It started with a phone call.
Chris Kelly and Ryan Simonetti had met in college, and from the jump they were constantly scheming business ideas. Some took off, some didn’t. But they were constantly dreaming and planning… something.
“Ryan is somebody who stands out in a crowd, both physically and in his intensity,” recalls Kelly. “He was just a smart, hardworking, ambitious guy. And I think he and I really connected on that level.”
Those ambitions and hustled turned into real progress. In 2004, Chris and Ryan, along with a handful of other classmates, entered a business plan competition. Each team was given the same business and had to come up with a unique plan to make it profitable.
Their team rose from the wild card round all the way to the finals where they won it all. “We got a big foam check, cashed it, went right to the bar, and spent all the money. We had a good night out of it!”
Financial prudency would come later. Hey, you’re only young once.
Fast forward five years. Both graduated, and while both kept their entrepreneurial spirit, it manifested itself in very different ways. Chris had spent a few years traveling the world, running businesses from afar, while Ryan was working in real estate finance in New York City. Chris would stop by often, though he didn’t get the memo on the dress code.
“I remember distinctly rolling up into his office with my backpack and flip flops and backpacking gear. He’s there in his suit and tie and working out of the cubicle.”
Sometime between these sporadic visits, Chris received a phone call in the winter of 2008/2009 while working the ski season in Colorado. It was Ryan, and he had another business idea. The world at the time seemed like it was collapsing, with unemployment on the rise and markets on a steep decline. In the midst of that turmoil, Ryan saw an opportunity. He described to Chris the “bare bones” idea for Convene. Running an office building like a hotel, flexible meeting spaces that companies could use on demand, allowing them to save money on their real estate costs.
“I remember that conversation with Chris as if it was yesterday,” recalls Simonetti. “I was confident in the idea, but I was really struggling to make the personal decision to leave my career and take the risk of starting my own business. It was a scary time in the world, and without the reassurance from Chris, I don’t think I would have had the courage to start Convene.”
Ryan spent the next nine months refining the business plan, hunting for Convene’s first location, and trying to raise capital from investors.
“It was a crazy time to try and start a business,” he said. “The world was seemingly ending, the real estate industry was in crisis, and here I was trying to raise money and simultaneously convince a landlord to let us take space in their building. Thankfully, persistence paid off.”
The summer had ended, and Chris traveled to New York on a trip he had already booked after that fateful phone call. He met up with Ryan near Grand Central Station, where Ryan was determined to show Chris his vision and convince him to help get the business off the ground.
First, they toured the venue space of a nearby hotel. Next, they toured what would soon be Convene’s first space at 730 Third Avenue. Ryan had pulled the trigger and was ready to dive into this venture, but it came with some big risks. He’d just signed a lease on a huge space in Manhattan. He had already left his job and the security that came with it. He needed to know—did Chris think this idea was a winner?
“The difference in quality between the status quo—the hotel venue offerings—and what we could potentially build was such a dramatic difference that I was able to quickly overcome our lack of resources and experience in this area,” Kelly recalls. “I realized that this was an opportunity to come in, build a business and offer people something so much better.”
And so it began.
Within a couple of years, Chris and Ryan felt comfortable expanding their network. They began eyeing a second property in Midtown Manhattan. It would need some good furniture, so they took a trip to the Steelcase showroom in Michigan—a space designed by a legendary designer and strategist, Joyce Bromberg.
“They showed up in Grand Rapids looking for furniture, but ended up wanting to replicate the whole space,” Bromberg recalls. “They said ‘This is great, but what’s it doing in Michigan? We need this in New York City!'”
Chris and Ryan knew they needed to get Joyce on their team. She flew to New York to meet with them, and as she describes it: “I was sucked into the vortex.” Joyce didn’t just design them a single space but created a strategy that would define the future vision of Convene. This was no longer just a meetings and conference company—this would be a hospitality company on a mission to change the way people meet and work.
“Joyce fundamentally altered our view of the world and shifted the entire trajectory of Convene,” said Simonetti. “Chris and I have always considered her the third founder. If it weren’t for her vision and human-centered approach to design, we would have never accomplished all that we have as a company the past 10 years.”
In the ten years since, Convene has expanded across New York City, into Philadelphia, Boston, and D.C. Then came the West Coast, with properties in Los Angeles, followed by Chicago. Soon comes international expansion, with the first lease in London just recently signed.
Across the last 10 years, Convene has hosted meetings and events for nearly 1.4 million attendees. That single venue in Midtown Manhattan has grown to nearly 30 properties encompassing 1.5 million square feet of space. Those property openings have in turn supported 5,000 jobs in the community.
The team that started with just a few has grown to over 700 spread across seven cities. And an idea that started small—better meetings—has grown and matured to a more holistic mission to humanize the entire office environment. In the last two years since announcing our WorkPlace product, Convene has expanded the offering to provide elevated flexible office suites in five different cities, welcoming in a wide range of companies who now call a Convene property home.
At the heart of Convene is its incredible team, values-based culture and its 1% better each day philosophy. The company’s core values of GRIT (an acronym for genuine, relentless, integrity, teamwork) permeate all aspects of the business and drive decision-making at every level of the organization.
“The growth our company has experienced over the past 10 years is amazing, but what Chris, Joyce, and I are most proud of is the culture that we’ve built,” said Simonetti. “Since Day 1, we’ve always wanted to build a company that put its people first. We were always 100% committed to creating an environment that allows our team to flourish personally and professionally. A lot has changed over the years, but our commitment to our people has never wavered.”
A core tenant of Convene’s philosophy is the idea that we can both do well and do good. Members of Team Convene have donated their time and money to support causes they care about. Convene donation and volunteer efforts have supported 39 different organizations working to improve the lives of people everywhere. Most recently, our team stepped up and raised over $20K to support Hurricane Dorian relief in the Bahamas.
“From the beginning we’ve always felt an obligation to support the communities that we serve,” says Simonetti. “From donating Thanksgiving dinners to underprivileged families, to supporting our local charities, our team has always been committed to finding ways to leave a positive impact on the world around us.”
A milestone like 10 years is an opportunity to both reflect on the past and look towards the future. Opportunities still abound for Convene, and company leadership is already dreaming of what the company’s 20th anniversary will look like.
“If I can pose a challenge to the company, it would be that we should always have the courage to explore what is new and different, even sometimes at the cost of being too early,” says Kelly. “I think best-in-class creators are people who are constantly questioning their way of doing things based on the changing nature of the world. My aspiration is that Convene is always the company that is creating and setting the best practices that the rest of the world references.”
“I’m blown away,” says Bromberg. “That we have almost 750 employees is astonishing and humbling. We’ve done great, and maintained a fabulous culture, which is equally as important to me as the work itself. As for the future, the world is going to change dramatically the next 10 years, and I’m so excited for us to be the ones that help shape its future.”
Simonetti adds: “The next decade will see Convene grow into a truly global brand, with many hundreds of locations and thousands of team members. With that growth comes both challenges and incredible opportunities. Regardless of what gets thrown at us, I’m confident and excited about our vision, and most importantly our culture and our team – the ones here now and all the ones yet to join us. We’re just getting started!”