Unique event venues thrive in Milwaukee

Corporate Event Planning

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When Tracy Johnson began planning the Real Estate Alliance for Charity’s winter gala several months ago, she wanted a unique venue that had a casual feel, but also could accommodate several hundred people.

Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, has spent 20 years working in the association business, with leadership roles at TEMPO Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association.

She knows her way around planning an event.

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Cuvee in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward had so much success as an event space the owners decided to close it to the general public.
Cuvee in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward had so much success as an event space the owners decided to close it to the general public.

Johnson ended up choosing Turner Hall as the site for the Feb. 25 gala, a first for her.

“I’ve never worked in such a raw space before,” Johnson said, adding that Turner Hall, which is typically used as a concert venue, does not have its own tables, chairs or stemware.  The caterer Johnson hired is doing all of that work, she said.

“My goal is to not spend time coordinating 50 vendors,” Johnson said. “If I can do that in an empty space, it’s perfect. And if these newer non-traditional venues present themselves as a one-stop shop, they will give the traditional ones a run for their money.”

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Over the past several years in Milwaukee, there has been a surge in the development of non-traditional event spaces for meetings, fundraisers and weddings that appear to be filling a gap left by traditional banquet halls and hotel ballrooms for corporate clients and brides who are looking for something more unique.

When Kris Gorski opened Cuvee at 177 N. Broadway in the Third Ward in 2007, it was a champagne bar that also hosted events. About 18 months ago, Gorski decided to close Cuvee to the public because the venue had gotten so busy with events. Guests typically are interested in the Cream City brick and the historic feel the loft-style space provides, Gorski said.

“We get a ton of people from Chicago,” she said. “What they are finding is in Chicago, the prices are five times more than Milwaukee and there is no parking, so they get a lot more for their investment.”

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In April, Saz’s Hospitality Group became the exclusive planner and catering service for South Second, a new event venue at 838 S. Second St. in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.

South Second can accommodate up to 350 guests in a restored 6,000-square-foot former manufacturing facility and includes an outdoor patio space and private mezzanine lounge.

Kristal Kaiser, marketing director for Saz’s, said the project has been so successful the venue is already booking into 2018.

“I think at this point, people are looking for something unique and memorable,” Kaiser said. “Anyone can host a ballroom, but more and more people are looking for something that stands out so they can make it their own.”

Suite 414 opened nine months ago as a bar and lounge that can seat 80 people on the fourth floor of Schlitz Park’s historic Stock-House building in downtown Milwaukee.

Suite414 opened less than a year ago at Schlitz Park in downtown Milwaukee.
Suite414 opened less than a year ago at Schlitz Park in downtown Milwaukee.

The development was going to be used as a business space, but instead has been transformed into an event locale that is booked an average of 30 times a month, said Arnie Spella, general manager of Suite 414 and Schlitz Park’s The Brown Bottle restaurant.

“We can do anything here — beautiful furniture can fill the entire space, or we can do a seated lunch,” Spella said. “It isn’t like anything the city has to offer; upper-class with a pedestrian feel.”

For more than a decade, Bartolotta Restaurant Group has been offering catering at several of its locations, including The Grain Exchange, Pier Wisconsin at Discovery World and recently, Downtown Kitchen at the U.S. Bank Center.

Maria Bartolotta, general manager and director of catering for Bartolotta, said the recent increase in competition makes Bartolotta better.

“People are looking for something different and it’s up to the people they are working with to come up with new ideas and create something different,” Bartolotta said. “If you have someone who takes for granted that every event is the same, then nothing is going to change.”

Bartolotta said many corporate clients are looking for venues that will excite their millennial employees. That can be accomplished several ways, she said.

A longstanding trend in dining has been food stations. But the most recent development is ramen bars.

“Red Light Ramen (the East Side restaurant next door to Ardent, both operated by chef Justin Carlisle) opened and now everyone wants to play off it,” Bartolotta said. “And of course lighting is everything. When you see some of these venues during the day, you can’t imagine how magnificent they can look with the right lighting.”

Johnson, who still often uses The Grain Exchange and The Pfister Hotel for many of her events, believes there will be a place in the city for both traditional and the newer, unique venues.

“In real estate, we like to showcase our space all over the city,” Johnson said. “Having worked with associations for 20 years, the better the economy is, the more people want to spend on events. I do believe it’s an evolution. But people are always going to love The Pfister and The Grain Exchange.”

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