The first thing guests of the Red Barn at Hampshire College notice is that, well, they’re in a barn.
It’s what the college has done with that barn that sets the facility apart, said Mike McKenna, director of Dining & Event Services at Hampshire College.
The Red Barn has existed in some form for almost 200 years, but for most of that time, it was a simple post-and-beam structure designed to house livestock and farm equipment, with hay storage in the loft. The barn was originally built in 1820 in conjunction with Stiles House, which is now the college’s Alumni House.
The transformation from that space to what exists today began as a student project in the spring of 1971, the first year Hampshire College was open, when a group of students in the Humanities and Arts course, along with their professor, Norton Juster, undertook a design for the barn’s renovation.
“They surveyed the site and existing structure, conducted a survey of the Hampshire community to determine its preferences for use of the building, and made plans for its renovation,” McKenna said. “The students decided that the college needed a community center, and proposed to use this building to create one.”
The students found that the basic structure was sound, he explained, and the space within it appealing. “The plans attempted to maintain the character of the space, while opening it up with many large windows. In addition, plans were made for plumbing, heating, insulation, and electricity, as well as ensuring compliance with building codes.”
Several trustees, impressed with the project concept, funded its construction, McKenna noted. A professional construction supervisor was hired to work with student labor, mostly during the summers, and outside subcontractors were brought on for the utility work. The project was finally completed in 1974, establishing a multi-purpose space that has been in use by the Hampshire community ever since.
Since the renovation, the Red Barn has hosted a variety of college-sponsored meetings, events, and banquets throughout each academic year. Students frequently hold dances and concerts there, and a number of big-name acts have performed in the space. But the Red Barn is open to any group, not just Hampshire students and alumni.
What draws party and meeting planners, McKenna said, is the facility’s unique blend of old and new, rustic and high-tech. While the space has become widely known as a destination for weddings and receptions, the most recent growth has been in the realm of corporate meetings, trainings, conferences, and special events throughout the year.
“This end of our business has increased considerably since the installation of high-end audio/video equipment in 2014,” McKenna noted, adding that the Red Barn now offers full-service audio-visual support with equipment and services including wi-fi, a video projector with a drop-down screen, a built-in sound system, and videoconferencing capabilities.
For this issue’s focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes a look inside the Red Barn and explores why this building with a long, rural past is looking toward a promising future.
Business and Pleasure
It’s not all business at the Red Barn, which hosts events ranging from showers and bar and bat mitzvahs to memorials, anniversaries, and birthday parties. The facility also hosts annual events for local nonprofits, including the Amherst Ballet, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the United Way.
Still, weddings (typically 65 to 70 annually) remain the Red Barn’s bread and butter, and one look around the expansive grounds — particularly a massive oak tree under which many couples have been hitched — shows why.
“We’ve seen significant growth in our wedding business in the past three years, increasing bookings by 170%,” McKenna said, before reeling off a raft of accolades: Best of Amherst Small Business 2016, Best of Weddings three years running from the Knot, Couple’s Choice 2016 and Editor’s Pick 2015 from Wedding Wire, and Best Farm-to-Table Catering 2015 from Unique Venues.
Those plaudits are no accident, McKenna said, but the result of long-term planning to create a spacious, versatile facility that draws on the past while taking advantage of technologically modern amenities.
The physical space features the original wide-panel flooring inside the original post-and-beam structure, with the large windows, a highlight of the 1970s remodel, offering scenic views of the Mount Holyoke Range. The back deck provides similar vistas and is ideal for barbecues, picnics, and group outings. Meanwhile, McKenna added, proximity to major highways, hotels, and bus lines offer ease of accessibility.
McKenna said the food service is another draw to the Red Barn, adopting a farm-to-table philosophy centered around local ingredients whenever possible. “We proudly support the Hampshire College Farm Center and local farmers to provide guests with the freshest products available from the Pioneer Valley.”
Notable entrees include pan-seared beef tenderloin with zinfandel balsamic or red wine demi-glaze, chicken roulade stuffed with spinach and fontina cheese, local striped bass with a fennel and apple slaw, and butternut squash ravioli. Favorite appetizers range from risotto arrancini to mini crabcakes with remoulade; from an herbed cheese, prosciutto, and asparagus roll to a Mediterranean display, featuring tabbouleh, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, assorted olives, roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms, pita chips, and rosemary focaccia triangles.
And don’t forget the Red Barn’s signature drink, McKenna noted, known as the Barn Brew: a spiced apple cocktail with fresh pressed cider, apple liquor, and vodka, garnished with a cinnamon stick. Meanwhile, party planners can choose from several open- and cash-bar beverage options.
“Our staff works with our clients to customize menus that meet the specific needs of their guests,” he added. “Our culinary team is well-versed with preparing vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free menu items. Menus can be as elegant or as informal as a client wishes, with plated service or buffet options for guests.”
Whatever the event, McKenna said, the staff assists clients with the coordination of all details and on-site event management. Aiming to be a one-stop shop for event coordination, services include room setups, AV, catering, equipment rentals, linens, floral arrangements, signage, and parking. The full-service AV equipment includes complimentary wi-fi.
He noted that many of the Red Barn’s offerings reflect elements that today’s party and meeting planners are looking for — particularly versatility and flexibility in room setups and décor; a variety of table and chair options to suit the style of the event; fresh, innovative, and sustainable catering options; menu customization and dietary accommodations; easy-to-use ‘plug-and-play’ AV equipment; and attractive surroundings to provide both indoor and outdoor amenities to guests — and sets these modern trends inside a decidedly 19th-century aesthetic framework.
The result, he added, has been significant growth in not only wedding business, but in corporate bookings over the past couple of years — growth that has been enhanced by increasing corporate-meeting business across the industry over the past several years as the economy has improved.
“I believe companies are increasing the number of meetings and events they are hosting off-site, but are mindful of the overall cost of such events,” McKenna told BusinessWest. “Our staff works with the client to ensure meetings and events come within budget at the greatest value to the client.”
And it all starts with booking an event in a barn.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org