Consider this...

Meetings & Conventions: Consider this... - September 1998 Current Issue
September 1998
Consider this...

Alternative venues may be the answer to your budgeting woes

By Dale Leatherman

S 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 business gatherings.

"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; "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 historic sites.

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 facilities.

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.

Cultural centers
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 flowers."

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 meetings.

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.

Movie theaters
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 estates
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 lawn."

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 pavilion.

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 group members.

"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 experience."

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 the norm.

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 social gatherings.

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 Linden, Va.

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