Make it memorable

If you want to make a real impact and leave a lasting impression on delegates, don’t underestimate the anticipation and excitement holding an event at a castle, sporting stadium, or even a zoo, can generate among delegates prior to, during and after the event.

“Unique venues add a sense of excitement and adventure for delegates, it is something unusual that gives an event the wow factor,” says Head of Travel and Venue Finding at Ashfield Meetings & Events, Louise Goalen. “If it is a venue not normally synonymous with the event or that is not normally open to the public it can help boost attendance.”

As a case in point, Goalen refers to a three-day sales conference Ashfield organised at Wembley Stadium in which 600 delegates were made to feel like VIPs being allowed into areas that the general public are not. “We found that the venue kept the delegates engaged as the majority had not visited before,” she says.

The increase in unique venues available for meetings and events, and indeed, the demand for unique venues in the industry is clear to see. Venue consortium Unique Venues of London (UVL) is celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, and after starting with 25 venues, has grown to encompass 81 venues.

“For our clients, using a unique venue as opposed to a hotel or conference centre offers that bit more of a wow-factor when guests arrive,” says Chairman of UVL, Moya Maxwell. “An event in a unique venue can also provide guests with an experience – an after-hours look at the latest exhibition in a gallery or museum, or a private tour away from the crowds.”

Lime Venue Portfolio (LVP), a collection of unique, unusual and sporting venues, recently recorded one of its highest financial quarters since its inception in 2008, further highlighting the growing popularity of unusual venues.

In the first half of the financial year (1 October 2013 – 31 March 2014), LVP’s venues, which include Edinburgh Zoo and Cheltenham Racecourse, welcomed more than 600,000 guests through their doors, with meetings and events hosted exceeding £19m in value, a 10 per cent increase on 2012. Scotland has also recognised the demand for unique venues for meetings and events, with the National Trust for Scotland recently making 19 of its historic castles and stately homes available for corporate events with the launch of its Unique Venues for Corporate Entertaining collection.

The collection includes venues such as Culzean Castle on the Ayrshire coast, the Trust’s collection of stately homes and castles in Fife and Aberdeenshire, and the modern multi-media experience at The Battle of Bannockburn centre.

“Increasingly we are experiencing growing demand not just for traditional meetings and dinners, but also for five-star experiences,” says Rebecca Sloan, National Hospitality Manager at the National Trust for Scotland. “These historic properties are not just well suited for entertaining, they were designed for it and what sets them apart.”

The world of unique venues

Home to 700,000m historical artefacts, the Natural History Museum (NHM) is as unique a venue as you can get, but the events team is pushing this uniqueness even further with the launch of a new teambuilding package that offers the chance to hire the entire venue for exclusive after-hours access.

“In partnership with Wildgoose who developed the software, the teambuilding events will have guests racing against the clock to be the first ones to complete the interactive treasure hunt by uncovering the museum’s hidden secrets,” says Simon Kershaw, Head of Catering and Events at NHM.

Last year, the venue hosted British fashion brand Lipsy London, in collaboration with Jupi Corporation and Kourtney, Kim and Khloé Kardashian, who chose the NHM as the setting to celebrate the launch of the Kardashian Kollection for Lipsy.

The event took place in the Earth Hall and featured a catwalk show. Models emerged from the globe structure and made their entrance down the room’s grand escalator. During normal museum hours, the escalator takes visitors into the central museum space, but the direction was reversed for the launch party to transform it into a unique runway that led models into the main event area.

“We chose to host the event at this British institution as the venue is a globally recognised landmark and perfectly accommodated the large number of fans and photographers that gathered outside the entrance,” says Brand Media Director at Lipsy, Dahlia Shaffer. “The grandness and scale of the venue lent itself perfectly to Khloé’s show stopping entrance and the idea to reverse the escalator brought a whole new take to a fashion runway.”

The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester is an international concert hall providing a creative atmosphere for delegates. Primarily a classical music venue, Bridgewater Hall has stage international classical artists including Martha Argerich and Lang Lang, as well as non-classical artists such as Liza Minnelli and Dolly Parton. Event spaces include the Charles Hallé room with capacity for 50 delegates theatre-style; the Barbirolli room for 250; and the main Auditorium, which can be part of an exclusive hire of the whole venue, for large events of up to 1,875 guests over four levels.

Carrying on the music theme, Grade I-listed venue LSO St Luke’s is home to the London Symphony Orchestra’s music education programme, LSO Discovery. The venue’s Jerwood Hall forms the heart of the building combining contemporary architecture with historical features and is able to host 250 delegates for a conference. The venue’s Clore Rooms can be hired in collaboration with the Jerwood Hall as breakout spaces.

In addition to being a unique venue, the Royal Opera House is keen to highlight the way in which the venue can benefit delegates’ sense of wellbeing and productivity, by hosting an event in its Paul Hamlyn Hall. The event space has a huge glass-vaulted ceiling, which according to the venue not only has a wow factor, but also brings a dynamic element to daytime conferences and events – daylight. “We regularly get comments from those using our unique space for conferences that delegates seem to come away more invigorated,” says Head of Commercial Programming at the venue, Moya Maxwell.

Moving from music to British racing and aviation, Brooklands Museum has seven function spaces on offer for meetings and events and numerous car and aircraft exhibition areas in original historic buildings. For a really unique event, the iconic Concorde aircraft is available for small meetings or receptions. Added extras include guided tours of the Aviation hangar and Motoring Village, the Concorde Experience and Flight simulator, as well as the McLaren F1 simulator.

As a member of UVL, the London Dungeons brings 1,000 years of authentic London history to life. Moved from London Bridge to its new residence at County Hall on the South Bank, the attraction’s 30-minute Dungeon Experience can act as a prelude to an evening’s event in the Guy Fawkes event space with adjoining torture chamber area.

From shocks to seclusion, Barsham Barns is a collection of five converted luxury barns in the Norfolk countryside. Management says the rural setting and unique design of the barns offers peace and comfort for a productive corporate event. The barns can host 14 delegates, and after-hours activities include sailing lessons, clay pigeon shooting, seal watching boat trips and horse riding.

Unique and new

A range of new unique venues are set to make their mark on the meetings industry this year:

? Hotel Football, Manchester – Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville will open Hotel Football in October 2014. Located on the doorstep of Old Trafford football stadium and the home of Manchester United FC, Hotel Football features a functioning rooftop football pitch.
? Stanbrook Abbey, Worcestershire – Set in 22 acres of countryside, this former Convent is set to open in September. Following an extensive refurbishment in 2012, the next phase of  development includes the installation of a Garden Pavilion for 200 guests; the extension of the Thompson Dining Hall to increase capacity to 180; and the renovation of three further event spaces.
? The Blackburn Wing, Leeds – A treehouse-inspired wooden hangar is to open for events at Bowcliffe Estate in Leeds. The Blackburn Wing will offer capacity for 80 delegates theatre-style in its largest space.

Make sure it’s a unique fit

While unique venues can undoubtedly add a new dimension to events, making the whole experience more immersive for delegates by taking them away from the usual corporate aesthetics, it is, as always, essential that the venue fits the event objectives.

“When booking for healthcare professionals we have to bear in mind that the venue is secondary to the meeting content and should not detract from the educational value. So, from a compliance point of view it is best to avoid these if they do not have medical affiliations,” says Goalen.

After making sure the venue fits the criteria of the event and what the client is looking for, Matthew Curan, Director of boutique event agency Chew Events, says thinking about the guest experience is next on the list, particularly what atmosphere you are looking to create. “This will determine if you go for a flamboyant, cool or unusual venue,” he says.

One issue dedicated conference centres don’t have to contend with, but can be an issue with unique venues is set up times. Some unique venues don’t operate 24 hours a day and if agendas and requirements change at the last minute it can be a challenge to accommodate these, according to Goalen, who also notes that the regulated opening and closing times can prove challenging.

A museum, which is open to the public during the day, for example, means waiting for the venue to be vacated before an event team can work on the event. “We have also had an instance in the past with fixture list changes with sporting stadiums resulting in our bookings being released,” she says.

Of course, you don’t always need a unique venue to produce a unique event. Charlie and Rachel Hepburn, MD’s of Vivid Event Group’s view of a unique venue is to “use a space and transform it into something different that nobody has seen. Whether this is a hotel, taking over a disused building, greenfield site, a church, ship, gallery, or historic building”.

The benefits of creating something unique in this way, according to Vivid, include making a statement about a company or brand; creating a sensational impression; the element of surprise; the emotional impact it can create among guests; and the PR aspect from sharing the experience. Ultimately, they say, whether a unique venue or space, it is all about demonstrating a freedom of creativity for maximum impact.

This was first published in the July/August issue of CN. Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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