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During SXSW, downtown events venues stand alone

After the festival, events venues rented for parties, weddings, happy hours.

You walk right past their brightly painted façades all the time.

You wonder: What are they? Clubs? Restaurants?

Turns out, a little bit of both and neither.

Stand-alone event venues, available for rental, have spread like wildfire around downtown Austin. Year-round, they host private parties, including novel weddings, corporate happy hours and holiday parties.

“It comes with the growing popularity of Austin,” says Brandon Badillo, director of events for three of them: Brazos Hall, Trinity Hall and Rattle Inn. “As more and more people move here for lifestyle and work, there will always be a need for corporate events, weddings and good ol’ fashioned parties.”

A big slice of their business, however, comes during the city’s mega-festivals, especially the 10 days of South by Southwest. As recently as three years ago, for instance, 50 percent of the business for pioneering Pink Avocado Catering, which operates the Palm Door on Sabine Street, flowed during SXSW.

“I’m certain a good chunk does come from SXSW still,” says Gracie Luna, manager for its larger sibling venue, Palm Door on Sixth. “It feels like there are maybe two weeks out of the year that Austin is not hosting a large conference, festival or event of some sort.”

A different kind of party animal

The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau lists more than 300 downtown venues that party planners can rent during SXSW. This does not count the parking lots and vacant spaces often leased — at least in the past — for pop-up parties and brand-building exhibits.

This year, however, the city of Austin has issued fewer permits for outdoor SXSW parties. Stand-alone structures, for the most part, won’t be adversely affected.

“We are seeing an organic migration to indoor venues that operate under annual permits and are designed to host events,” says Don Pitts, music program manager for the city of Austin. “A lot of favorite outdoor locations have gone away due to development.”

Among Austin’s oldest stand-alone party palaces is Saengerrunde Hall, built next to Scholz Garten, itself established as a beer garden in the 1860s. It has served as a dance hall, bowling alley and gathering spot for the Saengerrunde, a German-American singing group that traced its roots to 1852. People still rent it today.

From its earliest years, the city also supported saloons, church halls, school campuses and campgrounds that could be reserved for community gatherings.

Hotels, which come with kitchens and service staffs, tended to specialize in banquet rooms of varying sizes. Before air-conditioning, several of these spaces were open-air, such as the banquet room once perched on the roof of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel to catch the prevailing breezes.

These days, downtown hospitality giants such as the JW Marriott Austin and the Hilton Austin compete for the biggest party dollars during SXSW. They jostle with somewhat smaller operations such as the Hyatt Regency Austin, the W Austin Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel, as well as historic spots like the Driskill and InterContinental Stephen F. Austin hotels.

Multipurpose venues with stages, such as Austin Music Hall, ACL Live, the Long Center, the Paramount Theatre and the State Theatre, take on those assemblies that require theatrical accoutrements.

There is never enough party space. Especially during festival time. One solution was to repurpose older structures to handle the overflow traffic. The greatest number of them congregated within a mile of the convention center.

“Corporate event scouts seem to have two specific needs when looking for an event space: That’s location and cost,” Badillo says. “Downtown is where people want to be. With the convention center hosting a wide array of larger-scale events throughout the year, their clients often look to smaller venues to host off-site meetings and/or parties. They want something that really portrays the Austin scene … or at least what they envision the Austin scene being.”

A wide-open space for rent

When the Palm Door opened at 401 Sabine St. in 2008, some social observers scratched their heads. The long wooden building — 2,900 square feet of it — above Waller Creek had played many roles over the years, including home to the City Grill, an eatery that once defined casual fine dining downtown.

By 2008, it had been virtually emptied of permanent furniture by Pink Avocado. Its long bar was stocked modestly for specific parties, its kitchen converted to a catering base.

On New Year’s Eve 2014, a second Palm Door opened in a large former club — 7,255 square feet of indoor and outdoor space — at 508 E. Sixth Street.

“With a club or restaurant, you are limited by size and aesthetic constraints of the space as it stands,” Luna says. “The value of a stand-alone special events venue is favorable to certain groups because of the versatility and quality of the facility and services.”

Both Palm Doors are booked solid with official and unofficial events during this year’s SXSW.

Among the later, spectacular stand-alone social remakes was Brazos Hall, once a commercial warehouse, later part of American YouthWorks’s downtown campus at Brazos and East Fourth streets. Tall and open, it invited party planners and designers to go wild. Its rooftop terrace lured crowds upstairs during clement weather.

One wedding transformed the spot into a candle-lit dreamscape.

“Brazos Hall was the only venue we considered in Austin,” says recent bride Alex Winkelman, formerly head of Citizen Generation. “It was exactly what we were looking for: downtown, indoor/outdoor spaces and unique. The space has a style of its own but also provides a blank slate to dream and create.”

The folks who manage Brazos Hall also handle the Rattle Inn, a newer venue attached to Ranch 616, as well as Trinity Hall, a former dance club at Trinity and East Fifth streets, across from the Coppertank Event Center, a former brewpub but now a rental venue, too.

Jason Hicks, who owns the Electric Company, which manages the Austin Music Hall, saw the need for yet another smaller stand-alone venue and recently opened snappy Textile in an older masonry structure across Trinity Street from the convention center.

“For us, it’s being able to manage overhead and minimizing burn rate by only being open when we are generating revenue,” Hicks says. “So far, most of our clients have come because of our reputation for turn-key production in-house. It’s one thing to have an event space, but to have a full-service production company — with a vast network of event specialists at their fingertips — is a definite plus for those coming from out of town.”

Pros and cons

Party planners betray mixed feelings about special-event venues, especially if they come with required or preferred caterers and equipment rental companies.

Some spots, like Brazos Hall, do not include food service facilities, which means temporary set-ups in tents outdoors.

Still, downtown stand-alone venues can’t be beat for certain qualities, says veteran Austin events planner Richard Williams.

“We want a place that represents Austin, something with an Austin feeling,” Williams says. “Proximity is even more important so that they don’t have to deal with vehicles or parking.”

And while mega-festivals help these event spaces meet their base expenses, the party doesn’t stop after SXSW.

“Yes, our marquee events and festivals have definitely helped put us on the map in terms of visitors,” says Shilpa Bakre, spokeswoman for the city convention bureau. “But when those aren’t happening, there are plenty of business travelers who are searching for unique venues to create authentic Austin experiences.”

Bonus: Historical structures are retained.

“Repurposing an already existing building is a good option because of the value of history and culture,” Badillo says. “I think it’s better to take the foundation and framework of something and improve it. We all hate to see longtime local businesses go under. But it is nice when the building that a business called home for so many years is still intact and being properly utilized.”

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