Any marriage guidance counsellor will tell you that good communication is the key to a successful relationship. It’s therefore no surprise that event organisers claim that problems with venues are almost always caused by a breakdown in communication.
Their biggest complaint is that often they do not have a uniform point of contact – from initial briefing, through planning to the event itself. Thanks to persistent lobbying, many venues have listened to the organisers and now provide a project manager who oversees the event from start to finish; however many do not. The result is that organisers are still far from happy.
Kate Galloway is a director of K&N Associates, a destination management and event planner whose clients include companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Rover and Lloyds of London. She says: “It’s a people business and so relationships count heavily if you need to call in a favour. When it comes to the crunch, you rely on people to pull out the stops for you and you can only do that if you’ve first developed a close, professional relationship.”
The personal touch
All event organisers agree that they prefer to deal with the same person at the venue through the planning and pre-production stages and on the day. They claim the benefits are many; better co-ordination, fewer problems and a faster turnaround. Twentyfirst Century Communications creative director Nigel Bennett concedes that it is often difficult for the venue to offer a single contact. He says: “Venues are on a conveyor belt with events and the turnaround times are sometimes as little as a couple of hours, so your project manager is often busy on other events until the very last moment.”
However, Bennett also believes that venues that don’t provide continuity of contact are losing out. He adds: “When you build up a good relationship there is a much better chance that you will take repeat business back to that venue.” In turn, Galloway claims that repeat business helps to build good relationships. She says: “To get the best from an event, the communications chain from the client – through me – to the supplier has to be synchronised. But an effective partnership with no communications barrier usually only comes once you’ve worked together on several projects.”
The most stressful time is usually the day of the event, and a frequent complaint from organisers is that the main contact is often unavailable. The result is that somebody with no prior knowledge of the event is put in charge – just at the point when continuity is most needed. Bennett says: “Venue management can be very cavalier and they can often fail to appreciate that you are paying for the service, and not just the four walls.”
Julie Warren, senior commercial and marketing manager at the Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, thinks that service levels are the key to repeat business. Wembley has some clients that have been returning every year for 24 years. Warren swims against the industry tide when she attributes this loyalty to Wembley’s refusal to give clients a single point of contact. She says: “Channelling everything through one person is all very well, but what happens when that person is ill or away? We’ve found that using one point of contact just causes delays for event organisers.”
Wembley’s solution is to put an operations manager in overall control of the project, but to give clients direct contact with individual specialist departments such as marketing or technical, when required.
Richard Arkle, senior partner at Oast Communications, which specialises in providing marketing services to the IT industry, also favours this approach. Arkle’s company organised a two-day conference, with 1,500 delegates and 30 exhibition stands at the Wembley Conference Centre in December. He says: “We got the best of both worlds, because we got specialist advice on everything from health and safety to audio-visual equipment and security, as well as a person who is easy to contact and can respond quickly and efficiently to our queries.”
However, Arkle believes that, as in all relationships, communication should be a two-way thing. He adds: “It is totally wrong for event organisers to pass all the responsibility on to the venue and expect them to do everything. We can hardly ask them to second-guess what we want and so, ultimately, ownership of the project has to rest with us.”
Others in the industry point out that venues and event organisers need to have good project management systems in place to ensure that, even if communications break down, there is a clear plan of action. Live events organiser Jack Morton Worldwide produces detailed supplier specifications for every event, which are cross-checked with the venue before the event and again on site on the day of the event. Jack Morton director of logistics Jeremy Taylor claims that, as a result, errors occur rarely. He adds: “Even if they do occur, they are minor and do not reach the eyes and ears of our clients.”
Forum3 is a recruitment and volunteering fair for charities and not-for-profit organisations. Its project director Deborah Hockham believes that e-mail has had a radical effect on the quality of communications and has improved co-ordination with venues that are unable to offer a single point of contact. She says: “E-mail has made it easy to ensure that everyone gets copies of what’s been agreed – irrespective of where they are based. It has also made communication more immediate.”
However, K&N’s Kate Galloway believes that there is no substitute for being close at hand at venues. Her company is one of the leading organisers of events in Scotland and, two years ago, it opened a second office in Edinburgh in order to develop the company’s contact with venues and suppliers. Galloway says: “Edinburgh is ranked 12th internationally for large-scale conferences and events, so it is a small, but active, centre. As a result, everyone knows everyone and your contacts are key. Even though the industry is known for its frequent staff turnover, people nearly always move on to another role in the business, so it pays to be on excellent terms with them. You can only do this if you work nearby and are in regular contact.”
In other parts of the country, staff turnover is more of a problem and often people leave the industry altogether. Taylor believes that most venues do not pay sufficient attention to retaining good staff. He says: “Too many companies plough money into the aesthetics of the venue, rather than the staffing. Because salaries are low, people don’t tend to stay long and, because they don’t stay very long, money is not invested in training.”
Hockham thinks that training is only part of the solution. She says: “Of course, training will always help. But what matters is being able to deal with problems quickly and discreetly, and that’s not necessarily something that a person can be trained to do. The key is to be able to think on your feet and to know what to do in certain circumstances.”
On the job training
Degree courses in event management are becoming more popular, particularly those that include a sandwich year of relevant work experience. There is widespread agreement that they are helping to raise the standards of the industry, but Bennett is cautious: “This business is not a classroom subject. All a degree can do is open a door to an interview. You still have to learn your trade on the job.”
Taylor thinks that clients also need training, because too many fail to understand how complex staging an event can be. He says: “A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that their secretary can organise the event, particularly when they are trying to find ways to trim their budgets.”
According to Taylor, this rarely works and is frequently disastrous because clients neither have the expertise nor the time to plan and execute an event effectively. He cites the instance of a client that tried to organise its own event in order to save money. Its post-event evaluation was so poor that it returned to Jack Morton the following year. Taylor says: “It’s too easy to forget that an event is a reflection of your business. When you are in the public eye there is an absolute requirement to get it right, and you have to be prepared to pay the price.”
Ultimately, everyone benefits from a good working relationship. For instance, K&N regularly receives business leads from venues that recommend the company to prospective clients. As Bennett points out, “It’s not a themand-us situation – all that matters is getting the best result for the client.”