A better way to throw a banquet

Published May 8, 2007

In six years as a columnist, I've seen Tom Pepin at a wide variety of charity events inside banquet halls and hotel ballrooms.

Pepin Distributing's president and chief executive officer never strolled in with a pen and pad in hand, but he took mental notes about what worked and what didn't work at every fundraiser he attended.

Now he's transformed that information into a new eye-popping banquet hall that's the cornerstone of the Anheuser-Busch distributor's new facility at 4121 N 50th St. The Pepin Hospitality Center, a joint venture with the parent company of Outback Steakhouse, opened last month and has already hosted a boxing match and a fashion show. Right now, it's in the middle of a 15-event, 18-day run.

"I looked at all the problems I saw at other halls and tried to correct them, " Pepin said as he gave a tour of the facility Thursday. "What we're trying to do is revolutionize banquets and make them more interactive."

Revolutionize? Undoubtedly a lofty word, but it may be appropriate. Pepin encourages nonprofits and other organizations to abandon the conventional luncheon or dinner approach for a more free-flowing style that promotes networking.

He can accommodate the standard of servers bringing dinner to people sitting at tables, but the hall's mix-and-mingle design includes an open kitchen a la Carrabba's as well as food stations, bars, pool tables and table shuffle.

So what about that all-important state-of-the-organization address? Pepin argues the 20 plasma televisions and the facility's $3-million audiovisual system can be used to highlight event sponsors and promote the nonprofit's message in high-energy style.

The hospitality center can convert a customer's primary theme into a 15-minute video, and organizational pictures can be enlarged to poster size and placed in existing frames around the center.

Pepin also kept the center's size at 700 because he believes you lose a sense of intimacy with larger crowds. The ceilings are relatively low to create what he refers to as a "Cotton Club" feel, and there's a stage for entertainment acts.

Outside, people are greeted by a cascading waterfall and a multicolored message board. Multiple valet stations are part of the entrance's design to improve the flow of traffic.

The greatest challenge for Pepin may be convincing people to drive east. A lot of attendees at these events come from South Tampa and are accustomed to flocking to hotels in the downtown and West Shore area, or they frequent banquet facilities at places such as A La Carte Pavilion and the Tampa Yacht and Country Club.

East side events are less common, but improvements on Interstate 4 will help, as could the presence of the Ford Amphitheater and the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. Folks in the Brandon area certainly may find the hospitality center a better geographic fit than other Tampa locales.

Pepin hopes the center will create a greater connection between his brand and good times, but if it was just about business, he wouldn't offer nonprofits the space for free and the food at cost.

"Our business is making friends with the community, and where better to do that than in the kitchen?" Pepin said.

That's all I'm saying.