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Where’s the party?

Sarasota is known for its robust social scene full of fundraisers and events. But with its lack of large-capacity venues, area organizations fret about where to host their events in the future.

There are four event sites in Sarasota with about 10,000 square feet or more. One of them is the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. (File photo)
There are four event sites in Sarasota with about 10,000 square feet or more. One of them is the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. (File photo)
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On June 17, the Sarasota Chamber hosted its Frank G. Berlin Sr. Small Business Awards at the Hyatt Regency. With nearly 600 people in attendance, President and CEO Heather Kasten said even sponsors were seated near the back of the 9,879-square-foot ballroom. Which made us wonder, with the impending redevelopment of the Hyatt Regency, what venues are left to accommodate indoor events for more than 400 people?

In a town that is very much centered around events for both the business and nonprofit communities, and with 75 major events already booked on the 2022-2023 social calendar (and surely more to come), event and meeting space is a hot commodity. Currently the only event spaces with enough square footage to accommodate large indoor events are the Circus Arts Conservatory, with 15,000 square feet; Hyatt Regency, with 9,879 square feet; The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, with 12,100 square feet; and the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, with 10,000 square feet.

Phil Mancini, co-proprietor of Michael’s On East, has 35 years of experience in the event and catering business. He said there are venues to accommodate dinner functions, but hosting lunch events is where the problem lies.

“In the evenings, we have a lot of big groups over at the Circus Arts Conservatory,” said Mancini.

In April, due to weather conditions, Mancini persuaded the Sarasota Ballet to move its gala from a tent in front of the Sarasota Opera House to the Circus Arts Conservatory. “Now the ballet wants to have their event there for the next four or five years,” he said.

Mancini said space is going to be needed after the Hyatt Regency closes to be demolished and rebuilt, and especially with the possibility of the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium being managed by The Players Centre for the Performing Arts. But he also thinks parking is more of problem than space. Michael’s On East is the exclusive caterer for Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and, Mancini said, “Selby can’t do any lunches or brunches until next summer because there’s no parking.” He added: “I think my ballroom is going to be very busy.”

In May, the Sarasota City Commission denied a proposal from The Players to lease and manage the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium and instead instructed The Players, Bay Park Conservancy, Sarasota Film Festival and city staff to continue discussions on how best to manage the auditorium. (Full disclosure, I serve on the Bay Park Conservancy Board of Directors.)

Many area groups that have held their fundraisers and events at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium were worried about its availability if The Players took over management. CEO William Skaggs said The Players still wants to host events for other nonprofits. “We want to continue to have availability for the Library Foundation, Girls Inc., certainly, and the Debutante Ball has been there forever.”

Luckily, area organizations don’t need to be too concerned right now. Wes Santos, general manager of the Hyatt Regency, said things are still business as usual.

“Kolter hasn’t officially taken over,” he said. “We have business booked through July of 2023 and are cautiously looking at business in the fourth quarter of next year.”

He said there is a lot that is still being discussed and they will have more insight when Kolter closes in July.

“There will be a lot of collaboration with Kolter on where things go regarding a sales perspective,” he said.

Director of Sales and Marketing Debbie DeVito reiterated: “We’re not turning away any business.”

Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota, said that in recent talks with Kolter, the Thompson Hotel replacing the Hyatt will have a ballroom not as big as the Hyatt, but with more square footage than the 5,510-square-foot Westin, and notes that nothing is official until permits are filed. Not only will this affect event business, but also meetings.

“With the St. Regis coming online in June 2023, it’s going to be a different kind of meeting that comes to Sarasota,” said Haley. “It’s going to be continued high-end meetings and incentive travel that right now mostly goes to the Longboat Key Club and The Ritz. What we’ll lose is the lower-rated state association events and what to do with our big local events, proms and fundraisers.”

At a recent Observer Media Group event exclusive to our members, “Newsies,” Haley shared that there is real opportunity for a conference center. She thinks that the last piece of land large enough to build a conference center is the land where the U.S. Postal Service office resides at 1661 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. She said, “I don’t own it, but I’ve been told that post office leases are really long and almost impossible to break.”

Other organizations have seen this opportunity. The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee is about to start construction on a 10,000-square-foot ballroom inside its 28,000-square-foot Morganroth Event Center on the Larry and Mary Greenspon Family Campus for Jewish Life, which will open in summer 2023.

“This is mostly an existing building, previously a large theater and gathering place, and we have the opportunity to update it for today’s needs,” said Shep Englander, CEO. “There is a shortage of event venues that have a large capacity in the market. We’ve taken over the role of the former Jewish Community Center for our Jewish events, film festival and book and lecture series.”

Chief Advancement Officer Hermonie Gilpin said the space is not only for the federation’s own events, but also for other non-profits and diversifies the organization’s revenue model. Englander said the space is aimed at serving families celebrating weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, non-profit events and local business conferences.

So for now, everyone can take a short sigh of relief and party on. What will be interesting is to see who else comes to the table with a solution for larger event spaces.


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