The History of Catalyst Ranch

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  Catalyst Ranch: Chicago's Most Creative Meetings and Events Space  


Catalyst Ranch
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Chapter 1 - The Shake Up

The idea for Catalyst Ranch was born on a quiet, sunny day in early June, 2002. Eva Niewiadomski did her typical morning routine, hopped on the subway downtown and by 8:00am was hard at work at her job as New Products Marketing Manager in the Convenience Foods Division of Frito-Lay (most recently Quaker Oats, before the PepsiCo purchase). The division had just gone through a restructuring and Eva was excited about the new platforms she would be working on. What she thought was a meeting with her boss to talk about new priorities and projects actually turned out to be a discussion about her impending layoff at the end of August, 2002. Although it had been expected for a while, it still was a bit of a shock that the day had actually arrived. Thankfully, Eva had been thinking about what she’d want to do after leaving Quaker and the idea of Catalyst Ranch crystallized that very same evening.

Chapter 2 - The Idea

And what was that idea exactly? Catalyst Ranch would forge a new category for the city of Chicago – a Creative Meeting & Event Space. It would be an independent boutique conference center with a creative environment that would incorporate breakout space within the main meeting room. And the customer service would be comprehensive so that the meeting planner or facilitator could focus on the content of the meeting vs. all the behind the scenes details.

The core precepts of the idea came from a variety of sources. Eva had created two Innovation Hallways and a Creativity Room for Quaker, which had been enthusiastically received by her co-workers. As a trained facilitator, she’d had lots of experience putting together creative environments in non-traditional locations and knew the additional heavy burden that creating those environments engendered. Her home was decorated in a style all her own - a mix of vintage and ethnic furnishings and artwork – which friends enjoyed continually exploring and discovering something new.

Chapter 3 - Gathering the Pieces

Once the idea was spoken aloud, the work began apace. In a matter of 5 months (3 of which she was still working full time at Pepsi), Eva conducted qualitative research, developed a business plan and financial forecast, searched for a site, hit garage and estate sales, refinished furniture, started building a client base, developed a marketing plan and tackled all the other millions of tasks that a good entrepreneur must fit into her day.

Thank goodness dad at age 78 was a willing and available first employee. Before he knew it, he was stripping furniture, fixing and refinishing it and doing re-upholstery work full time. The lease was signed in mid-September and work began the following week. The space was completely raw – only the HVAC systems and bathrooms were in place, along with a few walls here and there.

Here’s where all the project management skills developed while launching new products really came into play. Eva ended up being the on-site construction manager, coordinating carpenters, drywallers, electricians, painters and hordes of volunteers (she never fully realized how many wonderful, generous friends she had until then). Construction was completed in a matter of 5 weeks. Time was of the essence as there were already three bookings in the month of November. Sight unseen!

In preparation for our first meeting in early November, the small crew of volunteers stayed up all night putting on the finishing touches and the last pane of glass for the French doors slid into place at 5:30am. The first client arrived at 7:00am.

Chapter 4 - Pogo Jumps Up

The business grew by leaps and bounds from that day forward. We outgrew the 9,000 sq. ft. of the 3rd floor and started having to turn business away. So 3 years later the build-out of 4E began, adding an additional 6,000 sq. ft. and two new rooms. Since then, we’ve split one of the rooms to add a focus group capability, adding two-way mirrors, lots of specialized A/V equipment and an observation room.

Chapter 5 - The Press

Since first opening our doors, Catalyst Ranch has been featured in articles in various noted publications in the United States including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, American Way Magazine, Crain’s Chicago Business and Inc. Magazine. We’re also featured in four books, “Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed” by Chip Bell and James Patterson, “From Workplace to Playspace” by Pamela Meyer,“Disciplined Dreaming” by Josh Linkner and “Marketing Research: Methodological Foundations” by Gilvert A. Churchill, Jr.

Chapter 6 - Catalyzing Creative Thinking

Over the years the clients have kept coming. Many discovering us for the first time, have become Ranch Evangelists and firm supporters after hosting a highly energetic and productive meeting. They love the Ranch Hands and the level of service they receive. They also love how their meeting attendees participate and contribute at their meetings within our creative spaces. More diverse voices heard. More breakthrough ideas shared. Every voice valued and heard. And it’s not just innovation, brainstorming and ideation sessions that are jumpstarted by our creative environment. Strategic Planning is better. Department Offsites are better. Sales Meetings, Staff Retreats, Focus Groups, Training Workshops . . . they’re all better. 

And our festive, homey environment has led to many memorable social gatherings such as weddings, bar & bat mitzvahs, anniversary parties, showers, milestone birthday parties, fundraisers. We are thrilled to have been a part of so many one-in-a-lifetime events and hope to continue for many years to come.

Chapter 7 - What’s to come?

The pandemic was hard on Catalyst Ranch. We were forced to shutdown for most of 2020 and into early 2021. We had to give up our original 3rd floor space and move out in the span of a month. We had to let go many of our beloved Ranch Hands. But we also opened a new, smaller space a couple doors away. And launched lots of new initiatives and offerings such as Catalyst Ranch Parties To Go, Catalyst Ranch Event Rentals, Catalyst Ranch Creative Experience Boxes, Catalyst Ranch Dinner Parties. Our tiny team kept innovating, pivoting and persisting. The focus has been on maintaining relationships with our clients, helping them through a tough time and making improvements to our meeting tools and processes to ease the return to in-person meetings, safely. After such a long time of isolation and disconnection from colleagues and friends, we know that the core essence of what Catalyst Ranch provides will be even more important in the future as we re-build connections and re-invent company cultures. We will be here providing Space to Imagine More!

Opening Party - Scott, the landlord, Eva and Mom
Thank you and all of your team... I can't think of a single thing that could have been improved.-Terry S. Spaeth Director of Executive Operations and Community Outreach, Dearborn Financial Services-A Kaplan Professional CompanyChicago, IL
Employee #1 - Eva's Dad
Please know that you and the Catalyst Ranch Staff are fabulous.  I love being at the event last week.  You all were so professional, anything that we needed - you were right there to give it to us immediately.You don't get service like that often and it is much appreciated.-Liz EppsExecutive Assistant, Global Digital and SearchStarcom
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