Off-Site, Offbeat Venues

How to find unique, affordable event spaces

Site-Inspecting a College or University for Your Meeting
The following checklist was developed by LeAnne Grillo, partner at Newton, Mass.-based Spaces for Change.

When considering a college or university meeting venue, ask following questions. Better yet, visit in person and bring this checklist with you.

Accommodations
• Are dorm rooms comfortable and in good repair? Are they air-conditioned?
• What is the bathroom arrangement?
• Can double rooms be used as singles so that attendees don't have to share bathrooms?
• Will dorm rooms and lounges be painted, repaired and thoroughly cleaned after the students leave and before the meeting begins?
• What linens are provided?
• How is trash handled?
• Is daily maid service available? Does it cost extra? If it isn't typically provided, can it be arranged?
• Where can overnight attendees park? What about day attendees?
• Do parking permits need to be arranged ahead of time?
• How do attendees get their room keys during the day and late at night?

Buildings/meeting rooms
• During what hours is each building open?
• What is the procedure for opening a building or room that is locked?
• Can meeting spaces be used after hours?
• How can supplies be moved from building to building?
• How can rooms containing meeting materials be secured?
• What A/V and other services are covered by meeting room/classroom rental charges?

Food and beverage
• When are meals served in the cafeterias or on-site eateries?
• If attendees are hungry at other times, what options are available?
• Will on-site snack bars, restaurants and cafeterias be open when the meeting takes place?
• How are breaks handled? Is the food served in a central location or delivered to the buildings where meetings are held?

Contacts
• Who are the contacts who will be working on various aspects of the meeting?
• Will one point person handle everything, or is there a different contact for each department?
• Is technical support for A/V provided?
• Who should be notified if there is a problem with the A/V?
• What is the procedure for emergencies?

Other items
• What other events are taking place at the time of my meeting?
• Do attendees need identification to get on campus?
• What additional fees should we anticipate?

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.


On-Campus Meetings
LeAnne Grillo, partner at Spaces for Change, based in Newton, Mass., holds many events on college campuses. As a planner for socially conscious groups, she finds that an academic atmosphere is well suited to the kind of progressive learning that she facilitates. Being close to nature is important for some of her groups, and colleges often are in rural areas lacking big hotels.

Colleges also offer a wide diversity of meeting spaces, including classrooms, auditoriums, cafeterias, lawns and labs.

But colleges aren't necessarily less expensive than hotels, Grillo notes. While room rates and F&B costs tend to be lower, you'll pay for meeting space, which hotels generally offer for free with an F&B minimum.

Some schools charge more to keep buildings open late, and extra staffing might be necessary because the level of service on campus isn't on par with a hotel's. The exception, Grillo says, is security, which usually is very thorough.

It's also a bit more work to hold a meeting in an academic setting, Grillo finds. Whereas most hotels will assign a convention services manager as a single contact for an entire event, college campuses are strongly departmentalized, with separate contacts for each element of a meeting: accommodations, catering, security, etc.

For all of these reasons, a thorough site inspection is essential. For a checklist of what to consider, go to mcmag.com/features.

Saving money 
When comparing costs, consider labor for setup and breakdown, service charges and other fees, in addition to the cost of F&B.

In some ways, an event at the Lamar Street Center in Colorado is a bargain. Furniture, basic A/V and parking are included in the rental price -- as are the classic cars parked inside. There are no surcharges if planners need a little extra time to set up or clean up. And the center doesn't have an exclusive caterer or other vendors, which allows planners to shop around for the best deal.

But planning the MPI event at the venue presented challenges for Nancy Cooper. Unlike a typical hotel, it didn't have linens, serviceware, table d•cor, a catering kitchen or a liquor license. Cooper worked to secure sponsorships for the missing elements as well as additional A/V equipment. For planners who can't get everything sponsored, these costs can add up, and the perceived savings for a nontraditional venue can evaporate.

At other venues, planners might save money on F&B but have to pay more in space rental. Or the space itself is discounted, but renting the tent and d•cor adds up. Raw spaces like warehouses and parking garages need a lighting makeover to make them presentable. And planners generally need to deal with multiple contacts and multiple contracts for food, d•cor and more.

Still, a budget-minded planner can probably save money by booking a nontraditional venue. Here are suggestions for finding reasonably priced space.

• Beaches. Hosting an event on the beach can be affordable, since the required permits usually are inexpensive (about $10 per person or less, say sources), the d•cor is almost all provided gratis by Mother Nature, and planners can bring in their choice of catering or food trucks, notes Jennifer Miller of Access Destination Services. However, as most beaches are public, it isn't easy to find one that allows private parties with alcohol. Of the 70 miles of coastline in San Diego County, Miller has found only three good spots for a beach party.

• Military bases. The Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego doesn't charge a rental fee -- you just have to use their caterer. The station has served as the backdrop for numerous memorable events produce by Access and others. "With a little work, you can turn a venue like that into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Miller says. "You get an amazing event, and your attendees get to meet the men and women who serve our country."

• Pre-tented lawns. To reduce costs and hassle, LeAnne Grillo of Spaces for Change tries to find venues that are permanently or seasonally tented. After holding an annual Executive Champions Workshop for years at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt., and pitching tents each time, she came back one year to discover that, in order to attract more group business, the property had left tents up all summer long.

Websites for Site Selection
Finding unique venues can be as easy as searching the Internet. Online sources such as Eventup, Snappening, eVenues and Unique Venues list universities, mansions and historic sites, all with meeting and event space. Some connect planners with venues; others provide fuller planning services.

Eventup, for example, lists beachfront mansions, art galleries, party boats, restaurants and more, in more than 25 cities. Postings includes useful information such as capacities, rental options and rules, as well as lots of photos. Planners can look at available dates or request more information or a quote. Eventup and other sites make nontraditional spaces much easier to find.

Caveats to consider 
Not every off-site venue has the infrastructure and experience to pull off flawless events. Planners should know in advance what to expect -- and what not to -- before booking.

• Study for the bar. Many alternative venues don't have a liquor license. Find out if the venue has a permit to serve, or if not, whether a caterer can bring in alcohol.

• Factor in transportation. If the venue is more than a few blocks from the hotel (assuming it's not a one-day meeting), the cost of a bus should be factored in. Note that it can be challenging to make sure attendees show up for the bus on time. If stragglers are left behind, a taxi can suffice, but in situations where attendees need to get on a boat, perfect timing becomes crucial.

• Look for power sources. Tracy Stuckrath of Thrive! Meetings and Events finds that many alternative venues don't have sufficient outlets or enough electrical power, and a generator must be rented.

• Scrutinize the contract. Some venues have extra rules that confound planning. For example, when meeting at Denver's Clyfford Still Museum, Nancy Cooper needed event insurance to protect the facility's artwork. Other museums have rules about which areas are open to attendees and where food can and cannot be consumed.

• Limit speeches.
 Most unique venues aren't built for acoustics. If an event includes public speaking or an awards ceremony, Gayle Weisman of IEEE would think twice before holding it outside of a hotel. For example, in one of her favorite venues, Atlanta's World of Coca-Cola, she found the high ceilings made it hard to hear announcements.

• Know your audience.
 When planning for a diverse crowd, it's important to provide universally enjoyable experiences. Gayle Weisman visited a site in Denmark that offered a Robin Hood-themed experience. Along with archery sessions, attendees would be "robbed" and rescued in a forest, and dinner was wild boar. Weisman ultimately nixed the idea. "A colleague said, 'I'm not eating wild boar,'•" she recalls. "And were all our attendees from 60 countries going to be fascinated by archery?"