When patrons walk into Chicago’s famed Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), they are immediately greeted by fascinating treasures resurrected from some of the world’s greatest scientific advancements and its ages of industrial revolution. As the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere boasting 400,000 square feet of space, the halls of this lustrous building (once used for the 1893 World’s Fair) hold such relics as a 252-foot German submarine from World War II, an original 1934 Pioneer Zephyr train and the museum’s latest addition, a real-life, 40-foot tornado.
Every year, more than 300,000 school kids get to learn about the storied pasts of these priceless artifacts—35,000 in total—during daytime field trips. But at night, the museum takes on a whole new life as an unparalleled and exciting event venue. One where a seated dinner for 150 can be orchestrated next to the original Apollo 8 Command Module or a holiday gala for 3,000 can be setup in the art deco Rotunda amongst the museum’s yearly display of Christmas Trees from Around the World. Of the myriad options of spaces and setups available, it becomes clear that hosting an event at a unique venue like MSI becomes more than just gorgeous scenery; it’s an unforgettable experience.
“ Unlike a traditional venue, planners get a whole lot more when they book events at a cultural destination like a museum because you automatically receive built-in atmosphere and entertainment,” says Kerrie Van Horn, who along with colleague Sarah Finlayson, acts as a senior marketing specialist of special events for Sodexo’s Leisure division that manages food and facilities at venues such as MSI. “Unlike static conference centers or hotel ballrooms, our museums and other facilities are really unique to the city that they’re in and inspire a sense of place and time for the meeting or reception. When a planner selects a cultural destination, they select the backdrop that the venue brings to the event, whether it’s art interactions or exhibits. You really get the entire experience of what that venue has to offer.”
The Museum of Science and Industry is one of the largest venues Sodexo manages in its spread of nearly 40 nationwide institutions, which also include zoos, gardens, conference and convention centers and sporting venues. At MSI in particular, Van Horn, Finlayson and their team are able to handle the entire special events program, which is a huge benefit to time-pressed planners looking for coordination assistance. “We handle all inquiries from the renting or use of the venue to the sales and marketing and meeting the needs of food and beverage, décor and A/V. We try to make it a quick and easy one-stop shop for the planner,” says Finlayson who recommends building in lead time for more custom affairs.
She also notes the advantages that come from helping steer the cultural aspects of the event program along with the venue. “These institutions are really pillars of their own community and when we’re developing special event programs, we really look to work along with the property to incorporate their mission and give the planner every inch of what the museum offers,” she says, noting that guided tours of limited-time exhibits and venue-specific teambuilding activities like scavenger hunts are often the most popular add-on for meetings and special events.
“I think given a shift in the economy and in corporate strategy the past two years, planners are now looking for educational tie-ins more and more. So, while the end result is still about enjoyment and networking and fun, there is an added need for an educational element to round out the experience,” Finlayson adds.
At MSI for example, the chef’s focus on gastronomy runs parallel to the museum’s science-based ethos. “Oftentimes we’d find that the educational department was providing liquid nitrogen ice cream as a demonstration for students during the day, and we worked with them to develop stations we could sell for our special events, too,” recalls Van Horn. “It’s an example of the bridge we can offer that merges the educational element of the facility with something that is very current and hot in the special event industry.”
At another venue, The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Sodexo is looking to purchase and build out food trucks that will operate on the zoo’s property both for public use and special events. “It can be an extra rental or add-on that could be stationed outside an event at the new Elephant Community Center for example so guests could grab a treat as they are leaving,” says Van Horn of the team’s vision for the new amenity. “This type of feature also goes back to the mission of the venue since food trucks are very sustainable and seasonal, like the National Zoo strives to be.”
There are some restrictions that planners should be aware of at unique venues as Van Horn points out, using the National Zoo as an example. “As part of the Smithsonian Museum complex, there can be no social events that are personal in nature onsite,” she says, also noting some cultural properties restrict critical fundraising since they are nonprofits themselves. “It’s a venue-to-venue question but we try to make it really clear and visible on web pages, for example, so that clients have all the information up front.” Yet if planners are flexible, they can take advantage of some of the best bonuses cultural institutions offer, like availability 364 days a year (most only close for Christmas Day) and a service orientation that aligns with many corporations’ social responsibility programs.
“When a planner chooses to embrace a unique venue like a museum or a zoo or a public garden, they’re ultimately supporting the arts and programs those venues present to the general population,” notes Van Horn, noting a specific example of Chicago Botanic Gardens who invites at-risk youth to summer programs that teach urban farming; the produce is then used in menus for special events. “Since many of our venues are not-for-profits, companies who book events can inherently affect the future of the properties and their ability to move forward with the financial support.”
So, the next time you book a night at the museum, you can relish in the fact that your parting gift is furthering the experiences of all the students who get to enjoy the exhibits, too.