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Unique Venues for Unique Events

By Selena Fragassi


When someone passes away there is barely any time to think straight let alone put together a service and reception that are both tasteful and meaningful. That is, unless you look to a venue like the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. As a national monument with historic ties to the Civil War, it was a fitting choice for Patricia McQueen whose deceased family member was a Navy veteran.

“It has a nice personal touch for some people,” says Executive Director Diana Ingraham, noting that the facility is a preferred choice for memorial services like McQueen’s as well as retirement ceremonies and weddings for current and ex-military. After a $10 million rehabilitation project to the 19th century building in 2011, the board of directors is especially committed to putting the two floors of event space (including a banquet hall and garden areas) towards community use. “I’d say that fifty percent of the activities that take place in the building are tied to a special event,” says Ingraham.

As planners like McQueen find out, though, Hill Center is not just ideal for its personal touch; it’s also quite practical. “Funerals by nature are last-minute and we had availability. A lot of times we are able to accommodate more last-minute requests than other venues,” says James Sims, a special event and programming manager with Hill Center who also worked on the event. His colleague Macky Vellon adds, “There are also so many décor details you wouldn’t normally find, so if there’s not a lot of time to put those items together it’s still a beautiful space as opposed to maybe a hotel ballroom that needs a bit more decoration and personal touches to make it feel more intimate.”

That was especially the case for the McQueen service, held last August, which the family wanted to set up as a “life celebration” for the 350 guests throughout the day to remember the deceased through his favorite music and photo slideshows. “We have a wireless system throughout the property that allowed her to play music throughout the entire floor where the service was held. We also have ceiling-mounted projectors and screens so folks can do a slideshow as part of their family event,” says Sims of the modern features Hill Center offers, which they often put together in one package for events like this to make it more efficient and affordable. “There was a set rate for the family, and anything they needed for the event (even furniture) was included in the price. It was a little bit easier for them compared to other venues.”

Selling The Sales Launch

Easy was also a key word for Trevor Williams, North Atlantic sales operational manager for UPS, when he had very little time to choose a venue to coordinate an annual sales launch in January for 300 regional employees.

“Initially my boss said, ‘If we can’t have it at same place we did last year, we probably won’t have it,” he recalls. That place, a conference center in New York City, was not available. “We were really behind the ball, and I was getting worried,” Williams admits, but at the last hour he found out about Iona College in the town of New Rochelle, which he liked for its central location. “We have a large district that covers all of Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Westchester and New Jersey, so it was convenient for everyone.”

Within a day of filling out an RFP, Office of Conference Services Manager Cindy Zapata was in touch with him. “She was a godsend,” says Williams. “From that point forward it was just a full-fledged effort of let’s move forward and get it done, and it went very smoothly.”

Zapata and her team jumped on the chance to work with UPS and to develop a relationship that could be beneficial in the future. Though she admits the planning process did move really quickly, Iona College is used to the protocol and fully prepared to execute it for Williams. “We’re really good with conferences. That’s kind of like our bread and butter,” she says. “For UPS, they came in and did a face visit, and we walked through the spaces and then the next week they were here.”

Zapata suggested the campus’ Murphy Auditorium, which has space for up to 350 people. “The room was the perfect size for what we needed,” says Williams, “and the A/V was adequate for our PowerPoint presentation.” During the full-day program there were several speeches and an award presentation so the set up was key. “We decided to put the food in another room so this way we could use the whole auditorium for seating and give them more space,” says Zapata.

Instead, lunch was held in the Burke Lounge, which presented the only snafu of the day when the on-site catering team Chartwells ran out of sandwiches. “Some people see free food and they can’t control themselves,” joked Williams who says he was very pleased with how the college reacted. “They worked quickly to accommodate us and resolved it before we knew it was an issue.”

“It’s those little things can make or break an event and you don’t want the clients to look bad,” admits Zapata, who said in that moment Chartwells really stepped up their game and did good to support Iona’s professionalism. “We like to see clients happy when they leave, and overall this was a very positive experience.”

Fielding Requests For A Sportsman’s Dinner

Food was also the hallmark of a championship dinner for a group of 50 Major League Baseball groundskeepers that was held at the History Colorado Center in January.

“You wouldn’t expect a venue like that to have outstanding food, but we heard so many compliments from our attendees,” says Jeff Langner, a brand manager for Turface Athletics and a former planner who was in charge of coordinating the event. Though he says the choice of the Denver-based museum was a bit “out of bounds” for what they would normally select for the sports-loving crew (past events have been booked with a pool hall, bowling alley and go-cart racing field), he says, “What I really enjoyed was the fact that they were willing to customize the event more than I have found in the past.”

“We do menu customizations a majority of the time,” says Melissa Cordova, event sales manager, of the Center’s specialty. “We understand that, regardless of the event, everyone is different and the event should be, too. It shouldn’t feel like you’re having the typical catered food.” Chef Samir Mohammed crafted a menu that was upscale without being unapproachable for the casual crowd that also enjoyed the museum’s lack of dress code (one man came dressed in overalls).

The dinner, held in the open-kitchen environment of the museum’s Cater Rendezvous, included the attendee’s choice of wedge salad or New England clam chowder for a starter, steak tenderloin or smoked salmon linguine for an entree and either a chocolate chip bread pudding or butterscotch pot de crème topped with marshmallows for dessert. Cordova printed out menus to help the guests see their choices, which Langner appreciated. “I didn’t want to have people pre-order, and I didn’t know what their taste choices would be so I liked the museum’s flexibility. They really met our needs.”

Beyond the food, the other appealing aspect was the venue’s setting—both external and inside. “It was only a mile from our hotel, which was great because I was nervous about scheduling transportation in the middle of winter,” says Langner. “I also appreciated that it was representative of Colorado. We go to a different city each year for this dinner, and so we strive to find some local flavor.”

“People like to come here from out-of -town because of the Colorado theme,” notes Cordova referencing a Denver Broncos area. That in particular was of interest to the groundskeepers who had the museum to themselves and were able to walk around the property and view the exhibits during the early cocktail hour. “In the past, an issue we’ve had to overcome is when people walk into the venue they normally sit down and just wait around for dinner,” admits Langner. “So, this setup gave everybody a chance to mingle and walk around and take in some of the things that the museum had to offer, and it was very well received.”

Creating a One-Of-A-Kind Fashion Show

Venue layout was also of supreme importance to event planner Nisa Muhammed when she was looking for a functional space to host a fashion show for 175 guests during D.C. Fashion Week in late February. So naturally she settled on the District Architecture Center, a space belonging to the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“The space itself was really appealing,” she recalls of the multi-level floors that were advantageous for the behind-the-scenes logistics. “We used the downstairs for dressing rooms and hair and makeup, which was great because it took us away from the audience and gave us an actual ‘backstage’ area.” As well, the stairs were utilized for models to line up on before heading out to the runway on the main floor.

For this particular event, Muhammed worked with Areej Fashions, a lifestyle group of Muslim designers keen to counter negativity about the Islam culture by showing the beauty of their fashions. She also works with a number of other organizations to plan other events such as marriage retreats and award ceremonies and most often turns to hotels as her choice of venue. “I really preferred the new space though,” she says of District Architecture Center. “They helped us see things in a better way.”

Though it was the first actual fashion show at the venue, says Events Manager Laura Headrick, “We were confident it would be a great event. Every new event is a new adventure for us, but we’ve done hundreds of functions here so we know what works and what won’t.”

The whole planning process took about a month and a half and was helped by a number of walk-throughs. “We met here and talked it through to see what the possibilities were and how that might work,” says Headrick.

“We were looking at a variety of sites around D.C. and when we went to the Center they were warm and welcoming and showed us how we could feasibly do a fashion show there,” recalls Muhammed. She says the suggestion of pipe and draping was particularly effective. “The staff was very hopeful in terms of guiding us to see how it could look nice and gave us a suggestion of a great vendor.”

That essentially is the purpose of the Center, says Headrick. “Our space is built for events. It has a lot of flexibility with moving walls, natural light, everything that you’d want.” There’s also the utility of people, which made the whole operation run smoothly, says Muhammed. “They provided two dedicated staff members to be there the whole evening for anything we needed, and it turned out wonderful.”

Get Connected

District Architecture Center
(202) 347.9403

Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital
(202) 549.4172

History Colorado Center
(303) 866.4597

Iona College
(914) 637.7790