High Drama on a Budget

High Drama on a Budget Creativity is your best friend when C-level execs are clamping down on meeting spend and demanding more ROI. So how do you build “oomph” into your events to create dramatic programs for your groups? The following domestic and international cities offer highly memorable experiences and great values that just might surprise you and your attendees. Let’s get creative…

Along the granite and cobalt-colored New England coastline, a batch of small cities quintessentially capture the American entrepreneurial spirit. It was here where the country’s most moneyed tycoons in the late 19th century escaped to Gilded Age mansions in places like the Bellevue Avenue Historic District in Newport, Rhode Island. This was one of the area’s most well-heeled enclaves, lined with summer homes built by leading architects of the day for the Astors, Belmonts and Vanderbilts. These magnificent Beaux-Arts homes were designed for entertaining high society with lavish soirees, and they’re still a really nice place to throw a party.

“Using a national historic landmark for your event makes a statement,” says Ivan S. Colon, corporate sales manager for the Preservation Society of Newport County. “They represent the Golden Era of industrial barons, bluebloods and aristocracy, and guests really enjoy these rentals because monies go back into the restorations, so companies are giving back. That’s an important part of our mission.”

The largest ballroom is at Rosecliff mansion built in 1902 for Theresa Fair Oelrichs, heir to the Comstock silver lode. It looks like a big fancy white wedding cake, modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles, and it photographs well having been used in Robert Redford’s The Great Gatsby and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Dinner capacity is 350.

Also look at The Marble House, which when it was built for William Vanderbilt in 1892 was considered the most elegant residence in America. The Terrace seats 200; the Gold Ballroom with 24 carat gold leaf seats 120.

“They’re less expensive than large venues in other big cities,” advises Colon, saying the $5,000-$10,000 price tag “for a one-of-a-kind facility is very favorable.” He adds, “What is so special is the element of accessibility so close to New York, Providence and Boston.”

Among the properties maintained by the Preservation Society, The Breakers is the largest and most opulent.

“If you only have time to visit one mansion, this is the one,” says Laurie Stroll, CMP/DMCP, president of DMC Newport Hospitality. The property just introduced an audio tour that required nearly 10 years to collect all the interviews.

“The Newport area also has a number of private clubs that offer a very exclusive atmosphere and gorgeous water views, like the New York Yacht Club,” she says. “One of the most unique teambuilding activities Newport offers is the ability to charter 12-meter America’s Cup boats for informal races and your own America’s Cup-style regatta. We are very fortunate to have 10 of the boats, for groups of all sizes.”

According to Stroll, a traditional clambake is a slam dunk for engaging group events. “People are mesmerized by it,” she says. An old-fashioned clambake begins with digging a hole in the ground and building a fire. The chef heats up lobsters, mussels, crabs, sausage, onions, corn on the cob and other fixin’s covered with cheese cloth and a canvas top. Once it’s all cooked, the chef rings a bell and pulls back the covers.

“Everyone oohs and aahs when the rush of steam comes out. It’s a great meal and a great experience.”

You can create an elegant rooftop clambake and book smaller groups at the 66-room Hotel Viking, located right on Bellevue Avenue. John Harrison, SMP, director of national accounts, says, “The mansion owners were having such elaborate parties they didn’t have enough space for all of their guests to stay, so they sold shares and built the hotel.” He says Viking’s chefs often put together rooftop meals and sunset cocktails—the clambake being one of the most popular—as well as Iron Chef-style competitions pairing local wines with fine cheese and wild game.

MILWAUKEE: ALL AMERICA BEER + BIKES If beer, sausage and polka are the first things that come to mind when you think of Milwaukee, think again.

“Milwaukee is an extremely multiethnic city today. It’s a true melting pot—and it’s also a very healthy city,” says Rick D’Aloia, managing partner of DMC Destination Wisconsin. “Around our lakefront we have sports for all four seasons.”

However, for all its untapped charms, Milwaukee’s beer legacy is still very much a part of the group experience. Many have posited theories for why the city became such a brewing boomtown, from the readily available ice from Lake Michigan to the proximity of Chicago’s large beer-consuming population. Regardless of the reasons, the Pabsts, Schlitzes, Millers and Blatzes rose to be America’s 19th century kings of beer.

An event at the stately Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion puts their influence into context. Much like in Newport, the 1892 Flemish Renaissance Revival mansion represents the height of elegance in the Gilded Age. The home can host up to 250-person gatherings for $1,000 for three hours. What makes the mansion especially unique, the German Captain was an avid philanthropist and patron of the arts, so docents are on hand for group tours during receptions.

Beer in Milwaukee is like chocolate in Brussels or wine in France. People want to learn the history and sample the product in an iconic milieu related to that product. For them, a variety of boutique breweries offer guided tours, such as Lakefront Brewery and Sprecher. “They make their own [beer] recipes and have attracted passionate followings. We do a pub crawl that ends with lunch or dinner,” says D’Aloia. MillerCoors—where you can see an operation that packages almost ¼ million beer cases daily—offers group tours, too.

The other great all-American offspring from Milwaukee is Harley-Davidson Motor Company, one of the great corporate turnarounds in recent memory. The legendary bike company opened the 130,000-sf Harley-Davidson Museum six months ago to honor its place as an American legend.

“Harley-Davidson is synonymous with Milwaukee,” says spokesperson Amanda Lee. “The museum tells the history of America through the lens of Harley-Davidson and there are many layers to that experience.”

Museum-goers can take behind-the-scenes tours, watch videos of vintage rides, nosh on Midwestern cuisine classics, and even experience the weekly rally that attracts up to 12,000 bikes in warm weather months. “The party experience is authentic, you can walk around listening to music, eat grilled food and look at everybody’s bikes,” says Lee.

Two bikers walk into a bar. One says, ‘Lets build a hotel with florals, candles and chic vintage decor. We’ll do lots of exposed ductwork, raw brick and heavy timbers. Something, you know, Julian Schnabel-y!’

That was the thinking behind The Iron Horse Hotel—an upscale property designed with serious bikers in mind, as well as corporate planners seeking a progressive design sensibility, lots of attitude and 12,000 sf of meeting space. The 100 large, loft-style rooms are housed in a restored century-old warehouse with big glass showers, big desks and 42” flat screen TVs. Weather permitting, Thursday Bike Nights feature concerts, contests and bike exhibitions. And the retro-cool Smyth restaurant is ranked one of the best in town with dishes like venison osso buco. Private dinner capacity is 70.

Beer and biker families weren’t the only industrialists to leave their mark on the area. One hour north, the Kohler family built an international plumbing empire. In 1981, they transformed their former employee boarding house built in 1918 into The American Club—the Midwest’s only AAA 5-diamond hotel. It’s well-known for its ultra-luxurious bathrooms, which isn’t too surprising, and breathtaking outdoor environs near some of the region’s finest golf courses. These include Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, which will host the 2010 PGA Championships.

“One of our clients in the telecommunications industry hosted a corporate charity golf tournament there. They invited 60 of their top users for a 3-day competition and then made donations in the winners’ names to their favorite charities,” says D’Aloia.

In a similar CSR-related vein, he has also partnered with local retailer Wheel & Sprocket to bring in unassembled Trek bikes for groups to build to benefit local associations like Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer.

Famous for its blazing sunsets and saguaro cacti, the prickly 2-arm cactus with an almost human-like stance, the Sonoran Desert around Tucson is where three distinctive cultures converge: Native American, Western and Mexican.

“Almost every group coming to Tucson wants to experience Southwestern heritage in some way,” says Geneya Sauro, CMP, director of conference, catering & destination services for Loews Ventana Canyon. “Our weather is so beautiful, we want to get people outside and enjoying the surroundings, whether it’s a simple Western cookout with kerosene lanterns or an elaborate theater production in the desert.” Loews did that recently for a private performance of Carmen. Among its teambonding activities, Loews offers a Native American tepee-making lesson followed by attendees teaming up to build their own tepees. In another chance for group expression, attendees are taught how to play traditional Native American musical instruments by local musicians.

“For Western-themed teambuilding, it tends to be strictly fun and focused on games revolving around cowboy lore, like rodeos and riding a mechanical horse to lasso a mechanical calf,” says Sauro. For those seeking their own version of the City Slickers experience, Loews puts together horseback riding and cattle drives. “We have horses that are used for all skill levels; if you’ve never ridden before, we’ll put you on a nice calm horse.”

One of Loews’ most spectacular offerings is fully catered events in the middle of the untouched desert. Sauro says, “We’ll do events in the desert or at a hacienda-style ranch. When you’re out there, you can’t see any signs of civilization; it’s just you, the cacti and the stars. Since light pollution in Tucson is controlled, the views of the stars are unmatched.”

When you’re booking the ranch, be sure to ask for one of Loews’ signature “guacamolieres” who custom make guacamole and salsa at diners’ tables from a rolling cart. In addition, they’ll bring in real astronomers and different types of telescopes ranging from high-tech to Gallileo-style.

“We have to 4-wheel out to our desert location,” says Sauro. “We like to take groups at sunset so they can see the big rock formations full of Native American petroglyphs.”

Also out in the desert, Wisdom Horse Coaching runs workshops in “equine-guided corporate leadership” at White Stallion Ranch. The principle is that working with the horses can give people insights into their workplace behavior.

“We work with small groups, often senior executives, to custom design 1- to 3-day sessions, but first we’ll do interviews with everyone who’s coming about the needs and outcomes they expect,” says owner Lynn Baskfield.

Activities include a low horse jump designed to represent a particular challenge the group is facing. Baskfield’s primary goal is to reconnect our spirits to nature, and break down habits we’ve developed at the workplace. So she’ll throw in some unusual twists during the jumping phase, such as teams can’t talk to each other. “It really highlights how important nonverbal communication is,” she says. “You can see the moment the team becomes a team.”

We all lose sight of the “big picture” sometimes. However, few American cities can inspire groups to search for brave new solutions as well as the deeply patriotic city of Philadelphia.

“It’s amazing to be able to walk the same streets as Ben and Betsy, Martha and George,” says Mark Beyerle, owner of Specialty Tours & Events. After a few days in Philly’s storied streets, it’s not surprising that residents are on a first name basis with the Founding Fathers (and Mothers). As it turns out, there’s a lot more to Philadelphia than the famous Liberty Bell located at 6th and Market. “The city has a truly historic nature. It’s not a re-created Independence Hall, it’s the very one the country was born in. People are amazed by how much history happened here.”

Before the capital moved to DC, Philadelphia was where the nation’s forefathers did important teambuilding. Jefferson and Adams debated the Declaration of Independence, and Washington and Madison signed the Constitution, here.

So entrenched in the history of learning to work together, this collective ethos plays heavily into group dynamics. “Our Colonial Quest treasure hunt is part Amazing Race, part National Treasure. You have to solve clues and riddles to get to different places and you pick up extra points for being fast,” says Beyerle. “It’s an active way to participate, instead of passively listening to a talking head.”

Beyerle recommends group events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and sister Perelman Building and Rodin Museum. This is one of the more under-appreciated museums in the country, considering the inventory and special exhibitions like Picasso & the Avant-Garde in Paris running through April 25. We like the idea of dinner for 60 surrounded by Rodins.

On the hotel front, Philadelphia has a knack for reinventing its historic buildings. The Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia was a former bank, as was the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. Last October, Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar Philadelphia opened in The Architects Building, built in 1853.

“People in Philly are very excited about our adaptive reuse,” says general manager Peggy Trott. “We’ve taken a more modern approach to the city’s history, for example, our awning has a picture of Ben Franklin but it’s more of a Warholesque take.” In the lobby, the busts of Ben Franklin are bright pink, blue and green, and the building’s original Art Deco feel has been faithfully restored, showcasing the tiered ceilings. Of the 220 rooms/suites, 19 are Spa Suites with big Fuji tubs and nozzle-happy spa showers. Meeting space is 6,000 sf.

However, the experience in Philadelphia is not just about art and history. In fact, local DMC Michael J. Lyons, president/CEO of GEP Philly, thinks it’s the opportunities for community giveback that are exciting. He says, “Clearly, there’s been a shift toward teambuilding with a good cause. We’ve taken groups to volunteer at the Philabundance food bank, Habitat for Humanity, and we’ve done bike building events.”

During WWII, a man named Andrew Higgins built shallow boats for gator trappers in Louisiana’s bayous. The US Navy saw them and figured they’d work well for beach landings in Europe/South Pacific, so the “Higgins Boat” entered military production. Eisenhower said they helped win the war, and that’s why The National WWII Museum is in New Orleans.

The museum has been so popular since it opened in 2000, a massive expansion is tripling the size of the facility in the Warehouse District between downtown and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It’s simply an awesome space for large group banquets below a suspended C-47 troop transport plane in the 4-story high Louisiana Memorial Pavilion with one entire wall constructed of glass.

The facility also offers a stable of theme events including USO Shows, a South Pacific Luau, Swing Dancing and 1940s Casablanca, and two new theaters just opened in November. The Stage Door Canteen theater hosts the lively dance revue, Let Freedom Swing!; the Victory Theater shows the Tom Hanks-produced, 4-D short film, Beyond All Boundaries.

“This isn’t another World War II film,” says museum president/CEO, Dr. Gordon H. Mueller. “This is a cinematic experience unavailable anywhere else in the world.”

And here’s a deal. Every Sunday from 1-4pm, local jazz bands like The Palmetto Bug Stomp provide the beat for free swing dancing lessons. Stop in before for brunch at the brand new American Sector restaurant run by celeb chef John Besh.