How to find the perfect venue

Conference
organisers now face a bewildering array of venues and facilities. Stephanie Sparrow
and Phil Boucher offer 20 tips to help you find the perfect space for your event

The
UK conference market has become increasingly sophisticated over the past 10
years. Thanks to some technological wizardry, desktop learning and
videoconferencing are now run-of-the-mill. There is also a host of newly built
dedicated conference centres, many in land adjoining university business
schools.

Specialist
marketing consortium Conference Centres of Excellence, known for its strict
membership criteria, has seen its venues swell to 30 since it was founded in
1992. Hotels have also become more attuned to the specific needs of corporate
bookings and many have developed their own specialised conference training
centres.

Meanwhile,
‘unusual venues’ have become popular. The National Trust, for example, promotes
Sutton House, a historic property in Hackney, East London. Here, conferences
can be held in a 16th century Wenlock barn. Similar schemes are being run all
over the UK.

For
training professionals this provides a previously undreamt array of options.
And while it is a good position to be in, it makes the decisions about
conferences ever more bewildering.

So
to help you through the maze of choices, we have put together a list of 20 tips
that should make planning much easier.

1.
Plan early:
While the short-term nature of training budgets may mean it is
prudent to book a venue only when you have raised sufficient funds, this can
often mean leaving it to the last minute.

As
a rule, you should try to book four months in advance to be sure of getting
what you want. This gives you time to fully research the venue and decide on
the best schemes for communicating your ideas.

2.
Know your own mind:
Make a list of what you want to achieve before you pick
up the phone. Consider the number of delegates, their status within your
organisation (would senior managers feel comfortable in budget accommodation
and should the latest intake of graduates receive five-star treatment?) and why
you are holding the event. Then ask the venue how it will meet those needs.

3.
Value for money:
Find out if there are concessions for a group booking.
Many venues thrive on weekday business and offer cheaper rates at the weekend.
Others offer a concessionary rate for delegates staying longer than one day. It
depends on the venue but most will offer some form of incentive if you enquire.

At
the same time you need to find out about hidden extras, such as charges for
breakout rooms and delegate cancellations, as they can have a major affect on
your budget.

4.
Pay a visit:
It is impossible to gauge the ambience of a venue over the
phone. Try to meet the person who will be responsible for your booking and ask
for a guided tour of the entire facility.

If
they agree (many make it a condition of booking) try to approach the tour from
a delegate’s point of view. Walk or drive up to the venue in the way they would
approach it on the day. Not only will this give you a good impression of the
exterior, it will also highlight any transport difficulties.

The
aim is to find out those things a glossy brochure doesn’t reveal.

5.
Location, location, location:
There is no point booking a fantastic venue
if it is so far away that people arrive tired and grumpy. Think about where
people are coming from and book a venue that’s easy to get to. And find how
close it is to the nearest motorway, airport and train station.

6
Check facilities for delegates with disabilities:
Your checklist should
include suitable access and amenities in the training rooms, bedrooms and
restaurants and extra activities.

7
Test the parking:
The key questions: are there enough parking spaces? Is
the car park far from the conference hall? How much does it cost?

Surprisingly,
the cost of parking is usually most important as delegates may be staying for a
couple of days. Find out if they will need tokens or lots of loose change. Some
venues pass on the parking costs in the final bill. If you are happy with this,
check your budget allows it.

8
Overnight accommodation:
Business travellers have high expectations so if
you have people staying overnight, ensure the accommodation is suitable. Check
the beds, showers and general cleanliness. And ask if the rooms are
soundproofed – delegates are likely to enjoy themselves far more if they can
sleep without interruption.

It’s
also a major advantage if you can find a venue where the conference and
lodgings are on or around the same site.

9
The conference room:
Check that the conference hall will comfortably house
your delegates. Also, look for anything that may impair their vision, such as
concrete pillars, substandard lighting and low ceilings.

Keep
in mind your preferred room layout while you are doing this to ensure it is
feasible, understood by the venue and that it will not affect the room capacity.

Ask
what facilities are available, such as breakout rooms. And ask how old the
venue is and when it was last redecorated.

10
The Furniture:
’Numb bum syndrome’ has been the ruin of many conferences.
To avoid it you must test the equipment delegates will be using. Check tables
and chairs are the right height and, more importantly, comfortable.

11
Technical equipment and support:
Electrical sockets are vital to a good
conference. Check the room has enough to run your presentation equipment. And
check delegates are able to plug in whatever computer equipment they want to
bring.

Be
very specific about the presentation equipment you require and absolutely
certain the venue can accommodate it. If you ask the right questions you may be
surprised at the flexibility and range of equipment venues can offer, from
modem links between syndicate rooms and video conferencing with the outside
world, to closed-circuit television.

It
is also worth running some of the equipment to test the acoustics of the room
and soundproofing.

12
Lighting and heating:
Training and conference rooms should benefit from
natural daylight whenever possible. Air conditioning or, even better, climate
control that doesn’t react to the outside temperatures, are becoming standard.
Check the heating arrangements for overnight accommodation if it is being used.

13
Food glorious food:
A bad meal can ruin a good training session and eating
at a venue allows you to check the quality of the fare. Your aim should be to
provide delegates with delicious, nutritious food that is served at the right
time, so you will need to check the variety and quality of the menu, along with
the flexibility of meal times.

Remember
business clients might want something more upmarket in the evenings. Test the venue’s
ability to cater for special dietary needs. Always ensure there is a good
vegetarian option available.

14
The great outdoors:
Delegates often appreciate a stroll after a hard
morning in the conference room. Confirm there is easy access to a patio area,
garden or similar.

Secondly,
if outdoor team-building events are on your agenda make suitable arrangements
to store your own equipment or borrow the venue’s. If you are hiring equipment
or a team building coach, ensure adequate insurance is in place.

Interspersing
training with other activities can make the event more interesting. Ask the
venue if they can recommend bite-sized excursions or events. Some venues will
organise themed events in the local area.

15
Other guests:
Find out if anything else is happening at the venue and
reassure yourself that the confidentiality and security of the event won’t be
compromised by it. Take into account such things as checking in behind a
coach-load of tourists or sharing the venue with a noisy wedding reception.

16
Networking:
This is particularly an issue for overnight stays. Leisure
facilities, bar areas and golf courses can provide plenty of opportunities for
delegates to meet and chat and will add more to your event than if the guests
are trapped in their rooms with a mini bar and cable television.

17
Supervision:
Will you be left to your own devices once you arrive or will
there be a named person to ensure you have everything you need? Make sure there
is someone to call on throughout the event as necessary.

18
Those little extras:
Are the toilets clean and easy to find? How long does
it take a delegate to check in? Are there telephones? And if you need to use a
business centre during your stay, confirm the costs in advance.

19
Information for delegates:
Your venue should supply adequate directions and
may be able to email these to delegates separately before the day. The venue
should supply signage to guide delegates around the property when they arrive.

20
Success on the day:
Insist on access to the room at least an hour before
you are due to start so that you can check equipment is in place. Look at the
tiniest details – even whether the marker pens work!

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