For decades, the stately red brick Newcomer’s Sons Stine & McClure Chapel at 3235 Gillham Plaza was a familiar site for funerals and visitations within its somber brown and beige walls.
No longer. It has been transformed into a gold-gilded, crystal-chandelier-infused site for weddings and receptions, joining dozens of special events spaces that have sprung up in Kansas City’s downtown, Crossroads and midtown areas.
“I know of 65 venues within one mile of the center of downtown Kansas City,” said Jennifer Sinnett, founder of The Big Reveal, a rotating bridal show that twice a year ferries prospective brides to a sampling of such sites.
“Logistically, you can go from someone who unlocks the door and lets you into the space to a place that offers complete service: linens, decor, catering, alcohol, DJ, security, you name it,” Sinnett said. “I’m seeing $2,500 to $20,000 prices based on service, so there’s a lot of choice for people to find something that fits their personalities and their budgets.”
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Sparked by a surge in redevelopment of downtown and Crossroads buildings, the special events space industry has soared in the last few years as vacant spaces have been repurposed with kitchens, bars and dance floors.
A year ago, veteran events space operators Jodie and Eric DeLeon counted about 70 competitors fairly near the Kansas City core. Today, they estimate twice that. But the competition isn’t fazing them. They’ve jumped back into the scene, converting the former midtown funeral home into a wedding and party site.
The DeLeons and others in the events venue trade say they’re in the dreams-come-true business, largely catering to bridal events — some with whopping six-figure price tags — and great expectations. The operators who exceed client expectations are rewarded with gold standard online reviews, “best of” awards and word-of-mouth recommendations.
In fact, one satisfied former client, a bride’s father, saw the business potential and this year bought the former Stine & McClure funeral home, which was on the market for a $750,000 asking price, so the DeLeons could bring their events business back to life.
Inside, the funeral home’s somber chapel has been prettified, reborn as The DeLeon, a sparkling wedding venue. The building includes an adjacent banquet hall, a bride’s room, a groom’s room, a parents’ room and other accoutrements for an all-in-one wedding and reception site.
“It’s a huge leap of faith, but we know it will work,” Jodie DeLeon said. “We’re overbudget. We’ve put in about $150,000 in renovations. We’ve spent every bit of my retirement on this. But we have no doubts.”
Similar confidence has fueled other site conversions.
“There are a lot of players in the field,” said Scott White, who co-manages Cellar 222, a Tuscany- and wine-themed events space in the Crossroads. “Sometimes it seems like anybody with a vacant space thinks they have an events space. But we’ve seen some come and go, and we think the herd will thin itself out over time.”
Sometimes, the availability of empty space isn’t enough to stay in business. And sometimes, city permitting authorities have stopped businesses that lacked proper assembly, occupancy, fire safety or elevator permits. That happened temporarily, for example, to an events space in the Firestone Building at 20th Street and Grand Boulevard, which hadn’t gotten an occupancy permit on time, city officials said.
Greg Franzen, assistant director of the Kansas City Planning and Development Department, said problems like that are easily fixed. But he said it’s good for site operators and customers to know the rules.
Events spaces, generally capable of holding 50 or more people, usually need occupancy certificates that cover “assembly” use and must meet fire codes. Franzen said exceptions exist for properties that are grandfathered in without changes to their prior use.
Usually, though, events spaces should have one-time certificates that, based on property size, range from $276 up to $457. Food and liquor licenses also may be required, depending on what vendor is doing the food and liquor service, so Franzen urged events space customers to ask questions to make sure a space is legally clear to operate.
“And people can always call the fire department or plans and zoning about any concerns,” Franzen said.
Surviving and thriving
Steven Bell, owner of the Furniture Building at 222 W. 20th St., which houses Cellar 222, entered the events space business in 2009. About the time First Fridays got hot in the Crossroads, he was encouraged to convert part of the building to an events venue instead of just maintaining it as a furniture showroom.
“During the wedding season (basically spring, summer and fall), we’re booked every Friday and Saturday night, and then we do a lot of holiday parties in November and December,” Bell said. “About the only down time is January, and in Februarys we’re about half full.”
To reach high occupancy, such venues fight through a sea of choices. On TheKnot.com, a popular wedding planning site, users can page through about 640 vendors offering events spaces in the Kansas City area, including spaces as far away as Wichita and the Lake of the Ozarks. A search for just weddings narrows it to more than 300 in the metro area.
In addition to the old standards — hotel ballrooms, restaurants and country clubs — events spaces are marketed by wineries, breweries and coffee roasteries, historic buildings, industrial warehouses, florists and photography studios, barns, parks and gardens, theaters, art museums, sports facilities, community centers, casinos, historic homes, former school buildings and, of course, former churches.
Some spaces, such as The Vow Exchange, a back alley venue in the 1700 block between McGee and Oak streets, are designed for as few as 25 guests. Others are designed for as many as 1,000. And there’s a price tag to fit a range of budgets with equally large variation in services provided with the space rental.
Sinnett, who twice a year presents the rotating bridal show, books selected caterers, bridal clothing vendors, florists, photographers and others to market their services at each site. Before she started The Big Reveal tours five years ago, she became familiar with the Kansas City party venue as the owner of a disc jockey company.
“Some people are shocked at the prices to rent a space,” Sinnett said, “but they aren’t thinking about what it takes to keep the space going until it opens once or twice a week. There’s rent, utilities, the cost of a website and marketing, and maybe staffing.”
The costs are well worth it, she said, if teamed with owners or events managers who are business pros. She advises families to do more than read client reviews online but also talk to vendors, such as caterers and DJs, to find out what locations “are pains to work with,” and to read the fine print in the contracts to find out exactly what’s covered or permitted.
Whatever the price tag, and despite the plethora of site choices, industry insiders say it’s often necessary for wedding receptions to book a year to 18 months in advance if choosing a popular date. There’s more flexibility on Friday and Sunday nights, but Saturdays book fast.
Until a year ago, the DeLeons were booked every weekend during “the wedding season” at their former venue, the ballroom in the downtown Mark Twain Tower that they had operated for eight years as The Sawyer Room.
They said they made a heartbreaking decision to close that business when the landlord tripled their rent and they couldn’t raise their prices to afford the space and stay competitive. As the DeLeons re-enter a field more crowded than when they left it a year ago, they say events space success depends less on location and more on passion.
“It can’t just be about the dollars,” Jodie DeLeon said. “It has to be driven by the desire to treat others as you’d want to be treated.”