Meetings & Conventions: Consider this... - September
Alternative venues may be the answer to your budgeting
By Dale LeathermanS
ome groups can pay top dollar to have first
dibs on hotel conference space. And then there are the rest of us.
With hotels enjoying all-time highs in occupancy and rates, many
planners have chosen to explore cost-effective alternatives. Zoos,
planetariums, aquariums, mansions, parks, houses of worship,
colleges, camps and other venues are moonlighting as places for
"Nontraditional meeting venues couldn't be happier with today's
hotel market," says Michele Nichols, publisher of The Guide to
Unique Meeting Facilities (AMARC, Inc., Minturn, Colo.;
970-827-5500; www.theguide.com). "As hotels raise their rates,
meeting planners are scrambling to find interesting and affordable
alternatives." Once everyone gets used to the idea of more
imaginative meeting space, today's "alternative" sites will become
tomorrow's "traditional" sites, says Nichols, and cost will not
necessarily compel a planner to choose an offbeat setting.
That's already the case with companies like Microsoft and MCI,
which have held seminars in movie theaters. In addition, law firms
are meeting in museums, botanical gardens are hosting investment
groups, and stockholders of major corporations are gathering at
Of course, a botanical garden won't have the infrastructure of a
Ritz-Carlton -- the food-and-beverage service, the high-tech
audiovisual capabilities or the convenience of lodging and meeting
rooms under one roof.
Most alternative sites will require more planning and, perhaps,
some compromises. Here are some unique meeting options for both
large and small groups, as well as planning points to consider
before booking an event there.
Schools and colleges
Educational institutions are not only economical places to hold
meetings but they usually have resources equal or superior to those
found at a hotel. On the downside, dining options may be limited to
cafeterias, and accommodations are usually dorm-style. However,
many colleges are willing to work with a planner on upgrades,
including higher-quality food and beverage. Be aware that meetings
held during the regular school term may require special planning to
avoid conflicts with scheduled classes or student use of
Weighing the pros and cons, however, tips heavily on the
positive side, says Susana Morgan, communications coordinator for
housing and residential life at California's San Diego State
University (619-594-2941). "A major advantage to selecting a
university for a conference is cost-effectiveness," she says. "For
a moderate price, a school like San Diego State can accommodate
everything from business groups to athletic camps. We have athletic
facilities, libraries, laboratories, computer labs and 'smart
classrooms' with sophisticated A/V equipment." Groups the school
has hosted include the Special Olympics, housing 1,000 kids and
using all of the campus athletic facilities, and the League of
Women Voters for an annual four-day business meeting.
Few venues can be as flexible as a college campus, which offers
several choice spots for a particular event. For example, banquet
settings can range from poolside to a large auditorium.
Venues such as zoos, aquariums, planetariums, libraries, museums
and botanical gardens welcome outside meeting groups during
off-hours. This not only supplements a facility's revenue but also
exposes the facility to new audiences.
Annette Smiley, a member of a women's investment group in
Huntsville, Ala., called Wednesday's Winners, is always looking for
interesting meeting space. "We try to have at least one yearly
meeting away from our regular place," says Smiley.
"We chose the Huntsville Botanical Gardens (205-830-4447)
because I firmly believe in using nonprofit facilities," she adds.
"They're inexpensive to rent and, if someone in your group is a
member, they're often free.
"Lunch is catered by a local service, and during breaks we roam
the gardens. It's lovely. After an hour and a half of
profit-and-loss calculations, we're ready for a look at the
Botanical gardens and arboretums are spectacular settings for
the social segments of a conference. But while they offer varied
indoor and outdoor sites for meetings, the limits of inside space
may call for some creativity or the use of tents. "Sometimes you
run into logistics problems with a facility of this sort because
[group business] is not their primary business," says Gene Pospicil
of Morgan Keegan, a Huntsville investment firm that used the
gardens for a day-long continuing education session for 50
accountants. "At a Holiday Inn you know the per-person costs of
everything, and you know the overhead projectors and screens will
be there. Logistics are more difficult in an offbeat setting." But
the attractiveness is worth the extra effort, Pospicil adds.
Fine arts centers
Museums, performing arts centers and theaters provide ample seating
and high-tech sound systems, lending themselves to certain kinds of
One example is the Grandel Theatre (314-533-1884) in St. Louis,
Mo., a renovated 1884 church that now hosts performing arts. "The
theater's selling point is that it's very intimate," says director
of marketing Maureen Concannon. "And it was renovated six years
ago, so it's wired for all sorts of technical needs."
"The Grandel's size, beauty, acoustics and accommodating staff
add up to a fabulous venue," says James Maloney, secretary and
director of shareholders' relations for the Pulitzer Publishing
Corporation, the parent company of four radio stations, nine
television stations, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Arizona Daily
Star and a group of smaller newspapers.
Planners using a theater for a meeting or special event will
need to take into account both rehearsal and performance schedules.
And if there's a set on stage, meeting groups will have to work
around it, but it makes for a fun and creative backdrop.
Recognizing that not everyone can attend an annual meeting,
Microsoft Corporation pioneered "Microsoft at the Movies," a
simultaneous broadcast of the conference in 26 United Artists
theaters in the United States and Canada.
"Microsoft has done this five times; it's just like being
there," says Cliff Jurgens, head of United Artists Theaters' new
business development division (800-UA-UA-UA-UA).
"Our client base is typically Fortune 500 companies," he says.
"Planners want a unique way to deliver a message. Plus, we can do
full catering or open the concession stand.
"We also have an electronic survey system with wireless keypads
so that companies can poll employees and get immediate results," he
adds. "Not many sites can provide this."
Advantages are that theaters are well-signed and the parking is
plentiful. These venues are, of course, not available in the
evening or on afternoons when matinées are shown.
Private mansions and estates have a special kind of cachet.
Meetings or receptions can take place in a modern addition, a
historic room or wing, or on the grounds.
Overnight accommodations range from quaint guest rooms with
shared baths to opulent private suites. Nonresidential facilities
often work with nearby hotels and inns. Catered meal functions and
breaks may be held indoors or outdoors, styled casual or elegant,
and host small gatherings or groups of thousands.
The Washington, D.C., division of Saab was looking for a
luxurious, exclusive backdrop in which to present its new line of
cars to a group of dealers. They chose Selma Plantation
(703-777-1885), a private estate in Leesburg, Va.
"Selma Plantation borders a main highway, but the house is set
deep in the property, so it feels remote," says owner Ellen
Sanders. "Our grand ballroom seats 125, and there are places for
smaller groups to gather inside, in the garden or on the front
Large estates offer options for all-day meetings and activities.
The privately owned and operated Great Southwest Equestrian Center
(281-599-0767) in Katy, Texas, just outside Houston, hosts a
variety of horse shows and rodeos throughout the year and is also a
popular setting for non-equestrian events. The 107-acre center has
a mansion with two spacious ballrooms and an art gallery. Meeting
attendees can switch from business or formal attire to jeans and
attend horse events taking place in the 5,000-square-foot covered,
open-air arena, or lunch at the 25,000-square-foot picnic
Camps, lodges and retreats
Although rustic lodges and camps are often in wide-open spaces, the
environment can facilitate a sense of closeness and intimacy.
Remote natural settings and group living arrangements can foster
restorative and rehabilitative effects, and challenges such as
ropes courses, rock climbing and cross-country skiing can further
strengthen group dynamics and individual confidence. Obviously,
this type of setting isn't for everyone, and careful consideration
should be given to safety issues and the physical abilities of
"People have come to expect more out of a conference than a
corporate message; they expect it to be interesting and fun," says
Dave Wiggins, president of Boulder, Colo.-based American Wilderness
Experience (800-444-0099), a company that organizes adventure
travel trips. "Guest ranches are perfect for small conferences --
25 to 75 people, depending on the ranch," he says. "Ranches often
court this sort of business with special brochures on what they
have to offer in accommodations and meeting space," he says.
"They're keyed in to personal service and can plan rides, rodeos or
other special events around meetings, which makes for a memorable
Prices are attractive during spring and fall shoulder seasons,
says Wiggins, and groups often can book an entire ranch. If
families are invited, planners should make sure that there are
suitable activities for spouses and children. Access to complete
kitchen facilities means meals can be as simple or as lavish as a
group desires. Most camps can provide assistance with meals or
recommend a caterer to accommodate your group.
"Our corporate business is growing so fast that we're building a
halfmillion-dollar multi-use facility with a second restaurant,
purely with conferences in mind," says Dave Arnold, owner of Class
VI River Runners (800-CLASS-VI), a whitewater rafting company in
West Virginia. "Corporate groups want exclusive use of space for
meals and meetings, so this addition will eliminate conflicts with
our regular guests." National, state and city parks offer
inexpensive venues in scenic natural settings. Accommodations are
usually rustic, with communal cabins, bathhouses and dining halls
Not all parks, however, are found in remote locations. One of
the most popular parks for group events in the Washington, D.C.,
area is Prince William National Forest (703-221-7181), a
17,000-acre park in Triangle, Va. Less than a half-hour drive from
the Capitol, the park cabins can be used for both meetings and
Groups considering park venues should take into account the
facility's liquor laws, quiet hours, availability of electrical
hookups for audiovisual equipment and the possibility of inclement
weather. Most parks are seasonal, and groups may have to share some
facilities with other groups or individuals.
Houses of worship
"Economics is one of the reasons groups like to use a church for
meetings," says Richard Pitt, business manager of the Metropolitan
United Methodist Church (313-875-7407) in Detroit, Mich. The
75-year-old cathedral-style church is in the New Center Area of the
city, near the General Motors building.
"Using a church is often cheaper than most rental facilities,"
he says. "And Metropolitan United has well-appointed meeting rooms,
a beautiful parlor, an auditorium with acoustics so pure it's been
used as a soundstage, a dining room and a kitchen."
The church has hosted "everything from the American Red Cross to
banks," Pitt says. The local school system held training sessions
here for Head Start workers, the election commission trained
precinct workers here, and the sheriff's office has held drug
seminars in the church.
Groups using a house of worship should note that certain
activities and practices -- such as gambling, smoking and alcohol
-- are often not allowed. In addition, scheduling weekend group
activities may be difficult if the house of worship uses its own
facilities during the weekend. And for groups planning late-night
weekend activities, everything will have to be cleaned up and in
order for early Saturday or Sunday worship services.
Dale Leatherman is a free-lance writer based in
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