Article by Julia M. Johnson
All signs point in the direction of a memorable 2014 holiday season for St. Louis’ venerable Union Station, the 1894 rail landmark that’s been undergoing a sea change as a result of new ownership.
St. Louis-based hotel and commercial developer Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM) bought the converted rail-to-retail property for $20 million in 2012, and since then the company has worked hard to revive the station’s spirit as a local destination. Surrounded by generations of railway history and ambience, LHM has been conducting a multi-million-dollar recasting of the site as a true event destination. It includes a spate of in-demand special and social events, plus redesigned Union Station gathering spaces and 540 modernized hotel rooms at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, a DoubleTree by Hilton. Once the world’s busiest passenger rail terminal, Union Station is now steadily on course to return as one of Missouri’s most beloved celebratory destinations.
Ring in the holidays
Tom Lyons, vice president of sales and revenue for LHM, says 2014 is the year “The Station” will come into its own as a mecca for family-oriented holiday and event fun. LHM has partnered with Rail Events Inc. and Warner Bros. to center its end-of-year festivities around The Polar Express, the popular holiday children’s book by Chris Van Allburg that has inspired a movie of the same name.
The list of holiday happenings is so extensive, you’ll have to gather up a group and experience it for yourself. Here are the highlights:
−− On November 22, the celebration begins with “Holiday Magic” entertainment events each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the end of December. Union Station’s Grand Hall will present its special Technomedia projection show on days The Polar Express train excursion takes place (see below). The Salvation Army’s Tree of Lights, just across Market Street from Union Station, will be the centerpiece for a November 22 fireworks display and train arrival by Santa Claus.
−− Thanksgiving weekend, November 27-30, features a Thanksgiving Day Run and the Ameren Missouri Thanksgiving Day Parade. There will be musical performances at Union Station, a holiday model train display, gingerbread house contest, and Hall of Trees auction.
−− During the month of December, because of high demand and early sell-outs, LHM and its partners are adding new dates for The Polar Express Train Ride TM. In all, the family-friendly train excursions are scheduled for weekends from November 22 through December 28. Excursion days feature three afternoon and evening departure times, as the train leaves Union Station for a memorable “round trip North Pole journey.” To purchase tickets, visit www.stlpolarexpressride.com or call (314) 942-6942.
−− On December 13 and 14, events for the Hot Chocolate 15/5K Run will be based at Union Station. The race’s VIP party will be held on the 13th along the station’s midway. On the 14th, the race begins and ends near the station, and features a “chocolate stop” along the way.
All these activities offer myriad opportunities for meeting planners in search of holiday tie-ins for their St. Louis events. You even can purchase St. Louis Union Station Hotel packages that include Polar Express Train Ride tickets; the packages are also available at (314) 942-6942 or www.stlpolarexpressride.com.
LHM has added holiday-themed Grand Hall dining experiences to the menu as well, featuring dinners, dessert buffets, entertainment, characters including Santa’s elves, and Polar Express projection shows. Holiday meals can be reserved with or without train ride tickets; visit the website for details.
There are even plans for a Christmas choral contest similar to voice competitions seen on TV, Lyons says. LHM is partnering with a local holiday-music FM radio station to make the program happen.
More to come
Details had not yet been revealed as of this writing, but Lyons says LHM is planning to tie in the Polar Express rail experience with a “North Pole” wonderland constructed on the St. Louis riverfront, on a site to be announced. “It’ll be an amazing set, just like the movie,” he says. “We’ll have all the characters. We think it will be a big hit.
“In the past, St. Louis used to see some 700,000 people visiting downtown for holiday events each year,” he adds. “That’s gone down in recent times, but there’s so much tradition here, we feel we have a great opportunity to bring it all back. Our plan at LHM has always been to revive St. Louis as a big destination for the holiday season, with Union Station at the forefront. We absolutely want to make this an annual tradition.”
Lyons says his company has been promoting its holiday event line-up as far as 500 miles from St. Louis, and is even partnering with Amtrak on special discount tickets for visitors traveling in from Kansas City and Chicago. “We consider it our civic duty to make St. Louis a top destination spot once again,” he notes.
Meet in the shadow of history
Whether your event is holiday-related or not, historic Union Station offers endless options for meeting success, and many corporate and nonprofit organizations are seeing its value. LHM believes so firmly in Union Station’s appeal, it even has held its own holiday gala on the midway, complete with wintry special effects.
Clients that have used the newly reinvented spaces to date include St. Louis-based investment firm Scottrade Inc., Chesterfield-based Dot Foods Inc., and Maryland Heights-based education nonprofit Parents As Teachers.
Sarah Thompson, special event planner for Parents As Teachers, recently booked extensive Union Station space for her organization’s 30th-anniversary National Conference. The fall 2014 event included two keynote presentations and 46 concurrent breakout sessions. Station staff helped Thompson create a celebratory “birthday” atmosphere, in commemoration of the anniversary. To delight guests’ palates, they incorporated vendors and products with a festive local twist, including gooey butter cake from Ann and Allen Baking Co. and custom chocolates from Kakao. “I really like people to know where they are at an event, instead of just being at any random hotel in any city,” Thompson says.
“We loved the staff at Union Station,” she says of the event planning experience. “In 2012, we were at the same venue, and our attendance hit 650. This time we grew to almost 1,150, but the staff was willing to work with us to help our event function seamlessly.
“It’s a wonderful problem to have, but obviously quite a task when you grow that much from where you originally contracted,” Thompson says. “From quick room turns so we could accommodate everyone in the keynote luncheons, to getting us extra rooms for new meetings that popped up, the staff was flexible and helpful. The renovations (LHM) did were beautiful and gave us even more room for exhibits and food in the midway – which we definitely took full advantage of.”
Thompson says her exhibit hall vendors were pleased with the renovations, and thought the traffic flow was “wonderful.” Exhibitors appreciated the continual visibility they had with attendees, and enjoyed that the exhibit hall was large enough to encourage people to mingle and network.
Most of St. Louis Union Station’s physical revitalization is in the books for now, but its tale of renaissance is far from over. Stay tuned, Lyons advises, for many more exciting and “event-ful” additions in the future: “We will have unbelievable experiences for planners to take advantage of, during the holiday season and all year long.”
St. Louis Union Station Polar Express information:
St. Louis Union Station Hotel
1820 Market Street
St. Louis MO 63103
Julia M. Johnson is a contributing editor and writer from St. Louis.