Boston Meetings Follow in the Footsteps of Greatness

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John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

Amy Peters, vp of business development for Airports Council International, organized a closing event last year for her conference at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. This is just one example of the incredible venues available in Boston.

“Getting a police escort at the urging of the Boston CVB and our DMC Best of Boston was some of the best money I’ve ever spent, and it wasn’t that expensive,” says Peters. “Our international guests felt like VIPs, I had chills watching them arrive.” She’s quick to add that Gourmet Catering prepared a tremendous New England clambake dinner.

An international guest list solidified Peter’s site selection. “No matter your political leanings, everyone knows about JFK,” she says. “We chose the Library because there’s nowhere else in the US this event could have happened.”

Claudia Kozma Kaplan, senior vp of marketing for Leading Hotels of the World, felt the same way when 400 owners and senior execs from 470 international hotels used the Library to commemorate the conclusion of the group’s 80th year in business and semi-retirement of its CEO.

“No other place would do. This is a group of people who’ve been everywhere and seen everything,” says Kaplan. “It’s always a question if our choice will be relevant to our guest. This was magical! The library itself is special, but when you add in the importance of the occasion and tie it into JFK…it was just spectacular.”

Donna Wolfe, vp of sales for DMC NXTevent, planned the celebration. “A fife and drum corps of Revolutionary re-enactors in powdered wigs and dressed to the nines in gold and navy uniforms greeted them at the entrance,” she says.

Leading Hotels used Smith Hall, one of two rooms at the Library that each accommodates 400 people. A retrospective of the company’s 80 years honored each decade, while a silent film ran through the cocktail hour and impersonators from Charlie Chaplin to Paul McCartney sang with the band. Kaplan ended with a spoof infomercial, as if the retiring CEO was running for President. A Hillary Clinton look-alike then presented the CEO, who’s a motorcycle aficionado, with an authentic Harley Davidson leather jacket.

“The JFK Library is an emotional experience,” says Larry Meehan, vp of tourism for the Greater Boston CVB. “Having a meeting or reception in the Pavilion, where the Profiles Of Courage Awards are held each year, gives the visit greater meaning.” Meehan explains the building was designed to put tours into context, beginning with a 20-minute film that represents Kennedy Administration themes, from the monumental attitude shifts during the Civil Rights movement to the role that television cameras play in presidential debates. “It’s one of the top five Boston locations where planners host receptions because of the dramatic view of the harbor, and because it’s where world leaders want to be heard and history is respected.”

CONTEMPORARY VENUES

Towering above the historic Back Bay within walking distance of 7,000 hotel rooms, The Prudential Center’s Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor offers 360-degree views of Fenway Park, Harvard, MIT and the Blue Hills, and the sunsets are spectacular. Capacity is about 700 people.

Now imagine 400 German bank executives and staff crowding narrow tables in a biergarten inside the Observatory, hoisting frothy mugs while singing with the oompah band. And St. Paulie girls in blonde pigtails, posing on wooden swings before a backdrop of a small alpine town with twinkling lights.

NXTevent put on that little number. What was your favorite part, Donna?

“The lederhosen-clad waiters juggling five beer steins in each hand while rollerblading between pushcarts of German food and pots of brightly-hued flowers.”

For CSR-conscious events, check out EpiCenter, owned by a conscientious outfit called Artists for Humanity. The modish 23,500-sf glass and aluminum facility runs on 100% renewable energy in the Fort Point artist district, with tons of raw white space and capacity for 700-person receptions.

“As a DMC, my job is to suggest venues people wouldn’t otherwise know about, and EpiCenter is one of the most beautiful,” says Kathy Landry, CEO of Destination Partners, Inc. “Artists for Humanity keeps neighborhood children off the street by having them paint t-shirts, do photography, sculptures, and graphics. We rent the studio using the children’s art for invitations and for backdrops in the room.”

Staying within the artistic vein, the strikingly mod Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) combines breathtaking views of Boston’s harbor and skyline with exclusive catering by Wolfgang Puck Catering. The largest of the five venues inside is the 3,675-sf State Street Corporation, which can seat 200 for dinner. The combined 3,500 sf of space from the Plaza and Water Café (Puck’s place) will host 400 for cocktails.

“The Boston Museum of Fine Arts will be the place to host events in 2010,” speculates Meehan, “when a huge addition designed by Sir Norman Foster opens. Already one of the greatest art museums in the world with the largest collection of Monets outside of Paris and the largest Asian collection in the world, it will soon house the largest collection of colonial American artifacts in the world.” He cautioned against forgetting the Museum of Science Boston, Boston’s largest indoor space with room for 4,500-person receptions.

Old South Meeting House
Old South Meeting House

 

OLD BECOMES NEW AGAIN

“Other than the JFK, my favorite venue in Boston is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” sighs Donna Wolfe. Essentially unchanged since Gardner’s death in 1924, she says it “resembles a Venetian castle, three stories high, surrounding a garden that’s changed seasonally.” Strict rules (due to an art heist 20 years ago) limit seating to 80—and no more.

“No guests are allowed to step into the courtyard, but there’s a tiny spot where I have placed a harpist, bass and flute,” says Wolfe. “I have a magnificent harpist whose wardrobe replicates Gardner’s couture clothes…. Surrounding her is gorgeous Moroccan and Spanish tile and in the center of the room is a gigantic painting of El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, one of Gardner’s friends.”

Wolfe has a flamenco guitarist and dancer who mimic the painting, while docents explain the museum and art histories.

Courtney Church, partner of Corinthian Events, likes the Old South Meeting House built in 1729 on the Freedom Trail, which today lies in the heart of the financial district. It is Colonial Boston’s largest building, hosting up to 650 total on the balcony and the theater in the main hall.

A New York-based animation company specifically wanted “an old venue they could make new and funky for a late-night party, and this place appealed to them because of its history as a meeting place,” says Church. “I turned the original pew boxes into a funky, cool nightclub with a celebrity New York DJ working from the pulpit. There wasn’t much décor, but it was the look and sound of the space that made it special.”

HAHVAAD YAHD YAHOOS

“I don’t know an international visitor, whether from Japan, UK, France, etc., who would leave Boston or Cambridge without seeing Harvard, MIT or both,” says Meehan. “Especially now, because both Obamas graduated from Harvard Law.”

Both Harvard and MIT have official tours at no charge (donations accepted). We recommend the award-winning UnOfficial Harvard Tour, which compares itself to the Official Tour as “what the Daily Show is to national news networks.” A trained team of 52 current students, aka “Hahvaad Yahd yahoos,” lead 70-minute tours for unlimited size groups.

“There’s a great mystique about Harvard so we pull the curtain back on student life from an honest, real perspective,” says Antonio Reyes, senior vp of business development, “with a certain amount of irreverence.”

One example is a fully clothed re-enactment of the freshman tradition for running naked through the streets in winter to the Primal Scream student lounge to loosen up for midterms, while upperclassmen watch on lawn chairs with hot cocoa. With so much brilliance in one place, Harvard is a bit of a pressure cooker. “If you were to go by pure brains,” says Reyes, “the smartest students are probably at MIT. What Harvard produces is world leaders….

“We really focus on American history woven into the Harvard/Cambridge rivalry. Like all college towns, there’s a history of tension between the city and the university, except this one has been going on for over 400 years.”

Meehan also likes Urban AdvenTours’ bicycle tours for up to 30 people. “These guys are all environmentally-friendly Wesleyan graduates who want to educate corporate groups who have little time, but want an intense cultural and educational experience through the city’s history.”

HOTEL BOSTON

In September, the 1,222-room Sheraton Boston Hotel wrapped a $50 million renovation, including a lively redesign of 800 rooms. A new palette reflects the colors of autumn in New England, with sharply minimalist textures and furnishings.

The most impactful change is the “Link@Sheraton experience with Microsoft” business lounge in the large, inviting lobby. Attendees can now zoom around the internet with free WiFi, print documents and sip Starbucks lattes within a more communal environment. Regional and seasonal botanicals are in bloom in the large open space, with artwork from the local photography school and park benches designed to create an aura reflecting Boston’s public parks.

“Groups are loving this area, it’s much more social and people can interact, have Starbucks, and work and enjoy themselves,” says Cara Banasch, area director of sales/marketing. “It’s more of a teambuilding experience. I think the warm and welcoming feel encourages people to sit and talk.”

Banasch adds the downtown location is another major selling point, close to major meeting venues and cultural attractions like Huntington Theater and the Boston Symphony.

Open since last year, the 148-room Mandarin Oriental Boston brings the brand’s feng shui-friendly elan to the Back Bay. The 4,200-sf Oriental Ballroom accommodates up to 600, and the fine-dining Asana restaurant blends organic New England seafood with Far East spices and sauces. Think Miso-marinated black cod or freshwater paddlefish caviar.

The emergence of Mandarin Oriental and other luxe, mid-size properties is helping propel Boston’s meeting product on a global stage while retaining the city’s charmed character.

“The scale of the hotel fits in very well with the traditional brownstones and local surroundings,” says Mary Hull, director of catering. “It exemplifies the special beauty of Boston. There’s a healthy respect for the past and tradition, but at the same time we’re vibrant, forward-thinking and international.”

Over in leafy Cambridge on the doorstep of Harvard U, The Charles Hotel is a 4-diamond independent with 293 rooms and a reputation as America’s most intellectual property. Due to its location, the hotel is a fave for visiting academics and creative luminaries, but it’s also a popular draw for groups seeking an Ivy League milieu and non-corporate character.

“We have a personal touch you can’t find elsewhere,” says Jennifer McMahon, director of sales/marketing. “When a meeting planner visits on a site inspection, for example, he or she will generally meet with four executives: the GM, director of sales, executive chef and conference manager.”

The Charles features 13,000 sf of meeting space, but the marquee get-together spot is the 225-capacity Regattabar, named Best Jazz Club by Boston Magazine 13 years in a row. Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones have both performed here. There’s also an outdoor skating rink where the hotel will set up games for groups in winter. “It’s a fun outdoor activity that brings a youthful touch to a meeting,” says McMahon.

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