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Filling a Void – Dover Entrepreneurs Open Spacious Event Facility

Whether it’s a wedding, a concert, a business conference, non-profit fundraiser or a political rally, anyone who’s ever tried to plan an event in the New Hampshire seacoast can tell you that there aren’t a lot of venue options.

Rivermill at Dover Landing is a state-of-the-art facility perfect for weddings, corporate events, non-profit fundraisers, bar/bat-mitzvahs and political events. Photo by Patrick McNamara

This simple fact provided the impetus for five young entrepreneurs to open Rivermill at Dover Landing, an artfully restored, historic mill space located in the heart of downtown Dover, with the capacity to seat over 350 guests.

Partners Kirt Schuman, Aaron Wensley and Michelle Clancy met while working at the Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce.  There, they were tasked with planning and executing a wide variety of events, both public and private.

“Every time we had to do something involving more than 130 people,” remembers Kirt, “we either had to hold the event at the Elks Hall the Ice Arena or take it out of Dover, and even then, there was only a small handful of places to choose from that were within a reasonable distance.  There just weren’t many spaces that were large enough.”

The trio made do with what was available until a few Chamber members voiced their discontent with the Chamber’s Annual Awards Dinner – an event at which Dover’s Business and Citizen of the Year are recognized – being held outside the city limits.  At that point, addressing the issue became a priority.

“We decided that if there wasn’t an existing facility, that maybe we could be creative and make something out of nothing,” recalls Aaron.  “We looked at a bunch of unoccupied and unused spaces around the area – church basements, vacant retail spaces – nothing seemed to work.”

“As a non-profit organization, we had a very tight event budget to work with,” adds Michelle, “so we couldn’t afford to fix broken plumbing or leaky roofs.  We were prepared to work hard to convert the right space, but we had to do it on the skinny.”

That was when they looked at the space in the historic Picker Building, located behind the Washington Street Mills Complex in downtown Dover, which many residents remember as the Clarostat building.

“As soon as we entered the space, we knew it was going to work,” recalls Kirt.  It smelled, it was filthy, and it was full of leaky pipes and random odds and ends, but as a realtor might say, it had ‘good bones.’”

Good enough that they decided to hold the event there, and so began the process of readying the space.

“The more time we spent there, cleaning and discussing how to lay out the room, the more we realized what a gem this riverside space really was,” says Aaron.

They were soon joined in that realization by a throng of local business leaders who attended the sold out Awards Dinner.  Michelle remembers their reactions vividly.

“One after another, people came to us saying ‘Wow. This is really a fantastic space.  Someone should do something with this.’  Of course, we had been having that conversation all along, and had already begun to bat around the idea that maybe we should actually make a go of it.  The compliments we received during and after the Awards Dinner made it clear to us that this was something we wanted to do. The success of that one function put us over the top.”

One year later, almost to the day of that fateful event, Rivermill at Dover Landing opened its doors to the public for the first time.  The original trio, along with Schuman’s wife, Britt, and Clancy’s husband, Tom, hit the ground running, hosting three events in their first week in business.

The first was an Open House to celebrate the opening of the facility, at which over 300 guests enjoyed nearly every creature comfort imaginable, including valet parking, ice sculptures, designer table settings and florals, live music and even a whimsical photo booth.  The high-end services and accoutrements were provided by a host of preferred vendors that the group shrewdly teamed up with right out of the gate, people like ace wedding planner Kate Parker of Kate Parker Weddings, and award-winning chef Evan Hennessey of 100 Club, Cava and Dunanway fame, who now owns the trend-setting, Dover-based catering company Flavor Concepts.

“We wanted to create a buzz, and to show people the possibilities that the space creates, so we went all out,” notes Tom, who brings years of web development experience and technological expertise to the Rivermill table.

Next up was a Valentine’s Dance featuring live music performed by The Spectras, one of the seacoast area’s most storied and well-traveled bands, who shared the stage with the Beach Boys during their glory days.  Intimate cabaret tables and a sprawling dance floor set the stage for an evening of reminiscing and romantic fun, a throwback to an age gone by that saw most of the women in attendance holding their shoes in their hands by the end of the evening.

Rivermill’s first-ever wedding reception came just a few days later, and once again, the space earned rave reviews, not just from the bride, the groom and their guests, but also from the various vendors who fed, photographed and entertained them.

“This is truly an incredible space,” acknowledges Emil Uliano, general manager of Seacoast Catering, who had the privilege of being the first to cater a Rivermill reception.  “Somehow they managed to make it contemporary and chic without losing the historic appeal that makes it so special. They blended just the right amount of old and new. I love doing events here.”

Interestingly, Seacoast is one of four preferred caterers, along with Flavor Concepts, Galley Hatch and Kelley’s Row, all with unique strengths and specialties, that guests can use at Rivermill, an option seldom found at wedding facilities, and almost never at places one would consider upscale.  It’s all part of the plan.

“One of the first things we discussed was flexibility,” says Britt.  “So many places dictate to their brides which vendors they can and cannot use, and even go as far as to tell how much money they have to spend.  Our feeling is that it’s the bride and groom’s day.  It’s about their vision, not about the space, so if they want a particular caterer, or want an aunt to make the cake, then that’s exactly what we want them to have.”

It’s a formula that seems to be resonating with brides-to-be, as the group has already sold out several months in 2012, and has interest well into 2013.  This July they hosted four weddings, and they have four more in August.  For a company in the business of hosting events, four weddings in a month seems remarkably unremarkable – until you consider that they only opened their doors six months ago.

“Every time we show the space to a new bride, you can literally see this genuine sense of relief come over them when they learn that we’re on their side,” comments Michelle, who, along with Britt, handles the front end of the sales process.

“For the ones who’ve been to a lot of places and have really been beaten down with the restrictions and the rules and the minimums, the reaction is often something more like disbelief, at first.  But the fact of the matter is that we want them to have it their way, and the response to that approach has been better than we could ever have imagined.”

From the outside, such mercurial success often looks easy, but like any start-up, Rivermill’s early winnings have not come without some challenges.  In true entrepreneurial fashion, however, the ownership team has creatively maneuvered around each obstacle.  Their innovative, can-do approach was tested early on, when they set out to design their first brochures and web pages.

“We didn’t have any pictures,” laughs Kirt, “so we staged a mock wedding in the half of the room that wasn’t under construction.  The photos came out so beautifully that we still use many of them, even though we have plenty of ‘real’ wedding photos at our disposal now.”

Wedding bookings are certainly the focus for nearly any upscale event space, and Rivermill is no different.  Still, they plan to host a variety of other functions as well, and are already in the process of planning several concerts, holiday parties and other corporate events.   As the field of 2012 Presidential hopefuls is defined, the group also anticipates hosting political rallies and fundraisers for the candidates as they vie for votes in the all-important New Hampshire Primary election.

“Part of what we set out to do is to provide the seacoast area with something we felt was lacking,” muses Kirt.  “We want the weddings, of course, but we also want to be something more.  We want to provide the community with a place that will also serve businesses and charitable organizations – trade shows, fundraisers, graduations, reunions – you name it.  This is something that Dover has been missing for a long time, and we hope that everyone will be able to enjoy it in one manner or another.”

“Pretty much every business professor I ever had said the same thing,” agrees Aaron, who earned an MBA in Marketing from UNH’s Whittemore School. “’Find something people need, and then give it to them.’   So that’s exactly what we did.”

Judging from Rivermill’s explosion onto the seacoast event scene, the ownership team certainly appears to have identified a significant void in the market, and so far, they’ve done an extraordinary job of filling it. You can learn more at www.rivermillnh.com.