VENUES: Places to be seen in

Jennifer Creevy

Charity events need well equipped venues in good locations, but all that comes at a price. Jennifer Creevy reports on how to keep costs down and standards high.

During the furore surrounding the sale of the Millennium Dome, the National Autistic Society called on the Government to donate the building to the nation's charities. It said a 'UK Charity Dome' would cater for a range of functions, such as AGMs and fundraising events, paid for out of charities' voluntary income.

As we know, this didn't happen. The Dome was sold to a property investor and is currently being transformed into a sports and entertainment stadium.

But the reasoning behind the National Autistic Society's proposal is still valid: that by reducing the costs charities incur in hiring venues, a greater proportion of charitable donations could go straight to where they are needed most. After all, most charities are not as lucky as the National Trust, which uses its own listed properties for events. The whole process of venue hire can cost a considerable sum.

War Child spokesman James Topham agrees that events can be expensive.

"We run fundraising events, but find that AGMs work out too costly for us," he says. "Our criteria for finding a venue and running an event is that everything must be pretty much free."

But in reality, nothing is completely free. Additional costs can cause major headaches, but there are also other factors that need to be considered.

Accessibility, location, capacity and type of event are all as important.

Charlotte Parkinson, development manager at the NSPCC, says the venue must reflect the event. "It depends on whether you're hosting a meeting or party as to the type of venue to go for," she says.

For AGMs and meetings, charities look specifically at the venue's facilities as well as its location. Rose Muller, marketing administration manager at Scope, insists on visiting the venue with a checklist. "The venue must be easily accessible by road and rail first of all," she says. "Then it has to have the right facilities. We have a large percentage of disabled members so we can only use venues with fully flat ramps, and if the event requires an overnight stay, we must have 10 or more bedrooms with wheelchair access."

Christine Armstrong, spokeswoman for the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care, says venue-hire is driven by facilities. "We have a large AGM so there aren't that many venues that can host it," she says. "The last venue we used was Wembley Conference Centre and while the facilities were fine, getting to it was a problem for most delegates, either coming from London or the rest of the UK."

Muller thinks that facilities are more important than the location. "As long as it is accessible, it doesn't matter where it is. We have members all over the UK, so we try to find somewhere fairly central," she says.

Scope has used venues as diverse as Loughborough University, Birmingham City Football Club and Blackpool's Norbreck Castle Hotel in the past.

Armstrong also points to a couple of other venues the charity has used - the International Convention Centre in Birmingham and Bournemouth International Centre. "The convention centre has excellent transport access as the railway station is nearby. There are also some very good hotels but it can be quite costly. At the Bournemouth International Centre there is no charge for venue hire for non-profit organisations, so that can be quite cost-effective."

Richard Shelton, spokesman for the International Convention Centre, says every event has different needs and budgets and "we are always keen to sit down and discuss how we can make an event work at our venue, operationally and financially". The centre has 11 main halls and 10 smaller meeting rooms and hosts more than 400 events a year.

For evening events such as charity dinners or fundraising balls, War Child's Topham says it is difficult to use venues outside London. "Our events all have a fundraising element and in order to raise the profile we try to get along celebrity guests," he explains. "Getting these guests to come is only really possible if you're using a London-based venue unless that celebrity has a strong association with the charity." War Child held its last charity ball at Mayfair's Claridges Hotel, attended by actors Neil Morrissey and Hugo Speer.

The size of many annual balls has seen some charities use Park Lane's Le Meridien Grosvenor House Hotel. Gillie Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for Vision, says she has used other London hotels but moved to the Grosvenor because of the space. "We have anything up to 1,200 guests at our annual ball and Grosvenor is really the only property that can hold an event of that size. We have talked about looking outside London for venues but we feel Park Lane has the right type of glitzy address to attract guests."

Claire Keene, the director of conference and banqueting at the Grosvenor, says the Park Lane address is a real draw for guests. "Often charities sell tickets to annual balls, and having a location like ours tends to attract more people. It also helps to pull in celebrities as most live in London anyway and we are centrally located."

Jane Asher, actress and president of the National Autistic Society, points to the benefit of having celebrities attend a charity event. "When a charity is trying to raise money from tickets to an event, then it helps to be able to put a celebrity name on the programme." Asher helped to raise money for the society's 40th anniversary Christmas concert last December this way (see Case Study).

Children with Leukaemia also uses Le Meridien Grosvenor House Hotel for its annual ball and believes it is a great venue, if a bit pricey. "The venue offers special rates on bedrooms for those attending events," says spokeswoman Pippa Gough. "But we have had incidents where delegates have found cheaper rooms at the same hotel on the internet or through a booking agent so you have to watch out for that.

"Also, there is no charge for venue hire if you have a certain number of guests, so they make their money on the per-head catering charges. This charge varies on the day of the week and time of the year but that sort of thing can be negotiated with the hotel."

Gough recommends keeping the costs down by getting wine or champagne companies to sponsor drinks, but she says corkage charges at the hotel have to be taken account of and can often add up to a lot. "We find that venues without bars, such as the City's Guildhall, are more reasonable regarding food and beverages as everything has to be brought in and can be sponsored without any extra charges."

Vision's Fitzpatrick describes the sponsorship of events as a charity's bread and butter. "We raise between £15,000 and £18,000 in sponsorship per event, with everything from having the company name on the menu, balloons, glasses to banners in the hall." Companies involved in the Vision annual ball have included Sony, Panasonic and JVC.

An example from the NSPCC of the benefit of sponsorship was its England Rugby Dinner at the Cafe Royal in London's Regent Street. The involvement of the celebrity sportsmen helped secure overall sponsorship by Citigroup.

A spokesperson for the National Autistic Society says most venues will offer special charity package rates and it is worth cultivating relationships with banqueting managers at venues to develop goodwill and enable the charity to benefit from discounts.

The NSPCC's Parkinson agrees. She says the charity's London office has built up strong relationships with a number of top hotels in the capital, and through repeat business has secured a special charity rate. "Our corporate division is also looking into taking this concept further and forming corporate partnerships with certain venues and hotels but that is in its early stages at the moment."

The NSPCC's recent events have included a dinner at The Landmark Hotel just before last year's World Cup and a party at Asia de Cuba. The dinner was called The Business of Winning: An Evening with Sir Alex and Sven and involved a Q&A session. The party was called A Night of Two Halves and was organised by Premiership footballers' wives on behalf of the charity.

Despite the possibility of celebrity attendance and a wide variety of venues in London, some charities still advocate regional events. Scope's Muller sees customer service as a big difference between London and the regions. "Hotels outside of London tend to have permanent staff whereas in London the properties tend to hire agency staff," she says. "This makes a big difference as we often ask a venue if we can give a small amount of disability awareness training to the staff prior to the event and we can't do that if we don't know who will be there on the day."

Muller also finds permanent staff much more helpful and flexible. She points to Scope's last AGM in Blackpool's Norbreck Castle Hotel as an example. "The event was held last November when there were terrible storms and the M6 was closed in 26 places. This caused up to six-hour delays for some of our guests but the hotel was brilliant about it. It delayed the evening meal and made sure our guest speakers had plenty of rehearsal time and everything ran smoothly. I am sure that we would not have got that kind of service in London."

The type of event a charity is looking to host seems to make all the difference. Whether it's a regional AGM or a London-based celebrity dinner, there is any number of venues. It just requires powerful negotiation on the part of the charity and a big dose of hard work.

CASE STUDY THE NATIONAL AUTISTIC SOCIETY AT THE GUILDHALL

The National Autistic Society celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. As a finale, it hosted a Christmas carol concert at London's Guildhall on 19 December, pulling in 800 guests.

The 'Stars Shine for Autism' event was the brainchild of actress Jane Asher, the society's president. "I've been to many Christmas concerts over the years for different charities and I thought it would be great to do this for the charity," she says. "And with it being the 40th anniversary year, I thought it was now or never to organise such a concert."

Asher managed to secure a special price for the venue after "a certain amount of schmoozing" and set the date for the event. She explains there were a few difficulties along the way, though. "About halfway through the year the charity got a bit wobbly about it because they thought they wouldn't be able to sell it, so that was when I got really involved."

She persuaded the society to give it a go and then called on her network of celebrity friends to get involved. The final celebrity line-up included Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Nick Hornby and Sir Thomas Allen. "I was very pleased Nick Hornby decided to come along as I didn't know him at all. I just wrote to him as I know he has a child with autism, and he was delighted to help out."

The charity managed to attract France Telecom to sponsor the whole event in order to keep costs to a minimum. Asher also helped out with the entertainment.

"My sister's husband sings with the choir, the New London Singers, so they kindly offered their services for free," she explains. "That meant that the only paid-for considerations were the orchestra and the conductor but both of those offered a special charity rate, too."

The event involved readings by the celebrities, such as John Betjeman's Advent 1955, and hymns from the choir. Internationally renowned baritone Sir Thomas Allen also sang with the choir and orchestra, and a drinks reception ended the evening.

Tickets were sold for between £20 and £30, and the event raised £25,000.

Asher says the event was a huge success and the venue was stunning. "It's definitely something I'd like to keep as an annual event for the charity as it helps raise awareness of the issues as well as raise money," she concludes.

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