MEETING WITH THE PAST: FORWARD THINKING MEETING PLANNERS CAN STEP BACK IN TIME
By Sarah Jamieson
Like the Gateway Arch, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis’ Forest Park was built as a tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s sweeping vision of growth for a young nation. He would likely be pleased to know that the museum also perpetuates his penchant for throwing a good party.
Just as Jefferson the naturalist enjoyed discovering and bringing new foods to the table for his guests, the Missouri History Museum has become expert at attracting key events with its unique meeting space and varied culinary offerings. Working closely with Joan Long of Patty Long Catering, its exclusive caterer, the venue offers limitless food choices to enhance any type of event.
The museum began seeking meeting business several years ago when it constructed the Emerson Center, a modern addition to its historic 1913 structure. The original museum was built with proceeds from the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park. The facility has since become a popular destination for planners wishing to step outside the traditional hotel ballroom circuit for their events, says Tami Goldman, cultural tourism manager for the museum, which is operated by the Missouri Historical Society. Now with 24,000 square feet of added meeting space, and entrenched in the year-round beauty of 1,300-acre Forest Park, the facility is a natural for a variety of events.
Learning while exploring
One of the museum’s best features is its adaptability to historical event themes, Goldman says. Lewis and Clark-themed meetings have been popular, especially since 2004, the 200th anniversary of their historic quest to explore the west. An exhibit celebrating the history of auto manufacturing in St. Louis attracts car clubs and other automotive enthusiasts. Another, highlighting the history of Busch Stadium, is a shoo-in for baseball lovers. Aviation groups feel at home learning about Charles Lindbergh’s exploits and viewing a replica of his “Spirit of St. Louis” aircraft, and events with a Native American or military focus can be accommodated in space apt to their needs. Women’s groups have booked afternoon teas and other events around exhibits highlighting the nation’s First Ladies.
Goldman says the museum can remain open after hours to accommodate private groups, who can enjoy food and beverages in the building’s loggia and then adjourn to one of four exhibit galleries for meetings. Docents and storytellers are on hand to educate attendees and give tours. Even the museum’s president and curator are available to give talks for meeting-goers.
The facility’s restaurant, Meriwether’s—named for one of the intrepid explorers of 1804—is operated by Patty Long Catering and offers tall windows with a panoramic view of the recently rejuvenated Forest Park. The restaurant is an exceptional spot for a sit-down dinner of 100 guests or a stand-up reception for 200, Goldman says. Ground floor space in the new extension can be used for meeting breaks and trade-show exhibits. A staircase leads to a dramatic second-floor overlook where attendees can view the main atrium—known as the Grand Hall—from above. A stately Carl Bitter sculpture of a seated Thomas Jefferson greets visitors inside the entrance foyer, which in good weather can be opened to the museum’s outdoor spaces to extend the square footage available.
The museum’s Des Lee Auditorium seats 350, Goldman says, and its Southwestern Bell multipurpose center can accommodate groups as well. Classrooms, board rooms and other areas increase the number of options for meeting space.
Goldman says the auditorium offers just about any audio-visual and technological services a group needs, including Internet access. Some of the museum’s other spaces have technology capabilities as well. On-site technical staff can help with any of these needs.
Primarily the museum has been advertising its space to tour operators and large groups, but smaller groups are just as welcome, according to Goldman. Leads are gathered through the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and destination management companies, and the facility hosts several events a year just to fête meeting planners and show them what’s unique about the museum. “Especially when we have new exhibits open, we hold cocktail parties and other events so planners can see the space,” Goldman says. “We can bring in companies’ representatives for lunch and do site visits where they can meet with Joan Long’s sales staff.
“You can show people photos, but they won’t understand all the museum has to offer until they walk in. We are always hoping to get involved with more meeting planners,” she says.
On the menu
There’s not much point talking about what types of meals Joan Long’s food experts can conjure up, because there isn’t much they can’t do. With six chefs and four other full-time catering staffers on hand at the museum, Long can present any kind of cuisine to groups of up to 1,200 with ease. She makes a point of using fresh produce and other foods from local and regional purveyors.
“We’ve done cuisines such as Russian, Croatian, Chinese—whatever is needed,” Long says. “We can accommodate any dietary need including allergies or gluten-free foods. If Kosher foods are needed, we can bring those in as well. We are very sensitive to different cultures.
“We do have some prepared menus, but that’s the last thing I like to present to a client,” she says. “I’d rather sit down with customers first and get a feel for what they want, rather than sticking a menu in front of them and saying, ‘Here’s what we have.’”
Long’s largest museum event to date served about 1,200 during a Women’s Final Four basketball tournament event. “We used all three floors of the museum, as well as areas outside—the garden, patios, front and back of the building,” she says. “We used every available space.” About 10 food stations were set up to feed guests, and six bars served beverages. A band, valet parking service, special table linens and many other finishing touches contributed to attendees’ comfort and enjoyment, Long says. These extras are available for any event at the museum.
A late season gala for a hospital group of 350 included a cocktail party overlooking the Grand Hall, then opened up to the outdoors where heated tents kept attendees comfortable. “It makes the building seem even bigger,” Long says of the tent option. Special lighting, including chandeliers, can make the outdoor space as comfortable as an interior room.
The museum’s staff usually makes first contact with prospective meeting groups, and Long’s employees take over from there, handling space arrangements, decorating, dishes, linens, tables and chairs, food and beverage, tents, billing and related services. The History Museum catering business makes up about 50 percent of her annual revenue, so Long’s staff is dedicated to making it work well for each client. Catering managers Katie Fitzgerald, John Womick and Cameron Dralle ensure customers’ palates are pleased, whether they’re serving a breakfast meeting for 300 or an evening reception for 1,000.
Long says per-person food prices begin at about $20, then space and equipment rental charges are added as needed. The average total per-person cost is about $90, she says. Depending on the day of the week, the auditorium/foyer, restaurant and Grand Hall spaces rent for anywhere from several hundred dollars to upwards of several thousand. Specific rates and guidelines can be found on Long’s Web site, www.pattylongcatering.com/mohistcosts.htm.
Meeting clients at the museum have included Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Monsanto Co., hospitals and local banks. Goldman says groups enjoy booking “round robin” packages where they can spend an entire day meeting and eating, then viewing the Forest Park area’s myriad attractions, from the History Museum and Saint Louis Zoo to the Saint Louis Science Center. “Enterprise Rent-A-Car did this type of all-day event for its employees, giving them tickets for each attraction and using bus transportation,” Goldman says. The park’s recently renovated Norman K. Probstein Golf Course is less than a stone’s throw from the History Museum grounds.
Groups interested in the park’s World’s Fair history can rent trolleys and horse-drawn carriages if they wish, for personalized tours of the park that step back a bit in time. Wedding clients find the setting ideal for memorable ceremonies and receptions.
Long says it makes sense for meeting planners to make museum rental inquiries as early as possible. Since September 11, planners have been booking space later in the game than they used to, she says. But it pays to get a jump on signing up because the museum is a popular fixture in Forest Park, a source of great pride for St. Louisans.
Still, there are times when planners can work an eleventh-hour meeting into the schedule. “It’s best to reserve in advance, but if there’s space available for a last-minute booking, we can often accommodate,” Goldman says.
“Every season, it’s different,” Long says of the Forest Park area. “In summer, everything’s green. In the fall, you have the reds, purples and golds of the leaves. And in the winter, it’s beautiful in the snow.”
“We have all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies for events,” Goldman says. “Very few museum-type venues can combine a setting this beautiful with an excellent caterer to create an event that’s an excursion, not just a dinner. Especially when it’s lit at night, the museum really comes alive.”
(Sarah Jamieson is the Editorial Assistant and contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)
Missouri History Museum
Lindell Blvd. & DeBaliviere Ave.,
Patty Long Catering
Missouri History Museum