Creative Venues Pack a Wallop of Brains + Beauty

Arena Stage at the Mead Theater
Arena Stage at the Mead Theater

Everyone is talking about “creativity” these days as a way to accomplish everything from working within tighter budgets to boosting attendance and ROI. Here are some compelling group experiences to light a fire under your muse.

Rooftop entertaining is all the rage these days in Washington, DC with a host of new spaces overlooking the city’s architectural wonders. The capital has strict height restrictions so the views are incredible at places like Top of the Hay, crowning one of DC’s most revered landmarks, The Hay-Adams hotel. The elegant 3,200-sf space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a wraparound balcony seats 200 diners.

“Top of the Hay experiences are very popular… with spectacular views of The White House, Lafayette Park and St. John’s Church,” says Ronnie Burt, vp of sales for Destination DC. “You have an intimate feeling within the ambience of a formal environment.”

If one rooftop setting is great, the two terraces now facing the National Mall atop the newly renovated American Pharmacists Association Building are even better. The East Terrace is an outdoor bi-level structure with gorgeous views of the National Mall. The Potomac View Terrace has reception space for 600 overlooking the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

The contemporary design of the House of Sweden Embassy’s 12,000-sf rooftop space (500 pax) and views of the Potomac, Kennedy Center, Air Force Memorial and Watergate Complex account for its popularity for parties. Although not new, “Few people seem to know the embassies are available for group rental, with or without catering native to that embassy,” says Burt. “I never presume what is known about DC’s unique event spaces,” which is why Destination DC offers its Unique Spaces Guide free to planners.

No rooftop venue, but the new U.S. Institution of Peace opening in March does offer balcony space. The striking modernist building has natural lighting and various boardrooms, atriums and auditoriums for up to 500-pax gatherings.

A recent, comprehensive facelift added modern oomph to the artistic countenance of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The 200,000-sf theater (680 max) is part of a new 3-stage, $125 million theater complex that is now the second largest performing arts center in Washington, DC after the Kennedy Center.

Anaheim has what other cities wish for: sunny 72º weather on average, no humidity and a casual laid-back culture. Best of all for event planners, “We have fully-funded projects that create business,” says Charles Ahlers, president and CEO of Anaheim/Orange County VCB.

In January 2013, the new Grand Plaza will open for business in front of Anaheim Convention Center. A 1/4-mile of Convention Way was converted into 120,000 sf of open space between two of the city’s largest hotels: the 1,030-room Anaheim Marriott and 1,572-room Hilton Anaheim.

“We already have a compact campus environment, but this will be a campus environment on steroids,” says Ahlers.

Creative elements include pavers embedded with micro-organisms that reflect light from the moon.

“You’ll have stars above and stars at your feet,” laughs Harriet Porter, sales director. “Where else could you get that? We’re giving groups a blank canvas in front of the convention center under sunny skies, palm trees and orange trees to create what they want in terms of a meeting venue.”

Within a 15-minute walk of the convention center, there are over 8,000 additional hotel rooms and the Anaheim Garden Walk entertainment complex. It has been around for a couple years, “but retail businesses are giving way to diverse nightclubs and loads of upscale restaurant chains,” says Ahlers. Buyouts of the 400,000-sf facility are possible for up to 3,000 pax.

“Garden Walk works well for groups who want to do their own thing, from a progressive dinner to clubbing,” says Porter. “You have a ready-to-go themed evening without having to bring in a decorator.”

Ahlers explains that groups typically come to Anaheim for three to four days, and theme park events usually occupy one night. That may extend to a second night next summer when Cars Land—inspired by the 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars—opens at Disney California Adventure across from Disneyland.

New Titanic Exhibit @ Henry Ford Museum
New Titanic Exhibit @ Henry Ford Museum

The Ford Rouge Factory is the “only place in the country where groups can dine together and watch Ford 150 pickup trucks being manufactured,” says Carla Conner-Penzabene, director of sales for Detroit Metro CVB. “Engineering and manufacturing groups love the tour, but you don’t have to be a car geek to be mesmerized.”

Events take place in two theaters showing films about automobile history. The first depicts how Ford’s invention of the assembly line in 1913 changed manufacturing. The second theater is what Conner-Penzabene calls a “very cool 4-D sensory experience.” You spin on comfy backless chairs that rotate 360 degrees while watching how cars are currently made. Here’s the nifty part: “If they’re showing how steel is poured, you feel heat,” she says. “If they’re spray painting cars, you can actually feel the splatter on your skin.”

Next, groups walk the catwalk encircling the mezzanine level to watch trucks being produced. “The plant works three shifts, so you can get the full experience any time of day,” says Conner-Penzabene. Polish off the event with either a “period-themed or black tie dining experience in the lobby” for up to 200 diners.

Before the advent of motor vehicles, many people never ventured further than 10 miles in their lifetime. “Driving America” is a new exhibit opening early 2012, examining how cars led to hotels, gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc. It’s located adjacent to the banquet hall seating 5,000 pax.

Likewise, “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” sails into town in March with a model of the famous staircase surrounded by hundreds of treasures plumbed from the deep sea.

For more vehicle voyeurism, check out the GM specialty cars showcased in the new 44,000-sf GM Showroom in GM Renaissance Center, located on the city’s new RiverWalk. The space can be reserved for private group events.

The 14,000-sf GM Wintergarden is a 5-story atrium facing the riverfront, available for semi-private bookings. And the Beaubien Place Rooftop open-air space is popular for groups up to 600 pax in warmer months, with panoramic views of Canada.