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Making Unique Impressions

By Selena Fragassi


According to the dictionary, unique is an adjective that means “being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.” Nothing could come closer to describing the special collection of event venues that have broken out of the traditional mold, creating an industry model that values originality and memorability. Here we breakdown just what makes the seven segments of Unique Venues, well, unique.


Imagine the looks you’ll get when you announce your next meeting or event is at FedExField, the home turf of the Washington Redskins. It might be the same look as a band playing their first stadium show: sheer awe. That’s because arenas and stadiums are not only impressively sized but offer just as large add-ons that help create considerable buzz pre-, during and post-event.

“When you’re booking an event that requires an RSVP, having it take place at a stadium is a huge plus because it’s going to draw out a lot more people than a standard hotel ballroom,” says FedExField’s special events manager Heather McKenzie. “There’s no standard meeting here. We can offer VIP stadium tours [including the press box, cheerleaders’ dance studio and Redskins locker room], arrange alumni player appearances and also provide branding opportunities, such as broadcasting the company logo or welcome message on our HD video board.”

It’s unique touches like these (plus free onsite parking and custom menus) that keeps McKenzie’s customer renewal rate high. “We have a great return with clients who continue to rebook events every single year because we have such a variety of spaces we can tailor to them. And it is such a unique experience that not only serves a purpose but entertains guests as well.”

The facilities aren’t just relegated to game day outings, either. “Groups can rent out a suite for one of our major sporting events for a team bonding experience or they can come on non-game days as well and rent out a specific location,” McKenzie notes, stipulating that the larger events must be held on the team’s away days. “We have various spaces throughout the stadium encompassing small meetings to a tradeshow for 5,000 people.”

Some clients really get into the team spirit and even send their attendees home with parting gifts, according to McKenzie. “I’ve had a few who work with our team store and setup goodie bags with Redskins merchandise to present guests as they’re leaving. …It’s just another example of how we can transform an average meeting into a memorable experience for our clients and their guests.”


The biggest advantage this type of unique venue setting offers are the vast teambuilding opportunities that await visiting groups.

“We can pull recreation and teambuilding activities into a retreat more easily than in a hotel ballroom,” affirms Mike Ward, VP of Advancement at Lutheridge, a site nestled into the mountains of North Carolina. “We have a group interaction course, a climbing tower and wall. And if you want to go for a walk we have nature and hiking trails at our back door.”

Denise DuVall, director of sales and marketing for Nebraska’s Lied Lodge & Conference Center, offers a similar array to her repeat corporate and conservation clients. “Instead of being in meeting rooms all day, groups might convene for an hour and then spread out on our campus and that’s part of their meeting,” she says, noting that her site also offers nighttime activities. “We can do tractor hayrides that pull up to a bonfire gathering and do a wine tasting after. … It’s the best of both worlds with hotel-like amenities but people are able to get away, get refocused and become rejuvenated.”

To DuVall’s point, you can rest assured these camps and retreats are not like the rustic overnight lodges you stayed in as a kid. “From day one, our purpose was to be a true IACC conference center,” she says. As such, the site offers 144 guestrooms and 14,000 square feet of meeting space with complete meeting packages that offer A/V services and a dedicated tech team.

At Lutheridge, the setup is much the same, according to Mike Ward. “We’ve put $8 million into the facility in the last ten years, including a meeting facility that can seat more 550 people in a theater-style setting.” Additional features include airport service, campus-wide Wi-Fi, a fitness center and a chef that can create top-notch menus … and ice sculptures.

Ward does caution that Lutheridge’s main booking season is August through May (since summer does become sold-out for regular camp groups); however one benefit to your stay is often having sole use of the property. “You won’t have to trip over other groups or be worried about what they are doing when you’re trying to have your event.”


“You get considerable bang for your buck,” says Lynn Smith, coordinator of conference service programs for the University of Arizona. His opinion echoes the sentiments of a number of planners who have booked their meetings and events at college or university campuses.

Rates are typically all-inclusive and are able to stay low because a school caters to the needs of a modern student body; planners just get to take advantage of what’s already onsite. For the University of Arizona, that includes state-of-the-art classrooms and auditoriums, 7,000 beds in various residence halls (complete with linen service), a student union, food and beverage service and access to a variety of expert speakers.

“The best thing we offer, besides our high level of customer service, is the academic atmosphere,” says Smith. “There are so many departments and things to do and see within the one-mile radius of the campus. We offer a lot of diversification.”

Also diverse are the residence halls. Because the ages of the buildings vary (“from many years old to a few months old,” says Smith), amenities may be different from building to building. In one example, “Guests should be prepared that although our restroom facilities are modern, most are shared.” Yet knowing that upfront, planners can expect colleges to be more accommodating than a traditional environment especially in the non-peak summer months.

Another benefit to campus environments says Leonard O’Connor, general manager of the conference services at the University of Washington, is the esteem that comes from being affiliated with a university. “There is a cache to putting on an event in an educational environment that is appealing to a lot of organizers,” he says, noting particular nonprofit groups that benefit from the collaboration. “In our case, to be associated directly with the University of Washington is highly valued.”


Although business and conference centers may, on the surface, seem as traditional as they come, a closer look reveals distinct differences including specialized services and functional, if not fairytale settings. Take for example, Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada.

“We actually started as a fine arts institute in the 1930s,” notes marketing officer Deborah Whittle. “Now, we’re a unique learning environment where everyone is here for a conference or meeting, a leadership program or an art program.” The addition of an arts-focused wing extends nicely into a conference’s day and night programs as well, as Whittle explains, “We have many opportunities for delegates to attend performances, visit a gallery or take group clay molding sessions.”

Although the Centre is focused on its creative mission, Whittle is firm that it does not distract from the high levels of conference services.

“We are an IACC member, which means we have to meet stringent standards to retain that membership, including ergonomic desks and chairs and complimentary Wi-Fi,” she says. “Our property is committed to making it a true conference experience with full-service onsite. So unlike a hotel, it’s not a space we’re changing into a meeting room; it’s dedicated meeting room space.”

Chris Kelly, co-founder of Convene, has the same ethos for his spread of conference centers in Manhattan. Together they have become the go-to destination for local, offsite meetings of 25-250 people, most notably New York’s elite Fortune 500 companies.

“We were able to see the opportunity and demand for a new type of conferencing center,” he says of the foreshadowing he and partner Ryan Simonetti gathered in 2009 to redesign existing structures for more productive collaboration and innovation.

Equating their vision of transforming conferences to the way Apple revolutionized technology, Kelly and Simonetti invested in several key strategies: building a consultative team rather than a sales team; incorporating as much built-in technology into their spaces as possible; and analyzing the way attendees eat to develop menus that suit the conference sessions (i.e. all meals can be consumed without needing a knife).

“We analyze and understand the actual jobs people are trying to accomplish and seeing how much less difficult we can make the job of the meeting planner,” says Kelly. “Our single purpose is to facilitate the most productive meetings possible. There’s no other agenda or focus for us.”


“The nice thing about doing an event on a ship is that it has something for everybody. Regardless of age or background or interests, everyone will find something they like in our entertainment, activity and dining options.” Lori Cassidy, director of corporate, incentive and charter sales at Royal Caribbean, isn’t kidding when she calls a cruise line a floating resort. “Anything that a resort destination can provide to a meeting or a conference, we can conduct onboard a cruise ship,” she says.

That includes state-of-the-art meeting spaces for up to 1,400 people, entertainment options such as Broadway shows “Hairspray” and “Chicago,” and access to a Royal Promenade, which offers an array of restaurants, bars and shopping. “It can also be a great way to keep spouses and families engaged while employees are meeting,” notes Cassidy.

Although it’s a new idea for planners, Cassidy says once they come on board and visualize what can be done on a cruise ship they realize how accommodating a ship really is for meetings and events, including value propositions. Much like all-inclusive vacations, cruises offer “all your meals, entertainment, activities” in one package, according to Cassidy. Plus, “Meeting space is complementary, as is all the visual equipment and standard coffee breaks.”

She does caution that the lingo is different in the cruise industry so “our terms and conditions may be slightly different from a hotel, but it’s not overwhelming. Planners will soon realize how easy and turkey it is to host an event on a ship.”

And exciting for attendees, too. “Most North Americans have never cruised, it’s still about only 20% of the population,” says Cassidy. “So by bringing an event onboard a cruise ship, planners are offering something completely new and that can increase attendance.”


Built-in décor is one of the biggest draws of historical and cultural venues like Elvis’ Graceland. Here guests can mingle in the late singer’s car museum next to his famous Pink Cadillac and the red MG from Blue Hawaii.

“It’s our number-one venue,” says special events manager Marianne Murphy, noting Rockabilly’s and Crown Grill restaurants are other options. “The designer created it to look like a Memphis drive-in on a summer night. There’s a nearly full-size movie screen plus huge vignettes that bring Elvis’ career to life.”

The museum recently played host to Anthony Hopkins' birthday party. “Of all the places in the world, he chose us,” Murphy says, still shocked. Yet she shouldn’t be. Graceland has become a popular destination, mostly for adult birthday parties, which Murphy says can sometimes cause a challenge. “Because we don’t have any dedicated event venues, we have to be respectful of our day guests and not interrupt their experience, but at the same time make things perfect for evening events,” she says. “But in my 20 years of doing this, we haven’t messed up yet.”

In Washington, D.C. President Lincoln’s Cottage is another big draw. What started as a national soldiers’ home became a vacation spot for presidents during term breaks. Lincoln, however was the one who used it most to his advantage.

“The Lincoln family would literally move all of their belongings out of the White House and into the cottage every summer and live here until the fall,” says education coordinator Sahand Miraminy. “It was a much more peaceful and quiet place that allowed him to think through his big decisions, which included writing the Emancipation Proclamation the first year he was here.”

Today, groups of up to 100 people can enjoy intimate dinners in the cottage amidst a sensory experience. “When visitors are here, they can hear the stories of Lincoln. We use technology to bring those stories to life,” including wall-mounted speakers, says Miraminy.

Because it is a historic site, there are some restrictions including no red wine or open flames; yet the site is also progressive, including welcoming their first same-sex wedding ceremony last April—the first ever in U.S. history on a military base.


Movie theaters, mansions and presidential libraries might not be the first place a planner thinks of for a meeting or event—but as these special event venues prove, they should be.

Cineplex, one of Canada’s leading entertainment companies of motion picture theatre circuits, operates 1,449 screens—“and all 1,449 are available for rent as a meeting room,” says Julie Wiggins, executive director of sales.

Hosting a meeting at a movie theatre is more advantageous than you might initially think.
“Theaters not only provide a great visual presentation but also an amazing sound system,” says Wiggins. “When you plug in your laptop, the presentation is going through the best possible projectors and speakers.” Plus, the sightlines for audience and speaker are unparalleled.

Wiggins has been most successful with the corporate crowd looking to wow with PowerPoint presentations or host satellite video from an executive in another city; but she says prospectives shouldn’t limit themselves to just that. “Last fall, a high-end retail store used our facilities to host a Christmas training program. They turned the whole building into a winter wonderland with festive decorations and music that was piped into the lobby; they even had machines drop snowflakes on guests as they entered the lobby. It looked amazing.”

Maryland’s Elegant Settings and the Lincoln Library in Illinois are two more examples of special event venues, both with historic affiliations.

The ten historic mansions and manors of Elegant Settings are actually a part of the Department of Parks and Recreation, all of which have been restored to illuminate their grandiosity but also provide modern amenities. Each has a story to tell (“Franklin D. Roosevelt was rumored to visit often, which is why one of our buildings has an elevator,” says Darlene Watkins) plus unique architecture and manicured lawns that make the setting ripe for photography. “Unlike hotels where you have to go somewhere else to capture pictures, our settings encourage shoots onsite,” Watkins notes.

Although the buildings can hold, at most, 250 people, Watkins says advantages include use of the entire property and reasonable prices. “We’re very competitive with our costs and that includes professional staff who are able to work with you from start to finish.”

Opened in October 2004, the Lincoln Library is creating a new model for both historical and presidential libraries. To date, the site offers 50,000 items relating to Lincoln’s life, many of which can be incorporated into events. One of the most popular are the History Lessons.

“We work with our historians to create a 30-minute presentation with prepared remarks and a Q&A session, along with artifacts that relate to the topic,” says facility rental manager Britta Brackney, noting the advantage of having a built-in speaker. “A big hit with management and staff training groups has been ‘Lincoln and Leadership,’ which talks about the president’s leadership style and humor in managing people.”

Actor features and immersive exhibits are also popular add-ons, especially for the frequent groups that host evening events after a day at the nearby state capitol. Although Brackney admits a la carte pricing and room capabilities for up to 500 are big draws, it’s the artifacts themselves that keep people engaged. “They encourage a sense of learning, and really that’s the most important takeaway for any event.”


When a Name is More Than a Name
Getting Unique Venues trademarked wasn’t easy. Although some might consider the phrase everyday, common language, it wasn’t for founder Michele Nichols who worked with an attorney to give an underserved group of venues a name and a voice. Much like Kleenex, Xerox or Windex—brands that have become synonymous with the product—Unique Venues was the leader, creating a name to represent an entire industry.

Unique Venues By the Numbers

Here’s a look at how all of Unique Venues members add up:
Average # of meeting rooms – 33
Average # of overnight rooms – 1,428
Average of the largest group attendance – 2,093

While colleges and universities are the largest population of Unique Venues members, here’s a look at the Top 3 runners up:

Conference & Business Centers (24.2%)
Special Event Venues (22.2%)
Historical & Cultural Institutions (13.2%)

Get Connected

(301) 276.6037

(828) 684.2361

Lied Lodge & Conference Center
(402) 873.8733

University of Arizona
(520) 621.6502

University of Washington
(206) 543.7636

Banff Centre
(403) 762.6100

(888) 730.7307

Royal Caribbean
(800) 529.6916

(901) 332.3322

President Lincoln’s Cottage
(202) 829.0436 xt. 31232

(800) 313.4461

Elegant Settings
(301) 446.3240

Lincoln Library
(217) 558.8873