Unique space continuum

Magnificently fragmented, the UK unusual space scene is feeding the mood for edgy, creatively charged bespoke events. Paul Collett looks at the big picture

From blank canvas spaces, disused and semi-complete buildings, to new-build and historic venues, this conversation is moving the meetings game forward at a fair lick. Previous distinctions between the meetings and live events genres have become blurred.

Terminology once the preserve of early experiential B2B, B2C and pure consumer live events is now being used in a meetings context: curation, experience, engagement, ROI, measurement. In turn, unusual venues are sought and cast, spaces dressed to meet the aspirations of organisers, agencies and corporates – be they training days, conferences, activations or corporate events.

Incremental growth
Unusual venue statistics are impressive – at least for London. The latest available stats (covering 2013-14) supplied by Londonlaunch.com, report venue by type searches on their site, for ‘unique’ and ‘unusual’, up on the previous year by 328%, while searches for ‘warehouse’ rose 186%. Attendant event services such as catering and production also benefited from an overall increase in events booked.

For Kevin Jackson, International Special Events Society (ISES) UK president, growth in take-up is a natural shift in line with market forces. “More and more clients want a venue that reflects their company, their ethos. They want to inspire and involve their audience, they want creativity, memorability. Unusual venues can meet these needs, and are proving their worth, adding all important incremental growth to the market.”

The Forest Works, an agency dealing in outdoor teambuilding in nine locations, moved into group bookings and events in 2014, and reports strong demand among those looking for a way to escape the office scene. However, they say: “Being a relatively new product to the events world brings challenges. Finding the right balance of marketing techniques to build our product name is the initial step.”

With a 500-year history, The Royal College of Physicians (building pictured overleaf) faces its own unique promotional challenges. “As a venue, our main hurdle is probably getting people to understand how unique it actually is,” says deputy director meetings and events David Parker. To get the message across, he opts for face-to-face presentations.

Corporate Social Responsibility is now an important consideration in winning business. “Venues like ours need to keep up with many developments, whether management, our catering offer, AV technology advances or simply the control of energy usage,” says Parker. “Often it’s a box ticking exercise you simply have to do to place bookings.”

Flexibility and depth of offering can be the difference between a one hit wonder and long term success. At venue portfolio and event management company Blank Canvas, co-founder and commercial director Courtney Tuck notes: “We are fortunate in that we are able to retain clients, and benefit from repeat bookings through a large portfolio and bespoke pricing model.”

Back in time, back to the future
Moya Maxwell, chair of the Unique Venues of London marketing consortium, points to an immediate advantage when using a unusual venue. These buildings are original spaces bursting with character and that sets them apart from most purpose-built spaces. “The history and atmosphere which underlies most of our venues helps us effectively bring an event to life,” she says.

Lillibrooke Manor in Maidenhead is another case in point. The 15th century manor house and barn is a splendid slice of history, yet can be produced to brief. Co-owner Charlotte Alberto reasons that though traditional venues can be quite “prescriptive”, the manor house and barn “are fully functioning flexible spaces where you can curate your own theme”.

At the other end of the spectrum is the futuristic British Airways i360, down on the bohemian south coast at Brighton. Set to be the world’s first vertical cable car and tallest moving observation tower when completed this summer, “it reflects a sense of optimism and excellence, signifying Brighton’s pull as a destination”, says Julia Gallagher, head of sales at VisitBrighton.

The blank space trend
Simon Tracey, CEO of design and event production specialists The Vibration Group,says he’s seeing a trend away from built environments. “All clients want new venue ideas, it is a growing trend not to use conference centres, but to find unusual spaces to deliver a better experience. These spaces either tend to have strong features or are a totally blank canvas.”

However, it is important to remember that “as these spaces are not specifically tailored to be used for events, you need to really consider factors such as catering, heat, power, access, health and safety”, cautions Tracey.

Cost bases, calendars and food for thought
Anita Lowe, chief executive of booking agency Venues and Events International in Wiltshire echoes the advice: “It’s easy to get carried away with your blank canvas and forget about the basics, so keep an eye on your budget and costs. And keep an eye on your calendar if you’re looking at a sporting venue, most are restricted bookings due to match or race days.”

From boil-in-the-bag chicken, to the capital of high rolling cuisine, the UK has managed to pull off a foodie revolution. However, the standard of event catering can be patchy.
“It’s worth the research and a bigger budget to get it right,” says Tuck. “The likelihood is few unusual venues will provide in-house catering, and empty stomachs offer little redemption. It’s too important an element to get wrong.”

Quality food that follows a theme can add value to the experience. “We held an Alice in Wonderland fundraiser at our Discovery Museum in Newcastle,” says Samantha Doyle, area sales manager for Sodexo Prestige. Among the costumed characters, pink flamingos and tea cups, client feedback that “the food was the complete antithesis of the usual fodder”, makes the point.

Understanding objectives and ROI
Maxwell recently hosted Unique Insight London 2016, where the subject of ROI was tackled head-on. “We assembled a panel from across the industry to discuss measurement and how we could all work together to produce tangible, useful data,” she says.

A lack of information client-side from which to draw results has been one of the barriers to successful measurement. Agencies and corporates need to be more upfront, sharing their event objectives with venues and suppliers in their first meeting to ensure the ROI metric is understood. Only then, says Maxwell, can you work toward achieving it.

“This is especially important with more stringent budgets; the challenge is trying to provide consistent, repeat experiences for less,” she adds.

“On the other hand, venues in the unique sector need to make more of their compliance credentials in the procurement process.”

And technology can be a key aid in tracking and maximising event ROI, says Sarah Jones, project manager at CWT Meetings & Events.

“In essence, a good event app means you can measure outcome against objectives. This is what stakeholders are looking at in terms of ROI, whether monetised, behavioural or learning.”

Venues, organisers, agencies, suppliers – anyone in events – should reach out for support, says Jackson at ISES. “We have some great platforms to start networking and learning from, to build those connections with suppliers and end-users. The established industry bodies are here to encourage and support success.”

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Conference News resides at the heart of the conference industry examining the issues affecting organisers, venues, destinations and suppliers. Published monthly, Conference News features the latest news, interviews and industry analysis from market influencers.

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