From hotel lobbies to warehouses: This RI startup rents empty real estate for pop-ups
Emerging from the pandemic in Rhode Island, Lee saw vacant storefronts and a wealthy downtown that needed to be brought back to life. With his background in IT and seeing his father build his own market, Lee renamed his company “PopUp Rhodyas an Airbnb for businesses that needed space for popups and events.
Q: What is PopUp Rhody and how does it work?
Lee: PopUp Rhody is an online marketplace for short-term rentals, also known as “popups”. It’s a new and easy way for local businesses to connect and share cool places. Owners post available spaces and creative businesses fill them with amazing popups of retail, events, photoshoots, and meetings. No counter is too small or a loft too big. With PopUp Rhody, I believe we can grow our economy.
I have always been intrigued by Culinary products in stock (in Providence) and its exciting popups featuring new coffee roasters, ice cream makers, and more. Popups are great for creating buzz with customers, but owners waste valuable time finding, coordinating, and promoting them. That’s when I had my “Aha” moment.
Q: What types of locations do you work with?
Li: We just relaunched this year and already have a rich – and growing – offering of venues that showcase Rhode Island’s unique and diverse sights. These include the glitzy new Aloft (downtown) WXYZ Lounge (in the lobby) or their conference spaces (for $75 per hour), Bubbler’s trendy virtual reality lounge (for $125 an hour), or a takeover of the Dye House’s and their event spacewhich is adorned with 20-foot ceilings and original red brick flooring (for $5,500 for three days) or their intimate suites (for $250 per hour). We also have pop-up light fixtures available at Providence Place Mall.
Q: Who – or what – is your competition?
Li: My real competition is the time-consuming approach people endure to find short-term rental accommodations. I recently worked with Rhode Island Fashion Week executive producer Yemi Sekoni at their upcoming spring runway show. Sekoni used to drive for hours looking for locations, looking for contact numbers, and often to no avail. But we can be the solution: a single marketplace to search for large spaces, where all it takes is one click to contact landlords.
Q: How has the pandemic changed PopUp Rhody and events permanently?
Li: I was about to launch PopUp Rhody when COVID hit. Two years later, Rhode Island is emerging into a whole new on-demand real estate economy fueled by a new wave of fashion, culinary and craft businesses that have grown on Zoom and e-commerce. Popups — not 10-year leases — speak to these nimble, innovative startups.
Connecting more with the state’s diverse business community has also become a priority for us, as this period has really brought systemic inequities to light. We wanted to open up new opportunities and introduce businesses to underutilized spaces with vibrant retail, event and work experiences.
Q: Who can use these spaces and for what types of events?
Li: The opportunities are limitless for creative businesses. For example, a new candle maker might find new customers by hosting a pop-up at Providence Place mall, a business might celebrate a milestone at a restaurant or brewery, a seasonal business or digital brand might take over a storefront. empty, nonprofits can brainstorm in a professional conference room instead of Zoom, and a clothing brand can host a photo shoot in a cool-looking factory. This is really where businesses can connect in real life with new audiences.
Q: What are the most interesting or unique popups you’ve seen hosted on your platform?
Li: Soulita, a skincare and natural essentials company, is truly a standout star on the site. Soulita held a popup market with 15 other vendors in Providence Place using PopUp Rhody last winter. Then they also took over an incredible space on Westminster Street in the city center – a popup that later evolved into a long-term lease. That’s the kind of growth PopUp Rhody is designed to generate – helping small businesses literally get a foot in the door so they can grow their physical footprint to support their online and in-person sales.
Q: How can a place be registered on PopUp Rhody and what are the criteria involved?
Li: It’s really easy to use. Businesses with a little space can simply create an account and add a description with some photos. Then creative businesses (looking for space) can view listings, apply to rent and pay online. Listing and viewing are completely free. We only charge for secure rentals.
Q: There are still so many vacant storefronts in downtown Providence, especially as businesses realize they can work from home all the time, without an office. However, this could have an impact on small businesses that depend on these businesses and on property managers that depend on rental income. How could PopUp Rhody be a solution?
Li: Our vacancy rates are fueled by a disconnect in Rhode Island’s business community. Long-term leases still dominate how landlords rent space, but the key to success in today’s on-demand economy is agility. PopUp Rhody disrupts the traditional model by easily connecting small businesses and filling vacancies with dynamic new short-term rentals.
Q: What are your goals for next year?
Li: My goal for this year is to become the gold standard for popups in RI. In five years, I plan to extend PopUp Rhody to other regions. Maybe PopUp Baltimore or PopUp Portland?
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are building new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to journalist Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].