Blank canvas events

Some of the UK’s largest spaces are often overlooked when organisers look to create the wow factor for their event. Sarah O’Donnell reports.

Blank canvas can either conjure up thoughts of creating the ultimate event experience or ‘pulling your hair out’ hassles. How an organiser uses such a space depends on the event’s budget, the client’s expectations and how willing the venue is to work with the organiser to develop an ‘out of the box’ concept.

“Using a blank canvas gives the organiser the flexibility to build a tailor-made attendee experience,” CWT Meetings and Events’ Business Development Director, Jane Baker, tells CN. “In line with brand and event objectives, the space can be divided to create zones, intimate spaces or impactful features, taking attendees on a journey.”

Baker says tools to achieve this can be cost effective, such as inflatable meeting rooms or shell scheme style walling with branded graphics. “Alternatively, with bigger budgets, full-scale installations can be created including projection and video walls. A blank canvas will often have the rigging points, weight load capacity and power facilities in place to support.”

Excel London has been transformed into a running track with a mini grandstand, wheelchair basketball court with a Coke bottle entrance for Coca-Cola; an indoor stunt car performance area with grandstand seating for Top Gear Live; as well as equipped with a Helter Skelter in a hall with beach volleyball courts, beach huts and a Jamaican steel band for Cisco Live’s ‘beaches around the world’ party.

Head of Corporate Development at Excel, Jane Hague, says the halls provide a column-free event area with the ability to host creative floor plans that are not limited by space. She says the ceiling height is 10m, with no set rigging points and power and IT can be distributed anywhere.

“This space is supported by meeting rooms to complement the showcase area. This means clients can be as creative as they like, taking as many square metres as needed,” Hague adds. “We have won many events on the basis that clients can host their conference, exhibition, breakouts and dinners all in the same venue.”

During the 2012 Olympics, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre was transformed into Casa Italia. Its third floor was used as an intimate space for guests; designer Italian furniture was used to create a VIP space, while the lounge was transformed into a restaurant with cuisine and wine from the Italian regions. The Anticci Lounge had a bar for the evening.

“Our clients use different approaches to create the perfect event experience for their delegates; from working with their sponsors to create a brand experience such as the Armani shop in our centre during Casa Italia, through using our outdoor spaces creatively like LinkedIn did when they built a 3D logo on our lawn,” says Commercial Director, Sue Etherington. “This extended their presence not only with delegates but also meant the client reached the public too; creating instant brand awareness.”

A dinner within the larger halls of the ICC Birmingham can change easily in appearance by the use of effective lighting to create impact. “Within this space we have re-created a big top, village fete, Narnia, Halloween and the Wild West,” says ICC Event Manager, Tracey Pickwell.

“When walking into a large space sometimes the idea of transforming it into an intimate party can be daunting but actually this is the pure magic of such a venue,” says Sales and Marketing Manager at caterer Purple Grape, Cecilia Lavin. “You are suddenly not restricted by a fixed design or colour palette; you have the joy of designing an event which delivers the correct message to your guests.”

To make the space intimate is not as hard as often thought, argues Lavin. Food can be designed in a clever way to give atmosphere and bring the space alive while still keeping intimacy. “Guests could be greeted by a French waiter and sat at a bistro table to share a platter of charcuterie. After this they could find themselves in an Italian gelateria for ice cream,” adds Lavin.

When Venue Cymru was redeveloped in 2007, architects were briefed to create a neutral, blank canvas on which clients could print their own brand and personal identity. Its larger spaces are versatile, easily transformed from a conference hall to a TV studio, banqueting hall to exhibition arena, concert venue and even a roller disco. 

“Event organisers invest a lot of time and money into ensuring all materials regarding their events are carefully branded and meet with their style guide,” says Conference and Events Manager, Adrian LaTrobe. “They don’t want this clear sense of identity to end when they reach the event venue.”

Project Manager for event management company, TFI Group, Rob Eveleigh says using a large event space often means more flexibility in terms of configuration and is particularly useful when requirements are specific. “I recently worked on a proposal which required a jewellery exhibition, a fashion show and a live horse all in the same venue; the horse alone removed most venues from the shortlist,” he adds.
“Use temporary walls, or plants to create the appearance of ‘rooms within a room’. Lighting is important; if used effectively it can hugely reduce or increase the size of a room,” says Eveleigh.

Jules Heckman Hughes, Creative Director of caterer Harbour & Jones Events, agrees visual tricks can be used to create the illusion of a smaller space and more intimate setting. “Uplighters can be used to flood the walls casting an intimate glow with the selection of a warm colour palette. Finishing touches should include deep dark colours as they absorb light and tend to make a room look warmer and feel smaller,” she says.

“It’s all about how you view the space,” argues the MD of event production company Mask, Sarah Kay. “It’s rare that a venue is 100 per cent perfect for the event so we are always adapting spaces. It’s about creating zones and ensuring you have a good flow.”

If clients have outgrown the NEC’s conference facilities and want to move into one of the group’s halls to host their event, the centre has a range of options. “For clients who find the idea of using a hall too daunting, we offer a service package where we create the infrastructure required, including power, drapes, furniture, security and catering, plus extra solutions on top. It means clients don’t have to worry about sourcing all of these things separately and see the costs up front,” says Jenny Lightfoot, NEC Account Manager at Live Events.

“With blank canvases you are often creating the infrastructure from scratch,” says Mel Bound, Strategy Director at Grass Roots Live. “Doing this well doesn’t come cheap (and if you can’t do it well, you definitely shouldn’t do it as anyone who has experienced the agony of noise bleed from poorly divided rooms will tell you). With budgets stretched, clients want to get the maximum value from every penny spent; quality content and event outcomes take priority and fit for purpose venues with flexible space are chosen over spaces created from scratch.”

Ricoh Arena’s Jaguar Exhibition Hall hosted the launch of the new Fiat 500 to dealers and buyers across Europe in December 2012. Ricoh and Fiat’s AV teams worked together to co-ordinate a 3D projection graphic, the first time this had taken place at the venue. In Halls 3-5, 11 cars were parked inside while four older Fiats were parked outside along with competitor vehicles for guests to be able to compare.

At the Lancashire County Cricket Club’s The Point if a more intimate atmosphere is required, then at the flick of a switch the world can be blocked off with electronic blinds. The pillar-free space and seven-metre high ceiling gives the venue a capacity for up to 1,000 seated guests but this space can be adapted for smaller events or if organisers want to create bespoke breakout spaces.

“You are not limited to the colours of the venue which means you can brand the space however you want,” says Emma Platt, Delegate Management Services Executive at TFI Group. “Fill the space with trees covered in fairy lights or a balloon filled ceiling and candles on tables at little cost.”

Drape is the way forward says MD of Manchester-based EventCity, Andy Orr. “Whether it is client walkways, tunnels or just breakout rooms needed this can all be easily achieved through draping.” The centre has seen the space turned into a gigantic football challenge, with Premier League stars competing across a range of unique events.

Ultimately, this is the client’s event, says Orr. “A designed venue has no flexibility and is designed by a person that does not know your company or your event.”

Kay says rather than having to work against or around a space, a blank canvas works for an organiser and the guests and you can inject a lot more personality into it.

“The choice of venue should be driven by the experience you want to create,” adds Baker. “Production values may be constrained by the time and budget available to build them, making it all the more important to set measurable event objectives to ensure ROI.”

This was first published in the June edition of CN. Photo:
Great Hall at Chelsea Football Club. Any comments? E-mail

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

Up Next

Related Posts