Engaging Venues

From the January 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

More Central Ohio companies are making an effort to think outside the box, literally.

They’re going beyond the boardroom and seeking creative venues for meetings and events, from sports stadiums and bowling alleys to movie theaters and museums, with the overarching goal of invigorating employees and engaging clients.

The trend isn’t altogether new—meeting planners have long scouted wow-worthy spaces to host corporate functions, big and small—but such affairs were scaled back during the recession. The economic rebound has helped to renew interest locally in unique venues, says Bill Behrens, director of convention services for Experience Columbus, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau.

“We are seeing (meeting) planners who are really actively looking for really different things because they are looking to keep the attention of their attendees,” Behrens said.

There’s an art to mixing business and entertainment, and it begins with some advance planning, says Phyllis VanArsdale, who owns Columbus-based VanArsdale Management and Production. She plans events for an array of clients including the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, the Central Ohio Restaurant Association and the Columbus Food & Wine Affair.

Identify the goal or message for an event before choosing a venue to ensure those two important elements mesh, VanArsdale says. A little creativity can go a long way, she adds. Many business functions follow the same stale formula: “We come in. We sit down. We scarf down our food. We then listen to two talking heads,” VanArsdale says. “It’s not memorable. You always have to find an element that is carried away from the meeting or event experience. That’s what I find successful, when people start emailing me and saying, ‘That was really cool,’ or ‘I so enjoyed that speaker.’”

Sometimes, a simple change of scenery is enough to energize and excite employees.

“A lot of the clients I’ve spoken with say that it’s great to get out of the office,” says Jason Messick, who manages sparkspace, a business retreat center in the Arena District that hosts more than 700 meetings each year. “With coming totally off site to a place like sparkspace or somewhere else, you really get the focus away from (distractions) in the office.”

The lounge-like meeting rooms at sparkspace include the essentials, from conference tables and multi-media equipment to sticky notes and pens, as well as extras such as toys, games and unlimited snacks. Bold colors, comfy seating and plenty of windows create a playful aesthetic for the center’s five meeting rooms with names like “the think tank” and “the zenergy room.”

“I think the biggest key in doing this is keeping the room fun,” Messick says. “You have to have an environment that fosters creativity and collaboration—all those things that managers or supervisors are looking for.”

The region offers a growing list of meeting and event spaces designed with fun and function in mind.

At Huntington Park, home of the Columbus Clippers, “The sky’s the limit,” says Micki Shier, director of event planning. The ballpark hosts meetings of all sizes and also has held corporate team-building events on site such as rock concerts and corn-hole tournaments.

On game days, meeting space typically sells out, Shier says. Companies can book a pre-game meeting, conduct their business and then socialize at the stadium. Non-game day meetings and events help to boost revenue while the team is on the road.

Views of the field and the Columbus skyline make the setting special, Shier says. “Who likes to go to a meeting and sit in a hotel with a four blank walls?” she says.

For lengthy meetings that require a captive audience, the big screens at Studio Movie Grill (the former Arena Grand Movie Theatre) command attention. The auditoriums hold groups as small as 50 and as large as 200, says sales director Sheri Lawrence.

Clients can project videos, slideshow and PowerPoint presentations during training seminars, product launches and appreciation events. “We all live in such a fast, connected society that our time frame to sit in a meeting has really reduced,” Lawrence says. “One of the things that really does help is having such a huge screen up there. Everything in front of you is the presentation.”

COSI’s Extreme Screen Theater also doubles as an event space for the Downtown museum, which hosts business functions throughout its facility ranging from luncheons to trade shows. Reservation requests for corporate functions have increased in recent years, says Jacyln Reynolds, COSI’s public relations and social media manager. “We can design custom events and many companies appreciate that,” she says.

A mix of indoor and outdoor spaces make for a flexible venue that seats 10 to 800 people.

“We feel like more companies are looking for unique settings to host meetings,” Reynolds says.

Hollywood Casino Columbus rolls out the red carpet for corporate guests in its 10,000-square-foot banquet space, which can be divided into sections and holds up to 1,000 guests. The space has hosted holiday parties, awards dinners, trade shows, rotary clubs and community fundraisers, says Jason Birney, vice president of marketing for the casino.

Tthe casino is definitely an option for a unique experience, Birney says.

Star Lanes Polaris also caters to corporate clients and books upwards of 10 corporate outings per week. The entertainment complex opened last spring and includes private meeting and party spaces, an in-house chef, full-service bars, bowling and a game room with billiards, darts and air hockey. The site accommodates groups as small as 10 and as large as 1,200 for a full-venue buyout event.

“We would love to continue to grow our corporate segment,” says Sara Martin-Fuller, sales event manager at Star Lanes Polaris. “Corporate feeds social and vice versa.”

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.