Post-pandemic party planning

Event planners see increased demand as restrictions ease

By Carey Smith

Audrey Kondelis got her start in party planning last summer, inspired after a fire at MJ’s Fish and Chicken Express closed the restaurant for an extended time. Kondelis’ birthday was approaching and as she says, “I felt bad for them, and I thought, why not have a birthday party and have them cater it?”

The birthday party was celebrated with a Mardi Gras theme and included a Grammy-nominated Zydeco band from New Orleans and MJ’s owners Jerome and Margaret Taylor catering for 100 guests. A fabulous time was had by all, and with this success, Kondelis decided to offer professional party planning services to others. Pole Barn Chic Events was born.

Since then, Kondelis has been throwing parties for people at venues as well as in private homes. From birthdays and surprise parties, proms and concerts, retirement parties, and just because parties, Kondelis has planned around a variety of themes. She can provide everything a party needs: flowers, balloon structures and other decorations, catering, bartenders, a photographer and a DJ.

“I just want to make people happy, make them smile and laugh,” says Kondelis of her business goals. “Being able to do that for people means a lot to me. I know how important it is to be happy, and remain happy.” With the purchase of eight acres of land on South Sixth Street, between Cracker Barrel and Baymont Inn off Toronto Road, Kondelis is now working with architect Tim Smith of Evan Lloyd Associates to create her own venue for parties. She says city meets country is the theme for her building, which will be a pole barn on the outside and chic design on the inside. Plans call for 12,000 square feet of space, including seating for 450-500 people, a dance floor and smaller rooms for more intimate parties.

Ground breaking is imminent, with completion anticipated by the end of this year. The first party scheduledin the venue is a Mardi Gras party planned for February 2022, which Kondelis hopes will become an annual event.

The winding down of the COVID pandemic has been a boon to Kondelis’ business. “People are ready to get back to normal,” she says.

Ebben Moore, owner and manager of Arlington’s, 210 Broadway, could not agree more. When COVID shut down restaurants last year, Moore finally had time to flesh out an idea that had been running through his head: adapting his restaurant to use exclusively as an historic event venue and expanding the catering side of his business.

Moore states that the switch has been a good one, as events are easier to plan for and reliably draw people into the venue, making it more cost-effective to run than a restaurant. He also appreciates that his workload has decreased dramatically, lowering his stress levels significantly and allowing him to be the “happy guy” he is naturally.

Moore also provides catering services to off-site events. His biggest issue right now is staffing, saying that he could handle more catering events if he could fill jobs.

Business-wise, Moore has high hopes for the coming year. “I get around 10-20 requests a day for different events. I’m pushing people to 2022 or trying to fill in, squeeze people in when I can, or cater the event. I’m sure after 2021 it’ll taper off a bit,” he said, explaining that many people have been holding off on having weddings and other parties until it is safer to do so.

Moore says part of his future plans are to possibly buy another building to expand his ability to offer services, but he is searching for the right unique space. “Ebben Moore will never be in a strip mall!” he adamantly exclaims. He is also considering buying an unusual vehicle, such as a trolley or double decker bus, to use in conjunction with the catering business, or even as a stand-alone business. Moore has a lot of ideas, and thanks to transitioning to a venue format, he has the time to pursue them.

Merchant House – Urban Event Space opened in April, giving downtown an eclectic urban environment in which to host events. Owned by Conn’s Hospitality Group, The Merchant House previously sold home furnishings, from antique to contemporary. Converting the space to a venue was easy, says Lauren Stead, marketing and promotions director, with painting and sprucing up happening as winter turned to spring.

“We incorporated antiques into the space to get more of an eclectic vibe and true to the roots as to what was formerly there,” she said.

Merchant House offers 4,300 square feet of open space, plus a small vault for intimate meetings and a cocktail area with a bar. The open space lends itself nicely to a variety of options for hosting an event, from sit-down dinners to nights of fun and games. As Stead notes, “It can be upscale; it can be more chill; it’s a blank canvas.” Through Conn’s, catering is also offered, from appetizers to full meals, as well as bar service. Located within proximity to two downtown hotels, with a parking garage across the street plus on-street parking, Merchant House – Urban Event Space is positioned well to be in the middle of everything downtown.

“It has an urban, eclectic and rustic feel. There’s the history behind the place,” says Stead. “It’s unique in that you won’t find exposed brick walls elsewhere, and the vaulted ceilings are original. You don’t get this vibe from new construction.”

Stead is also looking forward to a positive 2021 as COVID ebbs. “As far as events go, people are really starting to feel more comfortable coming out and gathering in large groups, which is ramping up event business. There are brides who have postponed weddings and organizations that couldn’t host fundraisers. People are anxious to get out and do things again.”

Carey Smith is a Springfield mother, gardener and poet, who is also anxious to get out and do things again.

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