LOOKING for flexible event space can be a challenge. Hotel ballrooms land convention center spaces offer many amenities, yet often come with restrictions such as existing decorative features, rigging, high costs for accessing power, and catering minimums that can eat into your design budget.
State and county fairgrounds can offer unique solutions to event designers as cost-effective and flexible venues. Low rental fees, the ability to block facilities for multiple-day installations, easy access for load-in and load-outs, and the ability to bring in outside catering, rigging and generated power can allow for more of your event budget to be allocated to decor, lighting and entertainment. This type of venue offers both challenges and opportunities in event production; however, opportunities to create on a blank canvas may outweigh the challenges.
To demonstrate this point, let's take a look at Fair Park in Dallas, which offers just this sort of space. Located just 10 minutes from downtown Dallas, it is a hidden architectural treasure and an event designer's smorgasbord of event space.
“Our spaces offer a huge variety of venue styles, and do not pigeonhole event producers,” notes Fair Park's Steven Flores. “One day we might have a trade show; across the park there can be a concert or a company picnic. Whenever there is a parade in town, we house the animals and floats in our livestock pavilions. Tented events and even shows, such as Cirque du Soleil, find plenty of space to set up, and we have a tremendous amount of parking space. Here, the designer is in control of the caterer, the tables, chairs, entertainment — essentially the whole look and flow of their event.”
Take Fair Park's Automobile Pavilion, for example, which was featured at The Special Event Opening Night Party in January. Several designers partnered to transform the 84,500 square feet of column-free space for this event. “Bare bones” would be an appropriate description for this venue, with its cement flooring, beige brick walls and abundant easy-access rigging in the open ceiling space, which is crisscrossed with catwalks and ductwork.
Cindy Hartner of Dallas-based Wynnwood Hospitality coordinated four caterers for this event. “Some off-site venues have full catering facilities, others have partial ones,” she explains. “Others have no built-in catering facilities, which was the case with the Automobile Pavilion. An experienced off-premise caterer must plan for the unexpected far more than a caterer who is accustomed to working in their own venue. However, this scenario is one that off-premise caterers face all the time. The Automobile Building is not a difficult challenge for the experienced caterer. Facilities like this provide a caterer with a canvas for unlimited creativity when planning a spectacular culinary experience.”
Hyacinth Belcher, CSEP, of Dallas-based Onstage Systems, has been bringing sound and lights into the Automobile Pavilion and facilities like it for years. “The biggest opportunity we have is on the lighting end. It gives us the chance to create whatever palette, theme or desired look the designer wants,” she explains. “We can utilize special effects, easily hang LED curtains and throw media effects on bare walls. Sound in bare space like this is a challenge, but this is easily solved with carpet, draping and props to break up the space.”
In fact, for the Opening Night Party the facility was sectioned off to create five completely different design looks. For other events that do not require using the entire facility, designers can drape off the area needed for the event and then utilize the space outside of that for prep kitchens, dressing rooms and storage space.
John Scareli and Dennis Smith with ASI Production Services, headquartered in Orlando, Fla., created the five ballrooms with more than 2,000 linear feet of drape. “Quite frankly, there are not many disadvantages to using space like this,” Smith comments. “You're not stuck with wall and carpet color or existing themes that you find in ballrooms. You can create a theme from scratch, making areas of whatever size or shape or architectural design or color you want!”
Transforming this kind of space can be done in many ways, five of which were demonstrated at this event.
Large structural pieces created the look for the “Dallas Palette” room, which was designed by New York-based Pink Inc. Spandex wave walls and domes lined the perimeter. Lightweight spandex moons were easily hung from existing catwalks. Dramatic lighting and graphic effects transformed the color, look and feel of this space throughout the evening.
David Granger, CSEP, of Dallas-based Paragon Event Productions chose to make use of the industrial look of the raw space by creating a “Rooftop Lounge” area. Granger washed the walls with light and incorporated large billboard signs and stage decking complete with a faux rooftop pool to break up the space. Granger even left a genie lift in the space to add to the street feel he was looking for. “There are minimal challenges designing in a space like this,” he notes. “You are not held to the same rules and restrictions as you are in hotel space. The space is adjustable to as large or as small as you want — your imagination can run wild.”
Jason Sims, of Dallas-based Fun Factory Decor & Special Events, took a different route — transforming the space by carpeting much of it in bright colors and combining draping with large painted murals, a spandex-covered tunnel, and curtains of electric lights to create the “Aqua Bar” undersea experience. “A little bit of carpeting goes a long way in venues like this,” Sims says. “Ceilings of that magnitude definitely have to be taken advantage of with large-scale pieces that you don't get the full effect of in other venues.”
Bill Robertson of Dallas' Outstanding Productions notes, “What I love about this kind of space is that you can create different, noncompeting event vignettes in the same space. You can dance in one area, see a show in another, or relax and unwind in another.” Easy load-in access allowed Robertson to bring in pallets of grass sod and cover the floor in the “Garden Maze” area. The easily cleaned cement flooring proved a simple cleanup, which is next-to-impossible to do in carpeted event space. Vertical space was highlighted with bare trees adorned with hundreds of 10-foot-long orchid chains and 15-foot-tall velvet draped porticos.
Robertson also worked with Fauxcades and Cort Event Furnishings, Dallas, Ice Magic, Orlando, Fla., and Airstar, Fort Worth, Texas, to design the “Crystal Cave” area with another transforming technique. Surrounding the area with black drape set the focus on large set pieces throughout the room. Round revolving stages covered in colorful carpet were complemented by ice bars, ice pool tables, beds atop color-changing acrylic cases, faux stained-glass panels and large metallic obelisks. The look was completed by dramatic yet simply placed intelligent lighting.
Whether the transformation is complex or minimalist, this kind of event space is conducive to many design treatments. With rental fees starting at $3,000 and all the flexibility these venues offer, they can be an event designer's dream and have been an under-used resource — perhaps not for long!
ASI Production Services, 407/240-8080; Fair Park/City of Dallas, 214/670-8496; Fun Factory Decorations & Special Events, 972/271-7444; Onstage Systems, 972/686-4488; Outstanding Productions, 214/350-6282; Paragon Event Productions, 214/526-9831; Pink Inc., 212/253-6666; Wynnwood Hospitality, 214/880-9018. Debbie Meyers, CSEP, is head of Dallas-based Bravo Productions Entertainment; contact her at 972/960-2525, ext. 108; www.bravoentertainment.com.