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

PopUp Rhody, led by founder Jo Lee, lists short-term rentals for pop-up events throughout Rhode Island.

Jo Lee posed inside the Aloft Hotel in downtown Providence, which is listed on PopUp Rhody as as an event space for rent.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Jo Lee knows what it’s like to compete against the “big guys.”

Right after World War II, her father opened a new and used furniture store in Los Angeles called Richard W. Lee’s Good and Bad Furniture. She and her sister grew up playing and eventually working there as teenagers. But he had a knack for building markets during the 36 years the store was open, she said recently.

“He sold the tackiest furniture in LA, but as he used to say, ‘not a lot of people like it, but those that do have to come to me to get it,’” Lee recalled, who started her career just as the Internet was taking off, marketing for tech startups and leading companies in the United States, India, South Africa, and Israel. She started industry-first services for nonprofits, like CitizenSpeak and Ringtones08.


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 pop-ups and events.

Q: What is PopUp Rhody and how does it work?

PopUp Rhody is an online marketplace for short-term rentals, also known as “pop-ups.” 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 pop-ups. 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 pop-ups starring new coffee roasters, ice cream makers, and more. Pop-ups 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?

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 can use these spaces and for what types of events?

The opportunities are limitless for creative businesses. For example, a new candlemaker 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?


Soulita, a natural skincare and essentials company, is really a standout star on the site. Soulita organized a pop-up marketplace with 15 other vendors at Providence Place using PopUp Rhody this past winter. Then it also took over an amazing space on Westminster Street in downtown — a pop-up 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: 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?

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.

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

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.