Change of Space

Unique venues beyond the hotel ballroom

The Space

Best served raw:
A detail from
KARLA Conceptual
Event Experiences’
sparkling new
venue, The Space

It’s not news that hotel ballrooms aren’t the only venues suitable for creative events. Yet, with an increasingly interesting choice of places available to meeting planners from museums and zoos to ranches and high-end hair salons venturing off-site is no longer just an option: Some call it a matter of responsibility. 
    Dale Harmon, president of the Chicago-based International Special Events Society, can gussy up a ballroom with the best of them, but he urges planners to look beyond those walls. “When people come to Washington, D.C., for a four-day meeting, they don’t want to spend every meal at their hotel,” he says. “There are so many beautiful spaces, and so many different types of venues. Any meeting planner worth their salt would get their attendees out to one.”
    The following pages highlight four genres of unique venues, exploring their particular advantages and challenges.


Sporty venue:
A Niketown
in-store event

Retail Shops
With most retail chains piling top dollar into a bevy of constantly rotating (and often fabulous) displays, stores can make for fun, hip and surprising event venues, especially when the space is well matched to the group. Consider a boldly colored Niketown for the athletic set (visit for a list of stores that host events in various cities), an interactive video game paradise  (, in New York City), a fresh gourmet market to help bring in the foodies (, in Chicago and Milwaukee) or even the famous FAO Schwarz (
    Although some retail establishments can be wary about renting out their space, planners who’ve wrangled their dream stores say fostering a sense of partnership is the key. Richard Summers, executive director of creative and production services for Launch, a division of Orlando-based Convention Planning Services, nabbed one major department store for a group of fashion-minded women by giving the shop every opportunity to sell, setting up a lavish brunch in the cosmetics area and making sure every counter was manned by a brand representative ready to distribute advice, gift bags and coupons. “You have to ask yourself, how can you make your event a win-win, for the client as well as the store?” poses Summers.
    Points to watch out for: As dazzling as it might be, you likely will need to clear out some of the retail clutter for your event and quickly, since today’s stores often stay open until 9 p.m. so find a space whose displays are easily moved and replaced.
    Plus, retail square footage can be very valuable, so setting up catering stations in tight spaces might require an especially creative approach. A roomy storage area or an on-site conference room, however, can fit the bill nicely.

Outdoor Spaces
Dale Harmon says demand for alfresco venues has skyrocketed in the past three years. As evidence, he points to the glut of new outdoor additions at hotels and event venues. Little wonder, too. As the race for the biggest special event “wow” continues to mount, what could be more welcome than a breath of fresh air?
    For scenery that offers more than the typical greens, consider gems like San Diego’s Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa (, whose ample, Spanish hacienda-framed courtyards offer a character all their own. And don’t shy away from more exotic landscapes. Just 90 miles northeast, La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort in California’s Borrego Hills holds off-site dinners amidst 600,000 acres of undeveloped desert. (It’s best to go in the autumn months, when daytime temperatures hover in the low 80s F.) Alternatively, rope off a breezy, scenic city square or take advantage of the new calling card of chic downtown hotels the rooftop pool for a rich and happening sense of place.
    Tents, of course, come highly recommended for an outdoor venture, especially during rainy seasons, but Pamela M. Patsavas, CSEP, owner and president of Oakbrook, Ill.-based Distinctive Event Productions, says planners can forego the pricey backup measure as long as there’s a solid Plan B. Look for outdoor/indoor combination venues, like New York City’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden (, which bases all private events out of its 300-accommodating greenhouse, giving curious attendees the freedom to wander outside.
    With sufficient notice, many hotels will be able to provide an emergency ballroom on-site. (Cautious planners might want to have the backup venue decorated in advance.)
    Other considerations, depending on the venue, include tent permits, flooring, water, power generators, in-tent climate control and rest rooms, notes Denise Adam, Manhasset, N.Y.-based regional director for HelmsBriscoe. In hot and buggy climates, she advises, add a counter stocked with cold, damp washcloths and a large stash of mosquito spray. “People always forget that,” Adam says. “It’s a life-saver.”

Camelback Vista

Residential retreat:
Bella Palazzo’s
grand Camelback Vista

Private Homes
Residential venues are perfect for a sense of well-heeled exclusivity. Aside from privacy and prestige, dinner in a private home means an inevitable level of comfort, and providing the home is glamorous enough awe.
    To ensure ultimate impact, hold the event in a home that reflects the local character. Rental agency Bella Palazzo (, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., offers a wide selection of distinctly Southwest-flavored paradises, like the mountainside Camelback Vista. Miami Beach, Fla.-based Locations Extraordinaire ( offers a host of only-in-the-Sunshine-State properties like the aptly named Miami Vice estate.
    For a touch of celebrity, consider South Beach’s Casa Casuarina, a.k.a. the Versace mansion, which rents out its courtyards and some interior spaces to groups high-end enough to make it through the private club’s screening process.
    When booking residences, it’s a good idea to work with third-party rental agencies. Independent owners, say some planners, can be unreliable, meddlesome or unaware of their own neighborhood’s rules. Groups such as Sonoma, Calif.’s Beautiful Places ( will brush up on local sound ordinances and parking restrictions first, to keep events from getting shut down by complaining neighbors and responsive police.
    You needn’t shut the homeowner out completely, though. To bring a touch of the personal, some agencies will invite him or her to the event to directly answer questions, although Bella Palazzo’s president and owner Margie Van Zee warns planners to consider whether they’ll feel like intruders with the deed-holder present.
    Keep in mind that, even given the largest of homes, a formal dinner for any more than 40 people will only work well in an outdoor setting. If staying inside, think cocktails.

Raw Spaces
“Nothing is chicer right now than warehouses,” asserts Miami Beach’s Karla Dascal, president and founder of KARLA Conceptual Event Experiences. From New Orleans’ gritty TwiRoPa ( to Dascal’s own pristine, 12,000-square-foot exhibit hall/work station, The Space (, these are high-ceilinged odes to possibility.
    Ambitious planners love such blank canvases for how creatively they can decorate. Case in point: New York City-based Matthew David Events’ product launch for Avon this year, which transformed Manhattan’s icy Newspace into a cinnamon-warm autumn evening. “We could never have done that if we had to fight with a ballroom carpet,” says David.
    Those looking for space at its rawest  can call a local realtor a few months out, suggests Patsavas, and ask for an ungentrified warehouse that will be vacant and rentable for one night. Spaces not prepped for events, however, often will entail a few extra preparations, including fire code checks, air conditioning (if it isn’t already installed), consideration to the ceiling’s weight bearing limit (if lights and equipment will be hung) and ample rest rooms. “It takes a bit more work,” says Patsavas, “but it can really wow people.”
    Most importantly, notes David, keep in mind that not all raw spaces are alike. Planners should consider whether they would prefer a bright, windowed space or something moodier. And how large can a room be without having one’s attendees feel lost? “You have to identify what your event is really about,” David says. “But that’s what finding any venue is all about tailoring the experience until it’s just right.”