Conference venues: 10 tips on finding the perfect venue

Arranging a conference is much like throwing an enormous teenage party: you hire a venue, cram it full of refreshments and loudspeakers, then send out some invites in the hope that lots of people will come. The big difference is you have far more than a half-eaten buffet and a cider hangover to contend with if things go wrong – particularly, if your boss happens to be one of the delegates. How do you find the perfect place to host your bash, and what can you do to make sure it all goes to plan?

1. Easy access

An empty hall is a conference organiser’s worst nightmare, so you need to ensure that even the most map-phobic delegate can locate it. “Easy access is the number-one consideration,” explains Daphne Davis, vice-chair of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO).

“Eighteen months ago it was all about location, location, location. But now people really do have to justify going to a conference and their time is precious, so the minimum amount of time it takes prospective delegates to get there, the better.”

If your target audience is drawn from Europe and the rest of the world, a location that is close to an airport and well-known overseas is ideal. For UK delegates it’s just as crucial to make sure that good rail and road links are nearby too.

2. Quality tailoring

There are lots of wonderful venues snuggled down country lanes and tucked away behind stately homes, but they may not always represent the most practical choice. “You need to assess the type of delegate that may be attending and decide if the venue is appropriate,” says Jane Evans, chief executive of the Meetings Industry Association (MIA). “For instance, if you know all the delegates are board directors, then chances are they will want to drive to the meeting. If they are more junior members of staff then they may well be using public transport.”

All these things need to be taken into consideration when you’re selecting a location. It’s a case of looking at the character of the group itself then choosing accordingly. Put simply: horses for courses.

3. Thorough research

Google the words ‘conference venue’ and you’ll get in the region of 20 million results. So you don’t have to do so much as open your office door to create a shortlist, based on the number of delegates you’re looking to invite and the essential facilities you need to have in place.

“Plus, you can get testimonials from people who have previously used the facilities and even contact them to see how it went and what the difficulties were,” says Gillian Hibberd, corporate director, people and policy, at Buckinghamshire County Council, and president of the Public Sector People Manager’s Association (PPMA).

Just remember that it’s practically impossible to find somewhere that’s 100% perfect, so you need to be flexible and realistic about what you absolutely have to have in place.

4. Keep focused

While it’s crucial to personally visit a venue before you sign on the dotted line, it’s just as important to focus on the purpose of the visit to ensure you aren’t swept along by its ambience.

The MIA’s Evans explains: “It’s very easy to get carried away with the creativity of an event and miss some of the fundamentals such as: is there natural daylight in the meeting room? Can you lock the door? Is there a disabled toilet near the meeting room?

“Little things like this can make a huge difference on the day, so make sure you don’t go dashing down the creativity route and miss the fundamentals.”

5. Freshen up

Both the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the PPMA have relocated their annual conferences to Manchester in 2009 from Harrogate, North Yorkshire. The PPMA is also moving again to London for its 2010 event. The reason?

“Our previous venue had become slightly tired to us as we had been there so many times. We felt we were just doing the same thing again and again,” says Hibberd.

“We needed to add some freshness to the event and give it more of a spark. Simply changing the venue generated this extra interest and excitement as it gave people somewhere new to explore, discover and, hopefully, enjoy.”

6. Disaster recovery

Whether it’s a last-minute cancellation by your keynote speaker or an embarrassing printing error in the conference booklet, something is guaranteed to go wrong at some stage. So you need a venue that’s got the facilities in place to bail you out of a crisis.

“The delivery of course materials can be delayed by the printer or courier – sometimes there are compatibility and programming issues with organisers’ IT equipment too,” says Rachael Bartlett, head of sales and marketing at Warwick Conferences.

“These difficulties can be disastrous, so all our clients have access to a fully-equipped business centre where they can use PCs, printers and photocopiers, and work with the onsite event support team to resolve any technical difficulties as quickly as possible.”

7. Manage expectations

You can only find the perfect venue once you’ve nailed down exactly what the event is trying to achieve. “If you’re taking a team through a change management process, then you obviously want a completely different venue to someone who’s launching a new car,” advises Evans. Before you can do this, you first need to decide what the objective of the conference is and, more importantly, how you’re going to measure the return from your investment.

“It might not be a return that you can measure very easily,” adds Evans. “But you need to find a way. Once you know what the expectations of the return are, you can then find a venue to match it. It is a case of knowing how you are going to measure your objective first and selecting the venue accordingly.”

8. Flexible future

Nina Harman, head of conferences and exhibitions at the CIPD, says the institute moved its annual conference to Manchester Central because it provided “a blank sheet of paper to plan the conference programme”.

She adds: “Although the content of the conference changes every year, with new speakers, subjects and session formats, Manchester Central offers a more flexible space to work with, which will enable the CIPD to introduce more new content in 2009 and beyond. Additionally, there is now just one hall for the exhibition, making it easier for visitors and delegates to access and navigate their way around the show.”

9. Culture show

Dean Shoesmith, joint executive head of HR for the London boroughs of Sutton and Merton, is due to become the next president of the PPMA. One of his first decisions has been to move the annual conference to London so that delegates can enjoy a slice of the capital alongside the inspiring rhetoric.

“Strategically, London is close to where most of our membership is based,” he says. “It’s also one of the most vibrant cities in the world, so if people are travelling a long way, it will hopefully give them the opportunity to look around and stay in the capital for a few days and enjoy all that it has to offer. Even if they don’t stay, it is still very easy to get to London and back within a day, no matter where you live.”

10. The law

Conferences are supposed to be educational and enjoyable. Falling foul of the law is the last thing you want to do. “Health and safety regulations mean you have to do a risk assessment on the property and prospective exhibitors,” explains ABPCO’s Davies. “Everything has to be recorded and kept just in case there’s an accident. You have also got to have public liability insurance in place that is relevant to the number of people you’re expecting, what you intend to do, whether you have exhibitors on site, what sort of kit they are bringing, and so on.”

To do this you need to contact an insurance broker, and stay abreast of the latest rules through organisations such as ABPCO and MIA.

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