Unique space continuum II

In the second of a two-part series spotlighting the UK’s unusual venue offering, Paul Collett looks at what they bring to the table.

March’s Part 1 highlighted the shift toward experiential meetings, quantified incremental sector growth, and qualified cost bases and measurement. This month, we look at how organisers are adapting and innovating to meet experiential expectations, and how unique venues are facilitating market growth.

Re-imagined, bang on trend
Live events are a people business and are, therefore, a fine barometer of change, says events and compliance manager at London’s East End Art Deco theatre venue Troxy, Will Poole. “Over the years, we have seen delegate concentration levels decline, calling into question the viability of all day conferences.”

This means some organisers are recalibrating. “Days are broken into more sessions, at times shorter days, while condensing content and using interactive technology to engage,” says Poole. Continued growth in incentive and delegate extensions further illustrates the re-imagination of the traditional format.

This is a development that “makes good sense”, says head of sales, Lime Venue Portfolio, Tracey Astles. “Most meetings have a positive message to convey, and organisers are looking to provide an incentive extension to underline these messages during, and post-experience.”

Head of conventions at Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, Aileen Crawford, agrees. “A memorable social programme is more important than ever for conference delegates who rate networking opportunities as one of the main reasons to attend a conference.”

Crawford points out that, “cultural venues such as Kelvingrove Art Gallery, the Riverside Transport Museum or Glasgow Science Centre, provide stimulating environments that encourage knowledge exchange and collaboration. They are the platform from which we create experiences”.

In south east London, it’s all about the depth of offering, says commercial director at The O2, Steve Sayer. “It can be increasingly difficult to create an unforgettable experience if your delegates are confined to just one room. We partnered with the Salvation Army last year to curate an event that utilised every available space. This encompassed seven distinct programming sessions: youth content, a cinema, theatre, merchandise, concerts, talks and even a march down the Mall by 3,000 church members.”

Culture, synergies and investment
The unusual venue spectrum is hugely varied – from zoos and wildlife parks, museums, castles and stately homes, to sporting venues, sea forts and new builds. “The UK has a rich and textured culture, which the offerings reflect,” says head of business events at Visit Scotland, Neil Brownlee.

“Experiences above and beyond the norm are intrinsic to these venues. Delegate extensions require such environments to deliver on an experiential level. It’s a logical step, but one that also brings our value into sharp focus.”

Principal Hayley Group re-launched two of its iconic city centre grand dame hotels, as part of a capital investment programme in excess of £100m across its key properties. Commercial revenue director, PHG, Alan Corlet, says the investment is indicative of strong demand, adding. “The hotels are unique in their proposition, they have individual character that cannot be replicated from city to city, and our clients respond incredibly well to that, and enjoy being part of something special.”

Originally built to repel Napoleon III’s empire building tendencies, three of the four Solent Forts also benefited from significant investment not so long ago, transforming them into meetings and events destinations off the south coast. Spitbank, Horse Sand and No Man’s Forts comprise Amazing Venue’s off-shore portfolio and a compelling narrative to our island DNA.
No Man’s Fort underwent a multi-million pound refurbishment last year, says general manager, Solent Forts, Mark Watts. “In response to market forces, wedecided to enhance and complement the fort’s original features, and it’s now one of Britain’s hottest venues.”

Plains, trains and leverage
There are some fantastic extension experiences to be had throughout the country. Take Yorkshire Wildlife Park, a nine-acre reserve just outside Doncaster. Opening this summer, Tsavo Lodge is the new Africa themed space complete with lions, giraffe and black rhino.
“Delegates love the natural environment and find it invigorating. We have rangers on hand who interact and educate guests. Delegate extensions and VIP tours through the park complete the holistic experience,” says events and functions manager, Chris White.

From nature to propulsion and one of the Doncaster’s most revered feats of engineering, the Flying Scotsman. The world’s first steam locomotive to clock 100mph can now be enjoyed at the National Railway Museum in York, the world’s largest.

“We reflect the current trend perfectly,” says sales and events manager, Michelle Rennoldson, “because there are so many standout elements that can be incorporated into a meeting or conference”.

The learning environment is vital to delegate productivity, she adds. “Conferences can be stuffy and claustrophobic, but breakout sessions allow delegates some much-needed time out to refresh their minds, and return re-invigorated for the afternoon session.”

Employing a strategic business model while leveraging Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games legacy, has led to 16% growth over 18 months and 30% growth in retained business at Glasgow Science Centre.

“We took a hard look at our economic strengths and decided to align with those sectors and integrate them into the GSC offering,” says head of corporate events, Judy Rae. “The city is a hub for the life sciences, engineering, chemical, creative and tourism sectors.” In practical terms this means corporates can use GSC facilities, such as the recently upgraded digital fulldome planetarium, for presentations and product launches.

The Commonwealth Games was huge for Scotland, notes Rae, helping to secure 45 major national and international events, with an estimated economic impact of 18.5m. “We’re very proactive, getting in first at the planning stage, collaborating, making the most of the opportunities.”

Organisers, venues and challenges
Director at Goose Live Events, Sam Trevenna, says challenges usually arise precisely because the space is unique. “Working with preferred suppliers can be good but challenging. While they know how to protect the venue and work with any constraints that may present themselves, there can be budgetary issues.”

Head of events at Historic Royal Palaces, Liz Young, agrees venue protection can be a hurdle, but reasons, “each of our venue teams has to work within the parameters of preserving a historic venue to ensure events achieve their full impact within the necessary conservation guidelines”.

At the home of cricket, communications officer, Chris Smith, is quite open about restrictions at Lord’s, but believes flexibility and the setting overcome any limitations.

Many spaces overlook the pitch, Smith points out, “which largely enhances the inspiration and energy of delegates. We also have enough flexible space for all AV and entertainment requirements”.

Joining the dots
Representing Unique Venues of Edinburgh and The Scotch Whisky Experience, means the big picture is very much at the forefront of Simon Robinson’s mind.

“Partnerships and extensions between venues, organisers and wider stakeholders throughout the UK are vital to sustainable development. Year-round revenue streams are what, in particular, a number of historic venues need to achieve to remain viable,” he says.

Support is on hand in the form of the Meetings Mean Business campaign, which proactively drives business to the unique sector. “We saw in 2015 that ‘lesser’ meetings were being cancelled,” says sales director, Lime Venue Portfolio, Jo Austin. “But, the ones that really focused on great content and experience were seeing better ROI and increased budgets. This has to be good for the industry.”

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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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