It’s a cold and dreary Monday in the city, but Chicago Cubs Director of Ticket Sales Andy Blackburn sounds wide awake and full of pep when he gets on the phone. “The vibe at Wrigley Field just feels different this year,” he says with more enthusiasm than a Monday deserves.
Yes, a true blue Cubs fan.
While many have laughed at the eternal “wait till next year” attitude of Cubdom, 2015 actually seems poised to give fans of the franchise plenty of reasons for hope. Off-season acquisitions and managerial changes have the baseball team looking more impressive than ever. Plus, the ongoing multimilliondollar restoration of the 101-year-old Wrigley Field ballpark will not only give players and spectators a whole new experience in the coming years, but will also offer the meetings and events industry a reason to cheer with brand-new, hi-tech facilities and reconstructed meeting spaces in the friendly confines.
“We have probably one of the coolest places to host a meeting in the entire city of Chicago,” Blackburn boasts of the glass-windowed Budweiser Bleacher Suite situated in center field that can currently host up to 100 people. “You go downtown and sit in a conference room surrounded by four walls, and if you zone out for a few seconds, all you have to look at is the ceiling. Here, if you want to zone out, you get to look at one of the most historic venues in all of sports.”
It’s competitive views like these that have more and more planners looking to various sporting venues throughout the state of Illinois to hold their meetings and events. In response, sports venues both big and small have started to realize the importance of this burgeoning relationship and are becoming more versatile at hosting “visiting teams” during the season and off. In taking a look at these venues, Illinois Meetings + Events discovered that it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
The Budweiser Bleacher Suite at Wrigly Field is in the center of the ballpark with impeccable views and space for 100 people. It's "one of the coolest places to host a meeting in Chicago," says Director of Ticket Sales Andy Blackburn.
WRIGLEY FIELD, Chicago
There was a time when Blackburn and his sales team didn’t pay too much attention to the meetings and events community of Chicago, much less Illinois. “When I came here in 2010, we didn’t have much of a relationship with that community at all,” he recalls of the atmosphere before the Ricketts family took ownership of both the team and the ballpark in 2009. “But as we began working with the tourism bureau, we started rebuilding that relationship. We began to see how important the meeting and event industry was to the city of Chicago,” he continues, noting that in recent years companies such as Performance Trust Capital Partners, Benjamin Moore Paints and Lululemon Yoga have taken advantage of the historic private event space. “Even when we are not playing baseball, we started to understand how our brand can help with the business of the city … and we don’t take that lightly.”
Throughout the next four years, that relationship will be further enhanced as the Chicago Cubs modernize operations through an ongoing restoration and expansion initiative. Formally referred to as the 1060 Project, it will include a number of improvements that meeting and event planners will be able to take advantage of such as group terraces and new upper level club boxes (see sidebar on this page for the full list). “Our goal has always been to create better facilities for our players and for our fans,” says Blackburn. “About three years ago, we moved our entire front office to another facility, which opened up a number of small and large spaces on-site that have since been utilized for group experiences like meet and greets with former players, guest speakers, trade shows and private parties with our mascot Clark the Cub. The 1060 Project will continue to expand on this.”
Until the project is fully completed, the most luxurious space for on-site events and meetings currently is the Executive Club of Chicago, located on the mezzanine suite level and down the third base line behind the home team bullpen, with space for up to 80 people. In the coming years, Blackburn says additional executive clubs will be added that can host up to 500 people, along with a new media center featuring theater space for 200 people, a stage and podium, state-of-theart- technology for presentations and hosting guest speakers and a priceless proximity to the field. There’s also club space for dinners and receptions and the new and improved batting cage area for entertainment.
Future plans include a 175-room Starwood Hotel and office complex that will offer additional banquet space for 1,000 guests and will be located just across the street from Wrigley Field where McDonald’s currently sits. All of these improvements and changes are welcome news to the meetings and events industry that is starting to tap into events at The Friendly Confines. Total Event Resources recently worked with a client to create an employee appreciation event on Father’s Day, which attracted more than 300 guests.
“Everyone in the Chicago area recognizes Wrigley Field as a great institution and the Chicago Cubs as an integral part of the city scene,” explains Kathy Miller, president and chief creative officer. “To our client’s employees, their company is also an important part of their lives. Our invitation design featured a mock newspaper article congratulating ‘two Chicago landmarks’ on their anniversaries, and a welcome on the stadium’s marquee created a VIP atmosphere right from the start.”
It’s just the beginning of what the ballpark can offer, says Blackburn, noting there will soon be a brand-new look and feel to the north side of Chicago. “We’ve often referred to ourselves as a 100-year startup. It feels more like a business now and we take pride in that. We can now talk to companies and truly be excited to show them what we will be able to offer. A new day is dawning, that’s for sure.”
Twelve years after its redevelopment, Soldier Field's rental prices remain the same - as does the level of fun.
SOLDIER FIELD, Chicago
Since the stadium’s redevelopment nearly 12 years ago, Soldier Field has been home to more than 200 Chicago Bears football games and thousands of public and private events. From corporate soirees to trade shows, weddings and charity walks, the expansive venue has played host to thousands of people from all industries. With rental fees remaining the same since the 2003 face-lift, roughly $5,000-10,000 per event, Soldier Field provides an optimal setting for planners from all across the state.
Just don’t expect to book your average conference room here.
“We consider ourselves a special events venue,” explains Kate McGregor, director of sales and marketing at Soldier Field. “We have encountered some meeting planners who came here and were surprised that we didn’t have your traditional conference room. What we do have though is one-of-a-kind spaces that your guests won’t soon forget.”
Take for example Soldier Field’s United Club, which has space for 100-1,500 people on the first floor and offers vaulted ceilings and lakeside windows. For a smaller option, the United Club on the third floor is perfect for events ranging from 150-500 people. And of course, meeting planners can take advantage of Soldier Field’s iconic Colonnades space that can hold up to 2,000 guests. Along with the variety of indoor spaces within the confines of Soldier Field, outdoor areas just outside of the stadium are also available year-round. For example, the South Parking Lot Festival Area alone offers 400,000 square feet of event space and can accommodate just over 1,500 cars.
Toyota Park has been home to some of the biggest concerts and events like this Foam Glow 5K, but can accommodate smaller group meetings as well.
TOYOTA PARK, Bridgeview
Each year, more than half a million people pass by Toyota Park’s trademark brick arch at the soccer fields just 15 miles from downtown Chicago in Bridgeview. Yet, many planners might not have a true idea of just what the venue can offer outside of Chicago Fire games. The 20,000-seat park gives planners an impressive alternative for events and meetings outside of the hustle and bustle of the city limits. Toyota Park executives say that they are constantly trying to sway groups to come their way via concerts by musical legends such as Jimmy Buffett and Phish to other sporting events including rugby, football, wrestling and martial arts.
“It’s definitely a challenge, since we are competing with the United Centers and the U.S. Cellular Fields of the world,” explains George Perez, general manager of leisure services for on-site caterer Sodexo at Toyota Park. “I think what sets us apart though is the convenience of our area with close proximity to the Stevenson Expressway and Eisenhower Expressway, free parking and open catering spots like the Rooftop, Terrace Area Party Deck, Stadium Tailgates, Turf Field and concession platforms. Plus, we can offer competitive prices and can customize a client’s event to their specifications.”
Opening its doors in 2006, Toyota Park offers a number of unique meeting space options, including the upscale Second Star Club, which offers space for up to 150 people and includes an attached, private conference room. The venue also features the Stadium Club, which has room for 400 people. Looking for the best view in the house? Check out the club’s event suites, which can hold groups of 16-50 people and have been utilized by companies such as Bridgeview Bank, Quaker and Pepsi in the past.
The Peoria Civic Center boasts 900,000 square feet of combined space including a 27,000-square-foot ballroom and a 12,000-seat concert and sports area.
PEORIA CIVIC CENTER, Peoria
Roughly 160 miles south of Chicago, the Peoria Civic Center just might be one of the most impressive private event venues in the state. “You wouldn’t think you would see a venue such as this in a corn field south of route 80,” laughs Jim Wetherington, general manager at the home of the Peoria Rivermen hockey team. “We have so many pluses going for us, but getting planners down here for a site visit can be tough.”
It’s worth the trip.
With 900,000 square feet of space that includes everything from a 2,200-seat theater, a 110,000-square-foot Exhibit Hall, 25 different meeting rooms, a 27,000-square-foot ballroom and a 12,000-seat concert and sports arena, the Peoria Civic Center counts on private trade shows and meetings to comprise close to 35 percent of its yearly business.
The new year also brings improvements to the venue’s audio, visual and Wi-Fi capabilities, including a $600,000 upgrade to the theater’s sound system and a $1.4 million upgrade in some of the venue’s older meeting rooms.
One of the patio areas at Geneva's Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, which has some of the best catering options of any sports venue in the state.
FIFTH THIRD BANK BALLPARK, Geneva
There are those who like to dine on hot dogs and hamburgers and those who like grilled apple, orange and ginger salmon with a side of sautéed green beans, Jamaican rice and spring mix salad with vinaigrette dressing. At Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, you can have both.
With one of the most impressive catering menus offered at a sports venue, Fifth Third Bank Ballpark will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Kane County Cougars minor league baseball team in 2015. Private event spaces within the stadium include the Cougar’s new Super Suite, which offers an amazing view of the baseball field for parties of 35-200 people.
“People think that we are available strictly during the season, but we are always trying to get the word out that we are a year-round facility,” explains Shawn Touney, director of public relations for the Kane County Cougars. “Since our stadium renovations in 2008 and 2009, more people have caught word that we are here with a number of available meeting spaces.”
Adjacent to the Super Suite is the park’s Conference Center, which meets all hi-tech needs and has customizable seating layouts such as a u-shape, classroom or theater styles. “Even a snow-covered baseball field is a better setting away from the sterile environment of a hotel conference room,” laughs Touney. “Plus, we can offer some unique team-building activities you can’t find just anywhere else.” Depending on the right fit and particulars, they have offered various experiences such as ceremonial first pitches for a VIP or Employee of the Year, or having the group lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“Our team has had a few softball games on the field as an activity after our meetings are through,” adds Vince Tindal, regional sales director (SW Chicago/Northern Indiana) of GNC and a frequent client of Fifth Third Bank Ballpark. In the past, Tindal has utilized various private event spaces to hold biannual meetings for his 30-person team. “The meeting rooms have everything you need and the staff is always there to help in any way they can,” he says. “The suite where we usually have lunch gives us a great view of the ballpark. Plus, the food is amazing.”
Ginger salmon, perhaps?
“Nope…our teams prefer good ole baseball game food,” Tindal laughs. “I mean, we are at a ballpark!”