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Meetings And Movies. Founders of Big Picture found a way to keep
their small-scale conference center busy in the off-hours.
Eric Engleman Staff Writer
Puget Sound Business Journal
February 24, 2004
When the husband-and-wife team of Mark and Katie Stern opened their Belltown meeting and events facility, Big Picture, five years ago, they tapped into a winning formula.
Their small, state-of-the-art conference center proved a popular venue for corporate groups of 125 or less that wanted modern facilities but didn't want to spend the money on a large hotel.
Then the economic recession hit Seattle. Bookings dropped and the Sterns were forced to regroup.
They responded by boosting their marketing campaign and turned Big Picture into an art-house movie theater during less-busy times to increase visibility.
Now, thanks to the marketing efforts and a growing corporate interest in hosting smaller events, business is booming again, said Mark Stern. The couple plans to open a second facility soon in Redmond or Bellevue.
"There are all these big branded hotels, and their mentality, their style is one-size-fits-all," Stern said. "When you have a small or medium-sized group, you get lost and you get gouged."
Big Picture, which occupies a 4,000-square-foot space beneath the Belltown restaurant El Gaucho, has a 110-seat theater equipped with a digital light projector, wireless microphones, and tiered auditorium-style seating.
The rest of the space looks like something out of the movie "Casablanca," with potted palms, a French oak bar, and velvet couches. Stern said he was inspired by the stylish boutique hotels designed by Studio 54 founder Ian Schrager.
More than half of Big Picture's clients are corporate groups that need space for gatherings of 100 people or less, Stern said. The rest are individuals who rent out the facility for private birthday, anniversary and holiday parties.
Recent corporate clients include real estate brokerage firm CB Richard Ellis, which held a Jimmy Buffet-themed awards banquet with a PowerPoint presentation followed by tropical drinks and a DVD screening of a Buffet concert.
A Microsoft division held a casino party with blackjack and craps tables and Elvis movies such as "Viva Las Vegas" playing onscreen. Rock star Dave Matthews performed two live concerts for his record label, BMG Music. KOMO-TV producers held a pajama party there as well.
Shelley Tomberg, vice president for Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality Inc., said there are many local venues that cater to small groups, but few that offer the tiered seating and digital projection facilities that Big Picture does.
"People are looking for something different, something novel and memorable," Tomberg said. "A lot of meeting planners are trying to keep their audience members interested and entertained. If they're not entertained, they nod off within 15 minutes of being in a room."
Columbia Hospitality manages conference centers and small inns in the greater Seattle area, some of which compete with Big Picture for bookings.
Stern declined to discuss the company's profit or revenue numbers, but said it had survived Seattle's bust years and is poised for more growth.
Big Picture opened in 1999 and quickly tapped into the Internet boom, hosting a series of dot-com launches. "We sold a lot more Dom Perignon back then," Stern said with a laugh.
The ensuing recession hit the company very hard. For a while, the company was just scraping by. "It was the worst period in my life business-wise," Stern said. "It was food-stamps bad."
Business started to pick up again during the 2002 holiday season, as companies began to spend more on parties and events.
It was during this time that Mark Stern, who'd built his own chain of five independent movie theaters in Chicago before moving to Seattle, decided to return to his roots.
On nights when Big Picture was not hosting a corporate event, it began to screen quirky independent films and documentaries for the general public, as a way to market the facility to wider audience.
Recent offerings including the independent films "The Station Agent" and "The Cooler" and the documentary "Power Trip." Show times vary each week depending on the corporate events, and the Sterns regularly update the movie schedule on their Web site and in e-mail bulletins to filmgoers.
Today, Big Picture employs 10 people, including an audio-video technician, bartender and banquet manager.
The couple is planning to open a new facility soon at either Redmond Town Center or Bellevue Square. Stern put the cost of a new facility at roughly $500,000, with $65,000 alone for a new digital projector. The new location will be larger -- about 5,500 square feet -- and have a 1950s, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" theme, he said.
When it comes to the movie experience, the Sterns take pride in offering more than traditional multiplexes. Audience members can stretch their legs on footstools and order drinks and popcorn delivered to them during the show.
"It's a unique event and meeting space," said Alicia Anderson, leasing manager at Redmond Town Center, which hopes to house Big Picture's new facility. "The Eastside is lacking a whole lot of that."
Reprinted for web use with permission from the Puget Sound Buisness Journal. © 2004, all rights reserved. Reprinted by Scoop ReprintSource 1-800-767-3263.
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