By Melanie Radzicki McManus | Photos provided by Explore La Crosse except where noted
When MOSES comes to town, business owners and citizens cheerily don overalls and plaid shirts to show their excitement and support. That’s because MOSES, aka the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, promotes organic and sustainable farming. For the last 15 years or so, MOSES has selected La Crosse as the site of its annual conference. The city’s overall-and-plaid-clad residents might be one reason why.
“People really rally behind MOSES when the group comes in,” says Phillip Wanke, director of group sales at Explore La Crosse, noting farmer-themed attire is one way for locals to join in on the fun. Not surprisingly, conference attendees appreciate the city’s enthusiasm. “We hear that repeatedly from MOSES and other groups–how welcome they’re made to feel,” he says.
Warm welcomes may be one important reason why this city of 52,000 snugged against the Mississippi River is such an attractive place for conferences and business meetings. In 2016, La Crosse welcomed a whopping 2.3 million business and leisure visitors, an impressive feat for a modest-sized city. With five new hotels downtown and a major conference facility expansion in the works, officials expect that figure to grow.
The La Crosse area is home to 2,500 rooms and typically hosts events ranging in size from 100 to 3,000, says Wanke. Many planners elect to hold their events at either the La Crosse Center, which sits right on the Mississippi River in the heart of downtown, or the OmniCenter, a few miles north in neighboring Onalaska.
The 100,000-square-foot La Crosse Center features two halls on its main level, which contain a combined 54,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. The second floor is home to an arena, ballroom overlooking the river and up to five boardrooms. There is also the Zielke Suite, a more intimate, carpeted space for small, warm gatherings. A major renovation and expansion of the facility that will add another 50,000 square feet is in the works. While plans aren’t finalized, the expansion will consist of building out from the top floor toward the Mississippi to incorporate more sweeping river views.
Seven miles north, the 50,000-square-foot OmniCenter sports two large arenas, a conference room with flexible space, a full kitchen and a semi-enclosed outdoor picnic shelter. From October to March, the two arenas are converted into ice rinks. Other popular meeting spots around town include the Radisson La Crosse, which boasts 11,500 square feet of meeting space and is connected to the convention center; the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites (500 square feet of space), which is also connected to the La Crosse Center, but via a walkway; and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, with 5,000 square feet of meeting space.
Those seeking a unique venue aren’t out of luck, as La Crosse has several. One is the Grand Hotel Ballroom, located above the city’s Pearl Ice Cream Parlor in what was once a hotel–and brothel. Today it’s a 1930s-era art deco space offering a live music stage, digital projector and screen, dance floor, and the ability to set up banquet or cabaret seating. Attendees with a sweet tooth can simply pop into the ice cream parlor on the main level, although meeting planners can also elect to have an ice cream sundae bar set up in the ballroom (or a theme bar offering premium liquors).
Another funky meeting venue is the Pump House Regional Arts Center. The arts facility was created from a former municipal waterworks structure built in 1880 to house the water pump that served as the city’s fire protection. It offers a variety of visual and performing arts opportunities via a theater, three art galleries, a conference room, meeting areas and a pottery studio.
Similarly, the Weber Center for the Performing Arts offers meeting space in its Lyche and Veterans Studio theatres. The 450-seat Lyche offers plush seating and excellent sound and lighting equipment. The Veterans Studio Theatre is a smaller, creative space that can accommodate up to 100. In addition, the Weber Center’s two-floor lobby holds up to 350 for drink service and 150 for a seated dinner party. Best of all, the facility is right on the Mississippi, which the lobby space faces.
A city’s dining scene is important to conference-goers, and attendees aren’t disappointed when they come to La Crosse. One popular spot for locals and visitors alike is Piggy’s, a fine-dining restaurant housed in the city’s 1871 Pioneer Foundry building, where parts were once forged for the paddlewheel boats that docked in town. Piggy’s serves fresh, flown-in seafood such as Alaskan halibut and Gulf shrimp, plus steaks and a variety of smoked entrees and pork dishes from which the restaurant got its name. The facility offers live blues and comedy shows, and you can meet here, too, as its upper-floor ballroom has more than 2,000 square feet of space.
The Freighthouse is another favorite. Created out of the city’s 1880 freight house, the restaurant features steak, seafood and combo platters, plus a nearly-100-bottle whiskey list. Like Piggy’s the Freighthouse offers meeting space; it can host groups up to 120.
Other heralded dining options are the Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern, Lovechild and Le Chateau, all located within a few blocks of each other. They’re also within La Crosse’s historic downtown, which consists of 110 buildings, most of which were built in the 19th century and are carefully maintained today. A tidy, walkable downtown is another big draw for groups, including the Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials (WASBO). WASBO holds its annual conference in one of three or four different cities around the state, La Crosse being one of them. Their most recent stop here was May 2017.
Woody Wiedenhoeft, WASBO executive director, says his conference attendees love the fact that the La Crosse Center is within walking distance of all of the city’s downtown amenities. “And the atmosphere is very excellent,” he says. “The older buildings are well kept up, so it’s pleasant for people to go out for a walk when the sessions are over. It’s important for attendees to be able to do that when they have free time.”
The downtown is also home to many specialty shops perfect for off-time browsing, such as Generous Earth Pottery, Finnotte’s Nut & Chocolate Shop and the three-story Antique Center of La Crosse. You can also decompress by strolling through picturesque Riverside Park or signing up for a Mississippi River cruise on a riverboat replica. And many more attractions lay a mere 15 minutes or so away.
Like Grandad Bluff, a 600-foot bluff offering sweeping views of the city and Mississippi River Valley. Or Norskedalen, a Norwegian heritage and nature site tucked into 400 acres of wooded bluffs. You can tour a Norwegian homestead and chapel here, wander along the property’s miles of trails and through its arboretum, and maybe even observe a rosemaling or lefse-making demonstration.
“Between the bluffs and the river, we’re very known for our outdoor activities,” says Explore La Crosse’s Wanke. “We’ll work to help groups plan kayaking, mountain biking, hiking or foraging. Or we’ll set up various river trips. The silent sports are really prevalent here.”
No matter your group’s interests, whether it’s the outdoors, wineries or shopping, Wanke says you can count on them. “We will work with any group coming in. We will coordinate anything. We’ll do spousal tours, area tours, whatever you want.” That kind of attitude, meeting planners say, is priceless.
“We couldn’t have been more pleased with the assistance we received,” says Wiedenhoeft. Adds Jeanne Deimund, WISBO’s associate executive director, “The convention and visitors bureau did a great job. Whenever you have an active bureau, it really helps.”