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Event planners revive venues: Oasis finds new use for eatery, spruces up Murat

December 31, 2007

When John Stowers was looking to move on from his job managing several nightclubs for an Indianapolisbased partnership in 2002, he and his wife, Patti, wanted to buy a bar he could run.

In the process of venue shopping, they stumbled across a space for lease-The Terrace at Market Tower, a restaurant on the second floor of the office building at 10 W. Market St. Like other so-called amenity restaurants, The Terrace was more a perk for building tenants than a dining destination.

The couple thought they could take over the restaurant, hire a competent manager and get back to the nightclub search. But shortly after signing the lease, they realized the existing business wasn't viable.

"There just wasn't enough traffic," said John, 42, who has a background in restaurant management.

They had taken out a $120,000 line of credit to finance the venture and knew they couldn't just give up. Their solution was to create a new revenue stream by using the restaurant kitchen-and soon The Terrace itself-to cater events.

It was a new field for them both, but proved a good move. Five years later, their Oasis Events runs the catering operation at a second venue, the Murat Shrine Temple, and expects 2008 revenue to reach $2 million, up from $365,000 in 2002.

Staying flexible

Their first foray into catering was providing food for corporate meetings out of The Terrace kitchen. But the Stowerses soon realized the space's floor-to-ceiling windows and amazing view of the Statehouse and Artsgarden could be a draw on its own, particularly for wedding parties.

They kept the restaurant's buffet, which features homemade soups, salads and deli items, but retired its formal dining side. They took out a wall, renovated the space and started marketing to brides.

During the day, the restaurant uses most of the nearly 9,000-square-foot space, with a smaller, semi-private sec- tion available for groups. In the evenings and on weekends, though, it hosts everything from small-business meetings to 250-guest wedding receptions.

Eager to make the venture work, the Stowers were open to whatever clients wanted.

"We had to stay flexible," said Patti, 41, who used to work in sales for a voice and data communications company. "We could be doing box lunches and turn around and do a $100-per-person wedding reception all in the same day."

Even now, "we rarely say no," she added.

That can-do attitude is what attracted Kip and Amber McDonald to The Terrace for their November wedding. Kip said other venues demanded catering minimums and added a slew of charges for any changes to their pre-set programs.

"We couldn't stand talking with some of the other places," he said. "We felt like they nickeled and dimed us on every little thing."

But working with Patti Stowers was different, he said. The company required no minimums and was flexible, adding personal touches without extra charges.

"It kind of felt like you'd known her forever and that she really cared," Kip said. And she helped the couple add in personal flourishes, such as designing "Berry Bliss," a signature mixed drink served at the party.

Adding a venue

Even as the catering operation grew, the restaurant persevered, serving many of the professionals who work in the building. Regular diners included a couple of executives at McGowan Insurance Group Inc. who are Shriners.

When the Murat Shrine Temple's contract with Crystal Food Services expired last year, the men thought the Stowerses might be the right fit to take over-and take a more active role in booking the rooms. Shriners control about half the building, holding their meetings there and renting out space for special events.

The rest of the building, known as the Murat Centre, is leased to entertainment firm Live Nation, which hosts concert and events there. Live Nation still uses Crystal Food Services in its half of the facility.

After several meetings, Shriners leaders signed on with the Stowerses.

"Their enthusiasm is really what sold us on them," said Shriner Recorder Gordon Husk.

In November 2006, the couple hammered out a five-year lease to rent and manage the temple space and set up an umbrella company, called Oasis Events, to manage operations at both venues. Within 48 hours of signing the contract, Oasis hosted a 450-person banquet at the Murat, renting everything from tables to silverware to pull it off.

More than a year into the contract-which also includes running the club's public bar and restaurant-the Stowerses have revived the tired rooms. John made and installed a skylight in the Arabian Room, for example, drilling 2,100 holes into the fixture to look like sparkling stars when the lights are dimmed.

The upgrades appear to be paying dividends.

"The first thing I noticed since Oasis took over was the upgrades in décor," said Art Dewaelsche, who worked with the company to plan a 175-guest awards banquet for the Federal Employees Association in May.

The association already has booked Oasis to do the luncheon at the temple again next year.

"They were so obliging," Dewaelsche said. "You couldn't ask for better people to work with."

In addition to taking care of the Shriners' food, the Stowerses are committed to getting more young people to join the private club that runs 22 free children's hospitals in North America.

"We want this place to be a prominent part of the community," Patti said.

They're also trying to bring in more programming to fill booking gaps, planning things like ballroom dancing competitions and a monthly Sunday brunch.

Controlling growth

The changes at both venues seem to be working. This year's books will close out at $1.1 million, the Stowerses said, and revenue should top $2 million next year.

That's chump change compared with some of the big boys in catering, such as Aramark, an international food service company that has revenue in the $11 billion range. Locally, Crystal Food Services has $80 million in annual sales.

But being small and struggling early has made Oasis Events what it is today, the Stowerses said.

"Having the hard knocks early makes you more successful down the road because you never get comfortable. Ever," John said.

One industry observer said running a catering and events business can be a safer bet than a traditional restaurant.

"With banquets and catering, you have a better chance of controlling your expenses," said Chef Carl Behnke, an instructor at Purdue University's Hospitality and Tourism Management Program.

Unlike restaurants, caterers don't have to cover staffing costs when they hit a lull in bookings.

One main caution, Behnke adds, is to moderate growth. While it can be tempting to go after large events with a big price tag, a company can shoot itself in the foot if it bites off more than it can chew.

"You can't get lured into a big-ticket, large event unless you can absolutely deliver," he said, adding that negative word-of-mouth can be devastating.

The Stowerses say that, although they're happy with the company's size for now, they might consider adding one more venue-but only if they still can be personally involved in events.

"We like to have control of what we do," John said. "If we get much bigger, our personal touch will be gone and I don't ever want to lose that."
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