Long regarded as a place for adventure, challenge, and trend-setting innovation, and for those in tune with the great outdoors, the Northwest remains a favorite stomping ground for visionaries who like to do things on a grand scale. When insurance conference planners organize events in this region, they find flexibility and imagination still reign.

The Northwest's major cities, Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; Boise, ID, and Billings, MT, have very different atmospheres, but they are linked by that famous western spirit. And these grown-up western towns have plenty of top-notch space for meetings that will provide new perspective under big skies.

The "Emerald City" of Seattle, surrounded by trees, mountains, and water, boasts a year-old, $95 million waterfront development that includes the Bell Street Pier and its Bell Harbor International Conference Center. This Port of Seattle project lies at the edge of Elliott Bay with views to the Olympic Mountains and green-and-white ferry boats gliding across Puget Sound. Designed for gatherings from 10 to 1,000, and billed as the most technologically advanced conference center on the West Coast, the Center has high-tech satellite transmission, audiovisual, and language translation capabilities to go along with stunning waterfront views from its meeting rooms and outdoor deck space.

In the heart of Seattle's downtown, expansion plans are under way at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. The project will increase heavy-load exhibition space and enhance meeting rooms, prefunction areas, equipment rooms, and lobby space. The Seattle Center, home to the landmark Space Needle plus a 74-acre campus with various meeting and exhibition venues, is another popular choice for conference groups.

Just 179 miles away, Portland is a compact and manageable city that lies beneath the snowy peak of Mount Hood. The city beckons with a combination of striking skyscrapers and red-brick charm, 9,400 acres of city parks, and a successful light-rail system that allows meeting attendees to move from the eye-catching Oregon Convention Center to downtown hotels, theaters, and restaurants with ease. It's no surprise that in a city known for environmentally conscious, active residents, nearby recreational options include top-notch skiing, golfing, kayaking, fishing, and hiking.

With a population of just 150,000, Idaho's capital of Boise is the national and international headquarters for several Fortune 500 companies, including Boise Cascade, Ore-Ida, and Micron Technology. Located at the base of foothills where desert meets the Rocky Mountains, visitors to Boise enjoy nearby skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, golf, and outstanding white-water rafting.

The resort city of Coeur d'Alene (population 30,000) in northern Idaho is another popular choice for meetings, largely due to picturesque Lake Coeur d'Alene and the luxurious lakefront Coeur d'Alene Resort with its ample conference space and spectacular golf course.

In Billings, MT, nestled among five majestic mountain ranges and the golden rimrock bluffs, modern "pioneers" can feast on rib-eye steaks and cheer on nightly rodeo riders in a town steeped in cowboy character. Not known for modern high-rise hotels, Billings provides group accommodations in comfortable lodges and inns, or, for a more authentic experience, working guest ranches.

Hotel News Idaho Courtyard by Marriott opened in Boise in fall 1996 with 167 rooms, some with kitchens, as well as a business center and fitness and laundry facilities.

Scheduled to open in early 1998, the 250-room WestCoast Boise Hotel will be linked to a 5,000-seat sports arena and events center, a 30,000-square-foot health club, and a fine dining restaurant.

The upscale, lakefront Coeur d'Alene Resort accommodates 2,200 for meetings and also offers a "floating boardroom" option (lake cruises for up to 400 attendees).Its sister property, the Coeur d'Alene Inn, has recently undergone a $4 million renovation of its meeting space for 600.

The Best Western Templin's Resort in Post Falls, just adjacent to Coeur d'Alene, is on the Spokane River and can accommodate gatherings of up to 1,000.

A new 118-room Ameritel Inn opened this summer in Coeur d'Alene.

Oregon Downtown Portland's $23 million, 221-room 5th Avenue Suites opened in May 1996 in a landmark 1912 building. The hotel has 4,500 square feet of meeting space, a business center, an Aveda spa, and a four-star restaurant.

Embassy Suites Hotel, at the former historic Multnomah Hotel in downtown Portland, is scheduled to open this fall with 276 suites and 15,000 square feet of meeting space.

A new Marriott Hotel is currently under construction in downtown Portland with an approximate completion date of mid-1998. Estimates are for 300 rooms.

On the scenic Oregon Coast at Gleneden Beach, Salishan Lodge, the newest Dolce International-managed conference resort, plans a $7 million investment in refurbishing meeting space, conference dining facilities, and all 205 sleeping rooms. The resort's Scottish-style golf links recently completed a $2.5 million renovation.

Sunriver Resort, 15 miles south of Bend in central Oregon, completed phase I of a $4.5 million renovation of its main lodge in June. Phase II, which began fall, includes an upgrade of meeting space. A recent $3 million renovation updated the historic Great Hall Conference Center and fully refurbished the resort's 211 guest rooms and suites. On property are 54 holes of golf (The Woodlands is a Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design) and 28 tennis courts, as well as rafting, fishing, and biking.

Washington The boutique-style Alexis Hotel in downtown Seattle completed a $5 million renovation in March 1996. The hotel now has 109 rooms plus a new conference center and fitness facilities.

The Sheraton Seattle Hotel & Towers, adjacent to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle, underwent a $7 million renovation in May 1996 to upgrade guest rooms and the lobby. The 840-room hotel offers 40,000 square feet of meeting space and a business center.

A new 125-room WestCoast Paramount Hotel opened in September in downtown Seattle.

In May 1996, Cavanaugh's Inn on Fifth Avenue opened in downtown Seattle, with 300 rooms and suites, and more than 12,000 square feet of business and conference facilities.

The Hotel Monaco opened in August two blocks from the Seattle Art Museum and a short walk to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle. It has more than 6,000 square feet of meeting space in nine rooms. The 11-story hotel offers 189 guest rooms, each with two phone lines, voice mail, and modem ports.

The Salish Lodge, 25 miles east of Seattle at scenic Snoqualmie Falls, has opened the most extensive resort spa in the Pacific Northwest at a cost of $1.4 million.

Sleeping Lady is a rustic conference retreat on 67 acres in Leavenworth, two-and-a-half hours from Seattle. Wenatchee airport, 22 miles distant, has daily flights. At the gateway to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness district, the retreat offers over 10,000 square feet of meeting space and sleeping accommodations for up to 200.

In Wenatchee, the WestCoast Wenatchee Center Hotel's adjacent convention center is expanding by 11,000 square feet. The $3.5 million project brings the total meeting and exhibit space at the Wenatchee Center to 51,000 square feet.

Tax and Money Matters State sales tax in Idaho is five percent. There is no retail sales tax in Oregon. A nine percent bed tax is charged on accommodations. State sales tax in Washington is 8.2 percent. The hotel industry tax is 15.2 percent, which consists of the state sales tax and a Seattle Convention & Trade Center tax of seven percent. Montana implements a 4 percent accommodations tax.

Venue Menu Idaho An unusual place to hold an event in Boise is the Old Idaho Penitentiary, one of the few territorial prisons left in the U.S. The Pen closed in the 1970s and is now open for evening functions: The grounds have been turned into rose gardens, and the cell blocks are open for exploring.

While always known for its potatoes, Boise is also home to wineries such as Pintler Cellar or Ste. Chapelle, both of which offer picturesque indoor and outdoor party space.

Washington A North Coast Native American-style salmon barbecue (for groups of up to 900) at Tillicum Village on Blake Island tops the list of favorite Northwest theme parties.

Within the city of Seattle, the landmark Space Needle, built for the 1962 World's Fair, is linked to downtown by a monorail and offers reception and event space for up to 350 persons with a stunning 360-degree view. The Pacific Science Center, Seattle Aquarium, Pike Place Market, Seattle Art Museum, and Boeing's Museum of Flight are other venues that can accommodate groups.

Montana Meeting delegates ready to relax in Billings can opt for a wagon train or cattle drive adventure, an outdoor hoe-down at a guest ranch, a pitchfork fondue party at Zoo Montana, a tour of Yellowstone National Park, or a chance to witness a colorful Native American Pow-Wow. The Return West Ranch Company, 18 miles from Billings in Huntley, debuted last summer and welcomes small groups for seminars or teambuilding programs at its working ranch and Executive Cowboy School. Guests stay at a nearby Victorian-style hotel.

Other venue options include the lawn outside the elegant circa-1900 Moss Mansion, the Yellowstone Art Center (renovations completed in August), or the Peter Yegen, Jr. Yellowstone County Museum.

How's the Weather? In Seattle, high temperatures range from 45 degrees in January to 75 degrees in July, with mild temperatures common much of the year. Seattle gets fewer inches of rain per year than cities such as New York and Houston. Still, it's best to bring along your bumbershoot. (That's Seattle-speak for umbrella.) The driest months are June through September.

In Boise, while summer temperatures can rise to 90 degrees, the seasonal average is about 75; winter average is about 30 degrees.

Billings' sheltered location and low humidity gives it weather that is milder than most expect from Montana. Highs range from 86 degrees in July to about 30 degrees in January. Snowfall averages about 57 inches per year, but seldom accumulates to great depths.

Getting There Idaho Boise Airport is served by Delta, Northwest, Southwest, United, and Horizon Air. Driving distance from the airport to downtown is just three-and-a-half miles or about $5.50 by cab.

Montana The Logan International Airport in Billings is served by Delta, Northwest, and United, as well as regional carriers Big Sky, Horizon, and Skywest. The airport is within about ten minutes' drive of downtown, a $12 cab ride.

Oregon A $141 million expansion project currently under way at Portland International Airport means major construction on the airport roadways, terminal, and parking garage. Completion is expected by early 1999. The airport is about a 15-minute drive from downtown.

Washington Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is served by all major carriers. The airport is 16 miles from downtown, which can be reached by taxi ($30), Grayline Airporter bus to major hotels ($7.50 one way/$13 round-trip), or Shuttle Express van service ($15 one way).

Our goal is to have our carriers experience the Northwest," says Suzanne Maranville, director of meetings and events with M Financial Group, about her choice of Bend, OR, for a summer incentive retreat. The Portland-based insurance company arranged condominiums at Mount Bachelor Resort and offered attendees rafting, hiking, tennis, and golf under almost-guaranteed clear skies in this high-desert sun belt of the state. No meeting facilities were needed, since fun was the only order of business. "We choose a site in the Northwest every other year," Maranville explains. "The San Juan Islands are a possibility for 1998."

For city-based events, Kim Ketcham, marketing promotions specialist with Standard Insurance Company in Portland, chooses the downtown Fifth Avenue Suites Hotel. Since the company's annual Field Management Meeting is held each January, bringing participants from across the country to a city with a reputation for rain, it means a lot when Ketcham says, "Our last Portland meeting ended up being better than if we had been in Palm Desert." She praises the hotel's meeting and guest room facilities, location, and finesse with special events such as a memorable Casino Night party.

In Seattle, Shawna Byrne, sales promotion coordinator for Northern Life Insurance, prefers the urban elegance of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, just across from the company's downtown head office. Besides the obvious convenience of the location, she explains that attendees at gatherings such as the Field Advisory Council meeting in August 1997 feel pampered there. "It may be the most expensive, but it also has the best service," she says. "The meal functions and receptions are exceptional. It's so wonderful that everyone gets spoiled."