By Ronnie Wendt | Photography ©Explore La Crosse
La Crosse makes regular appearances on “best of” lists for its outdoor amenities, university and livability. CNN Money named the city nestled on the shores of the mighty Mississippi River a Best Place to Live. The city also took 77th place on Livability. com’s Best Places to Live in 2020.
Forbes put the college town on its list of Best Small Places for Business and Careers. U.S. News & World Report listed the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as the top university in the University of Wisconsin system and as one of America’s best colleges. In fact, it has ranked as the No. 7 best regional university in the Midwest as well.
With remarkable venues, varied food and beverage options, and ample after- hours entertainment and outdoor activities, the river city also might make a “best of” list for meetings and events — and deservingly so. The city of just under 53,000 people welcomes over 2.5 million business and leisure travelers every year, an impressive feat for such a modestly sized municipality.
La Crosse houses over 2,500 hotel rooms and can host events from 100 to 6,000, says Ben Morgan, director of group sales and sports services at Explore La Crosse. Many planners hold events at the La Crosse Center, which completed a $42 million expansion in 2021, and Stoney Creek Hotel La Crosse – Onalaska.
The La Crosse Center, which has been a staple for sports and events in the community since the 1980s, is the star attraction on La Crosse’s venue list. The city recently renovated and expanded the building. Now it’s just 60 feet from the riverbank and offers 120,000 square feet of multipurpose space, including a new ballroom and rooftop terrace with spectacular river views.
“The original building comprised a North Hall and an arena,” says Director Art Fahey (who plans to retire by year’s end). “In 2000, we expanded and just about doubled the square footage. But in 2021, we completed another expansion, adding on a large ballroom and accompanying space that overlooks the Mississippi River and Riverside Park.”
The upgrade also included a new air ventilation system and arena seating, and facelifts to all restrooms, dressing rooms and concession stands. A new f ront lobby/atrium completed the space. “As we expanded, the building became a little compartmentalized and we could not move foot traffic around efficiently,” Fahey says. “Now the lobby wraps around the entire building to help people move quickly.”
The updated facility can accommodate events of up to 6,000 attendees. The South Hall has two levels of event space.
The upper level includes a new ballroom, three boardrooms and a conference room, while the lower level includes South Hall A at 24,000 square feet and South Hall B at 12,000 square feet. The South Hall ballroom delivers 6,000 square feet of flexible event space and overlooks the Mississippi River. “The new ballroom can seat up to 660 people banquet style and accommodate up to 900 people classroom style,” explains Fahey. “We also can divide the ballroom into three rooms.”
The North Hall delivers 15,000 square feet of sophisticated, yet casual event space in three levels. The upper level houses three meeting rooms; the second level includes the Riverside Ballroom, Riverside Terrace and three meeting rooms/suites that overlook the arena; and the main level is made up of meeting rooms.
“In the middle of everything is our arena. This multipurpose space works well for trade shows, general assemblies and even for arena seating during larger events. Our Riverside Terrace has turned out to be a real homerun for us,” Fahey adds. “It’s a great area for social functions and its awning provides shade on warm days.”
Radisson Hotel La Crosse connects to the La Crosse Center via skywalk. Its more than 160 rooms can accommodate attendees of La Crosse Center events, but with 11,500 square feet of its own flexible meeting space, the hotel is a great meeting venue, too. The Radisson can host meetings of up to 400 guests in an elegant ballroom for larger events and has boardrooms for smaller meetings. “The Radisson’s Wisconsin Room can break into three different sections and the Minnesota Room breaks into two sections,” Morgan says.
Holiday Inn & Suites La Crosse – Downtown additionally offers 114 guest rooms and connects to the La Crosse Center. This facility can accommodate smaller meetings of up to 30 people in a 480-square-foot room.
Nearby, the 126-room Hampton Inn & Suites La Crosse Downtown offers 1,116 square feet of event space in two well-appointed rooms. The Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott La Crosse Downtown and Courtyard by Marriott La Crosse Downtown/ Mississippi Riverf ront are also within walking distance. Both offer space for smaller boardroom-type meetings and receptions.
“There’s been a boom of hotel rooms in the downtown area,” says Erik Sjolander, director of convention sales for Explore La Crosse. “We have a lot of hotels within walking distance [to the La Crosse Center] and two that are connected. But in terms of a venue that can handle everything, we also have Stoney Creek in Onalaska.”
A few miles north of La Crosse in Onalaska is Stoney Creek Hotel La Crosse – Onalaska, which pairs pastoral scenery with rustic charm. Situated among rolling hills, the ballroom venue offers “a log cabin meets hunter’s lodge” type of feel with ample spaces for events of up to 500 people in its 7,000-square- foot Northwoods Salon.
Additional rooms are available for breakout sessions and smaller meetings. The intimately sized Hearth Room, for example, hosts five to 15 people comfortably. The Pines Room and Timberlands Room can hold up to 50 people, while two lower-level spaces can accommodate up to 90 guests.
“We have 11 locations across the Midwest, but we’re not like a Marriott or Hilton, which are tied to specific brand standards,” explains Carter Bahr, sales manager at Stoney Creek. “We can fit any budget to give groups the extraordinary experience they crave. It’s an outstanding ‘home away f rom home’ experience in a cabin getaway.”
After-hours, participants can retire to one of the hotel’s 157 rooms, which include theme rooms. “We have Hunter’s Haven, which mimics a hunter’s lodge, and a premier suite that overlooks the nature sanctuary,” he says. “Our rooms provide higher-end amenities, such as expanded whirlpool tubs and fireplaces.”
The hotel contracts with several local caterers, while also offering smaller breakfast and snack-type items through the hotel. “Our catering staff can accommodate just about any budget, whether it’s box lunches or full plated dinners,” notes Bahr. “They are amazing to work with and hold themselves to the highest standards.”
Downtown La Crosse is a short drive away. However, Bahr emphasizes, “We have a picturesque nature sanctuary that has the La Crosse River running through it, and beautiful walking and biking paths in our own backyard.”
The 50,000-square-foot Onalaska Omni Center also works well for groups. It sports two large arenas, three flexible meeting spaces, a full kitchen and a semi-enclosed picnic-type shelter.
While Celebrations on the River in downtown La Crosse has racked up accolades as a popular wedding venue, it also doubles as a sought-after venue for meetings and events. All in, the facility hosts around 200 events a year in three separate spaces.
The facility’s River Park can accommodate more than 200 guests, and captures the natural beauty of the Mississippi River through spaces that connect guests to indoor and outdoor amenities. The Center Court features a banquet hall that treats up to 450 guests to stunning riverside
views. Its outdoor patio overlooking the venue’s gardens and nearby river can host up to 150 guests. On the other hand, Serenity Hall pairs perfectly with smaller, more intimate gatherings of up to 150 guests, and features a stunning ceiling with a large stage, full-service private bar, food buffet room and crystal chandeliers.
“We host everything from all-day conferences with breakfast and lunch included down to groups of 20 to 30. Recently, Ashley Furniture brought in 750 people for an event,” says Adam Etrheim, general manager and partner for Celebrations on the River. He also says Celebrations’ riverside location is the venue’s claim to fame. “We have a gorgeous backyard with impressive trees and twinkling lights, and our fire pits are beautiful in the fall.”
The full-service venue leaves nothing to chance, offering planners everything from centerpieces to tablecloths and signage, as well as set-up and tear- down services. It also provides bus transportation to 14 nearby hotels.
The Charmant Hotel makes another fine backdrop for corporate gatherings, board meetings, cocktail parties and holiday celebrations. Its 613-square- foot Serenada Room accommodates 40 people for sit-down functions, or 50 for standing receptions and theater-style events. The Royal Crown, a 338-square- foot boardroom, accommodates 12. Meanwhile, the Rooftop Terrace offers planners a stylish space overlooking the city. It has a wood-fired pizza oven and a bar pouring handcrafted cocktails. The Restaurant houses a private dining room that serves French-inspired cuisine to up to 14 guests.
For planners seeking a nontraditional venue, La Crosse doesn’t disappoint. Sjolander recommends The Court Above Main, which brings “big city views with a historic feel” to upscale meetings and events. Originally used as a public hall for social gatherings and later as a YWCA gym, the space features 16-foot ceilings, original wood ballroom court floor, floor-to-ceiling windows and custom bar.
“It’s a striking facility,” Sjolander says. “I’ve attended a few events there and they’re always very nice.”
The Myrick Park Center, nestled in La Crosse’s bluff lands, wetlands, woodlands and native prairies, is also fun for events. “It’s great for groups that want a getaway,” Sjolander confirms. “It’s tucked away in a forestry area, but just down the road is downtown La Crosse. It also has little cabins and walking trails.”
Being a college town, the nightlife and foodie scene in La Crosse cannot be beat, adds Morgan.
Buzzard Billy’s is a bar and grill in an 1860s brick hotel. The unique Cajun restaurant and bar dishes up authentic New Orleans-style cuisine and craft beers. Its Starlite Lounge, a 1950s-style cocktail lounge on the second floor, ushers up a Rat Pack atmosphere with great martinis, wines and single-malt scotch. Another popular eatery is The Crow, an American restaurant and bourbon bar, voted as the Best New Restaurant in La Crosse in 2015 and 2016. Its draw is a healthy mix of excellent food, rare and unique spirits, quality craft beers and Wisconsin hospitality.
For fine dining, event-goers can check out Piggy’s Restaurant & Lounge in the 1871 Pioneer Foundry building. The restaurant works its smoker every day with hickory and Minnesota applewood to dish up choice prime rib, hearty pork loins and its famous pork belly. Diners can revel in the live blues music and comedy shows, plus a ballroom upstairs offers 2,000 square feet of event space.
These restaurants offer just a sampling of the food available. “There are Thai restaurants, Mexican restaurants, you name it, all within walking distance of meeting venues and hotels,” says Morgan.
The downtown is home to boat and trolley tours, axe throwing and more. “Groups won’t want to miss the La Crosse Queen,” Morgan says. “Many groups do dinner cruises or sightseeing tours.” La Crosse Queen Cruises offers seven different sightseeing and excursion boats that operate out of Riverside Park.
Historic trolley tours begin downtown where Frankie La Salle, a character garbed in authentic 1800s clothing, takes people on historic excursions. “There’s also a Dark La Crosse tour that talks about the seedy side of the city from the time of gangsters, prohibition and brothels,” Morgan says. “It’s a popular attraction that groups enjoy.”
Meanwhile, the La Crosse Escape Room provides a great team-building exercise for groups. The interactive adventure game locks people into themed rooms where they have to follow clues, solve puzzles and crack codes to break free within a set time limit. And The Driftless Axe and Arcade throws competitive axe throwing into the mix of possibilities. “Because there are so many things to do downtown,” Morgan says, “there is something for every group.”
Though the revamped La Crosse Center often takes center stage, Fahey stresses it’s not the city’s only draw. “Every city has unique things to offer and La Crosse is no exception,” he says. “We have a facility right next to an active downtown that offers great restaurants, shopping and other amenities. We also have the Mississippi River and the coulees. These are the valleys between the bluffs in the Driftless Area unique to this part of the state.”