Out-of-Sight Sites I recently received a package in the mail that looked like a hotel sales pitch, with photos of meeting room set-ups and descriptions of food and beverage services, audiovisual equipment, and guest rooms. After scanning the material, I was surprised to discover that this was not about a hotel at all, but The University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles.

I kept the packet for future reference, because with no end in sight to the seller's market, I have been searching for alternative venues in all sorts of unlikely places.

An unconventional setting can add a lot of pizzazz to an event--and cost less than a hotel ballroom. Here are just some of the possibilities:

Overnight Venues Universities--Some have on-campus conference centers or hotels, and those that don't often make provisions with nearby properties. University meeting rooms, conference centers, and lecture halls tend to be outfitted with the latest technology. Many universities also have their own conference services departments. Also, they're especially cost-effective during summer break.

Cruise Lines--In the past, one of the less appealing aspects of meeting aboard ship was trying to keep meeting attendees separate from the transient guests. Today, more cruise lines are trying to separate the different parties. Some of the smaller sailing ships will let corporate groups take over the entire vessel.

Special Event Venues Amusement Parks--Consider a theme park for both a casual event or an elegant affair. Locales such as Disneyland and Universal Studios in Hollywood or their counterparts in Orlando have their own conference services departments.

Movie Theaters--Movie theaters are usually more available during the day than in the evening. They offer theater-style seating, staging, and can make your key-note speaker the "star" of the show via videoconferencing.

Private Estates and Historic Sites--You can often rent an entire estate or private home. This ensures privacy for the event, as well as a captive audience. If you're looking for something truly unusual, the Winchester House in San Jose, Calif is 160-room Victorian mansion with its own seance room--that's right--and creepy special touches, such as closets that open into walls and stairways that lead nowhere. It accommodates up to 65 people for candlelight dinners. Groups of up to 1,800 people can also enjoy a party on the grounds.

Museums/Aquariums--These offer attendees a cultural experience as well as a beautiful setting for special dinners or parties. For example, from October 1998 through February 1999, attendees can mingle amongst the masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. While they're not necessarily appropriate for events with sophisticated technological requirements, they're just right for your basic party.

Out of this World--Yes, Space Adventures of Fairfax, Va. is planning to offer space flights for tour groups in the next three to five years. It will cost an estimated $75,000 to $100,000 for attendees to travel 60 odd miles into space to view the earth and the planets below. Now, that's thinking outside of the box!

Many alternative venues were not originally designed as meeting sites, so it is important to inquire about the following:

* Audiovisual

* Food and beverage

* Trained, professional conference services staff

* Office equipment, photocopying, and other business services

* Technology-ready features such as ISDN lines for Internet hook-up

* Adequate washroom facilities

* Adequate power

* Guest room amenities such as shampoo, alarm clocks, etc.

* References