by Jonathan Vatner | June 01, 2014
In February, the Rocky Mountain chapter of Meeting Professionals International held an education and networking event with a memorable twist. Instead of booking a hotel in Denver, organizers rented the Lamar Street Center, an event space in nearby Arvada, Colo., filled with vintage cars and motorcycles. One room was decorated like a 1950s diner; in another, antique gas-station signs hung from the ceiling. Guests also could explore an adjacent museum and dealership devoted to classic cars.

"The space really got people talking," says Nancy Cooper, sales manager at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver and director of strategic alliance for the Rocky Mountain chapter of MPI, who found the Lamar Street Center through a lead-sharing group of non-hotel venues.

Hotels generally are fabulous at hosting well-run meetings. But to shake things up and give events a fresh perspective, many planners are thinking outside of the (big) box and booking events at unique off-site venues. It might take a little more work to ensure a flawless meeting, but exciting surroundings can inspire and engage attendees, providing added value. And in many cases, there's a cost savings, too.

LeAnne Grillo, partner at Spaces for Change, based in Newton, Mass., often holds meetings in venues other than hotels to provide an offbeat experience. Her gatherings are planned for organizations interested in social change, making it critical to break attendees out of the expected routine. "Structure generates behavior," Grillo says. "We show up and interact differently if we're sitting in rows in a meeting room than if we're, say, in a circle in a tent in the middle of a field looking out at the mountains."

The following pages offer advice for finding wildly different venues -- and partnering with them for the best event possible.

Finding the right space
Some planners find venues by asking friends and colleagues, posting on listservs and Googling. Others place their trust in destination management companies to find hidden gems that will even impress locals. Either route will result in an almost limitless selection of estates, warehouses, museums, restaurants, art galleries and more. What follows are a few exciting examples.

• Take them to college. Margaret Stafford, meetings director for the Section of Antitrust Law of the Chicago-based American Bar Association, relies on auditoriums at New York University in Manhattan and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. -- comfortable, professional theaters with built-in A/V and free Wi-Fi. For more about booking such venues, see "On-Campus Meetings," at left.

• Dine among statesmen. Washington, D.C., is chock full of regal dining rooms, many with private gardens. Stafford has planned American Bar Association dinners in the Capitol, the Russian Embassy and the headquarters of the Organization of American States. A DMC can help book such spaces, though Stafford warns that if Capitol dining rooms are needed for last-minute official business, a private event can get bumped.

• Choose a blank canvas. Jennifer Miller, DMCP, the San Diego-based president of Access Destination Services for Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, has thrown parties in abandoned buildings, military hangars and breweries. Her team clears out these raw spaces, cleans the floor, hangs lighting and creates a spectacle.

• Be street-savvy. Access Destination Services works with city agencies to close off streets for block parties and sets up catering with restaurants on the block. Sometimes a nearby art gallery will open its doors to attendees, too.

Jennifer Miller points out that a parking lot or garage, both of which often sit empty at night, also are filled with possibilities. Access Destination Services has brought in go-karts and created a raceway for competitive groups. Also, parking lots allow food trucks, which offer tasty, surprising and inexpensive solutions to catering.

• Go gallery hopping. Karen Shackman, president of Shackman Associates New York, works with a variety of art galleries in Manhattan, some completely bare, others with dramatic lighting and lounge furniture. She finds that these spaces, some of which accommodate 300 or more attendees, can be flexible about booking last-minute events and will work with limited budgets.

• Look for ready-made décor. While a raw space is great for completely customized events, the opposite can be easier to pull off. For example, Shackman recommends the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, which can hold up to 300 guests and is magnificent during the annual orchid show in the spring.

• Go home. Access Destination Services has held grand events in private homes, especially those with a story, whether it's a historic home or a movie set. Jennifer Miller advises, however, that the dinner portion of the event will generally happen on the lawn. "The owners don't want you eating at their dinner table," she notes.

• Book after hours. Museums, theme parks and other attractions that close at night usually are willing to reopen after hours for private parties. Such venues offer built-in entertainment for guests. "A nighttime zoo event is a different experience from being in the zoo in the middle of the day," Miller says.

The USS Midway, a vintage 1945 aircraft carrier docked in San Diego, is a museum by day and an event space for up to 3,500 by night. "The background is the downtown skyline, but it's also floating right on the water," Miller says. "You can even shoot fireworks."

Sometimes nighttime itself can be part of the theme. For a recent annual event for Manheim, an automobile auction company, Tracy Stuckrath, CMM, CSEP, president and chief connecting officer for Atlanta-based Thrive! Meetings and Events, rented out Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. On the venue's expansive main floor, punctuated by a huge dinosaur skeleton and other ancient specimens, she planned an event themed after the Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum. Entertainers pretending to be statues would move as guests walked by.

But it can also be frustrating to work with spaces that don't open for private events until nighttime. "If you need time to set up, you might not be able to start the event until 8 p.m.," warns Gayle Weisman, CMP, a manager of meetings and conferences for IEEE, a Piscataway, N.J.-based technical and professional association. "And some venues allow events only on certain nights."

• Get creative at a hotel. Given a little imagination, interesting venues can be found within hotel property lines. For a Manheim party held at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge resort, the pool and tennis areas reminded Tracy Stuckrath of the Hamptons, and she planned a laid-back event complete with white rectangular furniture from Cort. And at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes in Orlando, the pink columns in the conference center's porte cochere seemed ideal for an Arabian Nights event, and Stuckrath brought in Moroccan rugs and a snake charmer.