Thursday, May 23, 2024


These offbeat spaces offer one-of-a-kind event experiences for any group.

By Wendy Von Buskirk

The Welcome Center at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park offers plenty of space for people to gather. CREDIT Tony Norkus

Certified Meeting Planner Amy Young of Destination Consultants in Grand Rapids says activities “off-site”—in atypical settings or offering recreational and other team-building opportunities—help people let their guard down and open up to each other.

In the same way that golf allows for ‘real conversations’ among business associates and helps create a trusting bond, and sometimes even a friendship, the right off-site activity can provide the same benefit,” Young says.

Michigan offers a variety of unique, offbeat settings for gatherings. From theaters and farms to cultural institutions and gardens, venues of all kinds can be transformed into meeting spaces or simply offer opportunities for off-site camaraderie for groups of any size.

At the Gem Theatre, architecture takes center stage.

The Spanish Revival-style landmark was built in 1927 and features exqui- site detail, from plush carpet to an ornate, hand-painted ceiling. The Forbes family purchased the historic theater in 1991 and when construction of new sports stadiums beginning in 1997 threatened its existence, the family set a Guinness World Record by moving the whole building to its current home on Madison Avenue.

“There are two theaters that comprise the Gem Theatre Complex — the Gem Theatre and the Century Theatre—along with two multiuse rooms that can be used for receptions, flexible breakout spaces, or meal spaces,” says Jake Forbes, Forbes Hospitality general manager.

The swank Century Club Room and immaculate garden terrace offer addi- tional gathering space.

“The Gem Theatre is very flexible to accommodate a wide range of events,” Forbes says. “We can do anything from a board dinner for 20 to 30 guests to award shows of up to 500 guests and every- thing in between.”

The rosy garden terrace at the Gem Theatre CREDIT Bureau Detroit

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids is a year-round venue that can accommodate 10 to 1,000 people, says Stacie Niedzwiecki, director of culinary arts and events for the gardens.

The site offers several meeting spaces, from a new rooftop garden to the romantic Victorian parlor, all adorned with plants from around the world. Outside, world-renowned sculptures are nestled in natu- ral settings, including the 24-foot bronze monument “American Horse” by Nina Akamu that is inspired by a cast created by Leonardo da Vinci.
“If you are having a business meeting or doing intense strategy planning, you can

take a break and walk through our indoor gardens or go outside and walk the trails,” Niedz- wiecki says. “Even in the middle of winter, our tropical conservatory is gorgeous, warm, and beautiful. You can look out the window and see snowflakes falling. It’s truly unique.” During the holidays, Christmas trees and seasonal exhibits fill the halls. One of them— the Railway Garden—has trains weaving their way around holiday-themed horticulture and miniature landmarks inside the Grace Jarecki Seasonal Display Greenhouse. Outside, guests can grab a hot beverage and enjoy dramatic, interactive light displays. “We are a four-seasons garden, and we pride ourselves on that,” Niedzwiecki says.

Event goers can tap into their inner child at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. After hours, planners can fill the entire space with cafe-style tables for up to 500 guests to indulge in food and beverages, or 50 can partake in a sit-down dinner. Smaller meeting spaces throughout the venue also can be rented during business hours.

In any case, guests are invited to get their hands on the museum’s interactive exhibits. According to Development Manager Sara Brintnall, adults revel in the activities—from the laser harp to the mist tornado.

“So many times, adults come in and their children are guiding what’s happening, and that’s fine,” she says. “But during special events, I think they do have a good time being able to experience it themselves.”

Hosting an event at Michigan State University’s Tollgate Farm and Education Center provides an immersive agricultural experience. The state-of-the-art Conference Center and rustic Tollgate Barn both accommodate up to 150 people. Outdoor gatherings are a great option for company picnics, while the farmhouse boardroom seats small meetings for up to 12 people.

Surrounding the historic buildings are 160 acres of wetlands, crops, and pastures full of horses, goats, sheep, and chickens.

“It’s a beautiful working farm,” says Lisa Bahm, event and program coordinator.

Teams have the chance to feed livestock, learn from master gardeners, and help paint fences or harvest potatoes they can take home.

“When we rent to businesses or private events, they have access to the grounds. We can arrange for add-ons like hayrides and animal experiences,” Bahm says. “People enjoy working from home, but they also long for the ability to have camaraderie. Now more than ever, with a hybrid way of working, managers and supervisors are trying to find unique ways to build team spirit. The farm has a lot to offer in that regard.”

This historic supper club turned brewery gives guests a behind-the-scenes look at the beer- making process. Husband-and-wife team Nick VanCourt and Marina Dupler rent out the whole brewery for parties of up to 180 people. They can also accommodate small groups of about 20 on the upper mezzanine, which opens to a balcony overlooking the Ore Heritage Trail, Route 41, and the surrounding woodlands.

“People love to see where the magic hap- pens,” Dupler says. “In breweries, sometimes the process is tucked away, but we wanted people to feel that they can see what’s usu- ally off-limits.”

Guests may tour the elaborate tanks and brewing system, and the barrel room where beer, cider, and mead age.

Whether groups host their events at Barrel + Beam or gather after convening at nearby Northern Michigan University, Dupler can arrange for a variety of tastings. Most recently, Barrel + Beam opened Northwoods Test Kitchen, which it will use itself as well as make available to community food entrepreneurs, chefs, and caterers. They also debuted a deli case with sandwiches, cheese plates, and more.

“We love hosting groups both large and small,” Dupler says.

One of the most popular places for events at the Detroit Zoo is the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, which seats 150. The two-story circular venue boasts a permanent fine art col- lection where guests can view animal-themed art from a Pewabic tile peacock mural to bronze baboon sculptures by renowned artist Marshall M. Fredericks, and then stroll directly into the butterfly gardens. Other indoor options are the Polk Penguin Conserva- tion Center and the Arctic Ring of Life with its polar bears and sea otters.

The zoo’s Senior Events Manager Megan Gregg recommends the Asian Forest for out- door events. Here, guests can see giraffes, tigers, and red pandas.

“You can have an event and be able to feed the giraffes and have them in the background of all your photos,” she says.

Guests may take the tram to their destination, glimpsing other animals along the way. For large gatherings of 500-plus, planners can book the entire zoo after hours, giving participants free rein to wander. Gregg says the zoo can customize any size event complete with tables, linens, and a full catering menu. “We live to come up with fun, creative ideas,” she says. “It’s such a unique venue.”

The Detroit Zoo can be reserved for special events. CREDIT Sarah Culton and Lee Fisher

At this zoo of a different breed, up to 1,500 people can attend an event surrounded by floor-to-ceiling images from the galaxy. “One of the largest indoor hand-painted murals in the world goes all along the walls, surrounding [the] event space [and] showing early flight all the way to the Jet Age and Space Age,” says event manager Holly Lee. “It’s really compelling to look at.”

Beyond the classrooms, meeting rooms, and boardrooms that accommodate groups large and small are a variety of aircraft, exhibits, and rides.

“It’s amazing to get adults out in a museum doing activities that might normally be reserved for their young kids,” Lee says. “They do the flight simulators, build paper airplanes, and go home talking about what an amazing time they had.”

Team-building exercises include con- structing rockets, solving crimes, and even sanding aircraft parts.

“They can help restore planes that have been on the bottom of Lake Michigan for 50 years,” Lee says. “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that people can’t get anywhere else.”

Lee says she’s seen increasing demand for group events after more than two years of COVID-19. “People have been stuck in virtual calls for a [long time],” she says. “Coming to a place like the Air Zoo gives them the opportunity to break the ice, explore together, do activities, and then get down to business—all at the same time.”