Hey, bub... Wanna buy a cathedral?
August 15, 2014 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering forming an LLC, purchasing an event property (former church), and renting it as an additional income source - primarily for weddings and catered events. Assume I'm completely green in this industry - which is almost true.

Aside from the usual property-purchase issues (which my fantastic real estate lawyer will help me with), what business concerns should I be thinking about, especially those unique to this business? Some obvious ones - liability insurance, capital expenditures like tables & chairs - are there, and I'd hope to convert the first returns into site improvements such as new kitchen facilities and improvements to the downstairs hall area.
posted by IAmBroom to Work & Money (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure any such venue with kitchen facilities is going to require meeting local food prep codes and being able to pass inspection.
posted by hippybear at 1:34 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

So many thoughts. What else is in the area? You might want to find a local meeting planner and or someone who just got married.

Also, for potential issues with capital expense: You can just have the place be a "shell" where every thing else is rented from elsewhere, including catering, lights etc.
posted by sandmanwv at 1:36 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

The area I live in has a region-wide small business group that hosts seminars, helps people get loans, teaches finance classes, and connects small businesses to others and to the community as a whole. You may want to look into finding a similar organization in your area, or find some folks elsewhere in the country who have done something similar to what you've done and try to set up an informational interview.
posted by Urban Winter at 1:40 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're going to be an event venue, you should think about what vendors you are willing to work with. Catering is the big one where this comes into play, but you'll see it with other types of vendors, as well. The options are generally:
-- Provide your own catering services.
-- Have a small approved list of caterers who are allowed to work in your venue.
-- Allow people to bring their own caterer, subject to your approval of the caterer's licensing and insurance, etc.

It doesn't sound like you want to be the first thing. Approval lists give you more control over who works in your venue, so you can easily kick off people who damage your venue, don't meet contractual terms or screw over their clients. Some venues also take kickbacks from the caterers for being on the approved list. On the other hand, being open to any catering company makes your venue more flexible and desirable to people booking events.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:53 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would start by looking at the following:

-Is the area known for frequent weddings? Will you be drawing ceremonies from outside your immediate area, or will it be locals only?
-Who would your competition be? Are they fully booked long in advance, or do they have frequent openings?
-What are existing event spaces charging? How long is the wedding season?
-What would your capacity be as an event space? Would this distinguish you in your market (i.e., there are lots of 100-person venues, but you could do 200-person events.)
-Do existing event venues just do weddings, or do they do other events as well? (Your church will distinguish you as a wedding venue, primarily or exclusively.)
-What is the actual reception space like? I suspect this will limit your potential facility a lot more than the church space, esp. if the church hall is in a basement, has poor light, is poorly laid out, etc.
-Does the property have sufficient parking? (If it's in a downtown, this is a killer.)
-Are there exterior areas that are (or could be) landscaped for photo ops?
-Would there be any zoning issues using the space for this use?
-How much would property taxes be? (Ask your real estate lawyer about this one, but don't base this on the current assessed value. As a church, the property is likely exempt at present -- the assessed value may not be up to date or some assessors may not even be doing assessments if the site is used as a church, but they'll start up again once it's an event space.)

After looking into these questions, I would look for a local wedding planner or two and ask them to give you their take as a consultant (and pay them for a few hours of their time). Also, ask them to tell you about working with brides and grooms and their families, and what that's like.
posted by pie ninja at 1:57 PM on August 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

primarily for weddings
Do you want to provide setup and tear down for events? What about general post-event cleanup? Security? Onsite maintenance person during events? You'll want someone on call if not onsite so you can go out of town.

A friend works at a place where they have had drunk wedding parties refuse to leave at midnight when they have only rented the space until midnight. Security and Maintenance are ready to quit.
posted by soelo at 1:59 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're looking at people having their receptions there, you have to worry about alcohol regulations, but the church I grew up in just plain didn't allow it so I'm not sure precisely how that worked. Even when you don't actually allow alcohol, people do sometimes bring their own to such things and having to deal with drunk people and property damage is a lower risk but not none.

From what I know of the church I grew up in and the state of its building, and the sort of place that ends up on the market because the church has been unable to keep the building (or keep operating at all), have the place inspected within an inch of it's life. Shortly after said church got its new custodian a couple years ago, with the old custodian having been insisting for ages that everything was basically fine probably to keep the people happy who kept insisting there wasn't enough budget for serious renovation, the place suddenly had to replace its roof and boiler within just a couple years, and had a pipe go in the basement that led to massive damage in the basement offices. By the time that place goes on the market--which it will in a few years, I'm quite sure--there will be a lot of necessary things that haven't had proper maintenance for 20+ years. If this place has already been privately owned, hopefully some stuff's already been addressed.
posted by Sequence at 2:08 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Pie Ninja's list is excellent. However, I am concerned that you will be operating too close to the bone to make this idea work, based on your statement that you "hope to convert the first returns into site improvements such as new kitchen facilities and improvements to the downstairs hall area." There aren't going to be many bookings if your kitchen and banquet halls are sub-par.

You should be able to absorb a six-twelve month lag time for wedding bookings. Moreover, you'll need to impress the other players in the wedding-industrial complex today (planners, caterers, documentarians, florists, etc.) that you're offering a viable, professional alternative to the usual venues. They won't believe your assurances that it'll all be fine a few months from now because you have no track record and they won't risk their reputations. Compared to these folks, looking good to a bride-elect and her family will be easy. Therefore, in addition to weddings, consider how to market for: family reunions, retirement celebrations, holiday parties, club socials (e.g., Kiwanis dinners, etc.), recitals and the like.

WRT: liquor licenses and equipment (tables, chairs, linens, cutlery/service, etc.) you can usually piggy back onto your caterer for both and the latter is certainly rentable from any party supply house. If you have limited cash, don't spend it on that stuff.
posted by carmicha at 2:23 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding soelo - having maintenance, security, post-event cleanup -- or asking people to provide their own -- etc is important.

Facilities - do you have enough bathrooms for a wedding? For a jam-packed party? If not, do you have water hookup and space outside for a bathroom trailer rental?

Power - what's your power / PA situation? Are you going to provide a sound system? Do you have enough power to run a sound system that can power the space?
posted by suedehead at 2:24 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

GREAT stuff here, folks! Keep it coming.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:25 PM on August 15, 2014

You need to consider who the neighbors are, if any, and if hosting frequent events is going to lead to noise compaints. And whatever other impact this may have on the neighborhood. Parking, people exiting your venue late in the evening, stuff like that.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:28 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

carmicha: However, I am concerned that you will be operating too close to the bone to make this idea work, based on your statement that you "hope to convert the first returns into site improvements such as new kitchen facilities and improvements to the downstairs hall area." There aren't going to be many bookings if your kitchen and banquet halls are sub-par.
Great catch, carmicha. I'm not concerned about bringing in any rental income in the first six months at all, in fact - assuming the attached rectory is habitable. The overall cost of the place's mortgage would be a fraction of my current rent.

So, I was assuming I'd start the business renting the church only (and allowing use of the basement floors for dressing/prep areas, only), with lower rental fees. I'd be turning around profits (exclusive of mortgage, which as I said I can afford to eat) after paying heat/upkeep/cleaning into making the hall area nice enough to merit rental - and getting the kitchen workable.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:32 PM on August 15, 2014

Regarding revenue - what I discovered during our wedding planning was just how few venues gave you any options for catering other than themselves or their preferred vendor. This sucked for us, but I have to draw one of two conclusions:

One, it's this way because they can get away with it because it's pretty well accepted.

Two, it's this way because just rental income without the padding of (what I will ungenerously call) a kickback is not sustainable.

I'm inclined to think there's some of both at work, as well as liability issues and possibly health code questions. When everyone in a business does things a certain way you have a chance to differentiate yourself by changing from that... but you should be real careful to examine and be sure there's not a very good reason everyone does things that way.
posted by phearlez at 2:33 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

In addition to the good points raised above, I would suggest going on Wedding Wire, the Knot, and Wedding Bee to see what venues in your area are often recommended and why (and more crucially, why people DON'T go with venues.) Look at local wedding photography blogs to see what spaces look like during weddings, and if there are any comments about the spaces. Many cities have local wedding professional events, and they should be able to help with consulting (and later, networking.) Are you planning on working as the event coordinator for the space, or hiring someone to handle that? Where are event spaces advertised? Do they have Pinterests/social media accounts?

Liquor laws! Learn all about liquor laws and how to handle it. Alcohol is pretty much a requirement for more lucrative wedding arrangements.

Get a website, have it done by a professional, clearly lay out your policies, number of people allowed and in which configurations (cocktail, seated, seated + dance floor, lecture), rental time blocks, and available facilities. Look at other local venues, maybe even tour their spaces, look at their contracts and websites. Are there any areas that aren't handicap accessible? If you're installing any AV equipment or power outlets, talk to both electricians and a DJ about the space's capabilities and what DJs would need. (Or DIY iPod support-- speaker system? Electric outlet close to the dance floor?) Have a professional photographer take pictures of the spaces.

As a potential parallel, you could look at how the Fleisher in Philadelphia handles rentals, since it's another converted church space (but with additional buildings and a large parking lot.)

Weddings are great, but weddings also come with more pressure, which means more pressure on you: more demands (or attempted negotiations) on time, on appearance, on answering emails and phone calls quickly, they tend to happen on very select days (Friday nights, Saturdays, maybe Sunday mornings), temperature within the dancing space is an issue, there are rehearsals to schedule and plan for, decoration storage and lead times, photo op areas, parking/shuttle accessibility, and since there is a perceived wedding season, there are often demands for discounts outside of those dates and times. Also, it really helps to have decent bathrooms and a decent space for the wedding parties to store their stuff, get ready in, and take pictures in. (Super extra bonus points if there's a small supply of essentials like hairspray, hair pins, cotton balls, lotion, band aids etc stored in there!) And yes, most weddings are booked at least a year in advance.

Other events to consider: marketing events, baby/wedding showers, vow renewals/anniversary parties, local conferences (would definitely need upgraded AV equipment and wifi, which some weddings will want as well), crafting groups, gaming groups, elopements, small weddings-- at least one museum offers very reasonable packages for small weddings of < 25 people during the week.

Chairs/tables: probably helpful to have basics of those around, especially for non-wedding events. But yes, then you have to worry about cleaning up, setting up and taking down. There are a huge variety of chairs available, from the basic folding chairs (will not win you points with wedding people) to Chiavari chairs (hilariously expensive, in vogue now for weddings.) Maybe take notes at local hotels to see what brands they have for their conference rooms and ask them how they're holding up/what storage is like/replacement costs? If you don't own them, I would get a list of local reputable companies and price lists, so that if people book the space you can let them know approximate costs or so that you can organize renting them for each event. Make sure you know exactly how many of each size chair and table can fit into your space; have floorplans available.

Caterers: well covered up thread, but talk to them about floorplans and space too. Buffer vs. stations vs. plated vs. cocktail vs. drink stations + power outlets + staffing + truck access...There may also be some local caterers who handle a lot of similar spaces-- for example, our caterer was the exclusive caterer for a number of historic Philadelphia houses. While annoying, because we had to use them, this was much easier on the house because they had a long-standing relationship with the caterer, who knew exactly how to handle the space. The caterer handled all arrangements like outside tables and chairs, linens, clean up/break down, and event logistics. The house handled house tours, bridal suite, inside chairs, and which company we could rent the tent from.

I think a lot of places have a list of caterers they will work with, and I don't think that's bad as long as there are a range of food options/prices-- I think it reduces risks on behalf of the site, for one thing. You know they're not going to ruin your space, you know they're reputable, and if they're a well-respected local caterer, as a new site, you might actually benefit from doing successful events with them.

I second carmicha's concerns about booking with basic facilities, though you might consider offering the space to some groups at a very low cost in the beginning for several reasons. A: you can actually do test runs of the space, with actual people. Have this photographed professionally so that you have actual photos for your website. B: testimonials. Word of mouth from people with successful events is key. C: you know what areas need improvement, physically and staffing-wise. D: you can get a better idea of how long set up/take downs will take. E: if you have six months, you can get a better gauge on temperature and whether it's appropriate for events or whether you need to have more heaters etc.

Good luck-- it sounds like a cool place!
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2014

Having been on the property maintenance committees of several churches, I can tell you that they are money pits. If this is a defunct church, it probably has a lot of deferred maintenance issues, not to mention the redecorating costs to make it totally attractive as an events venue. Unless for some reason options for weddings are in short supply in the region, I think this is going to be a tough business model to build.

Also: it is usually a bad idea to start with a building and try to create a business in it. If you want to be in the wedding trade, build you business model and business plan, and then look for a venue (which might turn out to be renting different facilities to fit the needs of different weddings).

If you are just completely enamored of this building and want to do something with it, spend some time thinking about the other possibilities for it. Could it be converted into housing? Senior living? Retail space? Office space? A restaurant? Some combination of uses? Anything that puts more of a 24/7 use to the building is likelier to be feasible and profitable.
posted by beagle at 3:03 PM on August 15, 2014

Consider having your kitchen remodel include making it a commercial kitchen. This would allow you to rent just the kitchen to caterers, small-scale food producers (like the folks who sell jam and cookies at the farmers' market), and cooking and preserving classes. Often these folks will be using it in the non-event hours (weekdays and weeknights). Plus, supporting other small local businesses! If my community had something like this I'd be all over it.
posted by librarina at 3:04 PM on August 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

In my area (a huge destination wedding area) there are a couple wedding industry networking groups, if you've got one in your area, check out their meetings. These are the people who will refer you and will also have a ton of advice for you. We have a couple groups that are open to anyone and another one that is by application only after you have been in the business for a while.

Having played a lot of weddings with our band, I can tell you that venues run the gamut from full service to just a space someone rents out, and that there are customers for all different types. So I don't think that starting out small, inexpensive and barebones is a bad idea at all, if anything it will get you events which will hopefully equal cool photos to use in your promo materials. If I was looking to do this, I would check out every local venue I could, get a copy of their rental requirements, etc. You can often find these on the venues website. Banquet facilities. Elks lodges. B&B's. Old barns, wineries, musuems, Park & rec pavilions, etc. Do they allow outside catering? Do they require insurance from not just their renters but also the vendors (vendor insurance is frequently a requirement here in CA). What sort of security deposit do they require. What are the alcohol/noise/security policies, etc. You can learn a ton by looking at their prices, offerings, and what they require from their renters.

It also sounds like you are planning on living in the facility and I think you have to think about what that means. How will you make sure the drunken group of friends doesn't try to get into your home looking for a place to chill out from the crowd? Will you be on site to supervise every event? I mention it b/c I think it takes a certain personality to be in the event business, especially at your home, and I've known property owners who loved weddings and others who really didn't seem like they were cut out for it. Some hired intermediaries/site coordinators and others just looked stressed. Good luck.
posted by snowymorninblues at 3:10 PM on August 15, 2014

I look at for sale churches ALL THE TIME and I used to live/work in an Odd Fellows Hall that we rented out to groups for, among other things, weddings. Here are the things I think are important.

- Think about what your state's alcohol laws are and what this translates into for insurance stuff that you will need to know about. All it takes is one drunk person getting into a horrible accident on the way home in a situation you didn't know you were liable for to ruin your entire life
- Heat. Again I don't know where you live but if you have to heat the place year round you should think about the costs to keep a big place all warmed up for rental stuff if you have to turn up the heat the day before and keep it at 75 degrees in the winter. This might be rough. Look at where the plumbing is and where the sources of heat for that are. Many churches are used to only being heated part time and either the building is set for this (in which case, yay) or it's been slowly moldering and rotting and falling apart while not set up for this (get a good building inspector)
- It's a total pain in the ass to live in a place where there are people who are partying on your head and paying you for the privilege. If you have a day job, consider this strongly. I am a fussy sleeper, you may not be.
- Being a wedding venue means that you or someone you hire works many many holiday weekends and weekends in general. There is a lot of work that is super scut work (cleaning bathrooms, mopping, people can be super filthy when they are drunk and it's not your place) You need to either learn to love this work (I did) or you need to pay someone to do it. Sometimes turnover on places like this is quick so you may have times when you really have to hustle.
- Chairs/tables, as mentioned above. You need these and places to store these. Is the church full of pews? What will you do with those?
- Trash/garbage/etc. Events can generate a ton of this sort of thing and you need a plan for it and/or you need to write it into contracts with the people who you are working with. In some places this is no big deal. In other places the cost of trash disposal is prohibitive and/or fussy as far as recycling and other stuff. Dealing with garbage was my least favorite part of the job.

In short, I love this idea but being in a place that becomes a rental venue may mean that you are really married to it a lot of the time or you need someone you can absolutely trust to be there. So think about what you require out of your free time now and whether you can work that around a job like this. I found that I liked the setup and cleanup but finding someone 100% reliable to do things like lock or unlock a door was harder than I thought.
posted by jessamyn at 4:20 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need really good liability insurance. Check and triple-check laws on serving alcohol. Make sure there are guardrails, properly marked steps, etc.
posted by theora55 at 4:59 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

All if the above plus:

What's the parking situation like? You may need your own part-time valet people or need to contract that out. (And if there is overflow, where do the cars go? That's definitely something you want valet to deal with.)

Lighting & a/v techs.

General ongoing staffing needs, from helping you on the business end to event-specific help.

Not just great insurance, but a great insurance agent.

(I have no experience with churches or weddings but have produced many, many professional events at various outside venues.)
posted by Room 641-A at 9:43 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Many churches have landmark designation or restrictive zoning or can have either or both quickly slapped on them by NIMBY neighbors -- meaning that the renovations or uses you intend could be thwarted.

I have never been to a wedding in a deconsecrated church. Churches aren't inherently great wedding venues for people who don't want the religious content.
posted by MattD at 4:11 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

do not provide your own catering. do provide a list of reputable area caterers. these caterers will often carry their own liquor liability insurance, but you, as the venue should also have insurance in that regard. however, alcohol sales are extremely profitable, and I know many venues that allow you to bring the caterer but keep the bar in house. it will be the quickest way to get any kind of return - just be comfortable with the liability involved if you decide to go that route. also, you do not need tables, chairs, etc up front. renting these items can be billed/included in the venue fee and themselves are inexpensive to rent. you WILL need a crew to do setup/breakdown/clean up and an event coordinator who works for you who is on site the day of the event. the advice to hook up with area wedding/event planners is a good one. possibly build a relationship and eventually, if they like what they see, they will steer clients your way. this is how i would do it with little to no overhead and i've been in the event business for over a decade.
posted by ps_im_awesome at 5:27 PM on August 16, 2014

I agree with MattD that people who want weddings in churches usually have a church in mind; and people who don't have a relationship with a church often prefer that their wedding photographs don't look religious. That might be an interesting concept to search boards like The Knot for.

Weddings happen on weekends. Think about what might go on in this space the rest of the time.
Is there a good dance floor (i.e. not tile/concrete/carpet) that you could rent out to social-dance groups (ballroom, swing, contra, salsa, whatever)?
Are there meeting spaces - could you become a small conference venue?
Is there an education building separate from the sanctuary and banquet area? could you rent out space to a daycare or some such?
posted by aimedwander at 7:45 AM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with MattD that people who want weddings in churches usually have a church in mind; and people who don't have a relationship with a church often prefer that their wedding photographs don't look religious.

This may vary considerably with region -- lots of my friends aren't particularly religious in their day-to-day lives, and don't belong to a regular church. Some of them essentially went church shopping for the prettiest / cheapest / most flexible / most available church for their wedding.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:03 AM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding jacquilynne - most of my friends have nonreligious weddings in churches, for their beautiful ambiance. Not so worried about that.

For that matter, consecrated or not, pastors are certainly willing to do weddings in locations outside their own venues. I once attended a wedding jointly presided over by a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi, in a Catholic Church. The central crucifix had been removed for the ceremony. Plus ca change...
posted by IAmBroom at 1:02 PM on August 18, 2014

« Older Actuarial Burial   |   The Hugo Awards: what are the odds? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.