape is a type of live-action entertainment wherein a group of four to eight people gets locked in a room with a puzzle they must solve to receive the key and escape from the room within 60 minutes. Something of a rage right now, it’s what we like to call an out-of-the-box idea (pun definitely intended).
CityArt Mankato is another great way for your group to bond without partaking in anything stale. The program brings art to the streets and community, and includes a Walking Sculpture Tour; the path is different each year and those interested simply follow the map themselves.
“We have a population that is not quite as large as Rochester or St. Cloud, but we attract a lot of different folks to this community for all sorts of reasons,” says Thill. “On the tourism side, we mirror the state of Minnesota as far as active outdoor adventures. People flock to our community for the opportunity to be out in nature.”
If your road trip includes some outdoor action in Mankato, you must check out the Rapidan Dam Store, which has been featured in Martha Stewart magazine and specializes in homemade pies and burgers. “It’s a great little stop to make,” says Thill. “You can see the dam and get right up close to the river. It’s a short drive out of the community, but it’s super fun.”
Created in 2012, the Mankato Brewery is a perfect place to unwind. Its brewery area is available for large group rentals with the capability of hosting up to 200 guests. These events also can include tastings and there often is live entertainment and tastings. A plus of Mankato is its walkability, and if someVerizon Wireless Center is a perfect place to unwind. Its brewery area is available for large group rentals with the capability of hosting up to 200 guests. These events also can include tastings and there often is live entertainment and tastings.
A plus of Mankato is its walkability, and if some thing isn’t in walking distance, Visit Mankato can coordinate transportation so groups don’t ever have to worry about driving. “We’re not Minneapolis,” says Thill. “Everything can be close for all of those different experiences.”
This fall, the city is enacting a “show your badge” program. Conventiongoers can opt into the program to receive badges that will get them discounts at a number of retailers.
Whether you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, a cultural experience or really just a visit to a new town, Mankato is definitely worth the trip.
“Mankato is not well known, and we really do pride ourselves on service and making sure we’re providing a great experience,” says Thill. “That’s what people are looking for. They want to know they’re going to have a good time and they’re getting as much out of it as possible.”
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
“When I think of a road trip, I think of somewhere I can drive anywhere in town and go somewhere I can’t go in my hometown,” says Krista Orsack, CMP, director of marketing for the Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In Sioux Falls there are so many unique places, you can pull over on any street.”
One such unique stop is the city’s SculptureWalk, a collection of 55 outdoor sculptures from artists that are placed downtown and rotate every year in May. Visitors can walk around and go on tours to see all of the artwork, ultimately voting for their favorite, which will go on permanent display after the year is up.
Another sculpture project is the Arc of Dreams, a monument that will have two massive arcs rising from opposite sides of the Big Sioux River. The project just finished fundraising and is slated for completion in 2017.
The city also is a great destination for outdoor activity, perfect for those looking to stretch their legs after long periods in the car. An absolute must is the 123-acre Falls Park, from where the city gets its name. Located on the north side of downtown, it’s quick to get to (as is anything in the city—everything is just a five-minute walk away) and features multiple historic buildings such as a seven-story mill and an old horse barn that is being renovated into the Stockyards Ag Experience Barn.
A 19-mile trail that loops around the city (users don’t even have to cross a single street) is perfect for bikers, runners and walkers. Orsack notes this blend of culture and nature is what makes Sioux Falls stand out. “You have that scenery and city vibe, but [the city] isn’t so big that it’s not a genuine, peaceful road trip,” she says.
And while the unique stops and activities are, of course, a favorite of any road trip, we have to get down to the nitty-gritty—the city’s meetings and events options.
The big event attraction is the Sioux Falls Convention Center, which is attached to the Sioux Falls Arena and Denny Sanford Premier Center. Combined together, these spaces make up 132,000 square feet of flexible space, featuring 12 breakout rooms. Conveniently, the 243-room Sheraton Sioux Falls & Convention Center has six meeting spaces encompassing 4,000 square feet.
There are 57 other hotels in the area, making up 4,947 rooms across the city. The newest is the Hilton Garden Inn Sioux Falls Downtown, located on the Big Sioux River Greenway. The hotel has a restaurant, CRAVE, which overlooks the river. The hotel also has over 7,000 square feet of event space smack dab in the middle of the downtown area.
Local restaurants abound in the area, and many have private event space.
Foleys, an upscale steakhouse, serves up dishes such as tuna tartare, pork osso bucco and Chilean sea bass. The 12-year-old restaurant can host events in its main dining and lounge areas and also has two additional spaces—an executive boardroom and a banquet room. The executive boardroom can host up to 30 people and has a television and laptop access. The banquet room can fit up to 100 guests and features customized menus.
Situated right on the Big Sioux River, the more laid-back, but equally charming, Falls Overlook Café is one of the best ways to soak in all Sioux Falls has to offer. The building, which is a restored hydroelectric plant from 1908, has seating for 100 and can fit 200 reception-style.
After dining in any one of the city’s restaurants, visiting CH Patisserie is mandatory. While it doesn’t have private space, it’s a staple of the area and will satisfy even those who don’t have a sweet tooth. Chris Hanmer, Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts season two winner helms the sweets shop.
Sioux Falls’ adherence to local businesses is what makes it so unique. “We can all say that we have that Midwestern type of feeling, and it holds true, but here it’s something different,” she says. “Our vibe is so different.”
If you’re staying for a few nights, one of the city’s breweries or wineries is a must. Strawbale Winery features a tasting room and gift shop made out of actual straw bales. It serves more than 20 wines, has an indoor meeting area that can accommodate 12-50 people and tents for outside.
Fernson Brewing Co. is a relatively new, local brewery that is opening a new tasting room this summer. There are regularly six core types of beers, and a number of others that are limited releases. The taproom can hold two to 200 people and, clearly, beer is available to drink, but wine also is an option.
As to why Sioux Falls is the perfect destination for planners looking to venture outside the comfort of their own city? Orsack points to the growth taking place in the area.
“Planners like to see a town of our size developing, and ours is still going to be clean, safe and attractive,” she says. “It’s getting to the point where we have so many things going on that people really have a hard time deciding what to do.”
Rapid City, South Dakota
After biking through Sioux Falls and taking in as much art as possible, we’ll jump back in the car and find ourselves in Rapid City—the second largest city in South Dakota.
“It’s just one of those cities that has such great pride,” says Julie Jensen, executive director and vice president of the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have all of the typical things a city would have, but we’ve gone the extra step to make our downtown amazing.”
That downtown area Jensen mentions is the Main Street Square, a public place situated in the heart of the city. The space is versatile, with fountains in the summers and an ice skating rink in the winter. Just hanging out in the area, you can see artists creating sculptures and special events like concerts and movie nights.
But what Rapid City is truly known for is its proximity to state parks. “South of Rapid City, just 23 minutes away, is Mount Rushmore, which is obviously an iconic attraction,” she says. “And one no one would want to miss.”
She recommends spending half a day there and also visiting Crazy Horse Memorial—a mountain carving in the Black Hills. Currently under construction, it will be the world’s largest sculpture upon completion. Also nearby is Custer State Park, full of elk, buffalo and sheep. Cave spelunking can also be found in the area.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—Rapid City is surrounded by six national parks. “We have a lot going on—a lot of city pride,” she says. “And that’s just for the leisure travel.”
While meeting and event space won’t take your breath away quite like Mount Rushmore will, the spaces in Rapid City come pretty close.
Rushmore Plaza Civic Center is just two blocks from Main Street Square. “It’s not stuck in the boonies, it’s right in the heart of Rapid City,” says Jensen. “It’s a pretty amazing facility.”
The gargantuan venue has four separate areas: Don Barnett Arena, which has 34,500 square feet of space that can fit anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 attendees, depending on the area’s setup; the Ice Arena, which has space for 5,000 to 7,000 and features a number of suites, all of which can hold eight to 20; a theater with two floors that can sit up to 1,745; and the 250,000-square-foot convention space, which has more than 12 different rooms. Rushmore Hall has 40,000-plus square feet of space, LaCroix Hall has 15,000 and the other meeting rooms can host anywhere from 10 to 450 attendees.
Better yet, the center is surrounded by a number of hotels, including The Rushmore Hotel & Suites, which was known as the Adoba Hotel up until mid-March and has 5,000 square feet of event space.
The 143-room Hotel Alex Johnson is just three blocks from the civic center and has a certain charm. Reputedly haunted, the hotel has been on Ghost Hunters and even has ghost adventures packages, which include a stay in a paranormal room and one ghost detector. The hotel has five different spaces that range in size from 30 people to 200 in a variety of setups.
Jensen recommends two out-of-the-box venues for planners looking for something other than your standard restaurant or hotel.
The Dahl Arts Center, filled with western South Dakota finds, stands out from your run-of-the-mill meeting room and provides you with the opportunity to view art you might not see anywhere else. There are a number of spaces for rent. One such is the 3,000-squarefoot-plus John T. Vucurevich Event Center, which has standing capacity of 468 and seating capacity of 280. Galleries and art rooms are also available for meetings and events. One room uses the Cyclorama of American Economic History mural as a backdrop and another features art from up-and-coming artists. There truly is something for everyone.
Similar to the Dahl, the Journey Museum and Learning Center provides visitors with a number of galleries and rooms for events. But the standout point of the museums is the 5 acres of South Dakota Native Gardens—there are endless possibilities with that amount of land. Indoors, you can find four different spaces. The Stanford Adelstein Gallery can hold 200 reception-style, 144 seated and 250 for standing receptions; the Wells Fargo Theater has space for 143 and a screen from which to play videos; the Joe Rovere Library can host up to 50 theater-style or 40 at tables; and the Boardroom has space for 15.
For those looking to travel the U.S., Rapid City has always been high on the list—Mount Rushmore is one of the most iconic attractions in the nation. But in the past years, the city has worked effortlessly to modernize and improve, making it more attractive to guests and meeting planners.
“We’ve just made [Rapid City] a really great destination for convention planners,” says Jensen. “We’ve made it a destination and a place people want to be.”