The ‘wow factor’ is the aim of any training manager looking to hold an event away from the office, and leading venue providers are continuing to invest in technology and gadgetry to achieve that objective.
At the same time, many are developing their offerings so that the perennial day or two away from the office is being transformed into a genuine getaway, with corporate learning supplemented by fun sessions such as aromatherapy and cocktail making.
Increasing numbers of venues offer wireless internet access, and most now provide data projectors and other audio-visual equipment as part of their standard rate, with a team of technological support staff on hand should things go wrong.
Initial Style Conferences has installed the wireless broadband service BT Openzone in almost all of its centres throughout the UK.
“It brings the security that BT carries,” says David Owen, group marketing manager for Initial Style. “We are providing the wherewithal to hook up to the BT network or a client company’s corporate network.”
The service is available in public spaces in the venues as well as some conference rooms.
Initial Style had already installed free internet cafes, and the online access in a “nice, informal environment” has proved popular, says Owen.
“[Our job is] very much catering for people on the move these days. It’s not about saying, ‘you’ve got a conference booked from 9 to 5 and that’s it.’ There are other facilities that delegates can use all the time.”
More venue providers are responding to the move of corporate clients away from formal events. Initial Style, for example, has pioneered break-out rooms that stimulate different parts of the brain or mood and offers a high degree of flexibility in its venues.
“All the rooms are really geared up to being bespoke,” says Owen. “We can change our environments – there are formal rooms, informal rooms, internet cafes, lots of public areas, and even outdoor spaces that can be used.”
But when it comes to technology, small innovations can have big impact, too, according to Simon Clothier, chairman of the International Centre for Business Improvement near Leeds, which opened in October 2003.
Walls offering over two metres of floor-to-ceiling wipe clean surfaces, highly powerful magnetic boards, smart boards which enable scribbled diagrams to be downloaded and printed off, localised climate control in rooms so delegates may adjust the temperature themselves: by no means rocket science, advances like this are as important as high-speed internet access if an event is to be remembered for all the right reasons, says Clothier.
Lynne Snow, head of conference services for Aston University, whose management development centre is currently going through a £20 million expansion programme to double its size, agrees.
“We find with technology that flexibility is the key because no two customers ever want the same range of kit,” says Snow. “Having good quality trained technicians is an absolute must. They have to be there from the beginning so if the client gets into mischief they can hand-hold them through it.”
Technology is just one way that the leading venues are innovating, however. The move towards more informal events – plus the ever-pressing need to wow delegates – has led many providers to add value through offerings at the opposite end of the spectrum: outright fun.
The Stirling Management Centre in Scotland now offers a “Trigger the Senses” portfolio of additional services for delegates such as massage and laughter therapy.
It has also linked up with a cookery school to provide special sessions for corporate clients, and can also tap into the arts theatre on campus to offer private cinema hire.
“We’ve established ourselves as a centre that can meet every functional need,” says Karene Aichison, sales and deputy business manager.
“We’re now looking beyond that to how trainers can really make a mark, how they can impress their delegates and how we can further enhance their events.”
The Robinson Centre, near Cambridge, is also looking to break new ground in the services it offers.
Like Stirling, it has invested heavily in technology, for example offering wireless internet access and the latest in gadgetry, but will announce a host of new services in December aimed at giving trainers the tools they need to get the most out of their delegates.
“One thing we are looking at is food, how can we make the breakfast offered more healthy for the body and mind,” says Rose McDonald, director of sales and marketing.
“We already offer healthy alternatives, but it’s about developing that even more and giving trainers the option of choosing things. We’re also looking at ice breakers that are different.”
“At different points in the day, people lag. The way we’re looking at it is the science and psychology of getting the most out of your delegates while they’re here,” she says.
Touch of luxury to woo delegates
One of the keys to staging a successful event is choosing the most appropriate venue to suit the mood of the occasion, whether it is a sales training day or top-level meetings.
The major operators realise this and are responding accordingly. For example, Initial Style Conferences has just relaunched Horsley Towers, a listed Surrey property.
Set in 70 acres of parkland, the venue, which is five-star standard but specifically not a hotel, is said to offer a tranquil retreat. New facilities implemented after its £2.5 million refurbishment, include 28 bedrooms and four main meeting rooms with a capacity for up to 120 delegates. Private rooms or the restaurant offer a variety of dining options.
At the four-strong Sundial Group of period venues, gourmet cooking with fresh produce is top of the agenda. “We aim to create a dedicated environment in gracious and beautiful surroundings,” says director Jo Chudley.
“The food is in keeping with that of a four-star hotel and our chefs buy from local producers.”
Meanwhile big is certainly beautiful at Northamptonshire’s Whittlebury Hall. The award-winning hotel and spa has just opened its new Brooklands suite, a 600-capacity hall suitable for large meetings and conventions.
The Brooklands Suite development now brings Whittlebury Hall’s corporate facilities to a full complement of 14 training suites, 35 syndicate rooms, six meeting rooms and a directors’ boardroom as well as the Brooklands Suite itself.
How to find the right venue
In the recently published book, Legendary Away Days: the complete guide to running successful team events, training consultants Karen Cooley and Kirsty McEwan give some key guidelines to choosing an external venue. Here are some of their top tips:
- What is your budget for the event? Remember to take into account that your finances will have to cover not only the direct cost of the venue but also the associated costs of the day – catering, administration, travel and possibly accommodation.
- Can you realistically resource this event in-house or will the level of support needed mean you should look externally? There is a danger in relying on in-house administrators (who are possibly overstretched already) to provide the quality of support you need.
- What is the purpose of the event? Each one sends out a message to colleagues – what does it say if you hold an event in the dark and dingy basement underneath the luxurious offices of senior managers?
- What feedback do you have about previous venues used? If certain venues carry a good reputation, you must still visit them to establish your own views as well as a rapport with the conference staff.
- Do you have colleagues available to help you design and stage the event?
- Availability of refreshments – do you need meals as well as beverages? Can your chosen venue meet your requirements?
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