Dress up your event

Emily King looks at why blank canvas venues appeal to organisers

Blank canvas venues can be seen as either daunting spaces that needs substantial work to make them look good, or as an opportunity to use your imagination and creativity to build an exciting conference space from scratch.

Such venues offering this kind of space, whether they are stadiums, ballrooms, or exhibition halls, are geared up to helping organisers play around with the surroundings to create an alternative, influential, and sometimes, corporate branded conference and meetings venue.

“It all starts with the venue, which forms the backdrop and part of the concept and storytelling for the actual event,” says Tarek Gjonnes, managing director of the appropriately named Blank Canvas: Venue Hire.

“Architecture, style, scale and layout of the venue, are all elements which build the overall concept, look and feel for the event,” he adds.

Manufacturing excitement

Once you have the ‘shell’ sorted, how do you get the best out of the backdrop? Technology obviously helps.

“Technology is a great way of bringing any blank canvas event to life,” says Gareth McTiffin, marketing and events manager at Merlin Events.

One venue with plenty of blank canvas and technology is ExCel, London. This ‘big’ venue in the capital’s Eastside has hosted not only large conventions and meetings but also exhibitions and film shoots. The venue’s events spaces are decorated predominantly in white walls and grey floors which allows plenty of creative scope to bring events to life through projection, use of lighting, and colour.

The blank shell of the hulking venue is almost unrecognisable when World Travel Market comes to town and organisers and exhibitors bring all the bells and whistles associated with the marketing of their destinations.

“Technology is something we have invested heavily in and we offer all sorts of technical solutions to meet any client’s brief,” says Steve Sayer, commercial director at another of the capital’s big venues, the O2 Arena.

“From projection mapping to advanced rigging, sound and lighting, we know clients want to impress and want the best.”

Recent refurbishment of the IET London: Savoy Place, says Simon Timmins, senior marketing manager, means the venue can now offer a series of design exhibits that can be incorporated into conferences and events as add-ons, “from branding the digital chandelier in the entrance to engaging with the wall of ‘100 items that changed the world.”

Manchester Central convention complex also provides branding opportunities for conference organisers. Branding the venue allows organisers to ‘own’ the venue, at least for a while, to dress it up in their corporate colours and present their logos through digital signage.

Flexible friends

Flexibility is another key reason why organisers look to blank canvas venues.

Billy Smart, brand development manager at Mobile Promotions, which specialises in transporting all the necessary ‘dressing up’ for a venue no matter how far-flung it is, says: “Expandable trailers bring an element of excitement within their own right, as we are able to host conferences in previously out of bound locations such as racecourses, within the grounds of historic buildings or outside majestic stadiums.”

A new huge venue space in London is the InterContinental – The O2 hotel’s Arora Ballroom. It is 80m x 39m and 7.2m high, just shy of a football pitch and has been designed to adapt into multiple configurations, accommodating smaller or dual-purpose conferences.

The NEC in Birmingham is also promoting itself for smaller, niche events, despite being primarily know for its large-scale events halls.

Alternatively, the Hampshire Court Hotel’s Championship Suite transforms from a five-court tennis arena to a single large event space. Famous for large awards ceremonies and sporting event dinners, the Championship Suite can also be used for conferences and meetings of all sizes.

Budget restrictions

If those with the budget and ability to dress a blank canvas venue can get the best of both worlds, then what of the drawbacks of choosing such settings for your big (or small) event?

“We find that the only real limiting factor, once the creative is considered, is client budget,” says Mark Rose, strategic client director at Zibrant Live!

Somerset House, pictured below, reports that, for them, the price is individual to each client, but that the prestige of the venue is often what clients are looking for from their event, so often they are happy to pay more to have the venue dressed than to dress the venue themselves.

Certainly, if cost is not a problem and you’re not a DIY specialist and don’t have a deal with a friendly contractor, this ‘off the peg’ deal could be what you need.

Halo Conference and Events at St Mary’s stadium, Southampton, claim to offer value for money and can dress a room for clients with anything from flooring, drapes, to heating.

Nine Adam Street, in London, indicates that the price of a standard dry hire there is £6,000 but offers some tips on saving on this. You could negotiate, for example, if you can prove that your event has a high PR profile.

When considering cost, it’s important for organisers to look at whether they get more than just the venue hire, and also if there are likely to be any cost extras.

One unique venue specialising in another purpose, such as the Bombay Sapphire Distillery, Whitchurch, in Hampshire, offers to fill out the canvas a little: its day delegate rate of £49pp includes not just venue hire but audio-visual equipment, a buffet lunch, a distillery experience, and a complimentary cocktail. This is also upgradable to a cocktail master-class or afternoon tea.


Lisa Robert-Jones, head of VenueHub, believes that you should engage clients in the organising process “don’t just ask your delegates to sit and listen, get them involved in helping shape their experience.”Filling in the blanks can then be more painting by numbers rather than painting in the dark.

The main benefit of blank canvas venues can be making the venue your own unencumbered with someone else’s creative collateral and not having ‘extras’ guaranteed to pad out on the bill at the end.

“We understand that conference, training and meeting needs are unique  and not served by packaging solutions, which is why our new venue is as individual as our customers are,” says Richard Harrison, head of conferences centres at Warwick Conferences.

“We work with our customers to create tailor-made, bespoke experiences that fully satisfy their event and business objectives.”

In a complex the size of Warwick’s, organisers can plug in to as much help and assistance as they need, or simply take possession of the venue shell and do their own thing.

Blank canvas venues give options to create a magnificent space that fully incorporates and envelopes the event but without precluding anything or adding unnecessary features and costs.

“A blank canvas is a double-edged sword, but if you take a pragmatic approach to your delivery of an event in such a space you can go a long way to alleviate the negative issues that can occur,” concludes Rose.

Emily King


Emily King

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