It's hard for executives to think outside the box when they're conducting business inside one—the kind of stodgy, stark conference room that traditionally serves as a meeting venue. Corporations are catching on, and moving meetings to more stylish spaces like nightclubs, hip downtown restaurants, art spaces and boutique hotels, in the hopes of inspiring employees and banishing boardroom boredom.
In January, Ultramar Travel had its annual sales meeting at new Chelsea nightclub Crobar following the success of its 2002 meeting at Spa. President Peter Klebanow wanted a meeting that would differentiate the company from its competition and keep the 60 sales agents entertained during the all-day Saturday affair. "The idea was to have the meeting in a really happening club," says Kristine Schweinsberg, who planned the event. "People were giving up their Saturday and we wanted to reward them. They were definitely talking about it when they returned to their desks on Monday." Crobar added attendees' names to that night's guest list so they could stay for drinks and dancing when the club opened to the public.
Crobar didn't originally market itself as a meeting venue, but special events director Lee Blumer still gets calls about the space's business meeting capabilities: T1 wiring, an elaborate sound system and 42 video screens that can be used to brand the space thoroughly. And other nightclubs are courting corporate clientele by making sure they have the technology to support a meeting: West Chelsea club Spirit can hold 2,000 people and has the audiovisual capabilities for anything from a PowerPoint presentation to a movie screening. Cuban-themed Flatiron district nightclub the Social Club opened in January with a private room equipped with flat-panel TVs for multimedia presentations.
For a hipper spin on popular Midtown restaurants like the Four Seasons or the 21 Club, Los Angeles-based entertainment group Cookman recently booked a press conference for Latin American rock group La Ley at Suba, a modern-looking restaurant on the Lower East Side with a moat around its second-floor dining room. "Having our event at an unconventional space helped set it apart from many others in our industry that were going on around the same time," president Tomas Cookman says. "It was all about being fresh, daring and different." Although Suba is better known as a destination for hipsters than for corporate types, the space is equipped with meeting-friendly touches such as a wireless Internet connection and projection screens. Suba owner Yann de Rochefort says there was another bonus, too: "Because we're not [usually] open during the day, the cost to a [meeting planner] is much more reasonable than a hotel. It's a win-win situation—we make money we wouldn't have otherwise made, and businesses save on their meeting venue.”
For something completely different, some businesses are taking their meetings to art spaces, like Chelsea's Mixed Greens, which has a glass-enclosed T1-equipped conference room. And the West Village car showroom-cum-meeting venue Cooper Classics can accommodate about 75 people for a seated meeting, with a wireless Internet connection, an advanced sound system and a flat-screen TV hooked up to computers for presentations.
Even meeting planners who prefer the convenience and comfort of hotels are using stylish boutique-style venues like Ian Schrager's Hudson Hotel. The Tribeca Grand hosts meetings in its 100-seat screening room, which has lap desks and drink holders. High-level executives from Nasdaq and Target have used the SoHo Grand's Sanctum room, and earlier this winter Pfizer had a three-day meeting there to integrate new members into a team of 10. The company chose the lounge space for its windows on three walls, black-out screens that shield outside light during presentations, high-speed Internet access and—most importantly for such a long event—comfortable chairs.
"It was a laid-back atmosphere that encouraged people to open up and speak freely," says Pfizer's Janice Chavez-Rojas. "It helped us break from our routines so we could just be ourselves."