From hotel lobbies to warehouses: This R.I. startup rents empty real estate for pop-ups

Coming out of the pandemic in Rhode Island, Lee saw vacant storefronts and a rich downtown that needed to be brought back to life. With her experience in IT and watching her father build a market of his own, Lee rebranded her company “PopUp Rhody,” as 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 venues. Owners post available spaces, and creative businesses fill them with amazing retail, event, photoshoot and meeting popups. No countertop is too small or loft too big. With PopUp Rhody, I believe we can grow our economy.

I was always intrigued by Stock Culinary Goods (in Providence) and its exciting popups starring new coffee roasters, ice cream makers, and more. Popups are great for building customer buzz but owners lose valuable time finding, coordinating, and promoting them. That’s when I had my ‘Aha’ moment.

Q: What kinds of venues do you work with?

Lee: We just relaunched this year and already have a rich — and growing — supply of venues that showcase Rhode Island’s unique and diverse locations. These include the Aloft’s (in downtown) glitzy new WXYZ lounge (in the lobby) or their conference areas (for $75 per hour), The Bubbler’s hip virtual reality lounge (for $125 per hour), or a takeover of the Dye House’s and their event space, which is decked with 20-foot ceilings and original red brick floor (for $5,500 for three days) or their intimate suites (for $250 per hour). We also have pop-up fixtures available at the Providence Place Mall.

The dining room of the recently opened Blu Violet restaurant was listed on PopUp Rhody for $15,000 per day.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Q: Who — or what — is your competition?

Lee: My real competition is the time-consuming, hunt-and-peck approach people endure to find places for short-term rentals. I recently worked with Rhode Island Fashion Week executive producer Yemi Sekoni on their upcoming spring fashion show. Sekoni used to spend hours driving around looking for locations, searching for contact numbers, and often to no avail. But we can be the solution: a one-stop-shopping marketplace to search for great spaces, where it’s just a click to contact owners.

Q: How has the pandemic changed PopUp Rhody and events permanently?

Lee: I was about to launch PopUp Rhody when COVID hit. Two years later, Rhode Island is emerging into a brand new on-demand real estate economy fueled by a new wave of fashion, culinary, and craft businesses that grew up on Zoom and e-commerce. Popups — not 10-year leases — speak to these nimble and innovative startups.

Connecting further with the state’s diverse business community also became a priority for us, as this period really shed light on systemic inequities. We wanted to unlock new opportunities and introduce businesses to underutilized spaces with bustling retail, event and work experiences.

Q: Who can use these spaces and for what types of events?

Lee: The opportunities are limitless for creative businesses. For example, a new candle-maker can find new customers by hosting a pop-up at Providence Place mall, a company can celebrate a milestone in a restaurant or brewery, a seasonal business or digital brand can take over an empty storefront, nonprofits can brainstorm in a professional conference room instead of on Zoom, and an apparel brand can conduct a photoshoot in a cool-looking mill. It’s really where companies can connect in real life with new audiences.

Q: What are the most interesting or unique pop-ups that you’ve seen hosted using your platform?

Lee: Soulita, a natural skincare and essentials company, is really a standout star on the site. Soulita organized a popup marketplace with 15 other vendors at Providence Place using PopUp Rhody this past winter. Then they also took over an amazing space on Westminster Street in downtown — a popup that later evolved into a long-term lease. That’s the kind of growth that 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 venue get on PopUp Rhody and what is the criteria involved?

Lee: It’s really easy to use. Businesses with some space can just create an account and add a description with a few photos. Then creative businesses (looking for a space) can check out listings, request to rent, and pay online. It’s entirely free to list and view. We only charge for secured rentals.

Q: There are so many vacant storefronts throughout downtown Providence still, especially as businesses realize they can work from home permanently, without an office. However, that could impact the small businesses that rely on those businesses, and property managers that rely on the rental income. How could PopUp Rhody be a solution?

Lee: Our vacancy rates are fueled by a disconnect in Rhode Island’s business community. Long-term leases still dominate how landlords rent space, yet 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 vibrant new short-term rentals.

Q: What are your goals for the next year?

Lee: My goal for this year is to become the go-to-place 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 starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].

Jo Lee launched PopUp Rhody, an online marketplace for popups. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.


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