By Claire Hannum | Photo: © Lake Geneva Cruise Line

Oceans are (dare we say it?) a bit overrated. You don’t need saltwater for a fun afternoon on the waves, especially when it comes to bringing groups together.

The Midwest’s thousands of lakes and rivers are revered for a reason — and their natural beauty makes them an ideal backdrop for the buzzy conversations and clinking glasses of small group gatherings. That’s why more meeting or event planners are turning to booking a lake or river cruise for a fresh, after-hours team outing or even daytime meeting.

With diverse fleets that can accommodate varying group sizes and types of events, cruise lines can adapt to a wide range of needs. They often offer special coach parking, and can help you choose the vessel that best suits your group’s interests and itinerary. “We do a lot of business outings,” acknowledges Angie Jahns, charter sales manager at Lake Geneva Cruise Line in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. “With private parties, we have eight different boats that can accommodate two people to 225. We can do lunches, dinners and cocktails.”

Taking in the scenery can be a relaxing way for groups to unwind, but for meeting and event planners who are looking for unique on-board activities, many cruise lines offer creative add-ons as well. Lake Geneva Cruise Line, for example, offers a geocaching experience that fosters both outside-the-box thinking and friendly competition.

“Participants get on and we break them up into different groups,” Jahns explains. Groups then answer questions to access GPS coordinates that they use to scavenge for treasures in various locations around the lake. “They actually get off the boat to find some geocaches,” she hints. Other lines also offer local historical or sightseeing tours, on-board dance parties or multi-course meals.

Below are six Midwest cruise lines that are top-notch at accommodating groups.

1. Lake Geneva Cruise Line, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a front-row view of the Geneva Lake’s array of scenic Gilded Age mansions. The line has been operating since 1873 and that history is present in every lovingly restored boat it operates.

Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s eight vessels can accommodate up to 225 people for lunches, dinners, cocktail hours or other custom events. From Steam Yacht Louise, launched in 1902, to Lake Yacht Polaris, the oldest boat, built in 1898, the cruise line has options for every group.

The cruise line’s unique programming options include geocaching challenges, casino nights, and daytime group tours of the local historic Black Point Estate and Gardens built in 1888. Of course, more traditional cruise options are also on the menu for groups who are just looking for a low-key ride across the lake.

2. Lady of the Lake, Clear Lake, Iowa

Clear Lake is home of the Surf Ballroom, the last venue played by Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in 1959. The town remains a music hub today — but that’s just one part of its story. Clear Lake is also a summer getaway destination lined with golf courses and resorts, as well as home to the big lake it gets its name from.

Enter the Lady of the Lake, Clear Lake’s popular cruising go-to and one of just a handful of paddle wheel boats still operating in the U.S. With a capacity of 150 people, the Lady of the Lake features multiple levels, and a stage that can be used for presentations, dance parties and more. The on-board bar can serve soft drinks, cocktails, beer and wine according to planners’ preferences. The Lady of the Lake works with several local caterers to best suit each group’s culinary needs, as well as a local photographer to capture any team-building moments you wish.

3. Padelford Riverboats, St. Paul, Minnesota

Padelford Riverboats has been cruising the Mississippi River since 1969, serving over 5 million passengers along the way. Among its historic fleet is an authentic sternwheeler, a boat propelled by a paddle wheel at the stern, which is a rarity on the Mississippi. Padelford can host anywhere from 140 to 500 guests.

Two of its boats, the Anson Northrup and the Betsey Northrup, can combine to accommodate especially large groups. When the two boats are connected, passengers can roam freely between the two vessels for even more space. This mega-boat offers three rooms, an additional large open space, four bars, two band spaces and two dance floors. Smaller groups can kick back on the Jonathan Padelford sternwheeler, which uses hydraulic engines that look identical to classic steam engines … and still make that iconic steam engine sound.

On-board, full-service bars and in-house chefs specializing in locally sourced ingredients keep events running seamlessly as groups cruise through St. Paul. Plus, Padelford’s event managers can help you plan your gathering, whether you’re looking for a team-building event, mixer or meeting.

4. Celebration River Cruises, Moline, Illinois

Celebration’s crown jewel, the Celebration Belle, cruises up and down the Mississippi River between the border of Illinois and Iowa. The massive paddle wheel boat was designed specifically for the Mississippi and holds a whopping 750 passengers, offering an expansive venue for a wide range of event sizes.

This year marks Celebration’s 40th season of cruising and with those years comes the hard-earned experience of hosting all manner of events with ease. No matter where your event takes you, Celebration is ready to help you customize the ideal itinerary.

The Belle offers four decks, two of which are climate-controlled, and is ideal for business luncheons, dinner cruises and more. Planners can take advantage of the boat’s ample space by hosting a meeting on one deck and a meal on another. For groups of 50 or more, the Belle also offers after-hours pizza cruises. Group cruises can run from an hour and a half to a full day.

5. Gateway Arch Riverboats, St. Louis, Missouri

After a busy day of meetings in St. Louis, add some levity to the itinerary with a cruise that offers front-row views of the famous Gateway Arch. A river cruise is one of the best ways to see the city’s most iconic attraction — and it’s more fun than a conference room.

Groups can strike out on a river tour, an evening dinner cruise with live music, or a customized event aboard the Tom Sawyer, a lauded three-story replica paddlewheel boat. The Tom Sawyer can accommodate groups of up to 150, and offers plated meals, bar service and buffets as you cruise past the Gateway to the West.

6. Lewis & Clark Riverboat, Bismarck, North Dakota

The Lewis & Clark Riverboat cruises along the shores of Bismarck on the Missouri River, just as the explorers themselves did over 200 years ago, but this time, with way more creature comforts. Groups can retrace Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s travels in style over a meeting or during an after-hours gathering.

The boat’s upper and lower decks can host up to 105 people combined. For a sit-down meal, 64 guests can be comfortably accommodated on the boat’s lower level. For a buffet meal, groups can stretch out more and utilize both levels. The Lewis & Clark offers bar service and snacks, as well as customizable options based on a group’s unique needs and specifications.

Claire Hannum is a New York-based freelance writer who covers travel, events and wellness.