Smart. Artsy. Alive. The hallmarks of college towns—thriving downtowns, enviable cultural scenes, and the energy that comes with intellectual curiosity—make for some pretty livable places. Add mountain majesty to the mix and you’ve got some compelling destinations for meetings and events. The following trio of Western college towns fi ts the bill exactly along with several other communities worthy of consideration.
With a metro population of 100,000, Fairbanks is “the logical arctic hub,” says Helen Renfrew, director of meetings and conventions for Explore Fairbanks, the local convention and visitors bureau. “It’s the northernmost city that’s accessible by rail, air and road in the U.S.”
It also has Alaska’s flagship public university. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2017, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has nearly 10,000 students. “We have 2,800 yearround guest rooms, and not including UAF meeting space, we’ve got 175,000 square feet of meeting and event space in the community,” Renfrow says.
Fairbanks is also in the land of the midnight sun. “We have 70 straight days of daylight,” says Renfrew. “It doesn’t get dark in June and July, so that’s fantastic for events. You can golf under the midnight sun and go to a baseball game that starts at 10 p.m. and doesn’t need artificial lighting.”
Come wintertime, the days are as short as three hours and dog mushing, snowmobiling and skiing are popular. One of the big events is the World Ice Art Championships in late February/early March. Year-round, Fairbanks is an arts-focused town.
Renfrew says Explore Fairbanks often works with UAF on events, citing Arctic Science Summit Week in March 2016. The event drew about 1,000 attendees from all over the world.
“Participants represented 30 nations and more than 130 different institutions, and the events were designed to foster collaboration on Arctic research and policy,” says Carla Browning, UAF communications and events manager.
The university hosts more than 600 events a year, she shares, with the largest venue on campus a 900-seat auditorium. Conference rooms can accommodate up to 400 people, and the university offers shuttle service and some overnight lodging on its 2,250-acre campus.
Off campus, Fairbanks’ largest meeting space/conference hotel is the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel & Conference Center with 400 rooms and 17,000 square feet of meeting and event space.
Incline Village, Nevada
Home to Sierra Nevada College, Incline Village is a college-meets-resort town with a year-round calendar.
“Tahoe in general is a great spot for incentive meetings,” says Stephanie Dees, an account manager for DSC, a destination management company with an office in Incline Village. Groups of 100 to 200 people are “a great fit for the area.”
On the north shore of Lake Tahoe in Incline Village “the weather is phenomenal 365 days a year,” she says. “It’s also very accessible via Reno.”
While Sierra Nevada College has limited event space in the form of classrooms and conference rooms, with a maximum capacity of 62, the big fish of local venues is Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino with 422 guest rooms and more than 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space.
The Chateau at Incline Village, a municipally owned meeting space overlooking a golf course, has vaulted ceilings and stone fireplaces, and the 5,200-square-foot main ballroom can be partitioned into three areas for events.
Another option is Thunderbird Lake Tahoe, a historic lodge with capacity for 120 people. “It looks like you’re stepping back in time,” notes Dees regarding these three options.
Thunderbird Lake Tahoe Director of Operations Brad Carter says event attendees get a tour of the 1936 waterfront mansion (and its tunnels and secret passageways) at the end of the day. “You’re getting a history lesson,” says Carter. “It makes it more of an event because you’ve got that activity attached to it.”
Dees also commends the local outdoor attractions, Sand Harbor State Park with sleigh rides on the beach in winter and Diamond Peak Ski Resort, just five minutes from town. “That’s a perfect place for beginners and people with a little more experience to go ski,” she says.
But once the snow melts, Lake Tahoe itself is the main attraction. “We always suggest getting out on the water,” says Dees. Cruises and guided outings are available from the Hyatt and Sand Harbor, and rentals are available through Action Watersports.
Hiking is another great local activity for groups. “Everybody can do it,” Dees suggests. “If you can walk, you can hike.”
Located in Logan, Utah State University features its own hotel and meeting venue. The University Inn & Conference Center has 74 guest rooms and 17,000 square feet of yearround dedicated event space with 17 meeting rooms, including a 384-seat auditorium. Additionally, Utah State University features more than 59,000 square feet of flexible meeting space from May through August.
The university has its own internal Conference Management Services department, which offers numerous services. The University Inn & Conference Centers contracts with the campus shuttle to provide transportation to and from local hotels for large conferences. Several local hotels also offer shuttle services to bring conference attendees to campus.
Annual conferences include the Small Satellite Conference, Journal Technologies and Utah Business Week. USU academic and research-based conferences include Conference on Electric Roads and Vehicles (CERV), Spring Runoff, and Restoring the West, as well as numerous smaller meetings for both local and academic groups and businesses.
The Small Satellite Conference draws more than 2,000 attendees to the Taggart Student Center, says Conference Administrator Marianne Sidwell. “We’re looking to expand to a building next to the student center,” she says, noting staffers help with everything from registration to event setup.
David Christensen is the executive director of the Sustainable Electric Transportation (SELECT) Research Center, the organization behind CERV. University Inn “works out quite well,” he says. “What I like is we get people off the beaten path here; they’re stunned by the beauty of the place. We get people from the Bay Area, Detroit and Los Angeles, and they come back year after year.”
Off campus on the Logan River, Riverwoods Conference Center at SpringHill Suites Marriott offers “a little bit of nature and a little bit of sophistication,” says Julie Hollist Terrill, director of the Cache Valley Visitors Bureau, when describing the venue’s 32,000 square feet of indoor space and outdoor banquet area.
Riverwoods’ target market is groups of 200 to 250, says Director of Sales Shirlene Davis. “That is an ideal range,” she explains. “We do a lot of corporate group business, but we also host all of the NCAA football teams that play Utah State University.”
Once meetings adjourn, there’s no lack of things to see and do. “One thing that’s unique about Logan is its proximity to the national forest,” says Hollist Terrill. “From downtown, in less than 10 minutes you’re in the national forest.”
Logan Canyon is a magnet for hikers, anglers and rock climbers. “We also have some of the best snowmobiling in the country,” she adds. For downhill skiing, Beaver Mountain is the longest-running family-owned resort in the country and nearby Cherry Peak is the newest ski resort in Utah.
But it’s not all about the great outdoors in Logan. “We have incredible performing arts,” says Hollist Terrill, explaining that there are three historic theaters on a single block downtown. “We have people who schedule their conferences around being able to see a show.”
College towns tend to be places to learn and think, and this dovetails nicely into events. If you’re looking to get people into meeting mode, few places are more conducive than these academic hubs.