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The Winner Is…

By Selena Fragassi


The third time’s a charm, especially when it comes to naming the elite winners and runners up in the Third Annual Unique Venues Best of Awards. We tallied up all your votes and are proud to announce your standouts in 19 categories that cover every inch of our niche industry and make us all proud.

Best Venue for Transportation
Winner: American University, Washington, D.C.

Being located in the nation’s capital offers its share of advantages, including high-level access to transportation. American University has an abundance of options for visitors to arrive by plane, train, or automobile. The campus is less than 45 minutes from three major international airports (Dulles, Reagan National, and Thurgood Marshall-BWI) while also having its own stop on the redline of the D.C.-area Metro train. “We provide free shuttle buses seven days a week to take students and guests around campus as well as to the metro stop,” notes Kimberly Araya, director, university conferences & guest services. Other on-campus features include shared bike racks and immediate Zipcar memberships, and in 2017, a new meeting center will open with secured underground parking for conference guests. AU is also an incredibly walkable campus, says Araya. “We are located in Spring Valley, which is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, so if walking is your chosen means of transportation then this is the place for you.” // (202) 885.8247
Runners Up: Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA,, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (

Best Venue for Formal Affairs
Winner: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

Setting the mood for a formal event comes easy when you have a lavish space already fit with the décor. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the centerpiece of any special gathering becomes the esteemed works that encompass every corner of the Art Deco building. Here, you can give a toast from a grand balcony adorned with Renaissance tapestries, dance the night away in the stunning atrium, or mingle in a garden decorated with Rodin’s classic bronze sculptures. “No matter the affair, the setting will be unforgettable at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” says Morgan Bedore, vice president of sales, marketing, and creative for Starr Events. “Our spaces offer an array of options for indoor and garden events of all sizes, from photo shoots to business meetings to formal weddings.” STARR Events is the exclusive caterer and can create custom menus to match the opulence. In 2017, the museum is also working on curating alternate ceremony and special event locations at the grounds to better capitalize on the experience and flow of entertaining on-site. // (267) 239.5272
Runners Up: The National Archives Museum (Washington, D.C.,, Ohio Union at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH,

Best City Center Venue
Winner: The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL

The Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) may be one of the last remnants of the World’s Fair of 1893, but the gilded building also showcases the city of Chicago in all of its modern glory, too. The former Palace of Fine Arts is just steps away from the shores of Lake Michigan and the scenic route known as Lake Shore Drive, which easily transports visitors from the museum’s home in Hyde Park (also the site of the University of Chicago) to the attractions of nearby downtown Chicago. “With thousands of exhibits, artifacts, and ‘wow’ moments, MSI is the premier destination for unique and engaging special events,” says Stan Hansen, Sodexo Marketing Manager, which handles event planning at the venue. “[The museum] offers unique and spectacular spaces that can be used alone or in combination for transforma¬tive corporate events, holiday parties, picnics, receptions, awards ceremonies, and more.” One of newest is the Smart Home, a former exhibit that has been opened up for exclusive use as a special event venue with an energy-efficient, eco-friendly design. It can hold up to 40 people for a seated lunch or dinner, up to 100 for a cocktail party, and up to 150 for picnics in the adjacent Smart Park area outside the building. // (773) 753.2583
Runners Up: The Loft at 600 F (Washington, D.C.,, National Archives Museum (Washington, D.C.,,

Best Venue for an LGBTQ-Friendly Event
Winner: Purdue Conferences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

In 2016, Purdue University was the host site for the Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Ally College Conference, the largest of its kind in the nation representing 13 Midwest states. Since 1993, the conference has grown to offer 90 educational workshops as well as special guest speakers and entertainment, all aimed at bringing people together in a safe and supportive environment to address issues that affect the community. “The Purdue Student Leadership Initiative and the Crossroad Coalition were the driving forces behind, and the ultimate success of, this event,” says Nick Bonora, director of Purdue Conferences. “In addition, the Purdue University LGBTQ Center is a great resource and played a key role by offering training to internal and external partners.” In the spring of 2017, Purdue LGBTQ Center will also host a two-day event based on education and leadership training for students, faculty, staff, and the larger community; it’s modeled off of Queer Texas, an event held annually at the University of Texas in Austin. // (800) 955.6385
Runners Up: Distinction by Sodexo at the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, QB,, President Lincoln's Cottage (Washington, D.C.,

Best Venue for Unique or Locally Sourced Catering
Winner: Miami University Conference & Event Services, Oxford, OH

Miami University is delivering something fresh to conference guests and visiting groups. The campus in Oxford, Ohio recently unveiled a 35-acre farm that harvests fruits and vegetables used by the on-site Miami Catering staff in developing a variety of seasonal menus. Some of the crops grown include apples, lettuce, radishes, heirloom tomatoes, onions, and pumpkins—and what the campus can’t get from the yield, they supply from a series of local vendors. That list includes, among others, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream for handmade dessert, Walnut Creek Food for deli meats and natural cheeses, and Young’s Jersey Dairy, which is run by Miami University alumni. In addition to sustainably crafting menus, the conference and event services staff also coordinates foodie team-building experiences, such as chili cook-offs and the “Farm to Fork” program where groups actually head to the farm fields to harvest and prepare a meal together. “[Groups] understand the value of global vision, good choices, and the power of teamwork in this group initiative,” says Kathy Crowley, senior manager of marketing and sales for conferences and events. // (513) 529.6918
Runners Up: University of Colorado Boulder (Boulder, CO,, Georgian Conference and Event Services (Barrie, ON,

Best Venue for Reunions
Winner: Silver Bay YMCA Conference and Family Retreat Center, Silver Bay, NY

When it comes time to gather up the family for a reunion, many come home again to Silver Bay YMCA Conference and Family Retreat Center in upstate New York, which has won this category three years in a row. “Year after year, we see the same families return because they find Silver Bay an ideal location to form lasting bonds, not only with their own families, but with other families from across the country,” says Marketing & Communications Director Liz Hinck. Here, groups can choose standard programs and activities or customize programs for their needs. “We take great pride in our multigenerational programming. Each member of the family, no matter their age or interests, will find fun in every corner of Silver Bay,” furthers Hinck. Some of the options include craft shops and swim lessons for children, or scavenger hunts and trivia nights for the adults. The idyllic location, set on 700 acres on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, is also a key selling point. Encompassing more than 60 buildings (which are on the National Registry for Historic Places), Silver Bay YMCA also plans to break ground in 2017 on a new dining facility with meeting spaces and 22 new guest rooms. // (518) 543.8833
Runners Up: YMCA Camp Elphinstone (Vancouver, BC,, American Helicopter Museum (West Chester, PA,

Best Venue for Youth/Sports Groups
Winner: University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Youth-friendly is one of the many ways to describe the University of Maryland, College Park. With more than 8,000 beds on campus, plus two dining halls and an iron-clad, two-layer security program, planners can rest easy bringing their young clients to this sprawling suburban campus near the nation’s capital. “Each summer, sports camps that are run by our Big Ten Conference coaches combine with college immersion, special studies, and STEAM programs (Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Math) to stimulate young minds,” says Joseph E. Criscuoli, marketing and sales coordinator of Conferences & Visitor Services at UMCP. “Our Ropes Challenge Course, Rock Climbing Wall, and TerpZone facility are also must-do add-ons for any youth program.” The University of Maryland, College Park can also provide in-house motor coach charters that make ground transportation to nearby Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. a breeze for additional educational components. // (301) 314.7884
Runners Up: Florida Gulf Coast University (Ft. Myers, FL,, Carleton University (Ottawa, ON,

Best Venue for When the Meeting’s Over
Winner: The Field Museum, Chicago, IL

If you want a night at the museum after a long day of meetings, Chicago’s Field Museum is the perfect place to convene. While hosting your group in one of the spectacular event spaces (guest counts range from 10 to 8,000), guests can wander off to explore incredible artifacts, like the Evolving Planet exhibition, which looks at 4 billion years of the Earth. Each event space is paired with unique and stunning exhibitions, like Stanley Field Hall, which has SUE the world famous T.Rex, fighting elephants, and Haida totem poles. “Planners are able to add on private viewings of the museum’s temporary exhibits, many of them highlighting artifacts never on display anywhere else,” says Danielle Kosanovich, special events account manager. Trained docents can also interact with your party, allowing for insider knowledge and greater understanding of the museum's collections, and Interactive Pop-Up stations can also engage guests. The museum (just steps from Lake Michigan, with stunning outdoor terraces and close to downtown) even has its own beer, Tooth & Claw, developed exclusively by Off Color Brewing. The crisp Czech-style pilsner can be added to any catering menu. // (312) 665.7600
Runners Up: Museum of Science and Industry Chicago (Chicago, IL,, College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA,

Best Venue for Training and Development
Winner: UCLA Lake Arrowhead Conference Center, Lake Arrowhead, CA

Who better than an internationally renowned university to offer learning-based meeting spaces? In fact, the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Conference Center is so focused on this mission that it does not accept reservations for social events. “We want to provide a unique learning environment for training and development groups and other education-focused conferences and meetings,” says General Manager/UCLA Director Steve Caloca. To accomplish that goal, the conference center offers 10,000 square feet of IACC-certified meeting space in 14 varied meeting rooms, all including a suite of audio-visual services. “Our all-inclusive meeting packages include meeting space, deluxe overnight accommodations, and three complete meals each day,” adds Caloca. “Complimentary Wi-Fi is also provided throughout the Center, including in the guest rooms.” The serene setting also offers the opportunity for more concentrated learning—situated on 42 acres along the north shore of Lake Arrowhead in California’s San Bernardino Mountains and National Forest. The Arrowhead Adventures team-building program makes use of the natural surroundings, too, with activities that also stimulate cognitive problem solving. When it’s time to retire for the night, guests can enjoy chalet-style guest rooms with fireplaces and impeccable views that encourage reflective time. // (909) 337.2478
Runners Up: The Conference Center at Montclair State University (Montclair, NJ,, Georgia institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA,

Best Earth-Friendly Venue
Winner: Florida Gulf Coast University, Ft. Myers, FL

Unique Venues isn’t the only one noticing the eco-conscious programs at Florida Gulf Coast University. The campus also was recognized as one of the “25 greenest colleges” in 2015 and was a finalist in Sustainable Florida’s 2016 Best Practice Awards, among many other accolades. The physical grounds offer 385 acres of conservation lands, five miles of nature trails, and a student-maintained food forest. University officials have made a concerted effort to ensure all buildings (many LEED certified) complement the natural surroundings. “They are undergoing systematic automation and retrofitting of lighting and other fixtures to reduce energy consumption,” says Ruth Rodrigues, director, campus reservations and records management. Other initiatives include a 15-acre solar field that provides approximately 85 percent of the power for three of the campus’ largest academic buildings, a partnership with TrimTrax to reduce consumer food waste in dining halls, Zipcar locations on-site, the use of Green Seal certified cleaning products, biweekly farmers markets to provide students and the public with fresh produce (and recipe cards), and partnerships with local thrift stores and food banks to donate items during move outs each spring. FGCU also became a smoke-free campus in fall 2016. // (239) 590.1426
Runners Up: The Field Museum (Chicago, IL,, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (Vancouver, BC,

Best Venue on a Per Diem
Winner: St. Lawrence College Conference Services, Kingston, ON

Budgets don’t have to be burdensome when working with a venue like St. Lawrence College that can maximize your dollars—and your bottom line. “We often work with not-for-profits, government groups, and charitable organizations that have strict stipends,” says Conference Service Sales & Marketing Manager Amelia Campbell. “In these situations, we work closely with internal departments to do our best to accommodate the meeting planner’s goals and budget requirements.” One way we economize our services is we do our best to go through internal departments for the use of audio/visual equipment, tables and chairs, as well as other additional setup equipment. The college also keeps overhead costs low to allow for flexible room rates in residence buildings. Adds Conference Services Manager Richard Hogan, “We love making our clients happy, and building working relationships with new and many returning clients is very rewarding.” // (613) 544.5400
Runners Up: The Conference Center at Montclair State University (Montclair, NJ,, Colorado State University (Fort Collins, CO,

Best Suburban/Rural Venue
Winner: University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Suburban spots can be just as thrilling as their urban counterparts, especially with a property as unique as the University of Maryland, College Park. “Visitors and guests are amazed by the serenity and open spaces of our secluded and secure campus. That includes a campus-wide arboretum,” says Joseph E. Criscuoli, marketing and sales coordinator of Conferences & Visitor Services. UMCP sits on 1,800 acres in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with a main gate right on Route 1 and quick access to three international airports, often resulting in competitive airfare for visiting groups. When you do want to get into the city, a series of metro bus stops, trains, and motor coach charters can quickly transport groups to nearby Annapolis, Baltimore, or the nation’s capital. On-site, UMCP offers a total of 200,000 square feet of meeting space in 100 meeting rooms and five ballrooms along with 8,000 beds in the summer months. In 2017, the campus will welcome The Hotel at University of Maryland, offering 297 guest rooms, 43,000 square feet of conference space, and a wide variety of amenities. It will be the second facility of its kind, complementing the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. // (301) 314.7884
Runners Up: University of Scranton (Scranton, PA,, Georgia International Horse Park (Conyers, GA,

Best Venue for Expos and Tradeshows
Winner: Georgian College Conference and Events Services, Barrie, ON

The winner for best in (trade)show for the third consecutive year is Ontario’s Georgian College Conference and Event Services. Here, the events department seamlessly transforms the campus’ student athletic center into a 20,000-square-foot, obstruction-free event space with ample room for up to 100, 8’ x 8’ booths that can fit banners, displays and furniture. Plus, state-of-the-art technology is also included with the rental. To make the experience even more convenient for expo guests, “Georgian College provides on-site parking, catering within the exhibit hall, and access to numerous meeting and breakout spaces in the same building,” says Katie Sleep, manager, conference and event services. As such, the college (just 90 minutes from Toronto) has developed a considerable reputation and hosts around 15 large-scale shows annually including galas, convocations, wellness fairs, career expos, and sports exhibitions, with profits going back to student events, activities, and special projects. // (705) 728.1968
Runners Up: Chase Center on the Riverfront (Wilmington, DE,, Banff Centre (Banff, AB,

Best High-Tech Venue
Winner: Virginia Tech Executive Briefing Center, Arlington, VA

Without the right tools, it’s hard for anyone to do their job efficiently—and for many, that equates to premium technology. At the Virginia Tech Executive Briefing Center, guests can tap into state-of-the-art platforms at no additional cost, “which translates to seamless meetings,” says Center Manager Larissa LaCour, noting that all meeting rooms come standard with easy access to connect laptops to projection systems with screens ranging from 46” to 103”. One of the pieces de resistance is the 20-foot visualization wall in the Foggy Bottom Room that is capable of displaying 3D images; in the other rental spaces, video conferencing is available, enabling connections to up to three remote sites. On-site tech experts are always available, free of charge, who test connections beforehand to ensure successful meetings. A Hospitality Zone also includes four monitors allowing for further branding and presentation opportunities during breaks and receptions. One of the most exciting developments, though, is a recent partnership with Cyviz, which donated half a million dollars in highly advanced collaborative technology that changes the landscape for how meetings are held here. // (571) 858.3044
Runners Up: Ohio Union at the Ohio State University (Columbus, OH,, OFFSITE Chicago (Chicago, IL,

Best Venue to Film a Movie or TV Show
Winner: 3 West Club, New York, NY

It doesn’t take much to set a scene at 3 West Club in the heart of New York City, which has been a favorite location of such movies as “Rebel in the Rye” and “The Nanny Diaries” and TV shows including “Mozart in the Jungle,” “The Path,” “Flesh and Bone,” “Dateline NBC,” “20/20,” and “The Today Show.” Part of the allure is the historical nature of the buildings with tall ceiling and chandeliers and incredible views of the city offered from an adjacent terrace, according to Director of Marketing and Sales Louise Scrivines. “It’s particularly attractive for period pieces and ballroom scenes. …We have six unique spaces that speak to location scouts because they can film different scenes in one location.” Word of mouth has been key in getting on Hollywood’s radar with additional selling points including reduced fees (about 20 percent less than other competitors in Manhattan) and limitless flexibility. “We can do multiple tours so scouts can see the space as many times as they need, and we can work one-on-one to get questions answered quickly,” says Scrivines, whose team takes the same approach with meeting and event planners. “We feel the quicker they have the information they need, the better for the decision making process.” // (212) 582.5454 xt. 2183
Runners Up: New York Historical Society (New York, NY,, The Nest at UBC (Vancouver, BC,

Best Venue to Gather for the Day
Winner: OFFSITE, New York, NY

A good day is when you can have the whole place to yourself—which is exactly what groups can find at OFFSITE in New York City. This convenient turnkey solution offers complete exclusivity for every booked meeting or event, offering full use of the entire three-level, 4,200-square-foot “corporate oasis” for no extra charge. Also included in the package is a dedicated event coordinator that arranges state-of-the-art technology and on-site support staff, customized setups, and all snacks, beverages, and office supplies that might be needed for the duration of the stay. “We take care of our clients through and through, so that they can focus on the business they are here to do,” says Co-Founder Patrick Everett who notes that the idea of the three OFFSITE locations (two in New York and one in Chicago) is to simplify the meeting rental process without sacrificing quality or amenities. Technology is also a key component—the building is fully equipped with synced projections on five LED HD TVs, and additional features include a digital smart board, surround sound, live music integration, live camera feeds, high speed dedicated fiber Wi-Fi, and award-winning plug-and-play Halcon conference tables. A check-in receptionist, stocked kitchenette, and vast reading materials means you never have to leave once you go OFFSITE. // (212) 366.1828
Runners Up: Metro Meeting Centers – Boston (Boston, MA,, Columbus State Conference Center (Columbus, OH,

Best Venue for Small Gatherings
Winner: The Loft at 600 F, Washington, D.C.

At The Loft at 600 F, the fourth floor is specifically set aside for more intimate and private meetings and events. “Two business rooms and a cozy foyer are perfect for groups of 15-30 in seated panels, and the space transforms beautifully for intimate cocktail parties of up to 75 guests,” says Venue Manager Wyatt Hull. “Our strength for small gatherings is the ease and flexibility for getting attendees in the venue as well as fast responses to questions and attentiveness to event needs.” The Loft at 600 F provides customizable raw space with hardwood floors and high ceilings that can change in size, look, and feel depending on the group size, and the staff is also cognizant of fitting the perfect amount of furniture into each space, so no rentals are required. Says Hull, “The spaces are designed to allow comfortable conversations to unfold naturally, helping to foster creativity in a space that feels like a very large, beautiful living space. One of the most frequent comments from guests who have toured our space is, ‘I want to live here!’” // (202) 431.8516
Runners Up: Virginia Tech Executive Briefing Center (Arlington, VA,, Spirit Fire Retreat Center (Leyden, MA,

Best Venue for Spiritual/Wellness Gathering
Winner: The Art of Living Retreat Center, Boone, NC

Although most retreats conjure up ideas of rest and relaxation, The Art of Living Retreat Center taps into another plane with a whole host of mindful programs. “We have several yoga and meditation teachers in residence that have trained both in India and the U.S. that offer workshops in yoga practice, guided meditation, deep relaxation, insights into the mind, holistic nutrition, and more,” says Art of Living Teacher and Director of Digital Media Andrew Keaveney. An outdoor labyrinth offers even more moving reflection while creative exploration can be found in an on-site pottery studio. But, Keaveney says, “The whole atmosphere promotes wellness, silence, and restoration,” especially with a serene location overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountain Range. “Groups love the pure air and spectacular views.” Menus are also designed to be supportive of wellness and the on-site spa offers holistic treatments that complement many of the programs. Plans are also underway to open a School of Ayurveda and School of Yoga in 2017. // (800) 392.6870
Runners Up: Silver Bay YMCA Conference and Family Retreat Center (Silver Bay, NY,, American University (Washington, D.C.,

Best Outdoor/Rooftop Event Space
Winner: YMCA Camp Elphinstone, Gibsons, BC

Enjoying the great outdoors in Canada is second nature, but finding a functional event space that taps into the lush surroundings takes a bit more exploration. Many planners return to YMCA Camp Elphinstone, just a 40-minute ferry ride from Vancouver, which offers a forested chapel and waterfront campfire as just two of the options, popular for wedding and religious ceremonies. “Other groups have utilized the breadth of space to plan outdoor yoga workshops, various team-building and leadership retreats, Marine Search and Rescue trainings, family getaways, and birthday parties,” says Nadia Gormley, manager of marketing & communications. “What makes us unique is our ability to cater to a wide range of needs and a wide range of groups.” Although there are indoor meeting spaces on-site, many planners opt to secure a section of the 144 acres for their functions. In addition to space, YMCA Camp Elphinstone offers several activities from archery to ropes courses and water sports that complement many programs. Cozy accommodations and on-site catering round out the extra services. // (604) 886.2025
Runners Up: Oak Ridge Hotel & Conference Center (Chaska, MN,, Lewis & Clark (Portland, OR,