Conference venues: Meeting Demands

Getting outside organisations to sponsor conferences or events is another way of keeping costs down. Urban Forum often seeks sponsorship. "We may ask them to sponsor part of the conference, such as the evening event," says Brown, and adds that the charity has also built up relationships with commercial partners.

The growth in the number and variety of conference venues means that charities are well placed to get a good deal, especially if they get in touch early with potential suppliers. Asking for charity discounts, being willing to book well in advance and being prepared to accept more simple menus can all pay off.


Barnardo's set itself a major challenge when organising a conference last year, namely that the event would encompass three elements. These were the charity's annual general meeting in the morning, another event in the afternoon and a speech by Cherie Booth in the evening.

"We knew we'd need a venue in central London, but one that was flexible enough to host the three events and be big enough for 300 people," says conference organiser Michael Phillips.

The charity plumped for Church House in Westminster. "It's a great venue because it's got a lot of character and it wasn't too expensive," says Phillips, adding: "The staff there were excellent, the service was attentive and they were very efficient at setting everything up for the events." One of the best things about the venue, he says, was the staff's flexibility.

The charity had received a request just before the event that a room be made available for Cherie Booth to prepare herself before her speech.

"Church House immediately provided a room and, on the day, found out that Cherie Booth liked herbal tea and provided that for her," he says.

Good service is the most important thing when choosing a conference venue, says Phillips: "Many people spell Barnardo's without the second 'r' and one of the ways I find out if a venue's staff are attentive is if they use the correct spelling when they correspond with us."

The success of a conference hinges on many elements, but none more so than the venue. Patrick McCurry outlines how to get the best fit for your event.

Rooms that aren't big enough, lukewarm coffee and malfunctioning data projectors are just some of the potential problems facing charities when they book conference venues. But as important as a smooth, trouble-free event is securing the best deal on the venue, so that delegates aren't put off attending by the cost.

Finding the right venue can be a tough process, and charities will usually need to decide between holding their event at a purpose-built conference centre, a hotel or perhaps a less conventional site, such as a National Trust property or university.

In making the decision, much will depend on the nature of the event itself, such as whether it is a residential or non-residential conference, its location and the number of delegates. For example, regeneration charity Urban Forum runs several conferences each year up and down the country.

As a national organisation Urban Forum believes it is important to hold its events in different regions, rather than just in London where it is based.

"It's a good policy in principle, but it can be difficult to find venues in some areas," says senior administrator Alistair Brown. The search can be further complicated by the fact that its events last two days. "That means we're not only looking for a conference venue but also accommodation for anything between 120 and 450 delegates." he adds.

Because of these factors, the charity often opts for hotels. Keeping costs down is a priority, and Brown says hotels are often willing to offer discounts, especially if the event is a large one.

"We'll often get in touch with the hotel four or six months before the event. I've found that many hotels are very keen to get your business so will be open to negotiation rates," he says.

But in some cases Urban Forum has had to turn to less conventional venues.

For example, it organised a conference last year in Luton but found it difficult to find a venue. "We were saved by the fact that the local community group involved in the conference was based in a former factory so, with a bit of imagination we managed to turn that into a temporary conference venue," says Brown.

Like Brown, Julia Smith, training manager at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, tends to favour hotels over dedicated conference centres: "Hotels will have a 'rack rate', which is the up-front price, but they'll often come down from that, especially if you say you're prepared to make a confirmed booking that day."

A question of access

Helen Sykes, events and multi-media executive at children's charity NCH, also prefers hotels. She feels that many conference centres with their state-of-the-art technology target the higher end of the corporate market, and tend not to be as accessible."Probably about half of our delegates arrive by public transport, so access is an important factor," she says.

But other charity event organisers argue that conference centres are often a better bet than hotels, particularly for non-residential events.

Michael Phillips, conference organiser at Barnardo's, says: "In my experience, conference centres are not necessarily more expensive than hotels, particularly hotels at the higher end of the market."

Often, he says, conference centres are a better option because they are designed for big events, whereas in hotels the layout means it can be difficult to find break-out rooms for workshops.

"You can find yourself tramping around the hotel to find break-out rooms," he says. Other disadvantages with hotels, according to Phillips, are that the plenary event is often held in the hotel's ballroom, where lighting may not be that good and often there isn't a purpose-built stage.

Another issue, he says, is that hotels tend to hire in IT professionals to operate equipment, whereas most dedicated conference centres will have a staff member who knows the venue and the equipment. "The technical support is usually better than in hotels," says Phillips.

When it comes to dedicated conference centres, one of the most popular among charities holding events in the capital is the London Voluntary Resource Centre in north London. Set up by the City Parochial Foundation primarily to help the charity sector, it offers cheaper space than the average London venue.

The centre was opened a decade ago and caters to charities ranging from small groups to large, national organisations.

"I'd say we're 60-70 per cent cheaper than hotels in London," says the centre's manager Keith Breathwick.

Suzy Lamplugh Trust's Smith says of the centre: "It's very good on price and the service is good - it doesn't promise what it can't deliver."

Smith adds that one of her criteria when choosing a venue is not to end up somewhere too opulent. "People attending from the charity or public sector don't want the venue to be too flashy, or they'll suspect that we're spending too much on it at the expense of our other work."

So how can charities make sure that things run smoothly during their event? Larger charities will usually make site visits to a venue in advance, although smaller organisations may not have the resources to do this, especially if an event is being held a long way from their base. It is important to remember, says Smith, that some hotels will promise more than they can deliver in order to get the business.

"It may say that the venue accommodates more people than it actually does, which can lead to problems when all your delegates turn up," she says.

As a result, Smith tends to compensate: "If a hotel tells me it can hold 120 people in its main room, I'll often take that to mean 100 people can be accommodated comfortably," she says.

Research the facility

It is also very important not to make assumptions, but to check out in detail what the venue will be providing. Barnardo's Phillips remembers one occasion where he asked for screens to be set up in break-out rooms.

"When I got there, it turned out they'd put these massive screens in pretty small rooms, when I'd assumed they'd have screens that would be appropriate to the size of the rooms'" he says. "It was my fault for not checking this out in detail in advance, and it shows how important it is to dot the i's and cross the t's."

In recent years a growing number of less conventional buildings have been marketing themselves as venues. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is trying out the National Centre for Early Music in York for an event this summer.

The building is a former church and was recommended by one of the charity's contacts in York who had attended an event there, says Smith.

Gill Baldwin, conference organiser at the National Centre for Early Music, says: "Delegates often say how much they've enjoyed holding their event at such a historic and striking venue," she says.

It is not just universities and historic buildings that are marketing their venues, but also some charities. In Stockport, for example, three charities have come together in a consortium to market themselves to the local business community.

One of the charities is the Boys and Girls Welfare Society, and its spokesman David Friedlander says: "If one of us gets an enquiry and we can't meet that demand we'll pass it on to one of the others."

The society has its own conference centre, which it uses for staff training, but sells its spare capacity to outside organisations. "It earns us extra revenue for our charitable work," says Friedlander.

It is likely that charities will continue in the main to use hotels and dedicated conference centres, says NCH's Sykes. "Venues such as National Trust properties are often marketing themselves on their unusual location and the fees they charge can reflect that."

Academic venues such as universities, on the other hand, may offer a good deal, especially for those charities holding residential events, because accommodation can be included.

One of the problems with universities, however, is that they obviously only offer conference facilities out of term time and many charities prefer not to hold events during school holidays because it can be difficult for some delegates to attend.

When it comes to getting a good deal on costs, aside from negotiating a deal on the 'day-delegate' rate, charity conference organisers should be able to achieve other savings if they are on the ball. For example, organisers can lower costs by downgrading catering to from the standard menu to more simple fare such as sandwiches or hors d'oeuvres.

For charities that host a lot of events it may be worth investing in their own data projectors. "Many venues will charge up to £150 for you to hire equipment like data projectors, but you can buy them outright for only a few hundred pounds," says Barnardo's Phillips.

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