Northwest Indiana offers a wide variety of meeting venues, from historic buildings to convention facilities to college campuses, to handle all types and sizes of events. But beyond choosing the right space, it’s essential to focus on the nitty-gritty details to avoid problems on the big day.
Open just one year, the new Harre Union in the heart of Valparaiso University’s campus replaced an aging building from the 1950s and offers three times the meeting and event space. “There was a lot of attention to detail for higher-end functions,” says Jon Burk, assistant director. “It’s a younger atmosphere because we’re on a college campus, and it’s a great location.”
Small rooms are available for five or six people or for interviews, all the way up to seating for 1,400 theater-style. Dinners can be set for up to 500.
“We’re very flexible with the space,” says Burk. There may be a conference table in a room when a client looks at the space—but it can easily be broken down and replaced with rounds to accommodate needs.
Burk says it’s important not to take the client’s experience. “You don’t know whether they are brand new or have been doing it for years, so talking about the little things is important.”
Do they need a table for nametags? If they are having a cake do they want a round table that people can walk around or do they want it against the wall? “We give them suggestions. If they request it one way, we might say we’ve done it like that but it didn’t work out well. We’ll say. ‘Let me throw this idea out at you,’ and give them as many options as we can.”
Despite all the pre-planning, things will go wrong, Burk says. “Our responsibility is making sure the staff is properly trained to know who to call to get the problem solved quickly.”
The Radisson at Star Plaza in Merrillville can accommodate two people for an interview, 100 for a one-day seminar, or 3,000 for a convention planned years in advance. It’s the site of many statewide and Midwest conventions, with three different checklists used for larger events to help make them successful, says Margie Cosentino, director of events management.
A year out it’s important to plan for a room reservation block, she says, and it’s time to plan for the theme of the conference. The Radisson works closely with the convention bureau to showcase Northwest Indiana’s attractions and ethnic foods. A “Taste of Northwest Indiana” might be chosen as a theme for a convention dinner event. Six months out the planning begins for the menus, audiovisual needs for guest speakers, special room needs and suites, and how VIPs will be taken care of. Forty-five days out a pre-convention meeting with the organization is held.
With fewer corporate event planners on staff and budget belt-tightening it takes a bit more planning on Cosentino’s part to ensure a successful glitch-free event. “We have to be a great listener, we have to be creative,” she says. That means suggesting different options, working within a budget and ultimately creating memories.
Martha Link, director of sales and catering at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, can plan for a private room for up to 12 in its steakhouse or up to 1,000 for a sit-down dinner in its special events venue. In between, the facility can accommodate space for things such as the annual gala dinner of the Lakeshore Chamber and a trade show for South Shore Clean Cities.
An important consideration for planning an event open to the public—such as a trade show—is choosing the right date, Link stresses. Make sure there are not events already planned that would compete for the same traffic you want to attract for your event. Next, it’s important to adequately plan for the size of the event. “Don’t outgrow the space and come to learn that the facility doesn’t have something larger to accommodate you,” says Link.
Specialized checklists are used on the phone with clients to make sure the right questions are asked to determine the client’s needs, whether it’s a wedding, a corporate function or a meeting. “The venue is going to fulfill those needs and generally everything else falls into place,” says Link.
In South Bend, the Palais Royale’s historic ballroom, built in 1922 and restored in 2002, is a venue like no other in Northwest Indiana, says Deb Leyes, sales director. People came there to dance every night during the Big Band era, and its 30-foot ceilings and architectural features still exude glamour.
The flexible-use facility can accommodate corporate trade shows that can attract up to 800 people, classroom-style events for up to 300, and it has more intimate rooms available for board meeting dinners.
Leyes tries to assess the experience of the meeting planner she’s working with for an event to determine the level of help needed. “The devil’s in the details. If you don’t have a backup plan, that’s where things can go wrong.”
Audiovisual problems are pretty common, says Leyes, so the facility is always ready to swoop in and save the day on a moment’s notice, switching to the facility’s equipment if the client’s fails. On occasion, planners don’t tell the facility that there should be a dining table set aside for special guests or speakers, and when other guests are already seated, a new table will have to be brought in at the last minute to accommodate them. Communication is key, she says. “It’s important that their entire team knows what our entire team does and can be contacted to respond quickly.”
Also serving South Bend and the region is the Century Center on the banks of the St. Joseph River. “The No. 1 thing that we can do and the client can do is to ask the right questions so there are no surprises in the 11th hour,” says Matt Rose, director of sales and marketing.
The 30-year-old building is undergoing some major upgrades, he says, which gives it more of a feel of a hotel ballroom than a standard convention center. Island Park, in the middle of the St. Joseph River, will have a 4,800-square-foot clear span tent ready for the spring, and it converted one of its convention halls into the newly named Discovery Ballroom for galas, banquets and wedding receptions. “We’ll do anything from a 10-person board meeting all the way to a consumer show over a weekend.”
Times have changed drastically in the last decade, says Rose, especially in the last two years. “Where some companies and organizations may have had a dedicated meeting planner, that’s rare today,” he says. Now the planning generally falls on an assistant or on human resources due to cutbacks and the economy. “We’ve become more of a consulting sales office. We do have to ask more questions now than ever before. It may be the very first meeting they’re planning or a bigger meeting than they’ve planned before.”
Rose’s team is used to solving last-minute problems. They’ll roll tables in and drop chairs, and switch out their own technical equipment for a client’s malfunctioning pieces. Recently, a keynote speaker showed up to address 400 attendees with only his flash drive for the PowerPoint presentation—assuming the organizer had requested a laptop. Immediately, a laptop of one of the Century Center’s staffers was whisked into the room. “We do it with a smile and make it look easy. It’s very much a team environment and it’s ‘all hands on deck,’” Rose says. “We do what it takes to meet the needs.”