As planners have become more savvy about experiential marketing and unconventional meeting concepts, so too have venue owners and managers. So over the course of the past decade, their locations have evolved and adapted to serve the needs of more discerning clients. Now the landscape is populated with an array of stylish spaces—big and small—that provide in-house multimedia capabilities and other technical equipment, as well as a roster of vendor partners.
Some of these changes can certainly be attributed to the strain of the recession and its sluggish recovery, where sweeping cost-cutting measures pushed the industry to watch budgets more carefully. At the same time, planners have gravitated toward a more immersive, message-focused model of events that requires a certain amount of versatility. Technological advancements have altered what many events require, and which venues are able to offer them. And of course, style always plays a factor in such changes, too. Here’s a look at the biggest changes we’ve seen in the past decade.
1. Club Expansion
Spurred by the growth in the number of large clubs from 2003 through 2007—spots like the 43,000-square-foot Mansion in Miami and Hollywood’s 1,100-capacity Avalon—more event hosts started taking their functions to hot nightlife destinations. Part of the attraction was that unlike some restaurants, raw spaces, and other convention-hotel alternatives at the time, these venues had state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems. “The more you have for clients to use in-house, the more attractive your venue is to them. Rental fees for audiovisual equipment are steep, and by taking those costs out of the equation, it makes the venue itself seem discounted,” says Noah Tepperberg, co-owner of New York club Marquee, which opened in 2003 and quickly became a popular site for events, as well as Lavo and Tao in Las Vegas.
2. Rise of the Celebrity Chef
As the popularity of nightclubs started to wane in 2006, the Food Network and TV shows like Top Chef fanned the flames of the celebrity chef craze. Functions at restaurants with the added appeal of a famous chef’s name on the door—and the menu—became increasingly sought-after. Aware of this more food-focused culture, corporate and nonprofit hosts are bolder about the dishes served at events, a shift that has affected venues across the spectrum. “Thirty years ago it was fruit cup, prime rib, and baked Alaska, every single night. If a catering director served that today, he would be fired,” Jim Blauvelt, the executive director of catering for the iconic Waldorf-Astoria in New York, says with a laugh. “The customers today want to put things in front of their guests that haven’t been seen before. You wouldn’t dare do that in the old banquet days. Now it’s a hallmark that you care, that you have your guests’ interest and entertainment at heart, and that you want food to be a serious component of the experience.”
3. Tech-Savvy Independent Spaces
When the economic downturn hit, events suffered and restricted budgets meant planners had to do more with less. In the same vein, dedicated spaces for events—the bare studios, raw industrial sites, former nightclubs, and conference centers—were driven to offer even more services, especially with the rising demand for videoconferencing and other meeting and event technology. “These days, having built-in technology is a given. Multimedia is a very big trend, and Webcast capabilities with video and audio capture are something clients are looking for. Dedicated lines for Internet access is a must, as is high-speed wireless,” asserts Fred Seidler, a New York-based freelance sales agent and consultant for event sites, who manages bookings at the broadcast-ready Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. Meet Las Vegas is just one example of a growing number of souped-up sites, with capabilities that include virtual presentations and plug-and-play for high-definition media.
4. Boutique Boom
The model of the smaller, design-driven hotel became an attractive option for hosts who want built-in decor or a break from more traditional properties. (Whether or not the boutique concept has itself become another cookie-cutter approach is up for debate.) The hotel genre gained momentum in the later half of the decade—the James in Chicago; the outposts of hipster chain Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, Palm Springs, California, and New York; and the Morgans Hotel Group’s fashionable Mondrian brand in Los Angeles and Miami. And the prevalence of boutiques continues, even in the casino cities where enormous hotels and resorts boast 1,000 or more rooms. Atlantic City now has the nongaming Chelsea, and the 150-suite Rumor opened in Las Vegas in 2010.
5. Lofty Locales
With the influx of new and newly renovated hotels and the increased effort to monetize a property’s assets came a wave of rooftop spaces. Furnished as lounges and offering expansive city views, the open-air spots were marketed as warm-weather bars, as well as attractive places to host events. New York’s Hotel Gansevoort made a big splash when it opened in 2004 with a pool deck on its roof, offering a more accessible option than the much coveted rooftop of its neighbor, the members-only SoHo House. And New York’s Empire Hotel has hosted a variety of events—movie premiere parties, Fashion Week shows, and press events—on its 12th-floor terrace since opening it in 2008. Elsewhere, soirees for nonprofit and corporate hosts have taken place atop the London West Hollywood and the W South Beach, and even properties in cities not known for their warm temperatures got in on the act, including the Thompson Toronto and the Wit in Chicago.
6. Cultural Attractions
Art galleries, museums, and historic buildings also saw an opportunity to bring in more corporate gatherings, charity galas, and promotional stunts. Alongside renovations and new construction was the creation of areas suitable for events. When the Art Gallery of Ontario completed its multimillion-dollar expansion in November 2008, the institution unveiled an all-new 7,000-square-foot dedicated event space on the third floor, known as Baillie Court. That same month the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum reopened with a more flexible layout and upgraded technology. The Tampa Museum of Art’s new Cornelia Corbett Center includes an 18,000-square-foot covered outdoor facility for receptions and other functions, while the new Art of the Americas Wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts added a 150-seat auditorium and glass-covered courtyard to the museum’s offerings.
7. Networking-Driven Sites
Within the past two years, venues—mostly the larger hotel chains—have pioneered a new take on meeting spaces, a concept that goes hand in hand with the spread of participant-driven conferences. In addition to being more stylish replacements for the traditional boardroom, these spots are designed with personal interaction in mind—with so much interaction online now, that’s the point of in-person gatherings, after all. They blur the lines between conventional corporate powwows and more casual, reception-style gatherings. At the DoubleTree Philadelphia’s Assembly on 5 and Hyatt’s new collection of Andaz properties are function rooms centered around communal kitchens and lounges. Sheraton Hotels & Resorts partnered with Microsoft to create “Link@Sheraton”—comfortable café-like spaces equipped with wireless Internet, computer hubs, and communal tables—while the Grand Hyatt New York replaced its lobby-level restaurant with a versatile site dubbed Gallery on Lex.