Sourcing suppliers

How do agents and planners source venues? Are they doing it well?

A common route is to use a venue-finding website and/or agency. But how do they draw up their selecton criteria?

One so-called scientific method – certainly if procurement departments have anything to do with it – is the strategic meetings management programme (SMMP).

Alan Newton (pictured), founder and COO of the Eventopedia consultancy, has amassed good experience drawing up SMMPs for the likes of Zibrant and Grass Roots. He is a big advocate of streamlining suppliers and applying the science.

He stresses any starting point is dependent upon the aims and objectives of the client organisation and/or individuals concerned in drawing up any preferred supplier listings.

He prefaces his advocacy for SMMP by saying that there is, of course, good and bad procurement practice. Bad practice, he warns, can impede the value of such listings, either through lack of understanding of the key objectives, and what needs to be delivered for the organisation, or through poor internal communication and understanding of the benefits, or lack of foresight in terms of alternatives, ineffective review and selection.

“When done properly, using SMMP can be extremely effective,” Newton says. “The first ever consolidated SMMP I put together for a client was to reduce their venue usage from 140 per annum to just four core venues, all of which represented venue groups of fewer than 12 at the time. That venue programme significantly increased revenue into the four core venues, included targeted revenue into a second tier of venues, and saved the client around 25 per cent per annum on training spend. It also increased their brand recognition, improved consistency of delivery and understanding of client expectation.”

Newton stresses independents can compete if they join forces.

Rebecca Jones, director of industry relations at BCD M&I, says her agency is structured on SMMP, which, she says, is shaped by clients’ standard operating procedures.

Preferred partners can obviously appear on both the agency’s own lists and on their client side lists. Sometimes they overlap.

“Most of our clients have some kind of programme in place,” Jones says. “Some are more advanced and some are looser.”

She believes whatever the kind of programme, strategic alliances and partnerships are key, and benefits to clients that emerge from such programmes include risk mitigation and the leverage of spend.

Jones rejects the charge that SMMPs can bind in clients too tightly and lead to missed opportunities.

“Ultimately, we always do what is best for clients. If that is an independent hotel, then no problem,” she says.

In terms of how best to draw up a preferred supplier list, Jones says she looks at the venue’s footprint, comparing it to where BCD and clients do business. “We look for global partners or for a partner that specialises in one area,” she says.

Front for commission?
Not all venue companies use supplier lists. Etc.venues, which operates several high-quality specialist conference centres in London, sees delivery of its services by an in-house team, particularly catering, as a key differentiator.

“We get good feedback that clients can deal with one point of contact when booking our venues and take ownership of delivering all the services, particularly catering, in house,” says group MD Alastair Stewart.

“While it is our own team that looks after clients in venues we enjoy working with a range of best-in-class suppliers to help us deliver memorable events. We don’t see the need for these to be on the outdated list basis, which is often a front for commissions being taken by venues at the expense of their clients,” he adds.

Industry consultant James Morgan says the best kind of preferred supplier lists are those that use a quality and pricing index. “You must have confidence that suppliers can be trusted to deliver and lists need to be reviewed regularly to provide the end user with the best experiences that are based on monitoring the quality of services and equipment provided.”

Operational director at Grass Roots Meetings and Events, Sue Massey, offers eight key tips for going about selecting a venue-finding agency:

  1. Involve the key stakeholders from the start. Make sure you have their support before beginning the process and keep them involved along the way
  2. Be clear about your objectives. Driving value is important, but what about compliance and risk? 
  3. Make sure that your objectives are measurable and that you have the right mechanisms in place to do just this
  4. Probe all stages of the life-cycle of event management: from enquiry, to approval, contracting to billing and evaluation
  5. Request visibility of management information and spend data
  6. Research how the agency manages its supply chain and how it ensures excellence?
  7. If the programme is global, recognise the need for local nuances
  8. People: do you like each other? The journey is so much more enjoyable (and productive) when you are on the same wavelength as the others you are sharing the journey with.

A venue point of view is provided by Paul Southern, MD at Central Hall Westminster, who says all his venue’s suppliers are on long-term contracts, with each going through a long vetting procedure.

“It is important to find suppliers that are not only value for money, but also those that operate in a manner that is aligned with the way we want our business to be run. For us this means choosing suppliers that place sustainability and ethical trading high on the agenda.”

Victoria Steiniz, sales and marketing manager at LSO St Luke’s in London, says her venue looks for a supplier contact with whom they can have an active dialogue, working together to generate leads, secure business and engender loyalty. “We also look for someone who can respond to feedback and build on successes while responding to lessons learned,” she says.

“We do have a list of approved suppliers for catering and we aim to discourage clients from using non-listed caterers unless they have a specific need we cannot meet, for example kosher. In other areas, such as event production and flowers, we offer a list of recommended suppliers, however this is not exclusive and there is more flexibility available in order to meet the client’s needs.

 “When new caterers (or indeed other suppliers) want to introduce themselves into LSO St Luke’s they are encouraged to introduce clients to us or place an event in the venue by way of demonstrating their experience.”

 When it comes to managing the list of suppliers, Steiniz says LSO St Luke’s reviews every six months and takes into account which caterers won business, who has brought opportunities to the venues, what clients think and how each event has run. She says: “We expect caterers in particular to operate as an extension of our own sales team, demonstrating an insightful level of knowledge about the venue and sending us the right kind of enquiries.”

RIBA’s head of venues Stephanie Ellrott says that when sourcing a supplier she is looking for a match in terms of product and service and for suppliers with a similar ethos. Other key points to hit when pitching to RIBA would be:

  • Offering value for money and long term relationship building
  • Flexibility and ability to accommodate last-minute changes and requirements 
  • Being financially sound, with good cash flow
  • Being recommended by industry colleagues
  • Seeing and hearing is believing.

One major item for supply at conferences and major events is audio visual. Some expert tips for the event planner charged with sourcing AV include:

  • Produce a clear brief or list of requirements.  Don’t miss out details under the assumption that a supplier will be able to ‘fill in the blanks’. Whatever your requirements, make sure you state them. Getting everything organised from the start will save time (and money) in the long run
  • Get at least three comparative quotes. Don’t be tempted to automatically go for the ‘cheapest’ option as a few ‘hidden extras’ could surface down the line. This will inevitably bump up the final cost, but may not reflect in the quality of service. Always make sure you find out exactly what will be provided for the price stated
  • Avoid adding items at the last minute. Changing the brief at short notice can cause lots of problems, so unless you have complete faith in a supplier’s ability to adapt to unexpected challenges, it isn’t worth the risk
  • Ask for testimonials and follow them up. It’s important to research potential suppliers thoroughly to assess whether they will be able to meet your requirements. There are many suppliers and production companies which specialise in certain sectors, and will therefore be better placed to cater for events that require particular elements such as interaction with multiple sites
  • Scrutinise the in-house suppliers at venues; don’t forget they often have the venue commission to cover, which can add to your bill
  • Get the AV equipment supplier to supply technicians and operators also; they know the kit and will ensure you get the best available items.

There used to be a great number of pitfalls when trying to ‘run’ your own presentations, but as technology has become increasingly standardised across the globe, we are seeing more ‘plug and play’ AV equipment on the market. Having said that, there are still plenty of blunders as a result of the decision to bypass expert suppliers, so a DIY approach to event technology is not recommended. Some common failures include:

  • The use of wide screen 16:9 ratio slides on a 4:3 ratio screen and vice versa
  • Attempts to run a video from a laptop with no loudspeakers
  • Attempts to connect projectors to the latest ultraportable laptops and finding they don’t have any suitable ports
  • Presenters arriving 10 mins before their slot, expecting to “run the presentation from a lectern on their own laptop”, only to discover that there is a lectern, but no connection for the laptop.

Sourcing speakers
Performing Artistes director JJ Jackson says using a reputable speaker bureau means clients can be exposed to a range of speakers from across the board, including some you may well not of thought of.

“A company like Performing is completely independent of the artistes, so we can genuinely offer impartial advice, and help find the perfect person for your event, not just the best fit from a limited list.”

 Such a bureau will also have buying power. “Performing Artistes book more than 50 events a month so when we call someone with a possible event, chances are they will have had a number of bookings for us recently, or have some coming up, meaning we can get a very favourable rate,” says Jackson.

A bureau can earn its fee when there is a problem. Jackson says: “Unexpected travel delays can be a problem. During the Icelandic ash cloud we had to arrange a 23-hour trans-European train journey for Michael Buerk (pictured on p.42) for one client (sleep/comfort deprivation – possibly good training for the jungle!) and replaced one BBC Newsreader for another, as the former was stuck in Barbados. The show must go on.”

Contracts with a reputable bureau are fully enforceable and, should the worse happen, the client is covered. “At Performing Artistes, everyone has worked in and run events, so we know what it’s like at the coal face and ensure the talent is one less thing for you to worry about.”

Transport of delight?

Tristar Worldwide, is a chauffeur service provider, and offers ground transport services for conferences, hospitality events and roadshows, as well as general business travel, in more than 80 countries. 

Head of events and roadshows for Tristar Worldwide, Daniel Stener, says: “I can’t stress enough the importance of planning and close management as well as having a co-ordination team on-site to provide 24/7 cover. Local knowledge definitely helps ground transport planning and operations, especially for UK meeting planners often working thousands of miles away from the conference venue.”  

Stener’s tips include:

  • Cheapest is not always best – conference organisers have a responsibility towards their delegates and reputation may be damaged and costs may be involved if for example a speaker misses their conference slot
  • 24/7 support – it is important for conference organisers to be totally confident in their ground transport suppliers and to know they can get hold of a dedicated contact around the clock to handle any schedule changes or new bookings quickly and efficiently
  • Choice of cars – ask about the choice of cars available in advance and think about whether it might be more efficient to use MPVs or mini-coaches if several delegates are being transported to and from the same location, or if delegates will be arriving with lots of luggage
  • Health and safety policy – make sure your ground transport supplier has a robust health and safety policy and insurance policies in place, as delegate safety is paramount. It is also useful to ask how chauffeurs are trained, so you can be reassured that you will receive a first class service for your delegates
  • Local knowledge – make sure your chauffeurs have up to date knowledge of local road networks and in particular any planned road closures and diversions, so they can make the best decisions on how to get delegates to their destinations.

Gail Heron at Moving Venue in London offers these tips for choosing a catering supplier:

  1. Advise your supplier of the most important aspect of your event. It may not directly relate to the food but the more informed your caterer is, the better they can provide the style of food and service to suit your event. For example, is it a reception where networking is the highest priority? Then a waiting team circulating food is preferable rather than a ‘go to’ food station, maximising valuable networking opportunities
  2. Provide your caterer with as much information as you can on style and budget. The ingredients larder is rich and diverse with great scope for creativity, so understanding what is in the purse from the beginning is extremely helpful to a caterer to ensure realistic solutions are presented from the start
  3. A good caterer will have the confidence to say ‘no’ to some of your requests or ideas to make sure that your event will run as smoothly as possible. Always take note as this will be advice based on many years of experience.

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

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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