Paul Colston finds the dedicated venue market is adapting to new demands
If organising conferences were all about the Wow factor, then organisers would surely opt for some iconic stadium, museum or gallery as a famous backdrop every time?
On the other hand, if a value option was the be all and end all, with accommodation on site, then a hotel would be the obvious answer.
Probably though, if your conference is an annual event, requiring the services of conference professionals, with a minimum of distractions and a maximum of expertise in delivery, then you may well be looking for a dedicated conference venue that does little else but deliver meetings and events.
Tim Chudley is MD of the Sundial Group, a collection of dedicated venues in beautiful countryside that specialise solely in conferences. He is, naturally, a key advocate of the genre.
“The key to a great event isn’t just about booking a great venue that’s available on the day you want, and for the numbers you need. It’s about taking the time to get everything exactly right. Plan with your target audience in mind and make sure that everything’s driven by your key business objectives in order to achieve the best possible outcome,” says Chudley.
As well as natural rural settings designed to generate receptive thought and creativity, dedicated venues tend to major in serving up brain-stimulating food and complimentary Wi-Fi as standard.
Now there are hybrid venues that purport to offer the dedication and expertise of the out of town specialist centres, but within a city environment (albeit without the bedrooms).
Etc.venues has such a model and has grown rapidly over recent years.
MD Alastair Stewart: “I think you could legitimately question the existence of the dedicated residential venue market now, there are very few residential venues now that have not succumbed to taking bed and breakfast business, and worse midweek weddings and other social events that combine to undermine the so called ‘dedicated’ learning environment that the venues sought to make such a feature of.”
In attempting to answer why has this happened, Stewart says demand for midweek conferences has declined as training gets delivered over shorter durations, compounded by a trend he describes as ‘urbanisation’, or the pushing of business into city centres.
“Urbanisation has come about as a result of a generational change which results in delegates wanting to feel connected to technology, trendy bars, restaurants and hotels which are a million miles apart from residential venues built in the 1970’s and 80’s.”
And Stewart’s proof of his theory seems to be in the pudding of etc.venues which, he says, now hosts 700,000 delegates a year across a range of venues.
Stewart says he understands the commercial pressure residential dedicated venues have been under but is worried too many have ended up in no man’s land between hotels and some of the institutional venues that have kept their focus.
“For our part, “ he adds, “we have kept that dedicated focus, it separates us very clearly from hotels and serviced office groups and the feedback we get from our clients on the learning environments we create is universally positive and after they finish with us they have a huge choice of trendy bars, restaurants and hotels to choose from”.
The NEC Group has many ‘dedicated’ events venues, and its iconic ICC in central Birmingham handles some of the largest and most demanding of conferences. It fits the dedicated bill perfectly. However, for small and medium sized conference demand, the giant halls at the NEC do not always fit the bill.
Now the group’s Vox Conference Centre, situated in Resorts World Birmingham, which opened its doors in September, has filled in this missing meetings space piece in the specialised venue jigsaw.
James Elston, sales director of the ICC and Vox says: “The beauty of having two dedicated conference venues means that we can offer tailored solutions to fit the clients’ needs. It’s not just about the space; it’s the whole experience, and the Vox opens up more possibilities than ever before.”
Innovative features include sky fold walls that change the room size from one large banqueting space to five separate rooms within a few minutes, and Amanda Morris, from Just Watch Events, recently worked with the team to hold the first event at the Vox. “It is a brand new venue with the capacities required for our event by plus an extensive AV package was an easy choice to make.
“We have worked with the NEC Group before – particularly at the ICC. Our experience of the quality of food and operations team left a lasting impression so we had no problems recommending this venue to the client.”
At another giant specialised venue, Excel London’s ICC has reported the busiest ever year for conferences, with events including the European Society of Cardiology and more ICCA rated events than ever before.
Since opening, Excel’s own ICC has allowed the venue to double conference revenues and now contributes over £3bn to London’s economy, directly supporting 31,000 jobs.
Excel’s executive director James Rees confirms that 52% of new corporate contracts won over the last 12-months represent a switch from a traditional hotel environment to a flexible venue format, “such as our International Convention Centre”.
“Hotels by their nature are a ‘packaged offer’ while a convention centre presents a world of possibilities. In addition to our flexible space we are able to offer a flexibility of service that allows event organisers to create unique and bespoke event environments and a truly immersive brand experience for their delegates.”
Out at Wyboston Lakes on the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire border, MD Mark Jones is adamant there is an increased need for quality venues “that deliver a specific function”. He also says it is imperative they now demonstrate real value and ROI.
“Particularly with the increased involvement of procurement in the buying process and the continued pressure to drive down cost.”
“We don’t want to compromise on quality, so the latter can be challenging – we constantly need to demonstrate our value,” Jones adds.
Wyboston lakes operates two dedicated venues on one site and has adapted its operations to what Jones says is “the continued trend for short lead times”. The recession has clearly taught the need to provide flexibility and scalability to clients.
“I know we say it often but it is true our staff are skilled specialists, because they focus on one thing and that is delivering conferences, training and events; we don’t have the blurred lines that exists within hotels,” Jones says.
The Wybston MD claims refurbishment of the training facilities at the Training Centre has increased the market share for the business within the training arena; creating increased demand for management training facilities from organisations in key sectors such as education, retail services and public sector as well as weekend association events.
The Wyboston Lakes Executive Centre is also capitalising on a 200 mbps broadband service. Jones says this opens up new horizons for organisers looking to achieve new levels of effectiveness, impact and involvement. “It is a service that many hotel venues simply can’t offer or have to charge hefty supplements for.”
Wyboston’s family owners clearly believe their model is one worth investing in, with £5m being ploughed in over the past five years and the end of a further £1m hotel bedroom refurbishment on site.
The on site spa and golf course at Wyboston Lakes always helps detract from any stereotyped pre-conceptions by delegates expecting a dull, countryside retreat, with no options for down time.