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  • 2016 Best of Illinois Award Winners

    From rooftops and stadiums to DJs and limos, here are your favorite providers of the year.

     
    POSTED May 9, 2017
     

A FAMOUS FOOTBALL FIELD. THE LOCATION OF LINCOLN’S FIRST AND ONLY OWNED HOME. THE CUBS’ PERSONAL LIMO SERVICE. THE SECOND OLDEST DMC IN CHICAGO.

A famous football field. The location of Lincoln's first and only owned home. The Cub's personal limo service. The second oldest DMC in Chicago. 

At first glance, these things have close to nothing in common. But, their biggest similarity is that you picked them (and rightfully so) as winners in our 2016 Best of Illinois readers’ choice awards.

Congrats to all the honorees—and finalists. You gave 2016 the cheer it really needed.

THE NECESSITIES

How do you fit 908 events a year into 365 days? That’s roughly two-and-a-half events each day. It’s safe to say that FROST Chicago has their hands busy day in and day out. For all that hard work, they’ve earned the title for this year’s Best Audio-Visual/Visual Presentation Provider. The team offers an array of services, including staging systems, control consoles and LED walls for myriad event types, from entertainment and sports to galas and more.

Thirty years ago, Food for Thought opened in Chicago as a simple, family-owned catering company. Now, this year’s Best Catering Company (On- or Off-Site) manages 30 cafés across the Chicago area, located in office buildings and educational institutions. It also serves as the exclusive caterer at a number of venues, including the Adler Planetarium and 19 East. But that’s not all—FFT has even created a delivery service that drops off food orders from their catering menu. “There is tremendous creativity inside of this company and passion for what we do,” says Joel Chaiken, director of marketing. “We’ve built not only an effective operation but one that innovates constantly.”


Kehoe Designs

The event capabilities of Kehoe Designs are extensive. Floral design? Check. Tech production? Check. Graphic design? Check. And the list goes on. It’s no wonder, then, that the Chicago company is taking home Best Event Décor/Florist for the fourth consecutive year. The 200-plus-person team prides itself on the way it makes all events stand out—from weddings and galas to corporate events and small soirees. “Unique elements are core to our business,” says Kim Bakota, marketing manager. “Each and every event is approached as a new opportunity to fashion custom solutions to realize a client’s vision.”

The inventory at Hall’s Rental boasts 15,000 tables, 60,000 chairs and 90,000 place settings—and that’s just the basics. Thankfully, the Niles-based company has a 125,000-square-foot warehouse and 3,500-square-foot showroom to hold it all. Even more impressive, this year’s Best Rental Service Provider is close to celebrating 60 years of serving events from 10 to 10,000.

Your winner for Best Transportation has only been around for 11 years, yet Windy City Limousine is already the largest provider in Illinois and the eighth largest in the country. The Broadview-based company is the official limo service for the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Sky, Chicago Bears, Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Cubs; it also once served as transportation for Harpo Studios when Oprah’s daytime show still filmed in Chicago. Vice President Kathy Kahne credits the success to their proven record of reliability and customer-first mentality. “People trust what we say,” she says. “If we tell you we’re going to do it, we do it.” The company’s fleet includes sedans, mini coaches, an executive van and 56-passenger motor coaches and party buses.

This year’s Best Entertainment (Performer or Talent Agency) winner focuses on one thing and one thing only: DJs. At Toast & Jam, all 19 people on the talent roster are close-knit, which makes working with them a simple and easy process. “Our people actually care,” says Mary Nisi, owner and president, who furthers that DJs are involved in the planning process of the event right from the start in order to understand the full timeline. “We take the whole event very seriously and want to make sure everyone is having a good time.” With that kind of service, it’s guaranteed your guests are, too.

Husband and wife duo James and Michele Gustin originally founded Fig Media, Inc., in Chicago as a music entertainment provider, but soon expanded the company to integrate their artistic passions of photography and film. That expansion worked out well, landing them the coveted title of Best Photography/ Videography. “It’s important you do what you love first,” says Michele. Their approach is unique, she says, especially in terms of filmmaking. Instead of simply filming an event all day and getting standard shots, she and James sit down with the people involved beforehand to achieve a documentary feel. Says Michele, “I like to see the stories.”

Linda Whitlock, president of Chicago’s Corporate Event Interactive, Inc., says the employees are the reason for the company’s success, which includes being named Best Team-Building. “The people make the company,” she says. “We really listen to the client and try to be more than just a vendor.” The team can work with events as small as 10 to as large as 1,500, designing programs like adventure races, charitable events, team-building programs and more. “We’re always trying to come up with new things,” says Whitlock. “We try to give our clients what they’re looking for.”


Visit Springfield Illinois

THE SUPPORT SYSTEMS

Aside from winning Best Convention & Visitors Bureau outside Chicagoland, Visit Springfield Illinois stands out in that it is an arm of the city government, which provides extra resources and benefits. If, for example, a planner needs a street closed for an event, the CVB can directly access the appropriate department to shut it down. “We’re always thinking of how can we be a better partner to a planner, depending on what their niche is, and tying that in locally,” says Gina Gemberling, executive director, who notes that one of the biggest draws outside the historical attractions is a 65,000-square-foot convention center in the middle of downtown. “It’s a win-win [for the planner] but also the community.”

Meet Chicago Northwest is no small operation. The winner of the Best Convention & Visitors Bureau in Chicagoland covers eight communities across the northwest suburbs, including the Schaumburg Convention Center and 67 full-service hotels with more than 10,000 guest rooms. In total, that draws in about 27 million visitors per year to the area. “As far as meeting destinations go, we have a really great product,” says CVB President Dave Parulo. “It’s fresh and well-maintained. We’re blessed with the location.”


Chicago Travel Consultants

One of the repeat finalists in the Best of Awards, Chicago Travel Consultants has been named this year’s Best Destination Management Company. The DMC was founded in 1989 (the second oldest in Chicago) and serves as a local partner to clients who might not know much about the city but are looking to plan events here. Whether it’s helping them find restaurants or book tours, no task is too big or too small for this company. “We have a very strong team that is committed to excellence,” says President Jillene Szostak. “We work together in a common goal of providing a superior experience in Chicago.”

THE CLASSIC SPOTS

While LondonHouse Chicago has been around for less than a year, it’s already made an impression. The luxury boutique property, housed in the former London Guarantee & Accident Building, has been named Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (More than 350 Guest Rooms). “We understand the concept of where business meets pleasure,” says Hotel Manager Jermaine Anderson. With 452 guest rooms, 25,000 square feet of event space (including 10 dedicated meeting rooms) and five private dining spaces, there’s plenty of room for all of your event needs.


LondonHouse Chicago

Chicago has earned the AAA Five Diamond award of excellence. This year, it can add ILM+E’s Best Hotel with Meeting/Event Space (Less than 350 Rooms) to its award portfolio. Opened in 2001, the luxury hotel sneaks right into this category with 339 guest rooms that have all been recently renovated. The property also boasts 11 meeting and event spaces, including a number of ballrooms and a gorgeous outdoor venue called The Terrace.

Situated in the heart of River North atop the Chicago River, River Roast not only has an impeccable view but also ample event space for eight to 1,200 people, including a veranda that looks out over the Chicago River. This year’s Best Private Dining Space in a Restaurant also has great American fare menus, offering tantalizing bites such as full roasts topped off with seasonal accompaniments along with fresh salads and housemade charcuterie—all tailored for each experience. “Being open and flexible to each guest and their vision and budget is something we pride ourselves on,” says Hilary Saurer, director of sales. “We always strive to deliver the best event possible while making sure the value is evident as well.”

McCormick Place made headlines just a few months ago after hosting former President Barack Obama’s farewell address, but events such as these are commonplace for this year’s Best Conference or Resort Venue winner. With 2,600,000 square feet of event space plus an on-site Hyatt Regency hotel and 4,000-seat theater, it’s considered the largest convention center in the country. “We host some of the most prestigious conventions and trade shows anywhere in the U.S.,” says General Manager David Causton. “We’re a great place to do business, and we try to make the experience simple.” Look for a new Marriott hotel with 1,200 guest rooms and a 10,000-seat arena opening on the campus this fall.

Hop on Interstate 94 heading west for about an hour, and 30 miles after crossing the Illinois/Wisconsin border, you’ll come upon the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, this year’s Best Venue outside Chicagoland. The 1,300-acre resort has 355 guest rooms, 29 new villas, two 18-hole golf courses, 20 ski runs, a 12,000-square-foot conference center and 62,000 square feet of meeting space. It even has its own private airport. Lake Geneva is conveniently close to major cities, yet still tucked away enough for a bit of respite. “In an idyllic town such as Lake Geneva, you don’t have the distractions that you would in a larger city,” says Lauren Vernick, director, group sales. “But you still have all the amenities for attendees to enjoy during their meetings.”

THE FRESH IDEAS

The Kimpton Gray Hotel in Chicago opened its doors on Aug. 24, 2016. Just a few months later, it’s been crowned Best New Venue. “The feedback has been incredible,” says Dina Fenili, director, sales and marketing. The property—located in the original New York Life Insurance Building—has 15,000 square feet of meeting and event space and 293 guest rooms. Three food and beverage options include Boleo, a South American restaurant with a retractable glass roof; Vol. 39, a lobby bar; and Steadfast, a restaurant from the Fifty/50 Group featuring plates such as chicken tajine and chitarra.


Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel

In April of last year, the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel finished the second and final phase of its $32 million renovation project. While the first phase completely overhauled the lobby and upgraded all 34,687 square feet of event space (including 21 event rooms and 24 breakout rooms), the second phase added 4,000 square feet of meeting space and introduced the piece de resistance— Raised, a third-floor rooftop with gorgeous city views. For all this and more, the hotel wins Best Renovation.

THE OUTSIDE-THE-BOX VENUES

There’s more than just a quality education to be found at colleges and universities—there’s also plenty of meeting and event space. One notable spot is the Gleacher Center at The University of Chicago, which takes home the award for Best College or University Venue. “Our unique location and approach to meetings sets us apart from our neighbors,” says Director Jeff Russell. There are 40 tech-smart meeting rooms, ranging from small boardrooms and tiered classrooms to large, flexible spaces.

Best College or University Venue. “Our unique location and approach to meetings sets us apart from our neighbors,” says Director Jeff Russell. There are 40 tech-smart meeting rooms, ranging from small boardrooms and tiered classrooms to large, flexible spaces.

Navy Pier recently celebrated its centennial and the future brings recognition as the Best Holiday Party Venue. The annual Winter Wonderfest, in particular, is distinctive—for five weeks, skating, festive décor and holidaythemed rides takes over Festival Hall. In total, the historic destination spans six city blocks, offering expansive views of Lake Michigan and drawing in 9 million guests each year. Groups also have the choice of 42 event rooms and more than 100,000 square feet of event space. “The uniqueness of Navy Pier attracts a lot of people especially during the holiday season,” says Payal Patel, public relations specialist. “We have such unique spaces that gives an opportunity to switch things up from a standard party.” The pier will soon add on a hotel, too.

Live bands, burlesque shows, DJs and a dance floor ensure you’ll stay at Untitled Supper Club way past your bedtime. This year’s Best Nightlife Event Space has three unique areas that can host up to 750 people and make you feel like you’ve been to three spots in one night. “Each offers a flow of different guest experiences. There truly is something for everyone,” says Amy Waddell, event sales manager. Come early for the food, too. The stylized supper club, a throwback to another era, offers expansive menus with seafood towers, lamb and pork meatballs, roasted ribeye and whoopie pie for dessert.


Cindy's Rooftop Bar

Up until 1972, women weren’t allowed in the Chicago Athletic Club. The 124-year-old building, which sits across from Millennium Park, reopened in 2015 as the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, and it’s making up for lost time with a welcoming atmosphere. Among the popular common areas is Cindy’s Rooftop Bar, named Best Outdoor or Rooftop Venue. “The driving force behind every decision was how to be as inclusive as possible,” says Michael Mason, director of restaurants and bars. Guests of all kinds can now enjoy the open-air terrace with astounding views of Lake Michigan. A private dining room is also available for 40 reception-style and 28 seated alongside private outdoor space. Full buyouts are another option.

Soldier Field really scored this year, winning the title of Best Sports Venue. The stadium hosts more than 200 events, though football home games still take priority. Inside, events of all shapes and sizes are welcome, from two-people dinners on the field to marathon races attended by 16,000 people to arena concerts and carnivals in the parking lots. There isn’t much they can’t do with access to more than 100,000 square feet of event space and the entire stadium, which seats 62,000. “It’s such an iconic venue,” says Luca Serra, director of sponsorship and media. “There is this rich history that is really appealing and makes people want to attend [events here].”

These seven industry leaders and up-and-coming professionals are the real deal.

 

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And check out the photobooth photos here!

 

It’s not just the places and providers that make our industry great, but also the people. Here are the seven great minds we proudly celebrate.