Elm Springs event venue offers unique options

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 2,099 views 

Heroncrest Event Center owners Beau Reynolds, left, and Robert Murphy opened the venue in May 2021. They said the venue's gross revenue is up 130% this year compared with 2021.

Partners Robert Murphy and Beau Reynolds opened Heroncrest Event Center, their high-end, luxury event venue, about 18 months ago. Their goal of being “extraordinary every day” has added another option for event planners, whether a nonprofit fundraiser, a corporate gathering or a wedding.

At its opening in May 2021, Heroncrest became the fourth-largest venue in Northwest Arkansas, behind the Rogers Convention Center (formerly John Q. Hammons), Northwest Arkansas Convention Center in Springdale and Fayetteville Town Center.

Reynolds said that the privately-owned venue hosted 16 events in 2021 and 45 this year, with gross revenue up 130% year over year. The partners have already hit their sales objectives for next year.

“We are 14 months ahead from a sales perspective of where we thought we would be on the natural trajectory of this business,” Reynolds said.

Sitting on 4.5 acres on Lake Elmdale in Elm Springs, Heroncrest boasts a 14,000-square-foot event center, 80% of which is glass. The 7,300-square-foot great hall, with a commercial prep kitchen, has a banquet capacity of 700 guests, with a total capacity of 1,000. The venue offers 12,000 square feet of outdoor green space surrounded by water.

Murphy and Reynolds, from small towns in central Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas — Murphy in architecture and Reynolds in business, specializing in entrepreneurship. Reynolds works for Walmart Inc. in the company’s global sourcing division. Murphy quit his job at Walmart when Heroncrest opened and is currently the only full-time employee. The partners are proud that their 12 part-time positions start at $20 per hour. They’ve had no turnover.

The idea for Heroncrest was born as Murphy and Reynolds attended philanthropic events in Northwest Arkansas over the course of 10 years, noticing “gaps in location, scale and amenities with the existing large venues.” Deciding they could add value to the venue space, the partners bootstrapped $545,000 to purchase 20 acres of an old chicken farm on Lake Elmdale in 2016. Murphy and Reynolds believe the location allows them to draw events that include guests from both Benton and Washington counties.

As they researched the business, Murphy and Reynolds found that Northwest Arkansas lacked a mid-sized venue. After consulting caterers, bartenders and event planners, they realized there wasn’t much competition in venues that held between 500 and 700 people.

“The sweet spot for the other three large venues is 800 to 1,000,” Murphy said. “That’s where they make the most sense. Below a certain number, they’re not a great value. We purposely built a building that seats 600-ish in a banquet configuration. We’re the best value at that number.”

Murphy and Reynolds took out a small bank loan but bootstrapped most of the $4 million needed for site work, construction and furnishings. The partners have no outside investors.

To date, 92% of bookings are nonprofit fundraisers, including The Cancer Challenge, NWA Girl Gang, Kiss A Pig Gala and the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation. Weddings account for the remainder of their bookings. Tyson Foods, Walmart and the vendor community have held corporate events at Heroncrest. UnitedHealthCare recently hosted Arkansas state retirees to explain its new benefits package.

Pricing for the venue is based on seasonal and weekly demand and starts at $7,300 for a weekday event during non-peak seasons. Discounts are offered to nonprofits and for multiday purchases. Multiday events make up 32% of bookings.

“We’re not the cheapest to host an event in Northwest Arkansas,” Murphy said. “We’re also not the most expensive. But we are the best value.”

The all-inclusive, fixed price includes setup, cleaning, security and parking. Heroncrest doesn’t have exclusive food and beverage requirements, so clients choose their caterers or bartenders. Unlike other venues, Heroncrest doesn’t charge corking fees to serve the alcohol, which saves nonprofits about $15 per bottle of wine and $4 per bottle of beer. For nonprofit fundraisers, alcohol is often donated.

“One of our clients last month made $40,000 on their event before the event ever started because we didn’t have those food and beverage service agreements in place,” Murphy said. “That’s why it’s been easy for us to snag a foothold in this nonprofit world because the day they show up with us, they’re already making more money for their nonprofit than if they went anywhere else. As long as we’re breaking even, we’re good. As participants in the philanthropy space here, we wanted to know that more money is going to philanthropic causes. When money goes to those causes, we as a Northwest Arkansas community are better for it.”

Since the event business is planned about a year out, Heroncrest has most of 2023 booked. “So, we already know that next year — what is going to be our year two — is actually going to be closer to our year five numbers,” Murphy said.

Because of the overlap in the nonprofit community between sponsors, donors and organizers, as people come to the venue, they end up booking Heroncrest for another event.

“Fifty-seven percent of event attendees turn around and book an event at Heroncrest,” Reynolds said. “On the corporate nonprofit side, it’s well over 90%.”

Re-bookings are also strong. More than 90% of Heroncrest clients have given verbal or written commitments for multiyear agreements, which provides them with the benefit of locking in their pricing for future events.

Murphy said Heroncrest is the only ground-up, zero-waste event center in Arkansas and doesn’t allow non-compostable single-use utensils, cups and plates. More than 90% of all the waste brought in last year was composted or recycled. Reynolds said that the facility is on track to do 95% this year. The venue collects aluminum used at events, processes it and sells it for scrap. That money offsets composting and recycling costs, bringing them down about 3% year-over-year.

“We are a zero-waste facility that we hope will become closer to being a zero-cost, zero-waste. To our knowledge, that’s never been done to any scale,” Murphy said.

The venue produces 10% of its own solar electricity on-site, with immediate plans to produce more than 100% of its electricity use on-site. “We had people tell us you can’t be sustainable and profitable, but we have a year and a half of proof that you can,” Reynolds said.

Heroncrest is part of the partners’ holding company, Elmdale Estates, which consists of 20 acres on Lake Elmdale. Murphy and Reynolds have plans for seven to eight projects on the remaining acreage to join Heroncrest.