Lulled by sea image

Lulled by Sea Stories in the British Virgin Islands

By Betty W. Stark

Captain Darla skillfully anchored the Coral Sea for the night, maneuvering the sleek 68-foot length away from the reef and into the shelter of Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. That accomplished, she headed below to the compact galley to prepare our dinner. Fresh-caught yellow fin tuna and sautéed island vegetables….as good as it gets.

Her husband Jack regaled us with stories, as he often did during our week-long sail.

“His name is Gato,” Jack said, “and he knows how to fix boat engines like no man in the islands. Gato is tough, really tough. Looks like a Maya Indian but with long blond hair, a huge handlebar mustache and ice blue eyes. Boy, he’s tough.

“Why one time, after he’d repaired something or other for me, we were walkin’ down a side street in St. Thomas, and he stopped at a friend’s house.

“He came out a few minutes later with a whole cooked fish. As we walked to the harbor, he ate that big fish, first one side then the other.

“Then he asked me, ‘Want the head?’

“I said no, and darned if he didn’t put the whole thing in his mouth, chompin’ and talkin’ at the same time, bones flyin’ as we walked along!”

Gentled by the easy rocking of the boat, and warmed by a splash of island rum on the rocks, we laughed uproariously at Jack’s latest tale. Then, captivated by the sky, we watched the rays of the setting sun lengthen behind the 1000-foot-high peaks. Later that night the rhythmic sounds of calypso ballads drifted across the harbor from the venerable Foxy’s Tamarind Bar and Grill. As good mariners must we clambered into the dingy, answering the siren call to join other sailors gathering for more storytelling and mingling.

This kind of sailing was a new experience for me. Beyond day-sails, I’d spent little time on sailboats, but always loving the water and constantly drawn to one Caribbean island or another, I readily accepted my friends’ invitation to join them.

We evaluated several boats, ruling out those that we thought were too small for comfort—there would be four of us, plus three crew—and paying particular attention to crew biographies, we settled on the Coral Sea.

Crewed by Captain Darla, her raconteur husband Jack and charming crew member Eric, originally from Alaska, the Coral Sea was a beauty of polished teak and elegant lines. She had been built in the ’70s at the Palmer Johnson boatyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. We took this as a sign that she was meant for us.

The week proved to be an excellent adventure as we made our way from Red Hook Marina on St. Thomas, to pristine St. John, Jost Van Dyke, picture-perfect Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, tiny Marina Cay, the tony environs of the Bitter End Yacht Club, and the snorkeling wonderland of Norman Island.


Packing for the journey, I’d brought books…lots of books… and added several more from the boat library our first day out. I presumed I’d settle in to an easy rhythm of reading, relaxing, and trading stories as we cruised from island to island.

To my complete surprise, I barely finished one book. I was so engrossed in the sailing experience at hand.

A couple days in, with Darla at the helm skillfully guiding the schooner across windswept Pillsbury Sound off St. Thomas, we were immediately caught up in the intricacies of sailing.

Though it was mid-March, we were encountering “Christmas winds”, most common in late December and considerably more aggressive than the typically tame March breezes we’d planned on.

Unexpected gusts often set us heeling at an exhilarating angle, sending Eric scrambling nimbly across the deck, trimming sails or letting out line. “Darn fluky winds”, Darla often muttered in her Texas drawl.

With adrenaline flowing, we braced against the tilt of the boat, quickly coming to trust Darla’s expertise as she maneuvered the 35-ton vessel safely away from reefs, through narrow channels and to one safe harbor after another.

We easily became accustomed to life in compact quarters, rising with the morning light and bantering with Eric as he set out coffee and a bowl of fresh fruit on the aft deck.

“Mornin’, Eric. How are you today?”

“Not as good as you,” he’d reply with a wink.

“Where’s the sun you promised us, Eric?”

“Soon come,” he’d say in his adopted island-speak.

Eric on Coral Sea

As Darla studied charts, calculated winds and set out the course for the day’s sail, Jack launched into yet another tale.

“Once, in Placencia, coast of Belize,” he said, “I went to the ice house to stock up for a long sail. I couldn’t find anyone in charge, so I asked a guy settin’ on a bench nearby, ‘Where’s the boss? I’m in a hurry and I need some ice—now.’

“The guy surveyed me with one eye closed and replied, ‘Takin’ a cool breeze, mon.’

“I was frustrated and losing patience.

“So, where would I find him? I asked.

“The native slowly opened both eyes, looked straight at me and replied with a grin, ‘Right here, mon. Right here.’”

The week went by too quickly, long stretches under sail balanced by quiet anchorages among other sailboats and the occasional luxury motor launch. When incoming craft were positioned for the night, rhythmic island music drifted from every corner of the harbor and mast lights bobbed and winked against the darkening star-filled sky. What had seemed so foreign only days earlier was fast becoming seductively appealing.

We quizzed Darla and Jack incessantly about their departure from native Texas to live the past twelve years at sea on board this schooner and other boats they’d owned.

In the vastness of the Caribbean they had raised and schooled their daughter, now a student at the University of Texas, and for several years they were simply “at sea,” out of touch with the world except for their radio—augmented by a cell phone, cruising the vast reaches.

Over the years they had anchored for three months off Port Antonio, Jamaica, two months along the coast of Honduras, several months off Yucatan and Belize, and then sailed for long stretches, matching wits with a constantly changing, sometimes hostile environment. They became skilled at finding “hurricane holes” to tuck into when the big winds howled and battered.

Their life style fascinated us, and we pondered the enormity—and allure—of leaving it all behind. Temptation tugged at each of us and we peppered them for details—we wanted a short course on what it would take to sail away.

As most good things do, our sailing experience ended, and all too soon we were back in the harbor at St. Thomas. We hefted our gear into the dingy and prepared to say good-bye to three acquaintances that had become like family. As I hugged Jack, he said, “Hey….one last story.

“There’s this guy named Captain Rojo, and he has bright red hair and the most hilarious laugh in all the Caribbean……….”

Jack’s voice followed us as we motored toward the dock and, turning to wave one last goodbye, we reluctantly headed back to civilization.


© Betty W. Stark. This column originally appeared in several Midwest newspapers.

Shiny and new

Shiny and New

In a nod to Wisconsin’s considerable attributes, major hospitality groups have launched new properties this year that take cutting edge to a new level. The results are exhilarating, offering meeting planners and guests space concepts that are fresh and innovative, décor that dazzles, and dramatic venues with plenty of wow!

AC Hotel Madison

Perched at the top of the burgeoning East Washington Avenue Corridor a scant block off Madison’s Capitol Square, the recently-opened AC Hotel–the first in Wisconsin–has quickly become the new hot place for business travelers and corporate gatherings.

After launching the brand in Europe, hotelier Antonio Catalan of Madrid, Spain partnered with Marriott to roll out the concept in the U.S and beyond. They describe their 165-room Madison offering as “Midwest charm with European soul.”

The subtle sophisticated décor, including a variety of attractive textured surfaces and curated art, extends throughout the property. Guests drawn to the ninth and tenth floor dining/lounge, socializing and meeting venues are rewarded with floor to ceiling knock-your-socks-off views of the Capitol and lakes Mendota and Monona. Fireplaces, cozy areas for smaller gatherings, and an outside balcony with seating and spectacular views offer several options for surveying downtown Madison from a lofty perch.

At 924 square feet, the meeting room adapts to groups from 24 (U-shape) to 64 (theater). Customizable lighting, state-of-the-art TVs and the latest AV technology offer maximum flexibility. An on-site team is

available for personalized meeting consultation and services, including a unique complimentary Reservation Link for guests to reserve rooms.

In addition to the meeting room, King Executive Corner Suites adapt for board-style meetings for up to 10 and include a kitchenette for breaks and light lunches. Local favorite small-plates restaurant Eno Vino offers a creative menu in the 10th floor dining room as well as custom menu selections for meeting breaks to full group dinners.

Westin Milwaukee Downtown

As further evidence that major hotel groups like what they see in Wisconsin, Westin Hotels and Resorts Worldwide debuted The Westin Milwaukee in June. It’s Wisconsin’s first Westin Hotel.

Located in the heart of downtown a short walk from Lake Michigan, the hotel is close to the business district and about seven miles away from Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. It’s a block away from the Historic Third Ward neighborhood—think dining, shopping, night life–and several other Milwaukee landmarks.

The hotel’s contemporary exterior showcases metal, granite and terracotta. Colors found in nature create a serene light-washed interior. Expansive windows dominate in the urban-style lobby, restaurant, guest rooms and meeting rooms, taking full advantage of lake and city skyline views.

Meeting and event space totaling 9,654 square feet is spacious and diverse, offering options for small board meetings to grand events. All meeting and event rooms are state of the art, anchored by a 4,800 square foot Grand Ballroom with LED lighting that gives planners options to customize with color temperature and selection. Touch panels control lighting and sound, digital signage, and contemporary fixtures.

The Stella Van Buren “Steakhouse with an Italian flair” offers a private dividable room that seats 32, as well as semi-private areas for events up to 50 in elegantly appointed sections. The Stella Van Buren lounge with a soaring back bar is a popular gathering place. In-house staff assists with meeting menu planning.

The Westin brand is known globally for its emphasis on wellness furnishings and services including the Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Bath, as well as fresh and healthy creations from the SuperFoodsRx™ menu. Fitness offerings include lakefront runs and a fitness gear lending program that provides shoes, shorts and T-shirts for those who choose to pack light.

Fox Cities Exposition Center – Appleton

The architects and contractor for the dramatic glass and concrete Fox Cities Exposition Center on West Lawrence Street in Appleton accomplished a first in the state of Wisconsin when they sited the one-of-a-kind building deep into a hillside at Jones Park.

The six-acre city park near downtown offers amenities for almost every season, including walking and biking trails, basketball, picnic areas, ice skating and a pavilion popular for seasonal music events. It will serve as a natural outdoor extension to the Expo Center.

While the hillside location is notable in part because contractors had to remove 76,000 cubic yards of dirt and pour nearly 9,000 cubic feet of concrete, the real buzz is the building itself.

An imposing multi-tiered structure wrapped in glass, it dramatically integrates with the park and its facilities from wide tiered concrete stairways. This unique construction allows for multiple uses including outdoor functions and respite space for event attendees seeking fresh-air breaks.

The dividable 30,000 square foot Exhibition Center space is designed for multiple uses, for one large event or as three separate spaces. A 7,300 square foot pre-function space adjacent to the main event space is ideal for breaks or overflow exhibits. A 17,000 square foot outdoor plaza adds more options for receptions and other special events.

Two conference rooms at street level can be rented in conjunction with an exhibit center event. The lobby area opens on to Lawrence Street with lower levels incorporated into the Jones Park hillside. An expansive street-level civic plaza also provides additional outdoor event space.

The history of the Fox Cities area is an integral part of the Center. Most notably, a unique 82-foot vertical spire incorporated into the building is lit by color-changing LED lights that can vary seasonally or for special events.

The spire represents the smokestack of the first hydroelectric power plant in the country. It began operation on the Fox River in Appleton in 1882.

The public Expo Center grand opening is scheduled for January 11, 2018. Groups are booked that month for an inaugural launch. Owned by the City of Appleton, the Expo Center will be managed by and connected to the 390-room Radisson Paper Valley Hotel by an elevated walkway. Events will be booked through the hotel sales department.

Lodge Kohler – Green Bay

Kohler hospitality has arrived in Green Bay and it’s a winner.

Green Bay Packer fans, lovers of luxury spas, and anyone who covets a custom-designed Kohler bathroom can rejoice at the recent opening of Lodge Kohler, an exclusive hotel in Green Bay’s new Titletown District, an area that features a 10-acre public plaza in a parklike setting.

Located directly across the street from historic Lambeau Field, the five story 144-room Lodge Kohler offers four-diamond amenities true to Kohler tradition.

The panoramic top-floor Taverne in the Sky restaurant and bar affords guests both inside and outside dining and socializing. Outfitted with fire pits and lounge seating, the adjacent fifth-floor Sky Terrace overlooks Lambeau Field just across the street. It’s ideal for group gatherings up to 50 people.

Two private rooms within the restaurant are available for meetings, private dining or both for up to 20 guests. Each dining room has Air Media capabilities that allow groups to wirelessly present on the flat screen TV from laptop, tablet, or any mobile device.

Located in the fifth-floor restaurant, The Tower is a semi-private environment for group dinners for 40 people. It also works well for dinner, lunch or breakfast meetings with a screen and projector. Other configurations are possible for groups who want to buy out the space for the evening.

Outside on the main level, the Gazebo gathering area is nestled in a courtyard with the Kohler Waters Spa in the background. Surrounded by plants and greenery, it’s a semi-secluded setting away from the stadium view for receptions and other social events. There is ample room for musicians and a bar.

Lodge Kohler offers catering services for gatherings of 20 people or more.

Noah’s Event Venue – Madison

From its 2007 founding in Utah, Noah’s Event Venues have opened in more than 35 locations across the country. The majority have launched since 2013 (there were five then) and several more are on the drawing board.

The Madison venue opened about a year ago just off Highway 151 in the American Center, a location strategically chosen for its proximity to key business locations and area hotels.

The American Center location is contemporary and high end, with soaring ceilings and large windows that flood the rooms with light. Various function rooms, smaller to large, accommodate meetings, banquets, weddings, reunions, seminars, conferences, holiday or office parties, training sessions, breakout rooms, board meetings, birthday parties and more. An outdoor patio can also accommodate events.

Each space is an inviting backdrop that be personalized from the wide selection of customization packages. Options can include specialty linens, ceiling décor from fabric to crystal chandeliers, colored accent lighting, multiple table and chair arrangements, table centerpieces and other custom decorations, set- up and take down, state-of-the-art AV systems, lecterns, and board room arrangements. Wi-Fi is available throughout.

The company has an open vendor catering policy (they offer a “recommended” list; prep space is available onsite). Their alcohol policy requires that all be purchased from their preferred partner. Full-time staff is onsite and inspection tours are encouraged.


This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Wisconsin Meetings.

Trade Show

5 Attention-Grabbing Trade Show Booths

Trade Show

Connect Association Magazine – March 2017

By Betty W. Stark

Showing up to your trade show booths with company collateral and a stack of business cards isn’t going to earn you any ROI. Attendees want innovative, eye-popping concepts with wow factors they’ll talk about long after the show—like these five attention-getters, for example. Sure, they cost a pretty penny, but they’re sure to increase foot traffic to (and engagement with) your booth

HD or Bust

The JCM Global booth at the 2016 Global Gaming high-Expo in Las Vegas incorporated a seamless high definition video wall designed by Absolute Exhibits that gave a dramatic illusion of water flowing around the company’s product showcase room.

VR to the max

The Curacao Tourist Board fascinated thousands of attendees at The New York Times Travel Show in 2016 with a 360-degree virtual reality experience of the island’s Queen Emma Bridge. Curacao later won the show’s most imaginative booth award thanks to the tech-savvy idea.’

An Artsy Touch

Skyline created “The Art & Science of Behr” exhibit at the International Builders’ Show 2016 in Las Vegas. Using touch-screen technologies to create paint-by-numbers stations, visitors learned about Behr products and qualified for a prize when they visited all stations.

Bangle Jangle

A2z Inc., a web and mobile solutions provider for event organizers and participants, engaged booth traffic at IAEE’s Expo! Expo! 2016 in Anaheim, California, with lighted wristbands that led guests on a jam session through the exhibit to win gift cards.

Feeling Looney

Chatting with 3-D cartoon characters might feel a little freaky, but it didn’t scare off AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals crowds at the booth at the American Psychiatric Association show in San Francisco. Created by animation artist Gary Jesch and his CHOPS & Assoc. Live Animation, company, the installation broke attendance and client engagement records.

Roll the Dice

Roll the Dice at Wisconsin’s Premier Casino Venues

Betty W.Stark – Wisconsin Meetings Magazine – Summer 2017

Call them integrated resorts, one-stop destinations or amenity-rich settings, casino properties have solidly moved to the forefront as appealing environments for meetings of all shapes and most sizes.

From a meeting planner’s perspective the pluses of a casino-based program are considerable: a dedicated planning staff; state-of-the-art meeting and event space; top-of-the-line lodging with a fine-tuned emphasis on hospitality; comprehensive food service; onsite restaurants from casual to upscale; after-hours entertainment (no shuttles required); and not to be underestimated, free parking for hundreds to thousands of vehicles.

With 28 casino locations owned and managed by 11 federally-recognized Native American tribes, Wisconsin is richly endowed with options for groups and events ranging in size from small board meetings to sprawling trade shows, nonprofit galas, annual conferences and more.

Radisson Hotel and Conference Center and the Oneida Casino, Green Bay

The Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Green Bay wins the meeting-friendly jackpot on several levels. It’s located right across the street from Austin Straubel International Airport and it’s attached to a casino.

The 354-room hotel is also seamlessly connected to 30,000 square feet of flexible function space in the newly-renovated Great Lakes meeting complex, Three Clans Ballroom and lavish pre-function area. Teleconference capabilities, state-of-the-art AV, free WiFi with increased bandwidth and seating for 2,000 rounds out the offerings.

Located beyond the conference center and under the same roof, the Oneida Casino underwent a $28 million facelift in 2014 that added three new restaurants, including the Vince Lombardi Sports Bar and Grill replete with the NFL legend’s memorabilia, more gaming and expanded smoke-free areas. By pre-arrangement, groups can secure dedicated space at gaming tables.

According to Mary Shaw, director of sales and catering, hotel rooms have been refreshed too. “We’ve added new TVs and refrigerators, and the Sleep Number Beds are out, replaced by new comfort beds.”

The hotel itself offers intimate function space like the President’s Club and Plaza Board rooms. The Fireplace Lobby Bar, showcasing Oneida tribal history, is available for receptions, hospitality functions and lunch groups.

Shaw points out that planners can infuse tribal culture into meetings.

“Tribal members are available to share insight into their history and rich traditions. The nearby Oneida American Market (June to September) is a big attraction for groups, displaying various food options and traditions.”

Menominee Casino Resort, Keshena

In 1987, Wisconsin’s first “Las Vegas-style” casino opened in northeast Wisconsin at Keshena, near Shawano. Today, the casino resort’s 13,000-square-foot convention center, 103-room AAA-rated hotel and 33,000-square-foot casino offer planners a full-service destination for groups in a sublime Northwoods setting near the Nicolet National Forest.

Resort meeting team member Richard Oshkeshequoam points out that the convention center’s Five Clans Ballroom can be subdivided, and five adjacent breakout rooms accommodate smaller groups up to 50. Attendees will find robust WiFi throughout and other meeting room equipment is available.

“In addition to full-service banquet and group events, in-house staff works with planners to streamline all aspects of lodging, meeting and after-hours events,” he says.

“The Forest Island Restaurant located in the casino is popular with groups. And about nine miles from the resort, our stand-alone casual restaurant, The Thunderbird, has inside and outside dining areas that can be reserved exclusively by groups of about 35 in each setting. We can also arrange group transportation to the ’T-Bird.’ There’s also a small gaming facility onsite.”

The resort’s 33,000-square-foot main casino features regularly scheduled entertainment Friday and Saturday evenings. Meeting groups are free to hire outside entertainment exclusively for their events. Popular offproperty group activities include area golf outings, rafting on the Wolf River, exploring local Menominee tribe history and culture, and boating on nearby Legend Lake.

Ho-Chunk Casino Hotel and Convention Center, Wisconsin Dells

The Ho-Chunk gaming, hotel and convention complex near Wisconsin Dells recently had a facelift, according to Dave Abangan, senior manager, public relations, and it’s “better than ever.” Attracting business well beyond casino visitors, The Grand Ballroom seats up to 1,200 and there are several meeting room configurations on both the upper and lower levels, including break-out and board room configurations.

“Meetings and conferences are very important to us,” Abangan adds. We work closely with planners to achieve their group objectives, asking them, “What are your goals? We have all these resources at your disposal.

“We have staff to assist with meetings (up to 1,000), outdoor functions, special events like an executive dinner meeting at our elegant open-grill Copper Oak Restaurant, hospitality suites with portable bars. We can book talent—local musicians, area magicians—and we can block seats for a group when we offer national entertainment, everything from celebrity chefs to country western superstars and top musical groups. We can even arrange a private artist meet-and-greet, with advance planning.

“We have 30,000 square feet of exhibit space accommodating 90 trade show booths, and multiple meeting rooms on two levels—WiFi throughout, and AV, projection screens and all the meeting amenities. Within the hotel, we offer a VIP Wing and VIP Lounge Area, and our Executive Suites with fireplaces can also serve as hospitality suites.”

No surprise, Ho-Chunk business meeting attendees often bring their families with them. The hotel offers passes to nearby waterparks, and group outings at reduced rates can be arranged to offsite attractions in the Dells, with transportation included.

Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, Milwaukee

Already one of the largest entertainment destinations in the Midwest, the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino is slated to become even grander. Pending Milwaukee County approval, a hotel tower addition scheduled to open in spring 2019 will boost room count by 119 rooms/suites and add expanded meeting and function space, and a full-service spa.

For sheer size, amenities and sophistication, Potawatomi—a Gold LEED Certified Hotel—is a standout among state casino offerings. From a planner’s perspective, the Event Center—

defined as a “blank slate”— can adapt to the specific needs of groups from 10 to 3,000 for trade shows, receptions, banquets, galas and more.

“We are doing more trade shows for the business sector, and especially IT,” says Hotel Director Hassan Abdel-Moneim, “It’s about relationship-building. We offer a big draw to our meeting clients, because we are more fun than a standard hotel setting and their customers want to be involved. After hours, we can offer private group tables in the casino, with gaming demonstrations and instruction. It’s all under one roof.”

Groups do go off-property for special outings, according to Ryan Amundson, external communications manager. “We opened the 2017 Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Tourism with a reception at the nearby Harley-Davison Museum—it was a great way to open, with the Harley history in Wisconsin.

“Ball games at Miller Park are popular too, along with craft beer tours throughout the Menomonee Valley.”

A Planner’s Perspective

Dawn Zanoni, Wisconsin Department of Tourism meeting planner for the 2017 Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Tourism, gives glowing reviews to Potawatomi Resort and Casino.

“It is a breathtakingly beautiful property, all-inclusive with lodging, meeting, dining, trade show and entertainment under one roof. The service level is higher than most stand-alone hotels. Food quality and service are excellent too—it’s high-end dining.

“The staff is timely and conscientious— they did a great job for us. We designed the program to fit the property, rather than the property bending to our needs. We had 1,000 attendees this year—a large group.

“Potawatomi has built-in elegance, so we too were more ’elegant’ than at past conferences. The facility, especially the ballroom décor, lends itself to that. It’s the first time we did black tie optional.”


This article with photographs was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Wisconsin Meetings.