COMMUNICATIONS: A Venue for all Reasons


- Don't just accept the set menus provided by the in-house caterers.

Ask for a simpler menu with less expensive food. Choose buffets instead of sit-down meals.

- For larger events, try to pull in corporate sponsors to help with the costs.

- Keep audio-visual equipment simple but don't scrimp. Work out exactly what you need and hire that, rather than buying a package.

- Work out how long the event will last. Often it can work out cheaper to hire a venue by the hour, rather than a whole-day package.

- For conferences that rely on registration, don't book space for the maximum number of delegates expected to attend. If registration is high then the venue will almost always try to accommodate more guests but if it is low, you still have to pay for those empty seats.

- Bring in volunteers to help on the day rather than hiring venue staff to show guests to their seats, or to the cloak room etc.

If delegates are spread across the UK, try to choose a centrally located venue outside of London - prices drop outside of the capital.

- If there is a particular venue that works for your conferences, re-book and build up a relationship. This can help when negotiating in the future.

Have a standard backdrop designed and keep it for all events. Make it adaptable so you can swap and change bits but the basic structure stays the same. This saves using the venue's set design company.

- For lunch and dinner settings, bring in your own table decorations.

It will add that personal touch to the event while keeping costs to a minimum.

- Above all, shop around. Venues will often offer special rates for charities.

Event venues that can meet all of your needs are thin on the ground. But a bit of research, planning and negotiation can help you find somewhere suitable.

In June 2000, the National Federation of Women's Institutes staged its Triennial Conference at Wembley Arena. It made headline news as guest speaker Tony Blair infamously gave a political speech - against the federation's express wishes - and received a cool reception, followed by slow-clapping from the 10,000-strong audience.

Despite the reaction to the Prime Minister's speech, the event was deemed a success on two levels. The incident boosted the worldwide profile of the charity and the high attendance from delegates was a tribute to the planning.

Not all charity conferences are as high profile as this example but the planning process is basically the same. The federation needed a centrally located venue that would suit the type and number of delegates, have exhibition space and be accessible as a day trip - all within a set budget.

The organisation's needs are not unique. Any conference organiser must consider the size of the event, the profile of the delegates, break-out space, location, accessibility, the duration of the event and cost.

This can often be more difficult than it sounds, as Rose Muller, marketing administration manager of Scope, has found. "There are no suitable venues in the UK that can fit our needs exactly,

she says. "As a disability organisation, wheelchair access is paramount so we don't have the luxury of choice. A venue may have a meeting room that can hold 400 but then not have any bedrooms with wheelchair access, or it will have sufficient bedroom facilities but not enough meeting space."

Complications such as these force charities to look at all types of venue.

Everything from dedicated conference centres to hotels to more unusual venues, such as universities, theatres or historic properties are considered.

And all three types of venue have good and bad points.

Mary Ryan, communication projects officer at Cancer Research UK, finds all three have their place in the event mix. She sees conference centres as essential for large-scale events, hotels for meetings needing overnight stays and unusual venues for smaller, half-day events.

"Once you have decided the size and duration of the event then you can start to look at which venues fit the needs of your audience within your budget,

she says. For a recent conference, Ryan chose the London-based QEII Conference Centre. "It was central for all delegates, had sufficient meeting space, fell into our price bracket and provided all the necessary special-needs facilities.

"It's nice if you can choose an unusual venue but they don't often match all of your requirements. We looked at a number before booking the QEII but for this event they just didn't fit the bill. For example, Westminster Central Hall is beautiful but with marble staircases and no hand rails, it just isn't viable for our delegates since we have a lot of members who are over the age of 70."

And with cost being a deciding factor, charities must compare prices.

Some venues will just hire out the conference space, essentially offering a blank canvas to work on, while others sell the whole package. Everything from catering, audio-visual equipment, set design, stewards, and even small items such as water for the speakers has to be accounted for.

Conference centres

Since most conference centres are purpose-built, they often offer the best facilities but the relatively high cost can be their downfall. Christine Armstrong, secretariat at the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care (ISNCC), has worked with Wembley Arena and the Brighton Centre. "Conference centres tend to be very expensive but they are essential for large events.

As with anywhere, rates can usually be negotiated. Wembley gave stewards for free while the Brighton Centre gives complimentary room hire."

Celia Adams, conference sales manager at Brighton and Hove City Council, sees the Brighton Centre as cost effective while maintaining good facilities.

"The centre is run by the council so it can offer free room hire to non-profit making organisations. The event needs to pull in 600 or more delegates, use 1,000 sqm of exhibition space and run for a minimum of two days. It is always subject to council approval though."

Another factor is accessibility. As most centres are purpose-built, they often sit on the outskirts of a city. Wembley's senior communications and marketing manager Julie Warren believes this isn't an issue for Wembley.

She claims that 43 per cent of the UK population lives within two hours of Wembley and "it would be difficult to find a venue in central London which offered our wealth of facilities".

But Scope's Muller warns that while a venue may be accessible by car, it could be difficult to reach via public transport. "There are lots of venues that claim to be just off a certain motorway junction but make no claim as to where to find the nearest train station."

If in doubt, make the trip to the venue yourself first. Pam Forrest, marketing consultant at Discover the World, organised a series of events this year for Born Free. She cites Southampton Conference Centre as perfect for the event but the only slight hiccup came with the directions. "The map the centre provided didn't specify which room the event was in and as it is quite large, a lot of delegates got a bit lost,

she remembers. "It was fine in the end but conference centres can be a bit like mazes at times."


Costs incurred for conferences that include an overnight stay can be high. Accommodation, evening meals and venue-to-hotel transportation are just three of the extras that need to be considered. This is where hotels come into their own. As Scope's Muller has found, having everything under one roof cuts the total bill and can be much less stressful in terms of organisation.

"Hotels tend to be cheaper if you book a 24-hour rate, which includes meeting space hire and overnight stays,

she says. "Otherwise you could end up booking a conference venue, then using three or four hotels around it. We find hotels do much better deals the more bedrooms you book so it really does pay to keep everyone in one place."

Muller has found that the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool fits her needs. "It has large meeting spaces and bedrooms for our use. We try to keep the cost under £100 a head and the Norbreck can meet this. You would never be able to get that price in London.

But Le Meridien Grosvenor House Hotel is adamant London can provide attractive discounts. Claire Keene, executive conference and banqueting manager at the hotel, says special rates are available at up to a £100 discount per room. "Organisers booking conference space and bedrooms often have to arrange a dinner too and this is where hotels can work out to be fairly cheap. Special rates are offered for a whole package - conference, dinner and accommodation."

The Four Seasons Hotel in Canary Wharf maintains it provides special deals for charity events too. Its director of catering, Lisa Weedman, says although there is nothing written in stone, the hotel can suggest ways of keeping budgets down. "For the evening dinner we often advise charities to bring in their own wine and try to waive corkage charges,

she says. "And if there is an auction at the dinner with corporate sponsors then we will offer a gift of a weekend stay."

Aside from researching the facilities, it is also worth doing your homework to find out which other charities have held events at a particular venue in the past. Alison Rhind-Tutt, partner in event organiser company Conference Line, says hotel groups often have an affiliation with a certain type of charity and if they are inundated with requests then they tend to be quite selective. "It sounds bad to say, but particularly when the economic climate is tough, hotels can become rather hardened to charity issues if they are struggling for business."

Discover the World's Forest found favour with the Ramada Jarvis hotel group when Rhind-Tutt organised the Born Free events. "We had to find venues all over the UK so we approached the Jarvis Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester and discovered the general manager there was already a supporter of Born Free. He helped secure us a special rate, then negotiated deals with other Ramada properties in the UK."

Unusual venues

As an extra revenue stream, venues of all shapes and sizes are opening their doors to the conference industry as an alternative to the traditional hotel or conference centre. And there are thousands on offer: museums, town halls, universities, sports grounds, theatres and historical buildings to name but a few.

However, the fact that these venues aren't purpose-built for conferences can sometimes pose a few problems for an organiser. Cancer Research's Ryan has looked at a number of unusual venues. "We've used the Whitehall Theatre and it worked well but we found it didn't offer the space to mingle before and after the conference. There was no real catering offered there either, just snacks, so it could only be used for a half-day meeting,

she explains.

Access can also be an issue. Ryan points to the headquarters of The Magic Circle in Euston, The Centre for the Magic Arts, as a charming but inaccessible venue. "Access to the meeting rooms is by a small lift or by going up lots of stairs and this just isn't an option with our elderly members,

she says.

Ryan found the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, part of the Emmanuel Evangelical Church, more fitting to her needs. "It has great facilities for smaller conferences and is reasonably priced."

Despite some unusual venues having their flaws, they can often work out to be more cost-effective. Universities are key here. Richard Hainsworth, conference director at the University of York, boasts a 24-hour rate on the property, and prices including all meals stand at £68.15. "This can be around 50 per cent cheaper than most conference centres,

he says.

"And we also have the facilities to suit. We have 100 meeting rooms, 1,500 bedrooms, 25 of which have disabled facilities, and it is all on one flat site. There is a maximum 10 minutes walking time from one end of the campus to the other."

But as with all bargains, there is a flip side. "The restriction we have is that we can only offer the space to conferences 20 weeks of the year when the students aren't there,

says Hainsworth.

This doesn't necessarily have to be a drawback though. ISNCC's Armstrong says as long as the timing fits in with the charity and university then "it would be a hard push to find a cheaper option in any other type of venue".


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