Unique venues go beyond cookie-cutter buildings and vanilla guest service. One such venue is Hotel Xcaret Mexico (above), along the Riviera Maya on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula and west of Cozumel.
The word unique may mean different things when it comes to venues in which to set an event. A venue might be unique because of its intriguing architecture, design or singular space. It might be one-of-a-kind among similar facilities, such as museums. Or what a venue offers planners might be unique, as in atypical amenities or concessions. We set out to find venues across North America that can fairly be called unique in one way or another.
In the East
There’s only one Ellis Island.
“It’s so American,” says Jaclyn Bernstein, President & Partner/owner of ACCESS New York Metro, a DMC. “So many people had family that came through here they can relate personally to it. It’s a one-of-a-kind venue. It’s stunning on its own because of its incredible history. When you dress it up, it’s unlike any other venue.”
The Registry Room or “Great Hall” is a primary venue.
“When I take clients on site visits to Ellis Island, I’m able to say that everyone who came through Ellis Island came through this room. That’s amazing,” Bernstein says. “One of every four Americans had someone in their family who came through here.”
One unique option is to arrange a check of attendees’ families ahead of the event. When they arrive, they see documents with information about family members and their long-ago journey to America. “International visitors can also learn about family members who emigrated to America,” Bernstein adds.
Ellis Island houses the National Museum of Immigration, which features exhibits on immigration at the facility and elsewhere, making it uniquely American and uniquely New York. That’s a big draw for groups.
The facility is also one of the larger New York City venues, able to accommodate a reception for 1,200 and a seated dinner for 900. Because it’s part of the National Park Service, Bernstein points out, it’s budget-friendly compared to most other museums.
“When you book Ellis Island it’s all yours,” Bernstein notes. ”It’s your own private National Park that also happens to have spectacular views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.”
The experience includes a ferry ride to and from the island provided by Hornblower Cruises. Groups typically get a sunset cruise on the way out and a city-lights view on the way back.
And many impressive extras can be added. “You can have fire boats spray water in corporate colors. You can have fireworks. We’ve done police marching bands and concerts,” Bernstein says. “Groups can also book park rangers, historians and costumed entertainers who interpret the island’s history.”
While events indoors in the historic building are popular, Bernstein says some groups opt for a BBQ in an outdoor area facing the Statue of Liberty — the only food that can be cooked on the island as there’s no kitchen. Everything has to be brought in under strict guidelines, and not until the facility closes to the public at day’s end.
But Bernstein says, “We use a group of vendors who know the complex rules and regulations associated with bringing goods into the park and it’s possible to set up an event for 900 in an hour.”
One of Bernstein’s favorite events to set up is a dinner on long feasting tables like those used by the immigrants on the island. She adds up-lighting on the historic vaulted ceiling and eye-catching table décor. “The dinner can be very formal or casual, and most planners get very emotional when they see it for the first time.”
In a way, Bernstein says, attendees are mirroring the journey of their ancestors, arriving by boat, landing on the island and being ushered into the Great Hall. What better way to honor incentive or corporate guests than by letting them experience those journeys?
Simply put, Bernstein says, “Ellis Island embodies New York and Americana at its best.”
There’s no shortage of opulent historic venues in Charleston, SC. That’s where Liz Cole Carbone, event planner with Fox Events, set a client’s annual meeting in late 2017. The group of 100 doctors was lodged at The Dewberry Charleston and set an evening event in the historic William Aiken House.
“This is a beautiful destination with numerous accommodations, venues and numbers of culinary experiences and historic activities for planners to draw on,” Carbone says. “You truly can create a unique and unforgettable experience for guests that encompasses all that Charleston has to offer.”
The William Aiken House is a stunning 1810 mansion that features formal dining rooms and parlors with museum-caliber artwork, a two-century-old magnolia tree anchoring the courtyard, manicured lawns and an elegant pergola. “It provides the epitome of Southern charm while being in a central location,” Carbone says. “It also offers the best in terms of the culinary experience and unparalleled service.”
The home’s varied spaces helped create a spectacular evening. “The function was a combination of a cocktail hour, symphony orchestra performance and a tented five-course dinner for 100,” Carbone says. “William Aiken House was the perfect location because of its multiple areas, which made every part of the night amazing. We wanted a space that would not only wow guests but was also something you can’t see in any other part of the country. We wanted the guests to truly feel special.”
The group utilized most of the property. “We started the night in the historic and vibrant ballrooms, then moved out onto the pristine lawn for a wonderful performance by renowned musicians, and we finished with a chic tented dinner under the magnolia tree. Every step of the night presented guests with a new experience that continued to wow.”
William Aiken House is one of the historic venues in the Patrick Properties Hospitality Group’s portfolio. The hospitality group’s staff was a positive for Carbone. “They go above and beyond, from making the client feel valued and understood to making the job of the planner seamless. The pre-event client experience is one of the best in the Southeast. The client left the pre-event planning meeting and tasting raving about the food and service. The night of the event, the team worked flawlessly to create the perfect event that the client envisioned. They exceeded all expectations.”
To planners considering Charleston, Carbone advises getting the Patrick Properties team involved early. “You can really feel the love this team has for its properties. They are so good at expressing that to the client and they make sure everything is taken care of from the very beginning.”
Midwest and Central States
In July, Mike Underwood, president of Underwood Events, took a client group of 1,000 to the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, and held an event at the Harley-Davidson Museum during the program. “The client wanted a venue and experience that was not only quintessentially Milwaukee, but also in stark contrast to the gala-style event scheduled for the evening prior. In addition, they preferred an outdoor space where guests could socialize and network in a casual environment while still enjoying an upscale aesthetic.”
Underwood says the museum offers flexible event options with branded and customizable design choices in indoor and outdoor spaces. Among other draws are the museum’s close proximity to downtown. “The food service provider also operates the onsite restaurant,” he adds, “so food and beverage options are prepared nearby under the guidance of an executive chef.”
The Harley-Davidson Museum, he adds, “is a reflection of Milwaukee’s history, but not in a typical museum-style venue. A bold design and laid-back style merge into a venue that has an identity all its own.” And it’s not just for motorcycle fans.
“The museum is a large, flexible space with water access, plenty of parking and built-in entertainment. Wide-open spaces can accommodate outdoor events, indoor gala-style outings and multiday meetings with ample breakout space.”
Underwood’s group used The Garage, a 10,400-sf industrial-styled space, as well as 5th Street, which is adjacent. “The event had a street-party theme, but The Garage gave us added flexibility in case of inclement weather, which made the decision easy” he says.
Additionally, he notes that the staff at the museum and Levy Restaurants really helped with the planning process. “Their knowledge of the space, its flexibility and uniqueness made organizing an event at the facility an enjoyable project. The dedicated on-site event staff was helpful and easily available from setup through strike. Levy Restaurants offers custom-made bar and food stations that add to the aesthetic of the event. The design of the venue is reflected in the smallest detail, including the color of its banquet chairs.”
Many of the attendees were surprised at how much the venue had to offer, even if they were not motorcycle enthusiasts,” Underwood says. “Those who were, however, were in hog heaven! We worked to create a casual, welcoming and comfortable vibe that had guests enjoying the event right up to the last song.”
Working ahead with the venue staff can lead to surprising results, Underwood notes. “Their collective knowledge can make the planner or client aware of options they may not have considered on their own.”
Pearl Stable, says Nanci Malcom, CMP, with Caterpillar, Inc., “is a wonderful and unique venue that is so refreshing and also part of Pearl campus, which includes shopping, dining, a one-of-a-kind luxury hotel, farmer’s market, green spaces and a culinary school. Plus, it’s the last stop on the city’s famed River Walk.”
Pearl Stable was the venue of choice for Caterpillar’s annual shareholder’s meeting in June, a group of 200. Hotel Emma, within Pearl campus, served as lodging and setting for the board meeting.
“The location, convenience and excellence of the Pearl campus was a huge factor in selecting the venue, and we knew it would also be a ‘wow’ factor,” Malcom says. “While there, we were planning to have groups visit a large Caterpillar facility in Sequin, Texas, an easy 30-minute drive. We were able to walk three minutes from the hotel to the Stable where our meeting was held. This unique and fabulous venue was very flexible in accommodating our needs. We were able to bring a few Caterpillar products (engine and machines) to display. It was a huge success. I only wish we could bring our annual meeting there every year.”
Noting the atmosphere, shape and history of the building as a draw, Malcom says her group used the entire middle of the Stable, with the stage for directors and seating for 175 on the main floor. “We also utilized 1/3 of the corridor for check-in, morning break and passage to main doors.”
Pearl Stable was a hit with attendees. Malcom notes that many took the time to look into its history, which dates to the late 1800s when it housed brewery draft horses. As for logistics, Malcom says the staffs of Pearl Stable and Hotel Emma “worked beautifully together, making sure every detail was thought through and things flowed well.”
Word has gotten out that Pearl is a fabulous venue, she adds. “Plan early!”
Trish Wright, owner of Celebrity Style Events and founder of Divas in Business, brought a group of 150 women business entrepreneurs to Las Vegas in October. “Las Vegas is a mecca for conferences and expos and gives women an opportunity to not only get away but also build their businesses while meeting like-minded professionals from across the county,” Wright says.
As for MEET Las Vegas, she adds, “It has an affordable downtown Las Vegas location and is an amazing space that’s very versatile and offers a great staff and affordable catering options.”
For Wright, the venue’s uniqueness relates to services and budget. “It has excellent amenities without the huge add-on fees of hotels,” she says. “We chose the entire second floor. Guests were greeted with our company logo on large screens, great lounge chairs, stylish chairs and acrylic podium.”
Another plus was the way information was handled pre-event. “Everyone involved in our event was included in emails so there was no back and forth to several different people and departments. I felt everyone was up to speed the entire process.“
To planners considering the venue, Wright says simply, “Prepare to wow your guests.” Her own group is rebooked for 2019.
Tammy Mathews, corporate event planner with Jenzabar, brought a group of educators to Arizona for a special-invitation event in January. “Phoenix is easily accessible and served by many airlines, which helps keep costs reasonable. The surrounding area offers both luxury accommodations and outdoor activities,” she says.
The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa served as a base for lodging and most functions, but the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) was chosen for an executive-level event. “It’s only minutes from the conference hotel and the venue was very flexible with timing, menus and entertainment options. The MIM staff knew exactly how to execute an executive event that offered a relaxed, interactive atmosphere,” Mathews says.
“We were looking for something different from the standard dinner meeting. MIM offered an excellent catered menu and private gallery exhibits. Music is a very relatable topic and our attendees found common interest as they explored the Target and Artist Galleries. This experience lead to many interesting discussions and stories from our executives!”
The group used the South El Rio space. “MIM staff recommended two galleries within that space, the Target and Artist galleries,” Mathews says. “The transition was smooth from our executives enjoying cocktails and exploring the galleries to the dinner being served in this distinctive space. The space contributed to great conversations and exclusivity.
“Anytime you can offer an exclusive location or venue you’ve captured your attendees’ interest,” she adds. “MIM offered private viewing of some of the world’s rarest musical instruments. A long-lost guitar had just been added to the gallery so there was definitely excitement to see that exhibit up close.”
Mathews worked primarily with Amanda Kozak at the museum. “She was very knowledgeable about how to make our program work to meet our objective to offer a unique interactive setting with superb dining options. The venue is stylish, the function space works and the MIM staff made it a very easy event to plan. They are pros!”
Attendees offered more than the usual “Thank you,” Mathews notes. “Compliments included personal comments about how enjoyable it was to see specific artist exhibits and musical instruments. Many exhibits triggered past experiences and made personal connections with our attendees.”
For groups considering MIM, Mathews says, “Have a clear objective and tell the MIM staff what you want to accomplish. Amanda responded quickly to all my inquires and provided helpful suggestions. Clear communication at the beginning makes the end result successful.”
The Presidio, a 1,500-acre park on a former military post in San Francisco, has multiple venues, including the Golden Gate Club. Stacy Stine, co-founder of Magnify Communications, says of the park, “It offers great views of the water, bridge and green landscape, which makes for a relaxing attendee environment, which in turn creates more attendee engagement.”
Each year she works with Raise in the Presidio, a conference of about 250 that connects emerging venture capitalists and limited partners. “The location really helps to capture and maintain your event attendance. Since the venue is not located downtown, attendees commit to staying versus wandering out to other locations for meetings, etc.”
The group buys out Golden Gate Club. “Our goal was to create an off-the-grid vibe; a retreat vibe. It’s a great space with a helpful staff that’s easy to deal with and flexible in accommodating requests.” She praises the event and catering staff in particular. To make it easy for guests, Stine recommends a parking buyout as well.
In addition, she says the park offers planners options. “Presidio restaurants make for great VIP and team dinners following the event.”
After four years, Stine says the Presidio continues to work well for this conference. “Attendees always provide positive feedback.”
Xcaret, a combination theme park, ecological park and resort area set along the Caribbean Sea on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, is also a superb meeting destination.
Lisa Neylon, CIS, with Meeting Expectations, brought 80 guests of Core Associates to Xcaret for an “All-Fun Inclusive” event in January. The company has had many meetings in Mexico but Neylon says this one provided an experience unlike any other. “Xcaret is amazing! It’s easy from the minute you get off the plane in Cancun where complimentary provided transportation is waiting. Xcaret defines what all-inclusives should be.”
Among the positives are newly refurbished rooms and adult and family-friendly areas that are separate. “The meeting space is unique in expressing the ambience of Mexico,” Neylon says, “and the hotel provides the staff and luxuries of a four-star experience. The cuisine options are stupendous and include both healthy and indulgent options.”
She calls the entire process one-stop with many inclusions. “This venue is unique with what is included — the experience of the park and resort as well as the defined meeting space and exceptional service.”
Neylon has nothing but praise for the staff, including Diana Patricia Martinez, group sales manager and conference service manager Rodrigo Meraz. The overall experience, from meetings to leisure time was equally positive for attendees — the group plans to return in 2020.
Planners, Neylon notes, should consider the entire experience as they make decisions because Xcaret provides so much. And for those worried that the park might draw attendees away from meetings, Neylon says that’s unlikely. “Planners should know you won’t lose your attendees at any required meetings as the meeting space itself is a destination and attendees can’t wait for the next meal.”C&IT