After Venue Goes Under, Planner Scrambles for (and Finds!) Last-Minute Replacement

By Anna Sekula March 6, 2009, 8:30 AM EST

On Thursday, February 19, Jennifer Savica, vice president of events management for TD Bank, got a worried call from a member of her production team, who couldn't get into the Sports Museum of America for the final walkthrough of the space. The next day, when the downtown site announced it would be closing for good, Savica had to scramble to find a new spot for the March 7 incentive meeting and award function she'd spent more than six months planning.

With the slew of closures prompted by the recession, this scenario may end up being more common. Already this year, B.R. Guest Restaurants shuttered Ruby Foo's on the Upper West Side and Fiamma in SoHo, Times Square's Spotlight Live closed, and by August, the Cipriani Group will cease operations at the Rainbow Room. Now a growing concern for event hosts is whether the venues they've booked will survive—at least until after the events.

Savica was fortunate—she had paid the deposit to Restaurant Associates, the catering firm that managed bookings at the museum and works in many other venues, and the company helped her find a way to host the event in another place. “After we got word that it was absolutely not going to happen and they were locking the doors the next day, we got on the phone with Restaurant Associates and brainstormed locations that could work,” she said. “We got lucky. We were in the right place at the right time, we knew the right people to call, and everybody was really motivated to make this happen.”

In other words, abrupt closures don't necessarily spell disaster. Even with Savica's long list of requirements—a raw space that could fit a large custom table, a downtown location close to where out-of-town guests would be staying, availability the day before for build-out, and flexibility to allow an outside caterer to come in—she found a suitable venue in Skylight. She partially attributes this luck to how the financial downturn has affected event bookings. “I don't think that a year ago, two years ago, I'd be able to find a venue. We found three venues that were available.”

With the economy likely to bring down even more venues—and, for that matter, other types of vendors—what kind of preventative actions can planners take? Ryan Jordan, the creative director for Harrison & Shriftman, a design, production, and PR company that books venues for clients like BlackBerry and Smart USA, says that there's not much one can do. “We already have a clause in our venue contracts that covers failure to deliver due to terrorism, bankruptcy, freak storms, etc. However, if a venue has filed for bankruptcy and is closing even with a contract in place, realistically there’s very little you can do. It’s too expensive and time-consuming to sue, plus highly unlikely you’d recoup any money lost,” he said.

So what if you're hearing rumors that a facility is going under? Jordan advises anyone in this situation to “have a very honest and open discussion with the venue and then decide.” The producers at EventQuest did exactly that last year. “We were actually involved in the negotiations for the Rainbow Room when it was rumored that [operators Cipriani] would lose their liquor license,” said C.E.O. and creative director Mark Veeder. Even though the venue-management firm kept its license, the proactive production company negotiated a deal that would have protected them had the license been revoked.

Perhaps the best plan is to keep a list of alternative sites just in case, to be realistic, and to try to take it all in stride. “I have to say, it's never Plan A. Ever. It's really not even Plan B or Plan C. It's Plan D,” said Savica. “I think one of the hard things, at least over the course of my career and what I've learned, is that you've got to let it go. Yeah, Plan A was great and we all really love Plan A, but you've got to move on.”

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