Space stalkers

Finding the right venue for a conference is almost impossible – even for the professional organiser.

Who’d want the job of matching an event to a venue? With more than 3,000 recognised places in the UK to choose from, the factors that have to be considered range from whether the venue suits the temperament of the delegates to how often the toilets are cleaned.

For many companies, the job of selecting a venue is left to the professionals – people who do it so often they not only know what to look out for, they also wield the sort of buying clout that has venue organisers bending over backwards to please them.

But even for the professionals, getting it right is not always easy. Director of venue services at Spectrum Communications Sally Greenhill says that about a quarter of the time she is forced to build a venue for the purpose because her clients’ requirements cannot be found. But this is costly and not something Spectrum likes doing.

“Last year we organised an event for Mercury and ended up building three domes on a car park at the NEC because we could not find the right place to do what it wanted,” she says.

But what are the essential elements of a good venue and does the industry in this country provide enough variety?

“When you start looking for a venue you have to know the purpose

of the event, who the people are and where they are coming from,” explains Greenhill. “The location and style of the venue is a priority. A small country house is good for intensive board meetings; but if you have a strong marketing message and want to motivate people, you need something that will reflect that.”

Greenhill says at her end of the market – concerned mainly with product launches and sales conferences – there is little to choose from and, if you are working on short lead times, getting the right venue is almost impossible.

It is partly for this reason, and the fact that rates are on the increase as the country emerges from recession, that director of sales at The Travel Organisation Susan Sexton is increasingly taking her clients abroad.

“London is going wild again,” she says. “If you have any group larger than 80 and you have not booked 12 months in advance, you will never get a venue. This is why so many of my clients are going overseas and getting better value for their money.

“In the past ten years I’ve used venues in Switzerland, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, the Channel Islands and Ireland. In terms of rates they are all comparable to this country and you get that little extra because it is out of England.”

Sexton is also convinced that her liaising role is particularly valuable to clients. “I organise 26,000 people a year. Hotels and conference centres know they are going to see me again which means I usually get the best rates and have no problems because they don’t want to upset me. If the end user finds the venue, that venue knows they probably won’t see this person again, so if something goes wrong they are not that bothered to put it right,” she says.

However, the chief travel buyer at a leading pharmaceuticals company does all his company’s venue booking and he believes anyone can learn the tricks of the trade.

“As a company, we take part in international conventions ranging from a cast of thousands to four or five people in a think tank. When you are doing your own thing, the main driver is value for money. I like to have a 24-hour rate which is all-inclusive and flexible,” he says.

This buyer’s chief problem, he says, is the fact that hotels will insist on putting the youngest and least experienced college graduate on conference and banqueting. “I don’t understand it. This is the area where you are most likely to mess up and least likely to win return business,” he says.

Surrey-based Venues Etc is one of the many venue-finding agencies which provide a service free to the clients and are paid commission by the venue which secures the business. Director Judith Tillman says that although the business is commission-driven, you can’t afford to make a fast buck.

“Your reputation is built on how you mediate between venue and client. There are a lot of rogues out there, but if you want to stay in business you have to find the right venues,” she says.

Tillman says large sales conferences are often the most difficult to accommodate because people travel long distances and want to be entertained. Another tough mandate is finding venues that are suitable for large computer conferences. “They usually need a large conference space, a large exhibition space alongside it, plus breakout areas. You will never find something completely suitable for that.” She adds that computer companies are in for a shock as, particularly in London, rates are creeping – and in some cases leaping – back up.”Most large computer companies have only grown in the past ten years and have never experienced the attitude of London venues in the mid-Eighties. Now, London is becoming incredibly expensive again, these companies are looking elsewhere for venues,” says Tillman.

Michael Selway, a partner at The Event Organisation, believes there are not enough purpose-built conference centres – his preferred type of venue – and says that although most out-of-town hotels offer conference facilities, they are inevitably inferior to the purpose-built variety.

“Hotels are notoriously bad with audio-visual facilities, even the sophisticated ones. We always bring our own lighting and AV equipment. Hotels make a great mistake by thinking they are in the conference business when they are not. The majority of hotels offer inferior conference facilities,” he says.

Selway points out that a city with this type of centre can gain enormously. “We have a four-day conference later this year and over that period it will put 3m to 4m into the local economy. There is a conference centre opening in Edinburgh later this year which will help, but we do need more,” he says.

On the whole, however, it does seem that the UK is beginning to provide what the conference sector is looking for. But, as always, there is room for improvement. Going through her checklist of venues outside London, Sexton says: ” You can’t beat some of our stately homes – we’ve got a lot of them and they are good for small groups; generally in this country food and beverage is good, but not creative; the service is adequate but not outstanding. In the UK, you still have to work very hard to get things right and just how the client wants it. My one big complaint is – give me more space.”