Conferences, events and incentive programmes are more than just gatherings of people, they’re about content, communication, atmosphere, organisation, inspiration, location and, of course, venues.
Most venues boast they are ‘unique’, but what are the real hallmarks that distinguish a venue from the pack, and how do you use that originality for impacting the bottom line?
“A venue needs to be exceptional in order to be worthy of the epithet ‘unique’. It must add a variety of plus points, delight and sparks that create a genuine excitement for both the event’s objectives and the client.” So says event and communication strategist Simon Maier, who has planned major events for Grass Roots, Jack Morton and Saatchi & Saatchi.
He warns, however, that what delights the agency isn’t necessarily what delights the client or, more importantly, the end user.
The Merlin Entertainments portfolio of London venues includes Madame Tussauds, the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and the London Dungeon. GM Merlin Events Michael Aldridge says such venues come fully themed and “offer a different backdrop to the conventional settings of conference centres and hotels”.
“Organisers want to get the most for their budget and have become savvier when selecting venues,” says Aldridge. “No two events are alike, as themes and experiences at these venues are constantly updated.”
When creating events to motivate teams, impress customers or launch products, “there is no place for mediocre,” says Aldridge. “Make them all spectacular!”
Toby Adams, Lead Event Organiser at Defaqto, said the Madame Tussauds backdrop proved an instant ice-breaker for his gala dinner. “Guests were at ease quickly, posing with wax figures. Feedback was excellent,” he said.
Immediate Past President at the International Special Events Society and Director of creative agency Imagination, Richard Foulkes, says a striking venue means special moments can be created, but reminds us of the legions of venue managers who recognise that their venue isn’t all that special, and so “spend an extraordinary amount of time making the experience of being there special”.
Yorkshire has no shortage of quirky events spaces, including Magna, a converted steelworks in Rotherham. Fisher Scientific, laboratory equipment supplier, recently hosted Science World at Magna, the company’s best attended edition of the event held outside of London.
Hull’s Streetlife Transport Museum, brings 200 years of transport history alive with all the sights, sounds and smells of the past. Its cobbled alleyways can host a drinks reception for up to 150 guests.
The Deep aquarium, also in Hull, is home to 3,500 fish and very occasionally the odd corporate shark. Dining with real sharks and bespoke dive shows adds a deeper dimension to events held there.
The Chapter House is a venue housed in York Minster and if diners look up they will see carvings dating from 1270.
UVL stirs the Olympic events mix
Unique Venues of London (UVL) is a consortium of 73 member venues in the capital. It restricts membership to visitor attractions open to the public. These all take on a fresh, unique identity as private event spaces, usually after hours.
A recent UVL survey on London 2012-related event enquiries found big demand for the unusual venue.
Somerset House will be home to Casa Brasil, while Southwark Cathedral’s conference rooms and Millennium Courtyard will be part of The House of Switzerland.
UVL members are also hosting Games sponsors. 195 Piccadilly, the home of BAFTA, will be used by UPS as a base throughout the Olympics, while The Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum will be LOCOG’s events space for hosting ‘the Olympic Family’.
Individual events booked at UVL venues during the period range from dinners at The Banqueting House, to a full venue buy-out of Spencer House. Kensington Palace, which will have completed its £12m refurbishment, also reports good bookings.
Lisa Hatswell, Chairman of UVL and Sales and Corporate Events Manager of EDF Energy London Eye, says iconic venues such as the Natural History Museum, as well as lesser known ones such as The Foundling Museum and Syon Park, provide good value for money.
“Not only do unique venues offer some of the best interior design, but many offer panoramic views,” says Hatswell. “Stunning events can be hosted without the need for excessive venue dressing and budget.”
Back of house tours can add value for clients, while Hatswell argues using a unique venue adds to the kudos of the event.
Chelsea Physic Garden, Movieum of London, and London’s Ministry of Sound (which claims more state of the art in-house AV equipment than most) are other examples of unique venues in the capital.
The RIBA Stirling-prize-winning Laban dance centre in Greenwich (our cover image) has a 294-seat theatre and was ranked No.1 in The Telegraph’s ‘50 most inspiring buildings in Britain’ in 2008.
Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) is a member of the Lime Venue Portfolio and the College’s Painted Hall can accommodate 420 for a dinner. The ORNC is a World Heritage Site built originally as a hospital for sailors. It was also the birthplace of Henry VIII.
With focus earlier this month very much on SW19, the Wimbledon Tennis Museum is available for corporate events. It can serve up cocktail receptions with a hologram of John McEnroe as a backdrop.
Portsmouth’s 170m high Spinnaker Tower has three viewing decks and hosted 87 corporate events last year, including 20 weddings.
Call of the wild
Someone once said don’t work with animals or children. I don’t think they mentioned conferencing with up to 400 exotic animals, which is the unique offer at Paradise Wildlife Park in Broxbourne. With a private marquee, terrace and Secret Garden, the venue can cater for up to 4,000.
Sarah Lebentz heads the Park’s Corporate Department which hosts 160 events a year, including Britain’s Strongest Man. She believes going off-site for a meeting or event helps delegates escape the usual corporate setting. “Our visitors can take part in special animal experiences such as ‘meet the meerkats’.” Simples.
Unique in mysterious ways
The KingsGate community church in Peterborough has a 1,200-seat auditorium and Conference Manager Andrew Griffiths says they plough back any event profits into the local community. “Our customers and staff know that they are contributing to good causes.”
Unique Venues in Scotland
Scotland is a big draw, with its castles and golf courses.
Mansfield Traquair and Our Dynamic Earth are two unique Edinburgh venues. While Ackergill Tower, Caithness and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow are also popular options for the unusual event.
RRS Discovery, Dundee, Cairngorm Mountain, Aviemore and Combat City, ScotKart, Lanarkshire also come recommended north of the border. Crieff Hydro in Perthshire, the oldest trading company in Scotland, offers a spa and stunning scenery. The venue hosted the International Tug of War championships in February 2012.
Anouk Stobbelar, Events Manager at Nike, used The Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, St Andrews, for her clients and says delegates were overwhelmed by the unique view.
The unique venue hardware is in abundance, the trick is to use it well.
Advice for staging that unique event from Simon Maier, Event Strategist:
- Start looking early. The worst thing is knowing what you want and then running out of time to achieve it
- Don’t get palmed off with something that actually isn’t unique
- What works for one event won’t necessarily work for another
- The brief is all important: agencies must never assume clients know what they know
- Make sure any new venue is going to be ready in time. If in doubt, don’t touch it with a bargepole
- Ensure the venue has what’s required. ‘Making do’ never works
- What might be very rock and roll for a young sales force may be less so for executive management â€¨
- Inspect your venue before the event and hold conversations with the client at an early stage about costs
- Form should follow function. A high-tech product launch might use a modern venue, while an idea generation session might warrant, somewhere out of the wayâ€¨â€¨
- Unusual venues will have drawbacks: like the drawbridge that won’t open for the drive experience â€¨â€¨â€¨
- Venues like museums may only be available in the evening, which can affect set-up
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