Your place or mine?

Conference and training venues are looking for closer relationships with their clients.

The possibilities for holding a training session in an external venue are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the UK. Venue providers are offering a level of comfort and gadgetry that is not just a home-from-home, but almost a work-environment- from-work environment.

“Ideally, a training centre or conference venue should feel to the company like an extension of itself,” says Kerian Barnes of the Longhirst Group, which has properties in Northumberland and Rutland.

Some companies, such as Initial Style Conferences, even offer ‘hubs’ to major clients, whereby they have their own dedicated space within a centre. For example, management consultants KPMG has such a contract with Initial Style Conferences at Initial’s Wokefield Park centre in Berkshire.

The arrangement gives KPMG its own secure training space on site, branded to its own specification with a separate entrance, training rooms and break-out areas. KPMG delegates then also have the flexibility to use all the other facilities on site at Wokefield, including the restaurant, bar, golf and leisure facilities and additional training rooms and bedrooms as required.

“The success and growth of Initial Style Conferences is founded on our ability to form close working partnerships with clients, providing innovative and bespoke solutions to their training and conference venue needs,” says managing director of Initial Style Conferences Alastair Stewart.

The company’s services can go even further, to provide a blend of expertise. “Initial Style is probably the only training and conference venue provider that is able to buy, design and build a centre from scratch according to the specifications of a client,” says Stewart. “The venue can be entirely branded to the client’s own guidelines so that the culture, feel and vision of the organisation can be replicated and endorsed.”

Stewart explains that Initial Style also operates client-owned centres, which the clients use for their own training and for which Initial markets any spare capacity on their behalf. In this way, the client can also benefit from the Initial Style network, embracing its sales, marketing and operational functions

A close relationship with clients is also a feature of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, which won the World Travel Award 2002 as Europe’s Leading Conference Centre.

“The QEII has a percentage figure of 65 per cent repeat business,” says spokeswoman Helen Blake. “It offers a seamless and constant approach to account handling and client contact.”

The QEII claims to be one of the most ‘IT-intelligent buildings in the UK’. It has a built-in wireless network, in-house audio-visual services and webcasting, plus an online conference service that allows viewers in remote locations to comment and participate.

As Blake points out, technology can overcome the constraints of time and opportunity costs, which can be a barrier to employers wishing to take their staff out of the office.

Wireless Broadband

Many purpose-built venues are working to overcome these problems by installing wireless broadband.

At the Robinson Centre in Wyboston, Bedfordshire – a management training venue owned by Robinson College of the University of Cambridge – delegates can get instant access to the internet at high speeds (a two megabyte broadband connection), without plugging into a connection.

The new system works via base stations installed at strategic points around the training building so that once delegates have collected a USB wireless card from reception, they can immediately and continuously access the internet from any conference, training or syndicate room, from the lounge and bar, from dining area and even from the courtyards and gardens.

The connection is seen as offering advantages in time and ease both to individuals wishing to surf the internet or keep their barrage of e-mails in check, and even more so, to companies and organisations wishing to conduct computer-based training or demonstrations.

Having broadband easily available accommodates the training community’s move towards blended learning, with its mixture of tutor-based learning, classroom sessions and online programmes. “Our wireless network gives the trainer or delegate flexibility,” says general manager Barry Stonham. “For example, they can move from a session into a syndicate room and stay connected. It enables the discussion or session to bring in different groups and still continue.”

The location of the Robinson Centre is such that it has to operate its broadband via a satellite dish. Other providers are choosing more mainstream options. For example, Wyboston Lakes Business Village near St Neots, Cambridge, has been appointed as a Wi-Fi zone. Visitors to the conference centre can benefit from free high-speed broadband internet access from their own laptops.

“It plays a growing role in meetings these days, so not only can groups network their laptops during meetings, but if they need to communicate with head office or other sites, they can now do so very easily. The broadband link means that large files such as graphics or complex presentation can be downloaded in seconds and at no cost,” says business development manager Brian Payton.

Initial Style Conferences has joined BT Openzone, to facilitate high-speed internet access for delegates on their laptops or personal digital assistants (PDAs).

The BT Openzone is available in the public areas of the conference centres, including coffee points and selected conference and training rooms.

At Hayley Conference Centres, wireless communication from Liberty i-Zone is being installed into public areas, such as the lounges and the bar areas. “We are currently installing it into the conference and break-out rooms,” says sales and operations manager Jane Littlewood.

“It’s going to make it easier for people to keep in touch with the office or surf the net without complicated cabling,” she says.

People networks

Away from technology, when it comes to people networks, a few days at a conference centre can help colleagues to bond and share their ideas.

Hayley Conference Centres has introduced learning zones, public areas with computer access and business magazines. “We want to support and add to the learning environment,” says Littlewood.

Hayley also runs low-key, evening events, which Littlewood sees as being very useful for simply mingling or breaking the conversational ice.

“These are non-intrusive and based on different aspects of business, such as setting a room aside for delegates to wander in and learn about psychometric testing, view business books or to meet an image consultant,” she says.

What if you need academic input on the day? Companies using the Imago properties can draft in speakers from Loughborough University. Imago is the new brand name for the university’s training and conference facilities. The brand includes the four-star conference facility at Burleigh Court with 137 bedrooms, and a new purpose-designed day conference centre Holywell Park, which is based in the university’s science park.

There are plenty of opportunities for delegates to unwind at Burleigh Court as they are offered spa experiences, such as TH stone therapy.

“The on-site leisure and therapy centre offers excellent opportunities to network with its well-equipped gym, swimming pool, whirlpool spa, sauna and treatments, including luxury skin care and beauty, reflexology and sports massage,” says business development manager Emma Boynton.

Today’s venue providers realise that employers may want delegates to mix with each other, but not necessarily with attendees from other companies.

“We offer our clients diary management,” says Initial’s Stewart. “This is important because it ensures that no competing companies are on the same site at the same time.”

And at the QEII’s Helen Blake is similarly cautious. “We value our clients and would look carefully at events already being held in the building before considering other business that could compromise security or integrity,” she says.

Top tips
How to have a relationship with your venue

  • Share the purpose of your meeting with the venue provider or venue agency. The more they understand about the purpose of the event, the more likely they are to add value to the running of the event
  • Check for hidden costs. “If tea and coffee is not included in the package, and the average delegate drinks seven cups a day for three days, then this can really add up,” says Becky Graveney, sales and marketing director of Initial Style Conferences
  • Find the right geographical location. “Delegates will always cite how accessible an event has been,” says Graveney. “They like to feel happy with the public transport links and car parking.”
  • Ask for a tour of the venue so that you can meet your conference team and visualise how things will run on the day. “If time is at a premium, ask for a virtual tour via the venue’s website,” says Graveney, “And ask the relevant manager to talk things through on the phone.”

What’s new?

Conference and training venue providers are always looking for new ways to stimulate the market and give delegates and clients something to talk about. The latest developments include:

  • Roffey Park’s recently opened purpose-built facilities called The Meadow. It encompasses state-of-the-art facilities enclosed in a low-tech building. The predominantly glass building, with a flat roof, is topped with a low-maintenance plant genus called sedum, which will absorb heat from the building in summer and insulate it in the winter
  • Initial Style Conferences has introduced tailor-made conferences for events with more than 60 delegates. Clients can create their own packages to suit their needs and budget
  • Hayley Conference Centres has installed bean bags in some of its break-out rooms. “Delegates like to lounge on them for brain-storming sessions,” says sales and marketing director Jane Littlewood
  • Whittlebury Hall conference centre has just opened a tapas bar for delegates to network and relax in.

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