The nightmare before conference

The design and delivery of internal conferences and events often falls firmly within the remit of the internal communicator including finding a suitable venue. This can sometimes be a daunting experience, particularly for those who only do this once a year or if they have never done it before.

My hints and tips on the important things to consider in a venue hunt could save you from having the nightmare before conference later on.

Whether it’s the leadership conference, business planning event or the annual employee awards celebration it’s often the internal communicator who will design and deliver the event and be responsible for finding a suitable venue in which to host it. For internal communicators this can sometimes be a daunting and nightmarish experience particularly for those who perhaps only do this once a year or for those who have never done it before.

I’ve recently been on a hunt for a suitable venue for a large event I’m helping to run later this year. In my time as an internal communicator I’ve designed and run countless conferences and events. Some have gone well and others have been a bit bumpier, but making the right venue choice was a critical decision for all of them.

My recent venue hunt reminded me of some of the important things to consider which could save you from having any conference related nightmares and the associated sleepless nights later on.

The right sort of place

Many venues will claim that their spaces can be used or adapted for any purpose. I don’t think that this is always true and some lend themselves better to particular types of event than they do to others.

It might seem to be an obvious thing to say, but to properly work out what sort of place it is you need to go and look. Pictures and descriptions on the website only tell half the story and may be a selective and carefully curated representation of the venue. You need to go to see and feel the atmosphere of the spaces.

Consider what sort of event you need the venue for and what it is usually used for. How does it speak to you in this respect? Some places make for outstanding wedding venues but just don’t feel right as the place to host your business conference.

What’s the history of the venue, who is it run by and what is their social or business ethos? Could you work any of that into your event theme so that the venue ‘makes sense’ in the context of the event you are hosting there. Working the back-story of a venue into your event promotion can be a powerful tool to inspire people and encourage them to turn up on the day.

While you are there, also consider if it will be big enough for all your delegates in the configuration you want to use it in. Numbers given by venues are often just estimates and there can be a surprising difference in the capacity of spaces set out in theatre vs. cabaret style. Being crammed into a venue which is too small in a particular configuration for a long period of time isn’t going to be a pleasant experience for delegates and might be the only thing they recall about the day, if you misjudge this.

As well as looking and feeling, you also need to listen when you visit a venue and think about likely noise levels for the sort of event you are hosting. Does the venue have an echo and how is the noise level managed. A big conference can get really noisy and some venues have horrible acoustics, so make sure that it’s the right place in that respect as well.

Go visit the venue even if it’s at some distance from your locality. It will be time and a small amount of money well invested, particularly when you are spending a significantly larger amount of money to secure the place.

Location, location, location

Initially, hunting for a venue is mostly about the location.

The first thing to consider is where your delegates and guests are likely to be travelling from to get to the venue. Research the inter-city transport links and travelling times using all modes of transport. What are the parking arrangements, particularly for a city centre location, and how will people get to the venue and leave from mainline rail stations and other transport hubs?

Doing a bit of homework on this up front will save you from any difficult explanations and justifications about your venue choice later on. It will also avoid putting delegates off attending and help them to arrive in the right frame of mind to fully participate on the day, rather than being frazzled and frustrated by a problematic and lengthy journey.

Also consider how others who will be involved in the event will get to the venue. Will it be reasonably easy for any speakers to get there and what about early morning/late night access for sponsors and exhibitors to set up and break down their kit?

Check what the surrounding area is like. Take a walk from the venue to the train station to work out if it’s doable. Sometimes there are dual carriageways in city centres and elsewhere which make walking to a venue difficult. You should also consider if the area feels safe for those delegates and guests who might chose to get there using Shanks’s pony.

Go with the flow

While you are at the venue, think about how you are going to use the spaces within it and how your delegates will experience them. Walk through the venue as your delegates will on the day of the event to see it and experience it as they will. Ask for a floor plan, so you can work out how best to use the space. You won’t remember the venue layout after you’ve left, particularly if you see a few venues on the same day….they will all just merge into one!

Use the plan to work out the flow of how people will move around the venue during the day, between breakout and plenary sessions, for refreshment breaks and to get to the toilets. Doing this is really important because whilst it’s fairly easy to work out if a large conference hall is big enough for everyone to fit in all together it’s trickier to do this for other smaller spaces. Once your delegates are on the move and distributed across the venue a few traffic jams might occur and you need to work out how to manage the flow between and within the venue spaces to stop this kind of thing from happening.

The flow of delegates will also be really important for any sponsors, promoters or exhibitors you invite to the event. For obvious reasons they want good exposure to the delegates, so help them to get it with a well planned and managed flow.

Also consider providing some quieter spaces for your delegates to use. Not everyone relishes networking at conferences and events….so consider providing some escape spaces for the introverts (like me) or for others to have some quiet time to check on emails or to just sit and reflect. 

As you go on your venue walkabout also take note of venue maintenance. Is it up to scratch and can you spot any potential health and safety hazards such as frayed wiring or loose flooring? Is the venue clean? Make sure that you check the loos….all of them.

Also consider access for any disabled delegates who may be attending and don’t assume that the venue will have access all areas for your disabled guests. It’s amazing how many places are still not fully compliant with the provisions of the Equality Act (in the UK), so make sure you check.

The start of a beautiful relationship

A venue visit is also a great opportunity to meet the venue’s conferencing and events team. If you choose to host your event at their venue then you need to be able to work with them, often in pressurised circumstances. Ask questions, lots of them. How does the venue team come across to you? Are they enthusiastic about their venue and your event? Do they listen to your requirements, ask their own questions and make the effort to understand what you are trying to achieve?  

Work out if the venue team know their stuff. If they don’t then that’s a red flag and it presents a risk that you are going to have to manage if you chose their venue. I’ve fallen foul of this in the past when I haven’t been directly involved in sourcing the venue, and it’s nearly derailed some of the events I’ve run on the day. Be sure that you are working with professionals.

In particular, find out who the venue works with to supply services if they don’t deliver these in house. Who does the catering and who provides the Audio/Visual (AV) support if they don’t? If they give you obscure answers such as ‘Oh, Keith does our AV support and he’s great’, that’s not good enough. Find out who Keith is and if he actually is any good. If not, you might turn up on the day to discover that he’s the chap with a couple of old turntables and a collection of scratched LPs who they draft in for their Christmas parties, when you were expecting a full sound and light show. 

These things can happen if the venue doesn’t really understand your requirements and you don’t check out third party providers properly. Remember, buyer beware!   

The whistles and bells

Make sure you understand exactly what is included in your conference or events package. Many venues quote initially on your basic requirement only and then add on the extra whistles and bells later. Do you need any AV support, lighting support, a presentation switcher, more food or refreshments, flipcharts and pens? The headline price will almost always not be the final price, so get a firm quote which itemises everything you need, and remember most quotes will be exclusive of VAT.

When you visit the venue, check if the fixtures and fittings can be adapted if necessary and how much this might cost. You don’t want a ballroom chandelier hanging in front of you main screen and this will need an electrician to remove it and reconnect it after the event which will incur a cost.

Check if everyone will be able to see the on-stage or on -screen action. Are any pillars blocking a clear view with the seating configuration you are going for? If so, you might need repeater screens or extra sound, so that everyone can see and hear wherever they are sat, and again this will incur a cost. I once ran an event in a room with numerous mirrored pillars, which ended up feeling more like a fairground ‘hall of mirrors’ experience than the business conference it was meant to be. I think having the mirrors taken down might have been a bit cost prohibitive though.

Also understand what support you will get from venue staff on the day and if that will cost anything extra? Will they need to draft in additional security staff, marshals or bouncers because of the type of event you are hosting?

Splash the cash

At some point you are going to have to part with some cash to secure the venue. What are the venue’s payment terms and will you be able to meet these?

Some venues want all the money up front, which is not ideal if you are funding through ticket sales, or money that you’ll only get after the event (e.g. from Eventbrite). Some venues will negotiate on payment terms, so ask if you need to.

And finally

Searching for a suitable conference or event venue is a bit like house hunting. It’s not just about the details on paper it’s also how you feel about the place as well. Sometimes you need to go with your gut feeling about the place and if that doesn’t feel right then look elsewhere.

Venue hunting can be a bit overwhelming and time consuming for a non-expert. Even though I’ve run quite a few conferences and events in my time I don’t claim to be an expert, and my recent venue search with a professional venue hunter certainly taught me a few new things and reminded me of things I’d forgotten.

Get some expert help if you need to. There are people who will complete a venue search for you to a brief, accompany you on the visit, negotiate with the venue on your behalf and help you liaise with the venue on the day to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Happy venue hunting and I hope this advice helps you avoid the nightmare before conference.

Martin

I am not a professional venue hunter or events and conference manager, but I can help you with the design and content of your internal conferences and events.

Image credit – Image by Fanette on Pixabay

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