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Unique Venues Rock Stars of 2015

By Selena Fragassi


This year, Unique Venues has its own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees with these seven stars who are always making sure the stage is set for their clients to have a memorable performance. Meet the Legendary Act, Opener, Sound & Light Tech, Rider Provider, Tour Manager, Remastered Master and Fan Club President who are making lots of fans in the collegiate conference industry.

Twenty years is a long time to be in any one industry, but part of the reason Polly Weir has remained the front- woman of conference services for the University of Delaware the past two decades is that it continually challenges her—and the program director finds a thrill in meeting those expectations by staying ahead of the curve.

“When I started at the university in 1995, I thought I was on the cutting edge because I had our menus saved on floppy discs. No one was doing that, they were still handing out paper menus,” she laughs, recalling how she prided herself on being just as intuitive in her previous roles in hotel and restaurant management and owning her own fitness center with her husband. “This is the role I’ve been in the longest, and it’s because I’m never doing the same thing; it’s diverse and interesting every day,” she admits of overseeing four dedicated conference centers spread out in three locations from downtown to the beach. “We try to do something new every year and also adapt
to the differences in the market.”

That has meant embracing social media by “getting better at it every day,” having a more reactive sales force that continues to build relationships, welcoming new channels for growth and understand- ing the department’s unique role within the university. In addition to orchestrating a successful Alumni Weekend every year as well as consistent summer camps, Weir says, “We do a lot of business with the local community who oftentimes can’t believe they can use these spaces. We put on a public face and keep it fresh and interesting, and we define a lot of our success on the repeat business we have.”

While she’s already a legendary act, Weir still says there’s a lot more of her greatest hits coming in the years ahead. “I look forward to pro- viding newer and more state-of-the-art facilities for our clients. I want to continue to make this operation better and assist the university in bringing it the recognition it deserves.”

Jessica Posey has been around the backstage world of event planning since she was a child. Her stepmother owned a corporate planning business, and in their house “birthdays were everything,” she says. “I was always wondering how I would plan my next party and make it better than the last. ...Now I do that with my own kids.” It’s also a daily mission in her role as assistant director, office of conferences for Nashville’s Vanderbilt University where she makes sure everything is in perfect order for each of the visiting groups she manages.

The university is not only a certified One-Stop Shop but two years ago they also launched a special Meet At Vanderbilt marketing campaign to spread awareness of the campus’ offerings as well as centralize all the conferences and camps, special events, weddings, holiday parties and more that they host.

“We have a meticulous series of checklists when we start contracting with a planner,” she says of keeping everything in order for recent functions like the Iron Fork competition, ID Tech Camp and celebrity appearances by Bill Nye and Billy Joel. “Together we create target dates for things like deposits, reserving meeting spaces and dining guarantees. We also provide online registration to make it seamless for the planner.”

The complex system of multi-tasking was something she learned in a number of previous planning roles within the sports industry, including working for the Orange Bowl Committee in Miami and as an administrative assistant for the Nashville Predators, the National Basketball Associa- tion and the Southwest Sports Group that owns the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. In each, she helped with player travel, budgets, VIP relations, contracts and promotions.

Six years ago, though, she made the choice to make planning her mis- sion, working her way up the ranks and currently enrolled in CCEP (Collegiate Conference and Events Professional Certification Program) courses.  I’ve always been in love with the collegiate world and wanted to try to get in with Vanderbilt, but it’s not the easiest thing to do because it’s such a great place to work that people are lifers,” Posey admits. “Now I don’t ever plan on leaving.”

Robert Ostrow had been a prominent session player for a number of big acts before coming onboard as the assistant director of housing operations at the University of Florida. He had logged nearly 13 years in retail management at music stores in New Orleans and Miami, as a district manager for Starbucks, a wine repre- sentative, software analyst and the president of a bank.

At Starbucks, he had a staff of 130 people across 9 stores and an $8 million budget. Ostrow was doing so well in fact that, in 2008, he was primed to advance, possibly even moving to Seattle to work in the homeoffice—until the company laid off a number of its workforce.

“I had to reinvent myself,” he admits, “and I’ve never been able to take a job if I didn’t align myself with the product or service.” So Ostrow turned to the University of Florida, a place that he believed in for four years while earning his undergraduate degree.  “I still know a lot of the people in the operation; the director of housing was my advisor back in the ‘80s. There were all these intricate aspects that made a huge impact on my life,” he says, “and it was easy to understand and promote the mission statement.”

His current position didn’t exist when he rejoined the university four years ago, and it was his job to take the conference services department and turn it into a thriving business, which required a lot of reorganization. “You can be like Jackson Pollock and throw a whole bunch of stuff on a canvas, and then you look at results and it’s madness. You have to have laser focus.” To do so, Ostrow spent the first couple of years leveraging relationships on campus, figuring out decision makers and absorbing best practices from other universities, as well as fine-tuning his client base.

"You can be like Jackson Pollock and throw a whole bunch of stuff on a canvas, and then you look at results and it’s madness. You have to have laser focus."

“I knew if we sat around and waited for business it wasn’t going to happen,” Ostrow says, always cognizant of looking ahead. “You never know what will happen a couple of years from now, but I know I will continue to grow the business as best as I can.”

Although she only auditioned for the role of conference sales coordinator at the University of Oregon five months ago, this is not Larissa Straily’s first time plugging into the hospitality stage.

Prior to moving back to her home state to accept the job, Straily had a tenacious track record in Las Vegas. She had worked as a special events coordinator for the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, most memorably putting together a Superbowl party for 2,000 guests. As well, Straily developed her sales side at one of the top DMCs called Destinations By Design where she helped clients enhance their event by choosing the site location and picking out décor, entertainment, activities and transportation.

“I liked having two different experiences on both a sales team and a full planning role at a hotel,” she admits. “It gave me a good view of both worlds and provided insight for my current position because now I know both sides of the industry and can anticipate what people are looking for and what questions to ask.”

Not only is Straily new to the University of Oregon, but the confer- ence sales coordinator is also a brand-new position in the department. “I liked the idea of coming into a new setting and the challenge of starting something from scratch. It lets me put my creative side to good use,” she says, and already she has nabbed a good lead. In the summer of 2015, the campus will welcome a conference for the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC). “We will be hosting over a thousand members from around the world and giving them all an experience to re- member. They will be staying in our residence halls, using multiple meet- ing and special event spaces as well as many of our athletic facilities.”

Although there has been a learning curve in understanding how a uni- versity system works and the type of client she is now pursuing (mostly educators and associations), Straily is excited for what’s to come, including a brand-new meeting and conference center with 200,000 square feet of space opening in the summer of 2016 she can soon market. “I wanted a job that would allow me to grow professionally, and I found it.”

Someone who really knows the rock and roll lifestyle is Joe Bradley. Before he became director of event services and auxiliary management for Loyola University Maryland, Bradley was on the road as a touring sound, video and light tech for a popular ‘90s alt rock band.

“They were headed to Europe, and I didn’t have a great desire to tour with them,” he says. At the same time a colleague who had started up the special event program at Loyola asked Bradley if he wanted a role in A/V at the university. “I was pretty upfront that I’d be willing to help for two years and then be back on the road; that turned into 23 years very quickly.”

One thing Bradley took away from his early experience: The show must always go on. “Things can go wrong every day; you have to learn how to adapt.” What helps is having a qualified staff able to handle the needs of clients and ready to attack when tech hiccups happen.

“Much like we have integrated our technology services over the years, we have a great staff made up of people with all different skill sets that we integrate to provide singular service to clients,” he says. Training is also very important. “Our student staff, logistics team and production people all get the same training.”

The university has trusted the team in more ways than one, making sure they have input on purchasing decisions of equipment, too. “We have a very stringent replacement cycle of all equipment,” says Bradley, which means Loyola leads the way in audio, video and lighting, including all digital consoles and wireless mic systems.

Although Bradley has migrated a number of technological revolutions in the two-plus decades he’s been at the university (“we were showing the admissions video on 16mm projectors when I first arrived”), he sees the future as becoming even more evolved. “We are certainly moving from the analog to digital age at 100%,” he says—and his team is ready to adapt yet again. “When planners come to us they might think they will have to hire a lot of third party vendors, and that is not the case here.”  Our riders can have the most bizarre requests—only red M&Ms, bottled water from France chilled to an exact 68 degrees. Yet big demands are something.

Keith LaPointe is used to receiving from his visiting groups and wedding clients as the manager of Sodexo dining services at Paul Smith’s College.
“We once had an all vegan and gluten-free wedding,” he recalls of one of their biggest feats to date. “You don’t know if everyone in the room is off gluten or meat- and dairy- free so you have to make sure it tastes good for all.” It’s some- thing he calls the “Paul Smith flair,” or tweaking menus until it perfectly meets the discerning tastes of this small community in the Adirondacks of New York.

“As a school we have two main programs—culinary and forestry—so we are appealing to two really different types of palates. Part of that is serving locally sourced products for students and catered functions,” says LaPointe. In fact one of the college’s signature items is following Sodexo’s “Mindful Program” which allows for not only sustainable but also healthier choices, too.

Before joining Paul Smith’s culinary program nearly eight years ago, LaPointe was himself a student—in business and marketing—before he
started to understand what his true passion was.  He’s always been in the restaurant field. Growing up he was a busboy and helped out on Friday and Saturday nights at a seafood buffet at a local restaurant in upstate New York while going to school. He found himself working at the restaurant in Hotel Saranac, which was formerly owned by Paul Smith’s College.

“I was getting really good at my job, I was a lead server and became a mentor for interns. I thought this is fun, why not go to school for this?”
The rest, as they say, is history. Now LaPointe oversees a team of 26 people that are all focused on providing great service, no matter how extreme the request. “We have a really good one-on-one rapport with the client. They know they can come to me for anything.”

Just like any successful band, an event venue knows that it needs a good number of followers to keep them in the public eye. So under the leadership of Director Dezarai Brubaker, the conference and event services department at Colorado State University has developed several street team efforts to keep their “fan club” engaged.

“Over the last few years it’s been more accepted on our campus” to engage in social media, she says. The main portal her group uses is Facebook for networking and promotion purposes and generally “to get the word out about who we are and what we are doing.”

That includes posting weekly Throwback Thursday photos with nostalgic college themes from past decades, holiday planning tips and recipes for planners, “getting to know” staff profiles, invitations to department functions including open houses and recaps of a variety of events around campus including a recent visit from Michelle Obama. “I try to pull ideas from pages I personally like and incorporate that into what we do,” Brubaker says, targeting followers that include clients, employees of the university and contemporaries on other campuses (“we trade ideas quite a bit”).

“It helps that there’s a variety of different faculty and staff from CSU that follows us, so when they like our post, their network of individuals sees it as well and spreads awareness,” Brubaker points out, noting that they’ve often hosted contests to get more page likes.  The department will likely be adding an Instagram page in 2015 and is considering Twitter, but for now premium value is on marketing their innovative new website, which launched last summer.

“It’s a complete overhaul. We tried to make it more interactive with a 3-D map that shows all the spaces we offer and a whole layout of the campus. It helps us sell the property from afar if we can’t get prospects onsite,” she says.

The other big addition is the hiring of a new dedicated sales and marketing manager this year to help with things like social media and planner outreach. His or her first task: “A back to basics snail mail piece,” says Brubaker. You never know what the fans want.