Development Magazine Summer 2014

Development - Ownership

Conference Space Meets the Sharing Economy

All Convene conference centers offer HD projection in flexible spaces that can be configured to meet customer needs. Shown here is Convene 32 Old Slip, located in New York’s Financial District.

As companies shift to having more mobile workforces and more open office environments, one critical element that may be missing is private meeting space for both small and large groups. The building that can offer such an amenity on an as-needed basis could well have a leg up on the competition.

That was the thinking of Ryan Simonetti, CEO and co-founder of New York-based Convene in 2009, who wanted to create day conference centers in office buildings in key major markets around the U.S. Since then, the company has discovered that not only do office tenants need a place to meet, they also want food and concierge services, all of which Convene is offering today. Simonetti was spot on in his business strategy. In 2013, Crain’s New York Business named Convene No. 1 among the top 50 fastest growing businesses in New York City. The company now operates four conference centers in Manhattan and opened a fifth near Washington, D.C., in Tysons, Virginia, in April.

head shot of Ryan Simonetti

Ryan Simonetti

“Large companies are consuming real estate differently than in the past,” said Simonetti. “They want to consume real estate on a more variable cost basis. They do not want to have a dedicated, large-scale training facility.”

Simonetti sees his firm’s services as a win-win for both landlords and tenants. For the landlord, a Convene conference center can fill otherwise vacant space and serve as an amenity that may attract new office tenants. For the tenant, Convene offers an on-demand, per seat product, in much the same way that ZipCar and Citi Bikes (and other car- and bike-sharing programs) offer consumers a quick and easy way to use an automobile or bicycle when they need one, without the expense or hassle of owning one.

Convene’s space is available for groups as small as two people to ones as large as several hundred. Tenants that rent conference space have complete flexibility. “All of our locations have meeting rooms that can flex into classroom space,” said Simonetti. “Convene designs spaces to accommodate as many types of seating arrangements as possible. Depending on the size of the meeting and the nature of the collaboration, the rooms can flex to accommodate a variety of different outcomes.”

The Convene spaces range in size from 12,000 to 60,000 square feet. Simonetti says that the large spaces — called “forums” — can be converted into theater-style seating with a temporary stage. “We try to design our spaces to be as flexible as possible in order to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers. For example, our Convene at 32 Old Slip in New York’s financial district includes one of the city’s largest tiered auditoriums, which can accommodate up to 250 participants.”

What makes Convene unique is that all of its services — technology, food and beverage, concierge, and production — are vertically integrated. Controlling everything in house allows the company to offer its clients a better on-site experience. The firm offers HD projection, video conferencing, webcasting and audio conferencing with built-in, user-friendly technology. Its dedicated team of on-site technology consultants provides additional support, to make sure that client events go off without a hitch.

Convene also promotes its facilities as a strategic building amenity, offering other building tenants discounted access. “We typically offer a 10 percent discount from our base per person pricing to any tenant operating in a Convene-enabled building,” said Simonetti. “The value of a Convene-enabled building is that a) tenants can build their space more efficiently and b) they have access to our firm’s hospitality services, including our ‘room service’ catering menu, concierge services and on-site technology support.”

interior view of a cafe

Convene centers feature Nourish cafes with food and beverage service. Shown here is the newest center, Convene at Tysons II in Tysons, Virginia.

Convene’s newest facility marks the launch of the company’s national expansion initiative, according to an April 1 statement by Chris Kelly, Convene’s president and co-founder: “We expect to enter other markets over the next 18 to 24 months.” Kelly added that the firm’s “all-inclusive” philosophy and productivity-driven spaces are designed to serve a broad range of organizations, including corporations, associations, government agencies and nonprofit groups. Georgetown University, for example, has signed a three-year deal with Convene that allows Convene at Tysons II to host the university’s McDonough School of Business’s first off-campus evening MBA program, beginning in fall 2014.

Regarding Convene’s lease arrangements, Simonetti says that every situation is unique, but most are structured as typical leases or landlord partnerships, which include a percent revenue component. Simonetti notes that, given the strategic value of Convene’s services, the firm tends to pay a discounted rent compared to other tenants in a building. “Just as Equinox [fitness centers] or Whole Foods drives up the value of residential developments, we see Convene delivering that same value to commercial office or hospitality mixed-use projects,” he states.

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