Catalyst Ranch – A Creative Spark for Meetings and Events in Chicago
Catalyst Ranch was the first venue in Chicago to realize that the results of any offsite meeting or event can be enhanced if attendees are placed in the right environment. In 2002 we started with the concept of what our own ideal working environment would be and then coupled with extensive research, experience and pure gut instinct, created a pioneering and innovative boutique conference center in Chicago’s burgeoning West Loop. We broke some rules, no doubt about that!
Here is our story…
Chapter 1 – The Shake Up
The idea for Catalyst Ranch was born on a quiet, sunny day in early June, 2002. Eva Niewiadomski did her typical morning routine, hopped on the subway downtown and by 8:00am was hard at work at her job as New Products Marketing Manager in the Convenience Foods Division of Frito-Lay (most recently Quaker Oats, before the PepsiCo purchase). The division had just gone through a restructuring and Eva was excited about the new platforms she would be working on. What she thought was a meeting with her boss to talk about new priorities and projects actually turned out to be a discussion about her impending layoff at the end of August, 2002. Although it had been expected for a while, it still was a bit of a shock that the day had actually arrived. Thankfully, Eva had been thinking about what she’d want to do after leaving Quaker and the idea of Catalyst Ranch crystallized that very same evening.
Chapter 2 – The Idea
And what was that idea exactly? Catalyst Ranch would forge a new category for the city of Chicago – a Creative Meeting & Event Space. It would be an independent boutique conference center with a creative environment that would incorporate breakout space within the main meeting room. And the customer service would be comprehensive so that the meeting planner or facilitator could focus on the content of the meeting vs. all the behind the scenes details.
The core precepts of the idea came from a variety of sources. Eva had created two Innovation Hallways and a Creativity Room for Quaker, which had been enthusiastically received by her co-workers. As a trained facilitator, she’d had lots of experience putting together creative environments in non-traditional locations and knew the additional heavy burden that creating those environments engendered. Her home was decorated in a style all her own – a mix of vintage and ethnic furnishings and artwork – which friends enjoyed continually exploring and discovering something new.
Chapter 3 – Gathering the Pieces
Once the idea was spoken aloud, the work began apace. In a matter of 5 months (3 of which she was still working full time at Pepsi), Eva conducted qualitative research, developed a business plan and financial forecast, searched for a site, hit garage and estate sales, refinished furniture, started building a client base, developed a marketing plan and tackled all the other millions of tasks that a good entrepreneur must fit into her day.
Thank goodness dad, at age 78, was a willing and available first employee. Before he knew it, he was stripping furniture, fixing and refinishing it and doing re-upholstery work full time. The lease was signed in mid-September and work began the following week. The space was completely raw – only the HVAC systems and bathrooms were in place, along with a few walls here and there.
Here’s where all the project management skills developed while launching new products really came into play. Eva ended up being the on-site construction manager, coordinating carpenters, drywallers, electricians, painters and hordes of volunteers (she never fully realized how many wonderful, generous friends she had until then). Construction was completed in a matter of 5 weeks. Time was of the essence as there were already three bookings in the month of November. Sight unseen!
In preparation for our first meeting in early November, the small crew of volunteers stayed up all night putting on the finishing touches and the last pane of glass for the French doors slid into place at 5:30am. The first client arrived at 7:00am.
Chapter 4 – Pogo Jumps Up
The business grew by leaps and bounds from that day forward. We outgrew the 9,000 sq. ft. of the 3rd floor and started having to turn business away. So 3 years later the build-out of 4E began, adding an additional 6,000 sq. ft. and two new rooms. Since then, we’ve split one of the rooms to add a focus group capability, adding two-way mirrors, lots of specialized A/V equipment and an observation room.
Chapter 5 – The Press and Awards
Since first opening our doors, Catalyst Ranch has been featured in articles in various noted publications in the United States including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, American Way Magazine, Crain’s Chicago Business and Inc. Magazine. We’re also featured in many books on creative meetings and customer service including, “Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed” by Chip Bell and James Patterson, “From Workplace to Playspace” by Pamela Meyer,“Disciplined Dreaming” by Josh Linkner and “Marketing Research: Methodological Foundations” by Gilvert A. Churchill, Jr.
Catalyst Ranch has been awarded:
“Best Conference Venue” by Illinois Meeting and Events
“Most Unique Venue in Chicago” by Illinois Meeting and Events
“Best in Show” – Place for Small Meetings by Convene
“Smart Space Pick” by Smart Meetings Magazine
“Great Spaces for Networking” by Meetings & Conventions Magazine
Eva herself has been named:
NAWBO Member of the Year 2016
Enterprising Woman of the Year 2016 by Enterprising Women Magazine
Named to Inc. Magazine’s list of 5000 fastest growing private companies
Chapter 6 – The Events
The meetings continue as do the special events. Throughout the years we’ve hosted hundreds of celebrations – weddings, bar & bat mitzvahs, anniversary parties, birthday parties, fundraisers and anything else that warrants a gathering of friends and family.
Chapter 7 – What’s to come?
This year, we introduced Ignite Theatre, our way of contributing to Chicago’s thriving arts community. We are producing shows and providing a low cost space for independent performers of all kinds to show the world their talent. In the coming months, watch for more and more performances in our line-up!
And, we’re doing even more to help the Chicago Community. We’re donating a new book to Open Books for every meeting that’s “booked” with us. We also encourage every meeting and event attendee to bring a book for our donation wagons. We’re spreading literacy and transforming lives!
Because we are in the business of creativity and innovation, we are always coming up with new ideas to enhance the lives of our clients and our community. That said, who knows what we’ll come up with next? Stay tuned!