The venue is crucial to the smooth running of any conference or event. But according to some in the charity sector, the quality of the facilities in some places does not always match expectations.
Kath Skidmore, events manager at Age Concern England, discovered that even the most carefully planned occasion can be spoiled by rude, inattentive staff.
She says: "We held an awards lunch at one London hotel where guests were ignored when they wanted more wine or food. The charity had a representative on each table and they had to spend all their time rushing around finding hotel staff. We wouldn't go there again."
For its five or so conferences a year, mainly in London, the charity sticks with venues where Skidmore knows that the staff "will bend over backwards for you". These include the Novotel Euston, Radisson SAS Portman and Millennium Mayfair. For more unusual, smaller events such as campaign launches, she prefers venues such as the Imagination Gallery in London.
"We recently had a particularly good experience at Imagination," says Skidmore. "The staff made really useful suggestions on how to use the space, which they know far better than we do."
Accessibility is another area in which standards can vary widely. Luke Rogers, events and multimedia manager at the children's charity NCH, says his organisation's 800 or so events across the UK each year all require facilities for people with a range of needs, including wheelchair ramps, lifts and toilets for disabled people.
He praises, among others, the British Museum for its attention to accessibility.
He does have some general gripes, however. "The use of different languages on signage is still rare, as is the provision of Braille and hearing loops," he says.
"As far as we can, we will use only those venues that are able to provide these facilities. Awareness of equal access is improving throughout the venue industry, but there is still a long way to go."
Leigh Banks, a committee member at Mencap, which holds four main events a year, including its AGM, says: "You can find adapted bedrooms and bathrooms for wheelchair users, but this rarely means wheel-in showers or baths with hoists. And disabled toilets in public areas are often not large enough for a person and their supporter."
The Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust, a division of the Sussex-based Disabilities Trust, uses a range of venues, including the Cedar Court Hotel in Wakefield, Manchester's Palace Hotel, the Britannia International Hotel in London's Docklands and Queens Hotel in Leeds. Frances Pitwell, a PA at Birt who books venues, says a key way to avoid disappointment is to visit a venue first and, where possible, test the facilities.
She adds that this would be significantly easier to do if venues supplied testimonials and contact details of satisfied customers, but she says hotels in particular are rarely happy to provide these.
It's also worth checking whether a venue offers discounts to charities or price reductions for repeat and block bookings. Once again, availability varies widely.
Rogers says he always receives a charity discount at the venues NCH uses, which include the House of Lords, the Magic Circle and the Royal College of Physicians. They also offer rewards for repeat business.
By contrast, Skidmore says that Age Concern England, which spends about £15,000 on venue hire for 100 people or so per conference, has never received a discount for charitable status and the hotels it uses "don't seem to offer a discount for repeat bookings and customer loyalty".
Pitwell suggests that another way to save money is to look for alternative equipment suppliers. She says: "Sometimes we find that hotels charge rather more for audio-visual machinery than necessary.
"We hire an outside supplier to look after our audio-visual needs at conferences. Its staff stay at the venue throughout the conference and are available if there are any problems."
Brenda Daisy, head of learning and development at Cancer Research UK, says she regularly gains a charity discount at venues such as the King's Fund, the Mary Ward Centre and the October Gallery, all in London, and Durdent Court in Buckinghamshire. She adds that she's never found that a price reduction means poorer service.
She recalls one particular event at Durdent Court: "It was a hot day, so the venue allowed us to use the grounds for break-out workshops and even supplied each delegate with an ice cream."
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
- Ensure the 'feel' of the venue fits the charity's brand
- Check that spaces for break-out sessions at conferences are easy to find and accessible
- Carry out a site visit and test the facilities before booking - Negotiate the price and try to get discounts for charitable status, repeat or block bookings and large events - Shop around for extras such as audio-visual equipment, because hiring them at the venue can be expensive
- Build good relations with venue staff and make sure they are fully briefed
- Ensure there are good transport links to the venue