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Wall Street Journal

Wed., Feb. 19 in Section B, Page 10 under
"Plots & Ploys" by Sheila Muto.

Sensory Stimulation

A bright red wall greets visitors. The games Kerplunk and Mr. Potato Head are stashed on the tables. Hammocks, a chaise lounge and hot-pink and lime-green pillows around a low table offer a host of places to sit.

It may sound like someone's kitschy apartment, but it's a new space recently opened in Chicago where a handful of companies are holding meetings, foregoing the staid conference rooms and hotel suites that some businesses use to host such gatherings. The former site of a sausage smokehouse and a herring-packing plant, Catalyst Ranch offers three meeting rooms ranging in size from 700 to 3,300 square feet.

The business is the brainchild of Eva Niewiadomski, who set up a space similar in style at PepsiCo Inc.'s Quaker Oats unit, her former employer. But that room only accomodated about a dozen people. "These types of informal environments make people energized, and it stimulates them to come up with better ideas," says Ms. Niewiadomski. Still, "a lot of companies don't want to give up space for that type of meeting room."

"The brightly colored walls and the toys transform your way of thinking," says Ellen Taafe, vice president of marketing for Quaker Snacks, who says she has held a meeting and attended two others at Catalyst Ranch.

"I think people come up with different ideas than if they were in a formal environment wearing a suit," says Ms. Taaffe. "People are more engaged even though they may have a Slinky in their hands."