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VOL. 36 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 7, 2012

Demand fuels new crop of party venues

By Linda Bryant

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The Ultra Lounge at OZ is one of many spaces that can be utilized for parties.

Special event venues and restaurants with party spaces are swamped with holiday bookings sales at levels they haven’t seen since the pre-recession days of the mid-2000s, say Middle Tennessee event planners, caterers and local restaurant owners.

The party business is good enough that several independent event venues have opened in the past two to three years and are experiencing rapid growth. So are the more traditional locations.

“You could just say we are happily overwhelmed,” says Elizabeth Gilbreath who co-owns Houston Station, a historic warehouse at 434 Houston Street near Greer Stadium that was renovated and opened as a party venue in 2011.

“There’s a lot going on in Nashville, and I think (our event spaces) are reflecting it,’’ Gilbreath adds.

Restaurants with party rooms such as Maggiano’s Little Italy on West End and Merchants on Lower Broadway are booked solid with corporate and family holiday parties. Publicly-owned destination spaces such as The Parthenon and Two Rivers Mansion are also experiencing an uptick of holiday-related events.

“The event industry is an active market right now; it’s really on the way up,” says Christina Bradley, venue manager at Aerial, a private event space on a rooftop in the old Heileg-Myers Furniture store building at 411 Broadway in downtown Nashville. “We’ve received more calls about holiday parties this year. I really think it’s a reflection of the economy.”

Aerial opened in 2007 at the precipice of the recession. Bradley says there were some lean times when small businesses and corporations didn’t spend money on off-site parties. Corporate parties have returned this year, bringing definite preferences and tastes in foods and entertainment.

Many partiers don’t want to go the overly-formal route, Bradley says. They like to host mixers in which food is served at various “stations” sprinkled throughout a room.

Aerial parties usually range in number from 40 to 250, and generally pay $1,000 to $2,000 to rent the space, depending on the time of year and scope of the event. Fees include amenities such as table and chairs, but not catering.

Smaller businesses, families or small groups of friends sometimes opt for smaller, more affordable places to host holiday reveries, often choosing restaurants with party rooms or historic homes. Kathy Blums, event coordinator at the Buchanon Log House, says there’s been a lot of interest in the venue in recent years. The 204-year-old log cabin on Elm Hill Pike can play host to 85 people and is $40 to $100 an hour depending on specifics of the event.

Like Bradley, Blums says she’s noticed a trend toward friendly, laid-back events that aren’t as formal as shindigs she’s seen in the past.

“A lot of people are steering away from the ultra-formal,” Blums says.

A boost for restaurants

When affordability and convenience are factors, many rely on local restaurants with extra rooms that can accommodate small and medium-sized groups. The entire third floor of Merchant’s Restaurant is devoted to special events.

“We are practically booked solid through (the holidays), with only a couple of dates open,” says Virginia Cochran, director of sales and events at Merchant’s Restaurant, which has several separate rooms and typically hosts holiday parties for 12-150 for $450 to $4,000, depending on the size of the party.

It’s a similar story at Maggiano’s.

“We’re booked up, and it’s mostly company parties,” says events and banquet manager Kelly Kaplan. “It’s pretty amazing. I think you really see that businesses are willing to spend money on their employees again.”

Maggiano’s, which has four special-event rooms, charges per person. A typical charge can range anywhere from $11.95 per head for a child to $37.95 per person for an adult ordering a family style banquet meal.

Party in OZ

OZ quietly opened in last summer at the site of the former COA cigar factory in Cockrill bend beside the John C. Tune Airport. The upscale venue is the brainchild of the Ozgener clan, the family that owned and developed the COA cigar brand and sold the company in 2007.

Sara Moggio, director of sales and events at OZ, says business has been so good they are in the process of expanding. OZ has more than 15,000 square feet of space and multiple amenities, including an art gallery, 16 bathrooms, a conference room, patio and fire pit, four loading docks, a Zen Garden with exotic foliage and one of the world’s largest walk-in cigar humidors.

OZ’s schedule is chock full of corporate holiday events.

“I don’t think people realize it yet, but the economy is really getting better,” Maggio says. “You can just feel it.”

Maggio says partying clients are showing strong preferences for celebrations that are highly individualistic.

“It’s even true when it comes to cocktails. They like something creative and unusual. It’s part of what they remember and take away from the event.”

Oz can accommodate parties from 20 to several hundred and typically rents for a 12-hour span for $3,000 to $5,000.

The venue even has an artist-in-residence, sculptor Brian Somerville, who has a portable studio that can be included in a party package. He sculpts live during an event, typically creating whimsical clay animal sculptures for attendees.

Another newer event space is Ruby. The renovated historic church opened in 2011 and is on Blakemore Avenue next to Fanny Mae Dees Park and across the street from Vanderbilt University.

Co-owner Dan Cook typically books parties of 50-300.

“We’re doing really well. We’ve positioned ourselves as independent and original,” says Cook, adding he is seeing parties that run the gamut from economical to lavish. “You see people wanting to create an exact atmosphere.”

Gilbreath agrees: “I tell clients to think of the space like a blank canvas. You paint it the way you want it.”

Let there be lighting

Some of Middle Tennessee’s event pros say inventive use of lighting is one of the biggest trends for holiday parties and for parties in general.

“I see (clients) are really starting to understand the importance of great lighting,” Maggio of OZ says. “You can really get a lot of bang for your buck and create some great effects. If people are going to spend additional money, I advise them to put it into lighting. You can create many different effects (like) patterns and textures on floors and walls.”

Monica Holmes, an event planner, caterer and owner of the Clean Plate Club, also notes the lighting trend.

“We’ve been working with lighting specialists more and more. It really sets the tone for an event,” she says.

As a longtime caterer, Holmes has plenty of institutional knowledge about a variety of holiday party preferences.

“People are also using a lot of props and finding different ways to change up the look of a party,” she says. “There’s so much you can do with furniture and chandeliers. These days you can do so much visually, and many people take advantage of it.”

“People are definitely getting back to the basics,” adds Brenda Newton, co-owner of EPIC Event Centre in Gallatin. “They like traditional food served in a novel way. They like their mashed potatoes in a martini glass.”

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