The Making of a Truly Memorable Special Event
Choosing the right venue can be a key to a successful gathering, and fortunately, the western suburbs have a diverse range of distinctive options
Whether you’re celebrating a milestone event with family and friends, hosting a corporate meeting or planning a fundraising gala, there’s a perfect venue that will help you make your occasion even more remarkable. Though large events are typically in need of an off-site location, those in the business have found that even smaller gatherings that might typically have been hosted at home, such as a shower or birthday party, are being outsourced. “I don’t think anybody wants to have a party at home anymore,” says Karen Helmig, event coordinator for Catering with Elegance, which plans and produces events at the Bloomingdale Golf Club in Bloomingdale and Medinah Shrine Center in Addison. “They don’t want to cook and clean — it’s easier to just have it all done.”
Gone are the days of the standard one-size-fits all banquet hall. Hosts and hostesses of today are seeking out unique locations for their celebrations. In many cases, the location takes precedence over the theme of the event — whether it’s a rustic barn, city loft, clubhouse with lovely views or elegant ballroom.
“Most clients are selecting the venue as the theme, so to speak — they are not looking for a blank canvas to do whatever they want,” says Molly Kight, event manager for Company 251 in Aurora, which is owned by Moveable Feast & Company in Geneva. Company 251, which opened just over a year ago, is located in the former International Harvester factory in downtown Aurora, and has a luxe, modern aesthetic. It features two floors totaling 20,000 square feet of space and can accommodate 350 seated guests or 750 standing. The second-floor dining hall features a full-service kitchen, where staff prepare the food on site, featuring seasonal menus based on locally sourced ingredients.
“In the western suburbs, we don’t have a lot of venues with a city-loft or mid-century modern vibe, so it’s pretty unique in terms of geography,” says Kight, noting that, unlike similar downtown venues, nearby parking is ample.
If you’re seeking something with a more casual atmosphere, you’ll appreciate a venue like the Nagel Emporium at Abbey Farms, also in Aurora. Billed as a “rustic-chic” facility, the fully modernized, climate-controlled building is situated on 300-acre farm known for its pumpkins and Christmas trees and features a private outdoor fireplace and patio. In addition to social events and celebrations, the venue is set up for corporate meetings, dinners, galas and picnics and can serve groups of 10 to 300. If weather permits, activities can move outdoors to take advantage of the country setting. “It’s a unique and inspiring venue — a great place to get away from your busy lifestyle and connect with friends, family or coworkers,” Adam Voirin, chief operating officer of Abbey Farms.
Another setting with pastoral charm is Danada House in Wheaton, the former estate of racehorse breeders and philanthropists Dan and Ada Rice, which is owned by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and operated by the not-for-profit Friends of Danada.
“People love the beauty of our location, with the estate house and the grounds, which include pasture and stables,” says Jill Ludvigsen, executive director of Friends of Danada.The main house can accommodate parties of up to 90 people, and the atrium addition can seat 250, making it sought after for everything from showers, family reunions, memorials and birthday parties to corporate events.
Beautiful outdoor views are also one of the things that attract people to hosting events at the Bloomingdale Golf Club and Medinah Shrine Center. Helmig notes that the golf club has a casual feel, while the Shrine Center, with its distinctive rotunda, is a bit more formal.
Corporate retreats are a great way to foster closer employee relationships, and more companies are looking to use them as an incentive experience as well. Though some companies might plan a retreat that involves travel, it needn’t be to a distant locale to be special. Just heading to a driving-distance destination may provide enough of a scenery shift.
For example, St. Joseph, Michigan, is just a 90-minute drive from the Chicagoland area, but the resort community is nestled within the group of beach towns along the southwest coast of Lake Michigan . The Inn at Harbor Shores in St. Joseph has hosted corporate events for many Chicago-area companies, says Kelsey Cheyne, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. “We can host anything from a small conference of six to an event for 300,” says Cheyne. “What’s great about the resort is that we’re a one-stop shop with a golf course, full-service day spa, indoor pool and on-site coffee shop and restaurant. You don’t have to leave the property, but if you do, there are plenty of things to experience in the area.”
Cheyne has noticed that participants in weekday corporate events tend to extend their stay through the weekend and often opt for their family or significant other to join them. In fact, the hotel extends the corporate discount rates to encourage this. And these short-distance getaways are not just for corporations — they can be great for family reunions, bachelorette parties, and other gatherings. One of the special features about a destination event is the potential for including local excursions, such as a day at the beach, fishing trip, sunset sail, community festival, boutique shopping trip, or a vineyard tour with wine tasting.
Your favorite restaurant might be another great choice for an event, whether a family celebration or even a larger soirée, depending on the size of the facility. Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in Lombard, for example, has its own private wood-paneled ballroom that opens out onto an expansive terrace overlooking a pond and fountain. The elegant 6,000-sq-ft space can accommodate up to 450 for a buffet-style meal and 300 for a plated dinner. “People don’t realize we have this beautiful ballroom — when they search for venues in Lombard, Harry Caray’s comes up and they think, ‘Oh, that’s just a restaurant,’” says catering manager Beth Jostes, who notes the location has hosted everything from anniversary parties and showers to corporate events and galas.
The restaurant also offers rooms suited to smaller gatherings, such as the Chandelier Room, which can handle up to 35 guests and the Dancing Harry Room, which can host up to 60. Jostes says guests love the ambience of the location and rave about the food, in particular, the pork chop, the Chicken Vesuvio and the steaks. “The food and atmosphere are what set us apart,” says Jostes. “With the mahogany walls and floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s not a boring old banquet hall — and we get tons of compliments on the food.”
Focus on Flavor
While the venue is often at the top of the list when planning an event, food is a close second. Everyone wants their guests to have a good experience, and delectable edibles play a large role in that.
“People want to serve their guests something they are proud of,” says Helmig, who says Catering with Elegance is passionate about quality food, and people are especially drawn to items like their slow-roasted prime rib and barbeque — the company even makes its own barbeque sauce, bottles of which are sold at the golf club for those who want to recreate the flavor at home.
Lauren Menzer, event designer for Tasty Catering, which is the exclusive caterer for the Oak Brook Bath & Tennis Club, says stations serving different types of food, such as barbeque, Asian, Italian, Mexican, macaroni and cheese, etc., continue to be popular, as do “mini” sized items. “People like anything that can be eaten in a few bites while conversing with friends or co-workers,” she says.
After-dinner treats run the gamut from s’mores stations to donut walls to candy bars to “naked” layer cakes. Moveable Feast & Company is known for delicious desserts (its brownies were once tapped as one of Oprah’s “favorite things”), and having a café in Geneva allows Company 251 clients to stop in and sample menu selections. “Everything is so well-made and different from what you find elsewhere,” says Kight.
Making It Personal
A winning event should reflect the personality of the guest of honor, organization or corporation. Toward that end, many venues encourage introducing personal items via décor or some of the activities. “Whether they want to bring in family photos or their aunt’s special cookies, we will accommodate that,” says Helmig.
Activities might be purely for entertainment or to enhance team-building and foster connection. For example, the Inn at Harbor Shores offers small groups the opportunity to participate in a sushi-making class with the resort chef or, for a larger group, a salsa-making competition. “It’s a lot of fun and takes you out of the meeting mode, but you are still together as a group,”says Cheyne.
At the Oak Brook Bath & Tennis Club, which is owned by the village of Oak Brook, gatherings from camp reunions to corporate retreats have included leisure activities such as ping-pong or giant Jenga, says marketing and event manager Marianne Long. “We even had one corporate group that painted sets of beanbags and then had a game of bags to determine whose were the best,” she says.
Selecting entertainment that reflects the tone of the event, from an exuberant quinceañera to a serene memorial service, is also important and many venue event planners can provide suggestions to assist in your search for the right entertainment.
Before shopping for a venue, make sure to have a budget in mind, but don’t let a smaller budget rule out your dream venue. It’s worth a call to see whether you can find a way to make it work. Some places require that you rent out the entire space, while others might be able to partition off a smaller area for you.
Those in the event-planning field say don’t underestimate the need to plan far in advance, particularly if you wish to host a weekend event in the busy season, which typically runs May through October. In some cases, Saturdays are booked up to a year in advance. Prime weekend time is likely to cost a bit more as well. Sundays and weekdays tend not to be as busy, so you may have more flexibility if those days might work for your event.Edit Module