In an ever-changing events industry landscape, it’s not only planners, producers and agencies that have to adapt to relevant trends, advancements in technology and the lasting impact of a global pandemic. Take it from Shaun Kessler, the owner, operator and founder of OFFSITE—a three-story enclave in Midtown Manhattan designed to cater to corporate meetings, in-person and hybrid social events, product launches and more—who opened the event venue in July of 2012.
The space offers 4,200 square feet of flexible space, consisting of the 2,000-square-foot Main Floor, plus the Mezzanine and Underground, which each span 1,100 square feet. While the space usually offers full buyouts with all-inclusive pricing—that includes all in-house AV equipment, non-alcoholic beverages, light bites, office supplies and dedicated staff—OFFSITE is also available for single-floor buyouts on a case-by-case basis.
Ahead of its 10-year anniversary, Kessler sat down with BizBash to discuss not only the evolution of his career, but also how he has been able to evolve OFFSITE in order to survive a decade of navigating multiple renovations, updating offerings to meet planners’ evolving needs and implementing hybrid capabilities in a post-COVID world.
Did you have a background in hospitality/the events industry before opening OFFSITE?
When I started OFFSITE with my previous business partner, I had no experience in this industry. In fact, if you would have told me 15-20 years ago that I’d be in the hospitality business, I would have laughed! But there’s no better training than living and breathing your job, so after almost a decade running OFFSITE, I can say with confidence that I am very well versed in the events world.
Why did you originally open OFFSITE?
Working in marketing as a freelance art director/designer and pitching campaign concepts to potential clients [which Kessler did for two years before becoming a venue owner], I realized that we were going about things all wrong. How can company executives get excited about new creative work when these meetings are being held in boring, staid hotel conference spaces? I started looking into more inspiring spaces and quickly noticed there was nothing out there that could serve as an exciting backdrop to these pitches. My business partner and I decided to tackle this head on and started conceptualizing how to build a creative meeting venue where clients would actually want to meet.
When was your first major renovation, and why was that the perfect time to make some major updates?
The first major renovation we took on was before we even opened OFFSITE. The space was a huge, blank canvas for us to create the ideal meeting venue. Everything from how many bathrooms, how many kitchenettes, where walls and dividers were placed.... You name it, we built OFFSITE literally from the ground up with the perfect gathering in mind. As we were one of the first venues of our type to open, we were truly about to create a totally unique and provocative venue from scratch.
Most recently, we did a slight overhaul of the Underground level. To the naked eye, it may look very similar, but we upgraded our AV and Wi-Fi capabilities and redid our carpet, walls and storage area. We wanted to continue to ensure our clients feel like they were in a bright and truly inspiring space.
What notable trends have you spotted over the past 10 years, and how did you adapt OFFSITE to fit those trends?
When we opened in 2012, OFFSITE was one of the only venues that rented the entire space to a single client at a time. Most other off-site spaces would typically offer a single room and shared meal space for their clients, but as the years progressed, clients seemed to truly appreciate the need for privacy.
I’ve also noticed a shift in how people eat and how they take care of their bodies, as well as a huge uptick in clients’ desires for personal wellness and self care. We have partnered with numerous mindfulness companies to offer workplace yoga and meditation, as well as different health food providers in order to meet these newer demands.
Most recently, there has been a massive trend towards being able to accommodate virtual attendees. I’d venture to say that 90% of our meetings since we reopened post-COVID (in June 2021) have a virtual component attached to them. OFFSITE has seriously upgraded our video conferencing capabilities, including new webcams and Bluetooth microphones and speakers. As OFFSITE is very versatile and flexible, we are usually always able to accommodate any and all specific client requests for their meetings.
What event industry trend has remained constant throughout the past decade?
The need to always meet in person in an interesting space may be the most constant factor I’ve noticed over the last decade. Whether companies have their own office spaces or their employees are fully remote, whether they have in-house conference space or not—the need to go off-site will always exist. I like to think of OFFSITE as a highlighter. Bringing your employees/team members to OFFSITE for a meeting or event is a sure way to ensure it remains memorable to their attendees.
How have your marketing efforts (online and otherwise) for OFFSITE changed over the years?
From the beginning, we wanted to be as “new age” and social as possible. However, we quickly realized that many of our clients were not noticing our social media efforts or much of our marketing in general. In fact, our clients tend to simply search online for “off-site meeting spaces,” where we tend to be listed toward the top of all search engines due to our name and our SEO capabilities. As such, we shifted our focus to ensuring our website was as optimized as possible. We also got feedback that other venues would let inquiries sit unread and/or unanswered for days; we answer every inquiry within 24 hours, but more so usually within just an hour or two. Clients love how quick we are to respond to their messages and that has made a huge difference in not only acquiring new clients, but also retaining the ones we already have.
How were you able to stay afloat during COVID?
Pre-pandemic, OFFSITE had two locations in NYC and one in Chicago; unfortunately, the Chicago venue and the smaller NYC venue were forced to close almost immediately, but we have been able to keep the flagship venue open and thriving. As our employees were as-needed, event-based hires, we were not able to obtain much money through the PPP programs, and the few government loans that we did receive only covered a portion of what was actually needed. Minimizing expenses and having a landlord who was willing to work with us was a huge help in staying open. Once NYC was cleared to reopen in June 2021, clients flocked back to our venue because it provided them a private and contained space, offering the best environment to get back together. So yes, budgeting was very important to keep OFFSITE alive, but the past two years have not been easy.
What do you predict the next big industry trend will be in the coming years?
I have a feeling that the hybrid/virtual aspect will take on an even greater role going forward, even pushing into the 3D/virtual reality realm. With so many companies going fully remote, interactive virtual events will definitely become more prevalent, but the need to gather a few times a year in person will never go away. I also think that the push into health consciousness and sustainability will also take noticeable steps forward in the coming years, as more and more people are turning to a healthier lifestyle.
What are your biggest takeaways and lessons learned from being a venue owner?
Over the last decade, I’ve learned so much from being a venue owner and operating in the hospitality world. First and foremost, the client is not always right, but you should always ensure they know that their needs are always top of mind. I’ve definitely formed an even higher level of respect and appreciation for waiters and other service industry employees. I have truly loved working with such a wide variety of companies and people, and experiencing things from so many different points of view. I have realized that I can execute and produce, quite literally, any kind of event—from standard 9 a.m.-5 p.m. meetings to massive dance-party blowouts. I’ve learned to stay organized (even more than I already was) and that keeping lists is a huge help in making sure everything gets done correctly. Ultimately, it’s simple to please clients as long as you do what you say and deliver what you promise.
To you, what is the most memorable event OFFSITE has hosted to date?
We’ve hosted such a wide array of events that it’s so hard to name just one! One of my favorites was when we hosted a weeklong vendor showcase with an apparel company, where we re-outfitted the space with all their products. Literally, every surface and piece of wall was covered in their branding. It was a truly all-immersive build out!
We also hosted a cool Nexxus event, where we created mini hair salons and offered their VIP attendees beauty tips and services. Most recently, we hosted Diageo and brought in a facilitator group called Elevate Inspiration, which incorporates aspects of live music, instruments and singing into their sessions. Hearing the group of 40 sing Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” to start their day is one of the better ways I’ve started a day here at OFFSITE. But what I truly love seeing is when a client rents the space for a two-, three-, five-day rental and their attendees end up feeling like OFFSITE is their home away from home for that period. Nothing makes me happier than seeing clients feel comfortable, be creative and actually enjoy themselves while enduring sometimes exhausting business meetings—it reminds me why we created OFFSITE in the first place.