Imagine booking a conference in a hotel where the rooms are too small to accommodate production equipment, or renting an exhibition hall where disruptive roadworks start hammering outside on the opening day of the show.
For anyone organising a conference or exhibition, or compiling the itinerary for an incentive travel programme, selecting the venue or destination is a major responsibility. The wrong decision could ruin everything and damage the client’s reputation.
But searching for the appropriate venue that meets a client’s brief is not easy. Planners are faced with a mass of information provided by the venues themselves and by directory services now available on CD-Roms and the Internet. Thousands of locations in the UK and around the world pay to be included in these directories, but the question for event planners remains how up-to-date and reliable they are.
Venue finding has become big business. The British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD) values the UK conference market at £2.5bn a year, while the Exhibitions Venues Association (EVA) says there were more than 840 exhibitions in this country last year, attracting 11 million visitors and bringing in about £850m from companies taking stands. Meanwhile, the Incentive Travel & Meetings Association (ITMA) says the annual value of its members’ business is £746m.
The BACD represents mainly towns and cities and offers a freephone venue location hotline to planners who have their event needs faxed to members, usually through a tourist office or local authority. Clients are then sent details of suitable venues which they can approach directly.
Large companies usually have their own team of planners, who have compiled a list of preferred venues over many years. Ernst & Young, for example, has planners within individual marketing departments who will organise everything from a dinner for a small group of chief executives to large conferences.
Ernst & Young corporate relations manager Sarah McEvoy says the planning teams rarely use hotels because the executives it deals with are busy and prefer to be tempted by unusual and new venues. Pooling their contacts and information cuts out much of the hassle. “Teams from our different offices can access a central database to find details of the rates we have negotiated at different venues rather than book separately,” she says.
Money can be saved by booking venues directly, but this does not always work out to be cheaper. Many human resources, marketing and PR departments responsible for booking venues are turning to professional venue finding agencies which they know have the buying power and, more importantly, the time to do the job properly.
Hassles of booking direct
Damian Hall, vice-president of specialist agency Live Event Communications, says corporate buyers who try to locate venues themselves can become frustrated by the slow response to their enquiries and restrictive payment methods. This makes them less adventurous and more inclined to rebook the same venues.
“Once they have found information on a potential venue, the real work begins. Planners must get a provisional booking, negotiate the price and understand the complexity of the contract and the payment terms. We will do all that for them,” says Hall.
Conference planners looking for a similar service to that offered by BACD but for overseas venues can use UK company Connect Global, which has destination management companies (DMCs), or agents, scattered around the world. Director Tracey Williams says: “The DMCs are usually part of large, local organisations and have a lot of influence in their area. We take away the hassle of finding the venue and organising a conference, and will then handle the follow-up calls for a UK client.”
One of the advantages of using an agency is that planners are unlikely to make the mistake of selecting a venue that meets some needs, such as location and capacity, but which they discover on arrival cannot accommodate the technical equipment needed for a presentation.
Liz Cornelius, partner at Venuesearch, which organises production events for clients such as Thomas Cook and WH Smith, says the facilities quoted in a venue directory can never be taken for granted. “There is no substitute for visiting a place yourself and doing a complete check. We have to take into account a range of details, from the heights of the ceilings to the number of powerpoints,” she says.
Venuesearch has organised an event in November for Thomas Cook at Cameron House, near Glasgow. The client wanted a castle in Scotland that was also near an airport for a meeting of its top 100 managers from around the world.
Alexis Coles, director of PR and communications at Thomas Cook, is responsible for the event. “In our business, people are travelling all the time and as most senior managers are based in the UK, we felt it would be a good idea to hold the meeting in this country. A venue should reflect the tone of an event,” she says.
Although planners may need to visit locations to check facilities, venue finding directories can be a useful starting point for planners booking directly or using an agency.
The Corporate Team, an event organiser and part of the Polyglobe Group, prefers the Viewpoint Conference Directory, available on CD-Rom and the Internet, which lists details of 30,000 venues in 8,000 cities. Venues pay £20 to be included and from the next update in November, planners who buy the CD-Rom can download updates posted regularly on the Website.
The Corporate Team marketing manager Andrew Parsons says Viewpoint is used as an initial reference point. “We also have our own database and from past experience we know which type of venue will meet our clients’ needs,” he adds.
Another popular reference tool is The Venue Directory, which has a CD-Rom updated every four months and an Internet site changed weekly. There is also a data input facility for users to enter their own notes on particular venues.
Caribiner Logistics, the venue finding facility for Live Event Management, sources locations from the Conference Blue and Green CD-Rom directories. Head of logistics Jeremy Taylor says the company prefers to find its own venues. “We are not convinced agencies know enough about the technical events we organise. We have an internal library which contains details of thousands of venues and it is updated as new brochures are sent to us. We receive about 20 brochures every day,” he says.
Catering to clients’ needs
One of Caribiner’s biggest clients is Vauxhall, which spends more than £5m a year with the company. In August an event for van dealers was organised at the Stratford Moat House.
Vauxhall shows and events manager Ian Jennings explains how Caribiner chose its location for the van dealer event: “Whenever we need a venue, we take into account how long it will take people to reach it. We plan the itinerary around this because we want people to arrive fresh and in the right frame of mind. The venue had room to exhibit vans outside and is on a riverbank so we could have an informal barbecue.”
For professional venue finders, the CD-Rom format appears to be the most popular reference tool because it provides information quicker than the Internet. Wem-bley Conference & Exhibition Centre marketing manager Hasmita Mistry says she receives a large number of enquiries from venue finding services that have used one or more of the CD-Roms on the market.
Yet Websites are becoming more advanced in the information they provide. BusinessMeeting.com has been revamped and stores details of venues which can host small business meetings, conferences and exhibitions. It launches a marketing campaign this month to encourage the world’s event planners to make better use of the service.
Partner Pete Brady says: “The site is geared towards planners’ needs, and uses a powerful search engine that reduces the time to find specific information. There are also general interest links to towns and cities across the world.”
Such a site could be useful for planners booking exhibition venues in the UK or overseas, when considerable research is often necessary to accommodate local and international visitors.
Bill Richards, spokesman for the EVA, which represents most of the UK’s largest venues, says planners must check everything, from transport links and whether the exhibition booths are part of the rental agreement to what catering facilities are available.
“Yet in most cases, organisers will go for the best deal they can get on rental because this is their biggest overhead,” he says.
“In the UK, costs are higher in the spring and autumn when there is peak demand for halls, so other times are better for shows that are new and may be a risk. Once an exhibition has become established at a particular venue and on a certain date, it is dangerous to move it because visitors plan their business diaries around the shows they want to attend,” he adds.
Guidance for planners
Planners can also obtain advice from the Association of Exhibition Organisers, which has an exhibition enquiry line and a directory of venue finding services.
UK venues have become skilled in marketing themselves to international clients, and those overseas countries that best promote their facilities to this country are winning most of the lucrative UK incentive travel and meeting business.
ITMA executive director Sarah Webster says the group’s members are constantly reviewing destinations. They use the Internet and contact international tourist offices to clarify details quoted in the hundreds of destination and hotel brochures they receive each week. “Our members are responsible for everything from ensuring the buses run to the hotel, to the kitchens being clean. They check the venue is safe, secure and reliable,” she says.
The ITMA produces a guide called Recommended Terms & Conditions, which is a checklist for members to ensure there are no problems. It is set out like a contract, which hotels are encouraged to sign.
Searching for a venue that pleases the client and those likely to attend an event is a skilled job and one that requires thorough preparation. Planners with the experience to know what will and won’t work are the ones who are unlikely to be caught out.