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Venue Options Abound for Law School Events
By Sean Conway '09
Virginia Law Weekly
Feb. 19, 2009
In 1993, fully clothed revelers jumped into the hotel’s pool. In 2000, a partygoer tackled a student on the dance floor. In 2005, attendees threw wine on the wallpaper.
“As soon as you mention a UVA Law School event, everyone has a different story of bad behavior to tell,” said Cristina Webster, the General Manager of Fry’s Spring Beach Club, where both Barristers’ Ball and the PILA Auction were held in 2008. “The story typically starts with, ‘Ah, watch out for them,’ and ends with a chuckle.”
One person who wasn’t laughing, though, was former SBA President Brian Leung ’08. “There were many times during my third-year that I thought we wouldn’t be able to hold the 2008 Barristers’ Ball,” said Leung. “We contacted the Omni, the Sheraton, the Doubletree, and the Alumni House, among others, and in each case the venue either refused to host us, or wanted to impose requirements that we weren’t comfortable agreeing to.”
The dire picture painted by Leung drastically differs with the present situation, however, due to a confluence of factors, including the construction of the Pavilion at the Boar’s Head Inn, the generally good behavior displayed at both of this school year’s semi-formal events, a lack of institutional memory at many of the area’s banquet venues, and possibly the overstated perception of UVA law students as rowdy partygoers. In fact, a little more than a year after Leung’s difficulties, there may be more venues available to law school party planners than there have been in over a decade.
There was once a time when Law School semi-formals were welcome everywhere in Charlottesville.
“I don’t recall any venue where the Law School was not welcome,” said Grant Fondo ’93. “We typically held the Barristers’ Ball at either the Omni or the Sheraton because they were viewed as the nicest venues that could accommodate a group of our size.”
Fondo was SBA President during the 1993 Barristers’ Ball, and he does not remember any fallout from that year’s late night swimming lessons in the Downtown Omni’s pool, either. “The event certainly had a reputation for people getting drunk, but I don’t recall anyone at the Omni telling us we weren’t welcome back in the future.”
Several 1994 alumni who asked to remain anonymous confirmed Fondo’s recollections. “We don’t think we were banned from the Omni the next year, but we wanted to try the Sheraton” as a venue for the 1994 Barristers’ Ball.
It was not until the end of the decade that a Law School event was officially uninvited by a venue, and it involved, like all too many squabbles, a family member. “In 1999 PILA submitted an online application through the University’s building reservation system for Newcomb Hall, and the University summarily informed us that they would no longer welcome the Law School,” recalled Laura Everitt ’02, who served as the PILA Administrative Director from 2001-02.
According to Everitt, there was not one event that persuaded the University to take this step but instead an accumulation of smaller incidents throughout the years. “You are talking about an event that had alcohol available in an undergraduate building that typically doesn’t allow alcohol, so the tolerance was not very high,” recalled Everitt. “There weren’t fights or anything like that, but one year a painting was inadvertently knocked off the wall and there were other instances of the mess from the ballroom, such as empty drink glasses, expanding into other parts of the building.”
The enterprising organization was not finished holding events on grounds, however. “In 1999 we moved the event to Zehmer Hall, which is a Continuing Education building,” said Everitt. “That department had a separate online application, and I don’t think they found out about our reputation until they had already agreed to host the Auction.”
Zehmer Hall only amounted to a stopgap solution when PILA was informed they would not be welcome back to the Continuing Ed building the following year. Everitt said the loss of University facilities, which had hosted many of the organization’s auctions that decade, was unfortunate because those venues were free to student groups. “In 2000 we were more or less forced to move to the Omni. To make sure the Auction still raised money, we were forced to raise ticket prices and increase the amount of items that were auctioned off.”
The choice of the Omni for the first off-grounds PILA Auction was not surprising given the Law School’s preference in choosing the venue for Barristers’ Balls during this time period. Hillary Mintz Cherry ’00 was a Barristers’ Co-Chair during her third-year, and she recalled all three of her SBA semi-formals taking place at the hotel. “Everyone was pretty pleased with the Omni, and I don’t even remember going outside the hotel for competitive bids in 2000.”
The Omni continued as the Law School’s venue of choice through the first half of this decade, with more Barristers’ Balls and PILA Auctions held at that hotel than all other venues combined between 2000 and 2006. The last of these events was the 2006 Barristers’ Ball. “They accused some students of going behind the bar and selling drinks,” recalled former SBA President Adam Wolk ’07. “They shut the bar down early as a result, which really pissed me off because we had paid for a certain amount of alcohol.”
Wolk does not recall the Omni ever telling him that the Law School would not be welcome back to the downtown venue, but no Barristers’ Ball or PILA Auction has been held there since. Jennifer Mayo, Director of Sales and Marketing for the hotel declined to comment on past experiences with Barristers’ and PILA Auctions, although she did tell the Law Weekly that the Law School would be welcome back depending on the banquet hall’s availability. Two sources familiar with negotiations between the Omni and representatives of PILA and the SBA during the 2007-08 academic year said that while the venue’s management ostensibly was willing to host another Law School event, untenable requirements concerning what time the event would end and when alcohol service would stop effectively served as a de facto ban on the law school.
Losing the Omni as a possible venue for Law School semi-formal events after 2006 was exacerbated by the loss of Alumni Hall the year before. “We do have a policy that the Law School bar association cannot hold specific events, including the Barristers’ Bar, at Alumni Hall,” said the Alumni Association’s Vice President for Alumni Engagement, Wayne Cozart, last week. “Over the course of time there had been repeated incidents of property destruction and inappropriate behavior, and we just didn’t think it was the worth the risk any longer.”
According to Cozart, the final incident occurred at the 2005 Barristers’ Ball when a few law students were seen throwing wine on the banquet hall’s wallpaper. “We had many good years when no incidents occurred, but there were enough years where that could not be said, and we finally had to say enough is enough.”
Faced with a sharp reduction in the number of venues willing to host Law School events, PILA organizers settled on the Charlottesville Doubletree as the site of the 2007 auction. “Of the venues available to us, they offered us the best opportunity to increase our bottom line,” said Auction Director Mac Caputo, who is currently a third-year at the Law School.
The Doubletree proved to be only a short term landing spot for the PILA Auction, however. Although events in the hotel’s ballroom went off without any major incidents, the same could not be said for at least one suite rented by PILA for first-year students’ pre- and post-parties. “The Doubletree indicated that, due to the damage done to hotel property, the PILA Auction would not be welcomed back in future years,” said Katie Schleeter ’08, that year’s PILA President.
At that point, Leung and the Barristers’ Co-chairs began getting nervous about finding a venue for the spring event. “We tried many of the hotels the Law School had gone to in recent years,” said the former SBA President. “At one point I even approached the Alumni Association, whom I have a previous relationship with based on my work with them as an undergrad at UVA, and told them they could hold me personally responsible if anything went wrong, but nothing seemed to work out.”
Kendra Paul ’08, one of these co-chairs, eventually suggested Fry’s Spring Beach Club. One problem with this venue, however, was that it only had a Beer and Wine Alcohol and Beverage (ABC) license, and the events planners wanted liquor to be available to guests. “In many ways, securing this ABC liquor license was the most difficult part,” said Leung.
As part of the negotiations with law school and university administrators, Virginia ABC personnel, and Fry’s Spring management, the SBA agreed to provide bus transportation and taxi reimbursement for all partygoers as well as contract for private security to work the event.
“Brian was very willing to accommodate all of our requests,” said Webster, the General Manager of the club. “As a result, I think the event operated relatively smoothly, and we definitely indicated that we would be interested in hosting Law School events in the future.”
PILA organizers quickly took Webster up on her offer, booking the venue for their fall event in April of 2008. “We made a few tweaks to our system, and I think it resulted in an even better event than Barristers’,” said Webster, referring to a bracelet system requiring partygoers to use the same bar, and bartender, throughout the night. “If someone was getting a drink every ten minutes our bartenders knew when to cut them off.”
Webster noted that many of the law students didn’t need this extra precaution, but it was better than allowing one or two overzealous partiers to ruin things for the rest of the group. “I don’t want the actions of one or two individuals to ruin what could be a successful relationship between the Law School and the club.”
Fry’s Spring will have competition in booking future law school events, however. Organizers for last week’s Barristers’ Ball choose to hold that event at the Boar’s Head Inn’s brand new facility known as the Pavilion. “Once we heard about the Pavilion, it became our top choice and we did not even contact any other venue,” said second-year Erin Thompson, one of the Barristers’ Co-Chairs.
Pat Burnette, the Marketing and Communications Director at the Boars Head, told the Law Weekly that she “did not have the authority to answer these questions” when asked such questions as whether the hotel viewed last week’s event as a success and if the Law School might be invited back in the future. Requests for comment to the venue’s general manager, Matthew Harris, were referred to the Inn’s outside counsel, R. Craig Wood, who would only comment that “Boars Head Inn management will not discuss the particulars of any given event with third parties, and that would include the Law Weekly and its staff.”
In an email obtained by the Law Weekly, Debbie Dabner, the Pavilion’s Catering and Sales Manager, extended a return invitation for next year’s Barristers’ Ball to one of the event’s organizers.
Next year’s organizers may want to hold off before accepting that invitation, however. Two other venues that have experienced changes in management additionally expressed interest in hosting Law School events when approached by the Law Weekly. Because of a recent change in ownership at the Doubletree, the hotel is under a new management team than the one that oversaw the 2007 PILA Auction. “We’re always looking to do business with the University,” said Richard Mandy, the Director of Sales since October.
The Law School groups are also welcome at University facilities, including Newcomb Hall’s ballroom. “I have absolutely no knowledge of a ban existing on Law School events,” said Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Christina Morell, who has been at the University since 2001.
When informed of the relative embarrassment of riches that will be facing incoming SBA President Daniel Rosenthal when it comes to party venues, Leung’s could only respond by saying, “I think that is fantastic.”
This time, however, even he was chuckling.