Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
Kimberly Guess wants to create the type of social experiences that she would like to go to in Kalamazoo.
So she works with individuals and organizations to plan and organize parties, receptions, meetings, reunions, and all sorts of private gatherings.
All of that happens at The Xperience by Luxury Escapes
, a 3,200-square-foot venue she and two business partners opened in April at 145 Farmers Alley, downtown.
“As a person of color from Kalamazoo, I thought that we always struggled to have nice places to go and do things,” says Guess, 42, of Kalamazoo. “And I thought about what it looked like for me growing up and having events and family and how the family always had to do all the cooking, all the decorating, all the manpower.”
She laughs as she says, “But by the time you get to the event, everybody is tired and they can’t enjoy the event.”
She’s working to create – and help other people create – fun events targeted at people 25 and older, with many of her “Old School-style” dances attracting people 30 and older.
During a Sept. 25, 2022 visit to Kalamazoo, Lt. Gov. Garland Gilcrest, right, talks to, from left, Bryan Sims, Symphony Ollie, and Kim Guess outside the new Xperience events center.
“The Xperience is a place where you can come in and enjoy (yourself),” she says.
Recent events have included a Halloween costume party for adults on Oct. 30 and a reception last week for a recently elected judge. This week, The venue will be a gathering place for a reunion of Kalamazoo Promise alumni. And on Nov. 23, it will host “DrinksGiving.” That is a re-creation of an annual gathering that happened on the day before Thanksgiving at the now-closed Wayside West tavern and restaurant. That venue offered drink specials and other activities.
With a laugh, Guess says that at The Xperience, “It will be a day when we come together and just celebrate. We will have fun. We will have drinks. We will dance and we’ll know we don’t have to get up early in the morning to go to work.”
The venue’s signature events are called First Friday. They take place on the first Friday of each month for people aged 30 or older. They feature casual dancing, a cash bar, and food with “Old School” music, including R&B, funk and hip-hop. They are scheduled to begin at 9 p.m, as the Kalamazoo Art Hop events are winding up.
It also has R&B Only and Karaoke Nights, which happens during the third week of each month. People listen to music and can sign up to sing.
People dance at a recent gathering at The Xperience by Luxury Escape.
Guess and business partner Symphony Ollie consult with facility users to design events and outfit them with the right music, food, lighting, and decorations. Those services are then provided seamlessly by any of a list of local Black-owned businesses that Guess has amassed – including caterers, photographers, videographers, deejays, and others. It also patronizes the City Centre Market & Deli, which is adjacent to The Xperience inside the City Centre Building.
Why Black-owned businesses?
“I say Black-owned businesses because I feel like we have the biggest barriers when it comes to starting businesses,” Guess says. “We have the hardest time getting capital and funding, and knowing where to start.”
She says she knew nothing about business and had to learn all kinds of things online and from others to get her business up and going. Her endeavor is also being funded by her and her partners and a $20,000 small business loan from the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo region.
Speaking of who the business wants to attract as customers and patrons, she says, “Everybody is welcomed.”
Events are targeted at people 25 and older, and while most are casual, there is a dress code. “No hoodies. No T-shirts. No jerseys. No baseball caps,” Guess explains. In short, she says, “No effort, no entrance.”
The business works with a staff of 12 part-time and full-time workers, including bartenders and security people.
“She is very well connected,” says Habib Mandwee, a Kalamazoo businessman and owner of the City Centre Building, which houses The Xperience. “She has a lot of ideas. She’s very professional.”
He says Guess delivers good service “and I like that. She’s very creative. I like that. And she is doing whatever she is supposed to do. ... For somebody who has not done business in the past. She has done that. I’m very happy for her.”
From left, Kim Guess, Bryan Sims, and Symphony Ollie stand outside the front entrance of The Xperience by Luxury Escape at 145 Farmers Alley in downtown Kalamazoo.
Mandwee says Guess surprised him with the speed at which she tries to get things done. He worried that she might miss something. But he says she has proven to him “that she was actually calculating things correctly.”
“To be honest with you, I thought she’s running too fast. I thought, Oh my gosh, she might not be able to make it. But then she’s doing really well now. So it’s like, ‘OK. Well, that’s awesome.’”
Sunday events have included a Lit-AF Brunch and Day Party for adults.
“It’s our spin on a big-city brunch,” Guess says. “When you go to Houston, or you go to Detroit, or you go to Chicago, Sunday is probably just as popular (for socializing) as a Friday or a Saturday – during the day. And it gets started as early as 10:30 a.m. and goes all the way to 8 or 9 p.m.”
Brunches at The Xperience are scheduled for 2 to 8 p.m. They feature food, music provided by a deejay, and a cash bar with drinks that include “bottomless” Mimosas. A schedule for events is available at: TheXperiencekzoo.com
The venue, which can seat up to 150 people, also has space to accommodate live music. It expects, for instance, to be one of five stops on this year’s New Year’s Fest and will provide space for a performance by The Skeletones.
Another event that has been scheduled occasionally is called “Soulful Sunday.” Guess describes it as a laid-back event with music that is a take off on “Sunday at your grandma’s house.”
The Xperience by Luxury Escape asks people to put some effort into what they wear when they come to events. Bryan Sims sits between business partners Symphony Ollie, left, and Kim Guess.
“The way that I grew up, every Sunday we would go to my grandmother’s house,” Guess says. “And my whole family would come. She would cook and we would eat and there would be games played and we would laugh. The grown people would drink. The kids would play. And then you’d go home. That’s what we offer here.”
The games include cards, dominoes, Cornhole, Uno, and Connect-4. And while there is a cover charge for most of its events, there is none for Soulful Sundays.
“She is bringing a new concept to a downtown that has slowed down, entertainment-wise,” says Melody Daacon, who is Neighborhood Business and Special Projects coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo.
The Xperience is the first Black-owned entertainment business on the Kalamazoo Mall. It is also reusing space that has not been used since a Kalamazoo Public Safety station closed about six years ago. The space was renovated almost entirely by Guess, Ollie, and Bryan Sims, a partner in the business who is the facility manager and oversees security.
There is room to seat about 150 people inside The Xperience by Luxury Escape.
Daacon says she knows it was a struggle for a person new to the business world to get up and going this past spring. The opening was postponed from February in order to meet regulatory guidelines. And Guess says she did not get all of the necessary approvals from the city until just before the April 1 opening. But she persevered and got them all done.
Three times a week, the venue is home to dance/fitness classes that brought Guess into the business world. She was a secretary in the Kalamazoo Public Schools when she began looking for a dance and fitness class to reinvigorate her as she provided care for her late husband, LaVelle Guess Sr. He waged a four-year battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He was forced to stop working about six months after he was diagnosed early in 2015. He died in November 2019 at age 41.
Online Kim Guess says she saw videos with men leading classes for women “and that just kind of got on my nerves,” she says. “So I decided to make up a class.”
With the enthusiastic support of friends, she started in March 2018 with a class that she called Twerk Work, a combination of aerobic exercise, hip-hop dancing, and twerking. Using social media, she invited others to join in and she led dance routines that she and her friends liked. Classes were initially held in the cafeteria of Hillside Middle School.
Those weekly sessions grew by word of mouth to 70 to 80 participants per week (with a low 35 and a high of 120).
“It was an experience that you got to have for an hour that let you let loose,” she says. “No rules. No judgment. Nothing. Whatever you felt like doing, you were free to do that.”
By charging $5 per person for what became “Twerking Tuesday” classes (and working as Guess Who’s Dancing Fitness LLC), she was able to help support herself and her son LaVelle Sims Jr. He is now age 10.
When schools closed during the COVID-19 shutdown, she held classes outdoors in a parking lot outside Kalamazoo Central High School. But she knew she would have to find her own indoor space. Her search for that space, with the help of Symphony Ollie, led her to the location on Farmers Alley.
Ollie is a Kalamazoo Central graduate who returned to Kalamazoo after earning business degrees at Michigan State University.
Staff members and friends at The Xperience dress as cast members of the 'Wild N Out" TV show for an Oct. 30 Halloween party at the venue.
Guess says she thinks people were attracted to the authenticity of what she does in the dance classes and continue to be attracted to that as she’s doing with The Xperience.
She says she stays positive and encourages women to do the same and prosper. Her brand, she says, is her positive personality. And that, she describes as “Being fearless, fabulous, fit and free.”
It was honed in part by her struggles to care for her late husband, manage their affairs after he became disabled, and raise their son. During that time, she says she learned that you should not wait to chase your dreams.
“The life lesson that I learned is that you can’t wait because you never know when it’s your last day to take your last breath,” she says. “One of the things that LaVelle always regretted was not pursuing entrepreneurship, not pursuing his dream of having his own gym. He loved basketball and he always dreamed of having his own gym.”
He and his twin brother Lorenzo Guess played football and basketball. Lorenzo played at the college level in the 1990s for Michigan State University. He is now the director of athletic performance there. The brothers were inducted into Wayne Memorial High School’s athletic hall of fame on Oct. 16, 2019.
Guess is sorry that African-Americans get little if any training that would allow them to become entrepreneurs.
“We are raised to go to college, get a job, have a career, buy a home, have a family,” Guess says. “The crowning glory for an African-American person growing up is owning your own home. That is a staple in our community that you’ve made it.”
But Guess appreciates the advantages of working for yourself and she wants more for her son.
The name “Xtreme by Luxury Escapes” is a result of Guess and her partners becoming involved in leasing air bed and breakfast spaces in Houston. Guess latched onto that idea following a 2021 visit to Texas, and sublet two locations for a while before deciding to focus all her efforts on finding a regular place for her dance classes in Kalamazoo. The idea to rent event space surfaced as Guess found the Farmers Alley location and decided it could have wider uses than dance classes.
Asked if she feared the risk of leasing space downtown and getting a business started while many are still not fully recovered from the pandemic, Guess says, “I didn’t even think about the struggles of everybody else.”
She says that while caring for her late husband and managing as a single parent, she sees how resilient her son is and has decided that there is nothing that can stop her.
“He’s my reason,” she says. “That’s my fuel for doing everything.”