YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As he created the business plan for Youngstown Event Center, HaSheen Wilson had no way of knowing he’d have to account for a global pandemic.
The venue, at the corner of Market Street and Dewey Avenue on the South Side, opened in November 2019 and “started gaining traction,” its owner says, before everything came to a grinding halt less than six months later.
“I remember sitting down and thinking, ‘What do we do now?’ At that point, we couldn’t pivot into anything because no one was doing anything,” Wilson says. “You have negative income statements. It was a matter of figuring out how to meet our minimum needs – we still have that overhead – and weather the storm. It pushed back things that we wanted to do here. We had to refund money because events were canceled.”
When businesses started reopening and people once again began looking for spaces to hold events, it was like starting from square one, Wilson says. The word of mouth that startups like his rely on disappeared as bookings were rescheduled – initially, only about 10% of events were canceled outright – and eventually canceled.
“We gave them the opportunity to rebook for later dates, which helped us hold on to some revenue. As this played out longer and longer, though, we had to start providing refunds to close to 100% of people who had parties booked,” he says. “We had to start from square one. People didn’t know us. It was just like starting a business again.”
What Wilson and the staff at Youngstown Event Center experienced wasn’t unique among banquet centers.
Business across the industry waned at the start of the pandemic before getting up and running later in 2020. But for banquet halls that opened just before or during the pandemic, those challenges were multiplied.
After opening in October 2020 with a VIP event and the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s Economic Forecast Breakfast in early November, the Eastwood Event Centre saw all of its December bookings disappear with a new slate of mandates from Gov. Mike DeWine as cases surged over the winter.
“We couldn’t set up dance floors. We had to limit events to 300 or less with people wearing masks at their table. No one could stand at bars. All those variables were a recipe for everyone to move their event back,” says Michael Patrone, general manager of the banquet hall at the Eastwood Mall. “The double-edged sword was low confidence in this area to make bookings short-term with mandates in place. Not only did we lose our December business, but no one wanted to set anything up within six months or less.”
What helped keep things running in early 2021, he continues, was the $1 million in technology that’s installed in the Eastwood Event Centre. This includes six LED projectors that connect to easy-to-use control panels that allow users to connect almost any device of theirs with little hassle.
“When we originally opened, we thought the easiest thing to get would be the social events. We thought it’d be harder to get the Monday-through-Thursday kind of business,” Patrone says. “But we’re finding the most success with those business events. Some local companies have hosted orientations, training events, hiring events, trade shows.”
Beyond just business events, what surprised Patrone has been the abundance of dance competitions. It’s not the kind of event that was expected to do well, but with the ability to broadcast contestants on public-area TVs throughout its space, Eastwood Event Centre was able to better provide social distancing for visitors while dancers competed.
Another part of why the Eastwood Event Centre has flourished in 2021 – Patrone reports no cancellations of events scheduled this year – is it’s unique space within a mall. It’s not common in the banquet hall industry.
In Boardman, Michelle Renee had a similar idea at the same time for her new space, Royale Renee’s Event Center.
The space inside the Southern Park Mall opened in August, converted from a clothing store. What attracted Renee to the space was the abundance of amenities.
“There’s free parking,” she says. “There’s ample parking. It’s in a safe area. If you forget to get a gift for a reception or a baby shower, everything’s right here in the mall. It’s convenient for people. And if I host a party, there are so many businesses around that I can collaborate with,” she says.
Before opening, Renee made cakes and created decorations for events, two skills that have come into play with her own banquet center. She offers to decorate the space and can make desserts and hors d’oeuvres.
“What I find time and again is that people like to walk in and not have to worry about anything. Everything here’s all-inclusive,” she says. “We provide the tables, chairs, linens, decorations. You can come in, have a good time and leave stress-free.”
There’s still work to be done in the space itself. The former clothing store was in rough shape when she moved in, with the floors and walls scuffed from the previous tenant – aesthetics that she aims to deal with soon – and there are built-in shelving units in a side area of Royale Renee’s that she wants to renovate into a small seating space.
But even with her recent start, Renee says business has been on the uptick thanks to word of mouth from events like a Women in Business mixer and an awards ceremony hosted by the Rev. Lewis Macklin.
“Even with the pandemic going on, I saw that people still wanted something to do. Even if people could only get together in groups of 25 instead of 100 at a banquet hall, they still wanted that opportunity,” Renee says.
“A banquet hall, to me, is about a celebration and people still want that.”
Pictured: Michael Patrone says meeting technology benefited the Eastwood Event Centre.