Seeking a clean, safe, climate-controlled environment where her children could play led entrepreneur Elvira Grau to open Space Odyssey USA, now a hugely successful event center. The reason? Grau, who is 42 years old, couldn’t find anything that met her requirements, so she decided to build it herself!
Turning a business idea into reality
Grau and her husband, who have four children ranging in age from 11 to 22, opened Space Odyssey seven years ago. “It’s a 26,000 square-foot entertainment center and an unbelievably beautiful space,” says Grau. “It’s started as a hobby and is a multi-million dollar business now.”
To get the ball rolling, Grau and her husband took out a small business loan and a mortgage on their formerly mortgage-free home. “We had incredible debt,” she laughs. “It would be much tougher to do this today, given our present economy.”
They found a warehouse, about 10 minutes from their home in Englewood, New Jersey, and set about transforming it. “We spent $2.4 million, buying video games, glow in the dark bowling alleys, laser tag and paintless paint ball systems,” Grau says. It’s an incredible entertainment space for children to enjoy that is also pleasant for adults.
At the time, one of the Grau sons needed a venue for his bar mitzvah. His mom transformed the space again and turned it into a nightclub with games and catering.
“We hired an in-house chef, in-house DJs, and I did all the décor myself,” she says. “So, not only do I own and operate Space Odyssey, I own the venue, the menu, the entertainment and the décor,” Grau observes. “I control all aspects of the party.”
Growing Space Odyssey through trial and error
The business grew by trial and error, but Grau and her husband figured it out. “When you open a business as an entrepreneur, you quickly find that there is no business model,” Grau says. “You have to create it. I didn’t open a franchise, I had to create it. “We created Space Odyssey and perfected the business formula,” Grau says.
They designed five party rooms, and can do five parties in each of the party rooms per day, rotating every two and a half hours. “We only work Saturday and Sunday and some Friday nights,” Grau says. “Essentially, we’re closed during the week, unless someone wants a charity or other special event.” Grau now does 30 birthday parties every weekend.
When children arrive, party hosts meet and greet them, put them in the party rooms, and rotate the activities between the laser tag, paintless paintball, the three-level playground, train ride, etc. Then they return to the party room for pizza. “That’s a two-and-a-half hour party,” Grau notes. “Three activities, pizza, cake and then they go home and the next party comes in.”
From event venue to event management
After Grau opened the business as a venue, people began asking her to manage events for them. Grau still hosts most of these parties at the facility she and her husband own. She has become extremely skilled at throwing excellent parties. So much so, she is now doing a lot of off premises work for clients who have asked her to come into their homes and help them put together stellar entertainments there.
Grau says she became an expert one party at a time. “People asked me ‘Can you do the tabletop, the linens, runners, overlays and florals?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’” Grau laughs. “I didn’t know I could do it, but I did. I seem to have a natural gift for seeing things in a certain way and creating a certain aesthetic that people just seem to love.”
“I didn’t go to school to learn how to do this,” Grau says. “But when you do hundreds of Sweet 16 parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and birthday parties a year, you learn how to become very creative.”
In the space we own, we have staff that do the parties, and now, seven years later, I’m able to leave that space, go to other spaces and do other parties off the premises.
“People always say I work too hard, but I don’t honestly consider it work,” says Grau. “I think when you really, truly love what you are doing, it’s not work. When you find something you love doing, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Grau doesn’t count the hours she put in, because when she’s working, she’s creating.
Loving what you do and doing what you love for a living
“When you’re an entrepreneur, you want to do what you love, whether that’s singing, dancing or whatever,” she says. “Planning events is my passion. I love meeting with people, talk away all their party anxieties, and helping them. I really find this work rewarding because, at the end of the party, they’re happy and I’m happy.”
“I’m blessed. This is a hobby that turned into a very lucrative business.” The business became so successful that Grau’s husband, an Emmy Award winning broadcast producer, left his career to run the business with her.
Grau calls her husband “a huge, huge contribution to the business.” When you’re creative, you can’t be good at other things, she says, such as doing all the financial stuff that comes with running a company. Her husband is now the CEO and the CFO who oversees managing the more than 100 people they now employ.
“We make a great team,” Grau says. “I’m about sales, marketing and advertising and he’s all the financial backend. I handle the clients, he handles the paperwork. I couldn’t afford to pay him.”
A message to other women
Grau wants her story to encourage other women, women who think they can’t do what they want to do. “They can,” she says. “It’s just question of having enough passion, desire tenacity and persistence to do it,” she says. “If you really want something badly, you just have to go for it.”
Written By: Julie Crawshaw