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Pop-ups, parties, and...parking lots?

An art show--"Mumbo Sauce" at 906 H St., a former retail store. DC event planners are turning to vacant buildings, old warehouses and even parking lots to put a fresh, modern spin on their parties

A showcase for #DCWEEK in the then-empty storefronts at Atlas Lofts drew local, social innovators in fashion, arts and retail

The District hardly lacks for hotel ballrooms, cultural centers and swanky restaurants. So why would a marketer stage an event in a parking lot or a spare black box theater? Why go through all the work necessary to transform a vacant property into a temporary venue or build a pop-up from scratch?

Yet happenings in unusual places have become a fairly regular occurrence in the past few years. Shops spring up in temporary spaces, corporate-sponsored parties draw crowds to warehouses – even the city government, looking to lure future tenants, has held events in vacant sites that it aims to develop. They speak to a city with a growing population and high incomes that is shedding its stodgy, suit-y image –a market that companies are eager to tap into.  

“In the ‘Mad Men’ era, there were very few channels for marketing and advertising, so standing out might have meant having the most engaging print ad in the biggest magazine or newspaper,” says Micah Greenberg, the former director of marketing for National Public Media (the sponsorship arm of NPR), now a freelance consultant on brand strategy, business development and special events. “In these days, there are so many more channels … and competitors that it takes even more to stand out.”

Putting on a “truly non-traditional kind of event – or a stunt, even, in some cases – can be an effective way” to do that, he says. (A disclosure: I met Greenberg while volunteering for a free community school project, for which he donated space and time.)

For vitaminwater, that meant teaming up with Brightest Young Things to create ‘uncapped LIVE,’ a month-long cultural and entertainment hub with daily programming that took place in a former office building near U St. The buzzed-about space and near-constant events “allowed [vitaminwater] to give out 30,000 samples of product, provided thousands of event branded photos, and garnered more press than any previous event in the city,” the production company writes.

For Help Remedies, a start-up pharmaceutical company, that meant opening a pop-up pharmacy in downtown D.C. and conducting unusual outreach efforts like putting performers in its windows, inspiring curious passersby to stop by and learn about their products. “The brand itself is seen as non-traditional, so the ways they want to market and represent it should be non-traditional too,” says Greenberg, who helped put on a launch party for the pop-up.  

A raw space generally has the distinct benefit of affordability, but that doesn’t always mean that companies are getting a bargain – a retail shell can still fetch a costly premium, and other not-immediately-obvious expenses may crop up. Access to things like electricity, bathrooms or a commercial kitchen can vary widely. And finding the space and resources to put on such events isn’t as straightforward as calling up a hotel manager.

Some turn to verdeHOUSE, which specializes in facilitating temporary events in vacant spaces -- or “activating underutilized properties” as the company’s founder Morgan Greenhouse puts it.

"There are so many more channels � and competitors that it takes even more to stand out.�
Three years ago, Greenhouse convinced a developer to let her transform a vacant retail space at 12th and U St. into a temporary art exhibit. The event was so successful that others wanted to use the space and called upon her newfound expertise. Sensing an opportunity, she put her architecture master's degree plans on hold and founded verdeHOUSE.

The company’s events and services are a “total mix,” according to Greenhouse. “We find unique space for an event, rent property to short-term retail tenants as well as help real estate owners generate foot traffic and brand a particular development.” They range from one-offs like fundraisers to year-long retail pop-ups.

While the types of events run the gamut, one thing they all have in common is that “everyone wants their event to be unique,” Greenhouse says, and spaces like warehouses, parking lots or urban gardens are attractive for their novelty and out-of-the-box feel.

When developer EDENS was looking to generate publicity for its soon-to-open Union Market, they teamed up with verdeHOUSE to create DC Scoop, an ice-cream “tasting event and culinary competition.” Instead of going to an already-built space, they drew 1,500 people -- residents and potential customers – to the site of the soon-to-come market in its parking lot. They transformed the unexpected venue into an energetic and imaginative happening by bringing in live music, sponsoring art installations by a local street artist, and drawing buzz for a free, juried ice-cream competition. The event had a neighborhood-y feel, as the Pink Line project wrote at the time, “in a way that is reminiscent of neighborhood block parties, county fairs, art exhibitions, and music festivals," and helped EDENS market the new foodie bazaar in a family-friendly and community-oriented way.  

Underutilized places are also free from the conceptions of, say, a hotel space. They “can function as a blank canvas to create very unique social and brand experiences,” she adds. “There are often less parameters or preconceived notions, so an event host has a tabula rasa to execute a vision and craft a memorable event.”

Indeed, the idea of a “tabula rasa” to host events in has become so appealing that there is now a real tabula rasa … It’s on Barracks Row.

The concept for the space began when Amanda Clarke and her husband Cable were looking for a place to have corporate off-site retreats, workshops and meetings for his management consulting company. But Tabula Rasa evolved into something much more–a flexible event venue with mobile, modular furniture that can be transformed to fit the needs of anything from fundraisers, private social events, and retail pop-ups to book signings and business meetings.

It “has floor-to-ceiling windows in every room that open on to a center courtyard that feels very open and contemporary, and very different than a typical D.C. space,” Clarke says.

Though with a burgeoning tech community, hip new restaurants opening, and a growing art scene, it’s getting hard to say what a typical D.C. space – or event -- is anymore.  

Read more articles by Rachel Sadon.

Rachel Sadon is a freelance journalist based in Petworth with an interest in politics, culture, urbanism, and new ways of telling stories, especially when they intersect.
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