Rising Stars: Eva Niewiadomski to encourage diverse voices

A key pillar of Catalyst Ranch’s mission is to encourage diverse voices to be expressed and heard.



Eva Niewiadomski joins Industry Leaders to discuss the changing face of the hospitality industry. She also sheds light on her entrepreneurial venture, Catalyst Ranch, which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Industry Leaders: What key skills, according to you made you successful in the hospitality industry?

Eva Niewiadomski: Hospitality in its essence is about making everyone feel welcome. For us that starts with our décor, which is warm, colorful, nostalgic and multi-cultural. It’s homey. It doesn’t look or feel like your office. From the very beginning I’ve recognized how crucial picking the right staff would be to create a culture of true hospitality. Because, in the end, it’s always about the people and how they make you feel. You can have the most beautiful space in the world, but if you don’t like the staff or don’t feel they are being authentic or helpful, you won’t come back. There are a lot of other choices out there.

Eva Niewiadomski Catalyst Ranch

Most of my staff over the years haven’t come from traditional hospitality backgrounds. Many have been artists – actors, musicians, painters, poets, writers. They’re all friendly, helpful, problem solvers and truly want all our clients to have a great experience. We spend a lot of time teaching them how to handle different client concerns. We try to help them understand what our clients are concerned about, what can derail a meeting, what might make a client cranky, irritable, impatient. Most of them have never attended an all-day offsite meeting. That’s why we spend so much time explaining the different types of meetings our clients host in our spaces, what they are trying to accomplish, teach them the terminology. Over the years I have received multitudes of compliments on my staff and how amazing they are. They truly are problem solvers and feel empowered to make decisions, which our clients appreciate immensely. And if they don’t know the answer, they will get one from a colleague or a manager.

Industry Leaders: How is Catalyst Ranch playing a part in keeping creative minds open at workplaces?

Eva Niewiadomski: A key pillar of Catalyst Ranch’s mission is to encourage diverse voices to be expressed and heard. We believe that everyone is creative but that not all organizational cultures encourage those voices to safely share ideas. The design of our spaces is purposeful. We try to include art and furnishings from as many cultures as possible. We juxtapose them in such a way so that they work in harmony and each unusual grouping forms a unique and beautiful whole. This sends the subtle message that all cultures are valued and they can be in conversation with each other, enhancing each other.

By placing items together that traditionally don’t go together, we also help shift people’s perceptions and disrupt their preconceived notions. This in turn opens their minds to new ideas.

By showing that all cultures and ideas are equally valid, we help open up minds in the workplace. We also add in nostalgic touches that remind people of their childhoods, when everyone was creative and imaginative. It’s each individual’s life experiences that determine how much of that creativity and imagination they retain. Our purpose is to tap into that well and let it gush forward again. Once our meeting attendees get a taste during their time within our walls, we know that they will be changed and that it will have an impact on how they function in their workplace in the future. Their colleagues will have seen parts of them they hadn’t seen before and hear ideas that previously had not been voiced.

Industry Leaders: Do you feel Catalyst Ranch can achieve its goals and expectations?

Eva Niewiadomski: We’ve now been in business 19 years, so I can safely say that Catalyst Ranch has achieved its initial goals and surpassed my expectations. When I started the business back in late 2002, I was a pioneer. There were no creative meeting venues and no one even knew what that meant. So, we had a double task of explaining what we were offering (establishing an industry) and then showing people why they needed our services.

The premise for our offering was theoretical, based on my own corporate experiences and work in innovation. I had been trained as a facilitator for Ideation/Brainstorming Sessions and one of the first things we were told is to take people offsite, out of their traditional office settings, if we wanted them to think differently. This was easier said than done as back then there really weren’t any turnkey options, ready for plug and play. I took the same premise regarding creative thinking for the purposes of new product development and extrapolated it to all meetings. After all, taking any group away from their day-to-day work in order to work on a specific objective was an expensive endeavor just in terms of labor cost. And shouldn’t we try to make every meeting more productive? At its simplest, I judge productivity in terms of the quality of the ideas that are generated and what we do with those ideas after the meeting concludes.

Too many people don’t think about the physical environment as a key lever they can use to improve the quality of their meeting. This is what I was endeavoring to do by opening Catalyst Ranch. Make it something people carefully considered and valued for how it improved their meetings with the extra bonus of energizing their teams. When groups first started booking with us, we did a lot of brainstorming sessions. That was the natural channel for how to utilize our spaces. We got a lot of push back from more conservative individuals who felt that our spaces weren’t appropriate for certain “serious” types of meetings. But over time, that thinking shifted. Now our #1 type of meeting are Strategic Planning Meetings, followed by Company Retreats and Team Building. Ideation Sessions come in at #5. In actuality, the range of the types of meetings that we’ve held within our walls has been vast.

Industry Leaders: Catalyst Ranch has had so many achievements to date. What are some of your favorite moments from your path to success?

Eva Niewiadomski: As you can imagine, you pile up a lot of experiences over 19 years. Some of my personal favorites that stand out:

We created an event called NuptEquality where we held a wedding fashion showcase for same sex couples with designs from three fashion designers. This was followed by an event called Under A New Moon where we held the very first legal wedding ceremonies for Same Sex Couples in Illinois. We partnered with a subset of our special event vendors and provided 6 couples with a wedding ceremony and reception for up to 20 guests each. The ceremony took place at midnight and it was one of the most touching and emotional events I have ever experienced.

We partnered with the Art Institute of Chicago to create a program called Art-Work. We took a corporate meeting facilitator and paired them with an art educator from the AIC. Together, they provide corporate training in Creativity & Innovation, Leadership, Communication Skills or Diversity + Inclusion. Groups started the morning at AIC, within the galleries before they were open to the public, going through a series of exercises that helped them see in a different way. Then they came to Catalyst Ranch for the afternoon and spent their time in a different creative environment. These programs were truly innovative and amazing. The launch party for the program was truly ambitious. We recreated a portion of the theatrical production of “Sunday in the Park with George” with full costuming and our staff taking on all the roles. The iconic image for Art-Work was the famous AIC painting, “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte” by Georges Seurat and the play is about Georges Seurat and his creation of that very painting. We supplemented the entertainment with acrobats from the Actors Gymnasium who were dressed in costumes from the same time period. We had stiltwalkers, fire breathers (out in front of course) and ball balancers among others. And of course, mini workshop taster sessions with all the facilitators.

We’ve held some amazing anniversary parties but one that pops to mind was our 5th Anniversary Party. We wanted each year’s party to be more than just a party, supporting a social/community cause. Most years we had people bring food for The Chicago Food Depository. That year, we decided to partner with the Inspiration Corporation in Uptown. They provide homeless individuals with free meals, a community space for hanging out and services to help them get off the street that includes providing hospitality training in their café. As we know how important it is to have a home, we asked our guests to help create either a placemat for the café or an artwork for the walls of the community center. We provided piles and piles of supplies and crafting materials, some simple guidelines and introduced them to their fellow guests to work together on these projects. Everyone had so much fun! We had 24 placemats and 25-30 art pieces at the end of the night. And their creativity was inspirational.

Industry Leaders: Our readers would like to know some of your observations about how running a Creative Conference Space is going so far?

Eva Niewiadomski: Catalyst Ranch started with three rooms and 9,000 sq. ft. of space. Within 3 years we were running out of space, so we added another floor of 6,000 sq. ft. with an additional three rooms and some offices for my staff on yet another floor. Adding a floor added complexity. It took about 25-27 staff to keep us running smoothly, especially as we were also hosting social events on the weekends. Since our spaces are naturally festive and homey, we do a lot of weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, milestone birthday celebrations, baby and wedding showers.

At the start of 2020 we were looking at an incredible year, our best yet. And then the pandemic hit. We were effectively shut down for most of 2020 and into early 2021 with only small windows of time when we were allowed to operate. We had to make some difficult decisions, including giving up our original 9,000 sq. ft. space, our offices and reducing our staff down to 5. We were able to move into a new space a couple doors down from our original building (owned by the same landlord) and set up a new 3,000 sq. ft. room called The Samba Room. We sold 3,000 sq. ft. of vintage furniture and are storing the rest. We believe that at some point in the future, when people are ready to be in-person again in greater numbers, we’ll be able to add on additional meeting rooms as the need for creative conference space will be greater than ever. Especially if people are working remotely exclusively or for large parts of their workweeks. We’ve already seen a fair number of clients return. They’re so excited to know that we’re still open and have managed to survive. The meetings are still on the small side but we’re hopeful that that will improve over the coming months so that we can return to profitability.

Christy Gren
Christy Gren is an Industry Specialist Reporter at Industry Leaders Magazine she enjoys writing about Unicorns, Silicon Valley, Startups, Business Leaders and Innovators. Her articles provide an insight about the Power Players in the field of Technology, Auto, Manufacturing, and F&B.

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