Special Event Venues: In Praise of The Creative Types

Special Event Venues

The Beverly Hilton

One way to get a man to think and act differently is to put him in a dress…. That happened recently at the annual Trailblazers conference in Scotland, hosted at the recently renovated Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh. The event brought together meeting/incentive professionals and five DMOs: Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau, Monaco Government Tourist Office, VisitBritain, Tourism Ireland and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

For the gala finale, Spectra DMC outfitted all of the men with kilts and traditional Scottish military regalia/evening wear. That includes: Short jacket, white dress shirt, bow tie, tall wool socks, dagger/sock garter, waist purse thingy, and wingtip shoes with metal pieces in the heel so you feel like you’re River Dancing when you walk on hard floors.

The women wear a tartan throw over one shoulder. As we gathered in the Sheraton lobby, everyone was taking pictures. As we sipped pre-dinner champagne in the lower level of The Signet Library—built in 1822 within the Parliament complex—everyone was taking pictures. This is one of the most austere venues in the capital, where lawyers study law and VisitScotland hosts important events.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a better icebreaker than a room full of male executives without pants. We moved to the Upper Library for dinner inside the long room with a barrel ceiling, stoic pillars and a soaring glass dome. The gravitas of the historic building is impressive. This was the first time in Trailblazers’ 19-year history that the event took place in Edinburgh, and VisitScotland wanted tonight’s event to stick.

“VisitScotland has established a program tailored to these elite attendees, showcasing Edinburgh’s luxurious venues, engaging environment and heartfelt hospitality,” said Neil Brownlee, head of business tourism.

During dinner, while sitting next to Malcolm Roughead, CEO of VisitScotland, the topic of the new Pixar movie Brave came up. Coming as a surprise for the U.S. delegates at first, the Scots are really proud of this movie.

“Because Scotland is very much about storytelling and legends and ancient myth; that’s an important theme in Scottish culture” explained Roughhead. “And I think Brave does a good job showing that. We’re always sharing stories with our guests…. You’re never going to have an awkward silent moment with a Scotsman in the room.”

Having attended a lot of banquets in this industry, that was one of the most enjoyable ever—kilts and all.

For 2013, the Trailblazers brand is evolving into the new Torchbearers, with some slight changes possibly in the DMO lineup. Dates are July 19-22 in Dana Point, California. For more information, visit torchbearers-info.com.

MADRID: WHAT IS ART?

If you put 50 washing machines in a room and turn them on at the same time, is that art? How do you define art’s value? How do you define value, period? Those are discussions raised at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum of Art in Madrid to motivate groups to think laterally about questions that don’t have answers, or too many answers. The facility is actively promoting its facilities for private art-themed events including the grand lobby, large front courtyard and handsome rooftop terrace.

“The Thyssen is a nice option because you can do a tour and then have dinner with the guides,” says Alessandro Sansa, director of the Madrid Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Once the world’s second largest private art collection, Thyssen’s art works are arranged in chronological order moving from the Renaissance to Rauschenberg. We talked with Sansa for a while about this. He said art is like wine. You want to appreciate it better, understand it more, but it can be overwhelming about where to start.

“Thyssen puts all the dots together in a clear way,” says Sansa. “I think it’s good when companies visit our museums. Do you know, Madrid is the only metropolitan city in the world with six UNESCO Heritage Sites within a 1-hour drive?”

Manchester Soccer

MANCHESTER: HOME OF SOCCER

“Women are not the ornamental and useless creatures that men have pictured,” reads the exhibit at the new National Football Museum in Manchester, which opened in July to huge fanfare. The above was written by Nettie Honeyball, who started the British Ladies Football (soccer) Club in 1894 and helped win the right for women to vote in England.

Hundreds of similar exhibits discuss everything imaginable about the game. There are also some nifty, state-of-the-art interactive stations where you can compete against colleagues in ball handling, penalty kicks, etc.

“It’s a combination of football and pop culture,” says Adam Comstive, marketing manager. “Some people are unaware how much football plays a role in popular culture, and not just in sports, but about politics and social change too.”

Exhibits include WWII German POW Bert Trautman, who played goal for Manchester. He was despised locally until he broke his neck in an FA Cup Final but stayed in to win the match. In 2004, he was appointed an honorary Officer of the British Empire for promoting Anglo-German understanding through football. There’s info about Arthur Wharton, the first-ever black professional athlete, who played for Rotherham. And there’s an art gallery on the top floor, where during our tour, the fine-art photography depicted uplifting soccer scenes in impoverished areas of England and West Africa.

Book the foyer for 250-pax dinners with an LED curtain and giant multipanel screen for presentations/branding.

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VIETNAM: CHARLIE DOES SURF

In June, the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort opened on Vietnam’s idyllic Son Tra Peninsula. As the area’s new standard of Western luxury and services, the 197-room resort is helping attract incentive travel to the region.

During the Vietnam war, U.S. soldiers spent their R&R on this peninsula extending out into the South China Sea near the old DMZ and city of Da Nang. The area is located midway between the north/south capitals of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by primitive jungles and wide beaches like Non Nuoc—aka “China Beach” in Apocalypse Now.

The waterfront villas are the marquee accommodations with private pools facing the quiet bay. Scaling up the side of Monkey Mountain, the cluster of standard suites feature marble baths and big balconies with spectacular panoramic vistas. La Maison 1888 is helmed by Frenchman Michel Roux, the first 3-star Michelin chef in Vietnam. And at Citron, groups sit inside inverted conical dining booths perched mountainside over 300 feet in the air.

Attractions include the 15th century town of Hoi An. The UNESCO site retells 500 years of maritime commerce in Southeast Asia. And surf tourism is booming with new surf shops offering group lessons. So grab a board, cook a beach BBQ and hang 10 with the locals. Total meeting space is 7,600 sf; group rates this year run $140.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER

While manned space shuttles orbited earth, few visitors had access to the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast. Following the last flight of the Atlantis space shuttle in 2011, it opened the doors to behind-the-scenes tours of the Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Control Center.

“Companies want a place that will entertain, inspire, educate and motivate,” says John Stine, director of sales/marketing for Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. “Kennedy Space Center is that place; there is nothing else like it elsewhere in the world. When you add in stories from astronauts about how to manage crisis situations and challenges, or to talk about team leadership, it addresses a company’s needs.”

In July 2013, the $100 million Atlantis Exhibit opens with two massive beams anchoring Atlantis to make it appear like it’s orbiting. The cargo bay doors open and the robotic arm extends while groups up to 300 pax dine beneath the space ship. Groups can also tour outside exhibits devoted to the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope.

“We can bring in astronauts who flew Atlantis or an orbiter to share their stories,” says Stine. “There are more than 50 interactive stations so they can be fully engaged, such as learning to work the robotic arm to grab a satellite or learning how to dock the shuttle with the Space Station.”

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BLUE MAN GROUP

On October 10, a brand new Blue Man Group show opened at Monte Carlo Resort & Casino. The first new thing you’ll see is the “Percussion Presession” starting on the gaming floor 45 minutes before the show. The preshow is a musical parade of performers with instruments who invite hotel guests to join them on the way to the theater.

The key piece in the new show is the Brain Drum. It’s a state-of-the-art giant percussion piece that shoots out light across the theater in a neural landscape of dazzling colors that illuminate the whole audience. There are also new Neural Backpacks that the Blue Men wear that send light around the performance hall.

Toward the end of the show, huge helium-filled balls on the ceiling light up and drop down on the audience. They’re light sensitive, so as people bang away at them they become part of the brilliant colored venue.

For groups, Blue Man offers a series of unique VIP events. For example, you can create a preshow cocktail reception with appetizers on the balcony level for 120 people. And that’s just warming up.

“We have buyout options for groups, and with that there is an entire menu for customization opportunities,” says Gina Payton, West Coast director of sales/marketing. “They can be included on the opening of the show, we can put up their logo, we can do meet ’n greets. We’ll bring a platform and a mic to the stage, create custom guest-inclusion opportunities for VIP participation, and other pre/post show opportunities.”

Groups can also go behind-the-scenes and meet privately with the Blue Men, who by the way never speak when in character. Stage managers do the talking but the Blue Men certainly have their own unique way of working a group.

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BOWLMOR PARTIES

With 12 locations across the country, Bowlmor bowling alleys have hosted corporate business and glamorous affairs like the CSI New York holiday party, pro athlete fan parties, Broadway cast events and more. The new Midtown Manhattan location host events for 2,000 people; others cater upwards of 900.

The NYC venue houses 17 spaces including a Carnival Room designed like Coney Island, gourmet restaurants and stages for live entertainment.

“All of the locations have 12-foot flat screens across every two lanes,” says Shannon Corley, vp of sales. “They all have the ability of playing iTunes playlists and movies…. A lot of groups put the logo on every other TV and then they put a sports game in between.”

The menus feature casual finger foods such as Irish nachos and jalapeno poppers; healthy items like hummus, fruit and cheese; a wide selection of steak, pasta and fish entrees; and several party platters too.

“Groups can rent out a room or a whole tier and have dinner and then do bowling after,” says Corley. “There are little tournaments we can do, and we can craft bowling bingo or sports trivia games.”

Bowling bingo? Corley explains, “Each lane gets a bingo card with different boxes that might say “7” or “Strike,” etc. Whoever crosses off the entire bingo card for that group wins a prize!”

And what is the ROI? “Fifty percent of business is referral or repeat,” she says. “They are treated to a VIP experience where they can share a comfortable space together…. It’s not as if they’re in different areas doing different activities with the same few people. In this environment, they’re meeting the goal of mingling with different groups of people they may not know.”

WYNDHAM ORLANDO + I-DRIVE LIVE

A large renovation is drastically changing the Wyndham Orlando Resort. Of the original 1,052 hotel rooms, only 613 will remain, upgraded with lifestyle furnishings common to boutique hotels such as light woods, lighted mirrors, 50-inch LED TV screens and new Wyndham bedding systems. The Gatorville poolside restaurant will also be retrofitted.

By May 2013, it will emerge as an urban-chic resort with a new 60,000-sf conference center surrounded by a mixed-use entertainment and dining complex known as I-Shops.

“We’re going to provide mid-tier corporate clients with services that have been unavailable along the I-Drive corridor,” says Paul Kanavos, CEO/managing director of Flag Luxury Properties, principal owner of the Wyndham. He likens the new design as “South Beach meets SoHo.” Visible changes include a manicured Grand Lawn leading up to a porte cochére and a lobby with high ceilings and modern furnishings. An 18-hour bar and technology lounge with 65 seats juts off the lobby, and WiFi will be accessible throughout the 42-acre complex.

“I think the technology lounge will be highly utilized for people who need to take a break from formal meetings and have a place to kick back but still work,” says Kanavos. Kanavos is also overseeing the development of a $200 million entertainment complex called I-Drive Live next door to the resort that will feature a 400-ft high observation wheel modeled after the London Eye. The development will encompass 300,000 sf of space.

“We’re in the best possible location to attract business groups,” sums up Kanavos. “I hope our makeover and the I-Shops and I-Drive Live will redefine the I-Drive corridor as a fun experience for the meetings industry.”

MIAMI: MARLINS PARK STADIUM

The new LEED Gold-certified Marlins Park baseball stadium features a massive retractable roof so event planners don’t have to worry about any rain delays. In the event of inclement weather, the sectional roof closes in 13 minutes, with A/C cooling the 928,000-sf venue in under one hour. For green-conscious planners, you will be happy to know that the cost of electricity to move the 19-million pound roof is $10.

The Park hosts large F&B events on the field with a space-age covering to protect the grass. Post your brand on the MarlinsVision scoreboard screen and have your CEO give his annual pep talk via the stadium announcing system.

There are all kinds of creative events possible here: Book a group lunch in the players’ dugout; host a batting practice with professional pitchers; or create a cocktail reception on either the 3rd base, The Clevelander South Beach-style restaurant, or large indoor/outdoor terrace during sunset.

Marlins Park is located in the very center of the triangle between the airport, downtown and South Beach.

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KC LIVE!

Kansas City’s $850 million Power & Light District welcomes groups with live entertainment, great food and big energy. Within the nine square blocks, there are over 50 restaurants, rooftop lounges, nightclubs and the KC Live! open-air event space for 3,000 pax. The venue features a permanent translucent canopy, overhead fans, heaters, fire pits, comfy seating, a big stage and full A/V.

“Nothing compares to the variety of amenities and attractions that the Power & Light District can offer to create your signature event,” says Rachel Waller, director of marketing. “With a diverse array of spaces, the District offers incredible flexibility for private events of any size or budget.”

Check out The Jones rooftop pool deck and cabanas for 500-pax events. The rockin’ country bar PBR Big Sky offers a full sound stage and mechanical bull for cocktail receptions up to 450 cowpokes.

SAN JOSE: THE CIVIC IS BACK

Across the street from the downtown San Jose Convention Center, the San Jose Civic completed a thorough $15 million renovation this fall. Originally built in 1936, the Spanish California Mission-style venue seats 3,000 pax.

Since its inception, the Civic has hosted music icons from Duke Ellington to the Rolling Stones. Planners can look online for upcoming events such as the “In The Mood” big band/swing dance musical in March 2013, and they can block VIP seating among the floor seats, 1st level and balcony seats.

“Renovating this historic auditorium into a 21st century, state-of-the-art venue will help us attract world class shows,” says Mayor Chuck Reed. Nearby restaurants include Michael Mina’s 130-seat ARCADIA steakhouse. The acclaimed chef brings a modern twist to traditional American dishes like his 20-oz. Cowboy Ribeye and lobster corn dogs. A 4-course group menu runs $85. For private dining events up to 250, check out the industrial-chic LOFT Bar & Bistro.

BEVERLY HILTON: HOME OF THE GLOBES

Just three blocks from glitzy Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, The Beverly Hilton is a combination of high-brow Hollywood cinema and the glamour of Beverly Hills. The 569-room hotel has hosted the Golden Globes for over 35 years and the Academy Awards, so they’re pretty good with the whole special events thing.

“There is a huge draw for the elegance of Beverly Hills for corporate events since the guests can attend the same venue and walk down the same red carpet as the Hollywood elite,” says Christi Davis, director of sales/marketing. “We are a 4-star hotel located in the heart of Beverly Hills, but we have a significant difference in price level compared to the other hotels within the same area. For groups, we’re in the mid- to high $200 range, depending on the season.”

For event space, the chic Aqua Star Pool features lighting and background music that evokes a “retro-chic” tone, so there’s no need for decor. There’s also a 70-foot wall along the pool that groups can use for movies and messaging.

“There’s a really great branding aspect because the A/V is built in and we can project anything,” explains Davis. “We can brand the pool with color schemes on the water and wall with the logo changing throughout. There’s a huge wow factor.”

Group F&B is inspired by the hotel’s Circa 55 and Trader Vic’s restaurants, while some groups choose menus identical to those served at the Golden Globes.

Total meeting/event space is 60,000 sf. Check out the Stardust Patio space upstairs with views of the “Hollywood” sign, as well as the exclusive Penthouse Collection suites with private access and views of the Hollywood Hills.

“The Bev Hilton is really an iconic L.A. experience,” says Davis. “It really sets the tone that you are in L.A.”

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HOTEL ZAZA DALLAS & HOUSTON

The 314-room Hotel ZaZa Houston and 150-room Hotel ZaZa Dallas are gaining national attention mixing business and pleasure in a seamless, high-concept residential setting. The Houston hotel is three miles from downtown; Dallas is in the fashionable Uptown area, one mile from the city center. Both are located near their respective museum districts, and both are designed for the creative meeting professional seeking something to spark his or her group’s imagination.

“Nothing is impossible—if you want to launch the space shuttle off the roof, we’ll find a way to do it,” says Tom DiBlasi, director of sales. “We love to be creative, we are always changing. We want you to remember your experience.”

During our interview, a famous fashion brand was in-house in Dallas, so the team created a photographic display in the lobby in homage to the legendary fashion icon.

Companies like that are attracted to ZaZa’s interior design mojo mixing fresh flowers, cool lighting, hip furnishings and live television feeds of fashion events around the world. For planners, everything has a personal touch. When you need meals to go, ZaZa packs them in retro metal lunch boxes with travel stickers on them. For turndown, you’ll find a lighted candle and PEZ dispenser.

“Or they’ll get granola for National Granola Day, we always try to keep it current,” says DiBlasi. “We know that our clients attend events like this all the time and see the same sort of things, so we want to do something fun and different.”

The premium “Magnificent 7” suites at both properties range from 2,200-2,500 sf with great views and executive privileges. There are also tasteful Concept Suites themed, for example, around Geisha culture or space travel, which DiBlasi says are often used as breakouts. Total meeting space in Houston is 20,000 sf; Dallas is 10,000.

DAVE & BUSTERS: DINNER & B-BALL

With 60 locations around the U.S., Dave & Buster’s is a restaurant group with attached rooms full of traditional and high-tech arcade games. As large as 70,000 sf, the venues entertain up to 2,000-pax groups with a variety of turnkey teambuilding packages revolving around the use of the games. Some are just for fun and networking; others are designed to teach leadership and management techniques.

The D&B menu serves all kinds of classic comfort food from cajun shrimp alfredo to a chargrilled 8-oz. teriyaki sirloin. You can book space in the restaurant or rent a variety of private banquet/executive rooms with full A/V. And then everyone starts shooting hoops. Seriously, who doesn’t love those basketball games where you try to sink as many as you can in the allotted time? You won’t have a bored face in the house.

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