AEV Conference food for thought, as The Vox proves popular

This year’s AEV Conference at The Vox, at Birmingham’s NEC on 29 June, centred on the theme of creating world-class events and drew a record 150 delegates.

The NEC, ICC, and The Vox MD Kathryn James welcomed delegates before a keynote, from a major organiser’s perspective, delivered by Stuart Johnston, the still relatively new MD of Ascential Events. Johnston drew on his experience of  using data to maximum effect to increase the value of big events.

Trivandi chairman Paul May looked back at his work for LOCOG during London 2012 and drew many operational conclusions for venues to think about when comparing to experience abroad. May’s focus on the nitty-gritty of operations and planning was useful insight for venue professionals, but a faith in the idea that ‘Britain is best’ did overlook the importance of the wow factor from other countries’ Olympic approaches and our own legacy failings. If we wish to really be the best, we must take on board best global practice as well as dispensing advice and the example of our own top-class experiences. May criticised Beijing for its poor food and poor English signage, yet the London 2012 slides showed no examples of Mandarin signage and examples of food that were expensive and restricted to what is popular in the UK.

The role food plays in the event experience was the subject of a lively panel discussion at the conference, led by venue consultant James Mark, who rightly underlined the importance of the experience of food to the event delegate. The word ‘craft’, he noted, was increasingly used as the food revolution continued apace at UK venues.

Panellist and MD of leisure and business development at Levy Restaurants UK, Jonathan Davies, said understanding the customer demographic was key to success. While ‘health’ was a watchword for corporate event catering, ‘indulgence’ was more of a trend for large venues’ entertainment customers, he argued.

Customers were wise, he added, to fads and pretentious claims for ‘healthy’ food. The key, said Davies, was ultimately in the cooking methods used.

Jenna Mosimann, CEO of Food for the Brain charity, spoke about nutrition and how better food choices could be made. “Food is not just a fuel. Nutrition enables the delegate to stay in balance,” she noted. “If you don’t put good things in, you don’t get good things out.”

James Hacon, a hospitality brand strategist, told the audience it was a challenging time for the event catering sector, with double digit decline being registered by many restaurants. He also spoke of difficulties working around zero hours contracts and sourcing skilled labour in the sector.

Hacon thought customers could move quickly to order their food from outside the large venues, via collection points, a view contested by Levy’s Davies who put his faith, understandably, in the in-house catering model.

The panel approach was repeated in the lively session on event technology trends, led by Murray Dickson, head of business engagement, group IT at the NEC Group. This panel had expert speakers from Freeman and Ungerboeck Software International both of whom offered plenty of detail  and insights into industry trends, with numerous examples to think about.

AEV director Rachel Parker told CN her leadership team had taken feedback from last year’s conference in moving to the panel format.

While the ever important issues of food and security saw much lively debate and audience interaction, the counter terrorism presentation was a bit of a let down if truth be told.

While the AEV should be congratulated for getting a leading specialist in counter terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO) to speak to venue managers on the threat posed to their ‘crowded places’, there was little of substance offered by way of insight from the speaker.

After a big build up, ‘Run and hide’ seemed to be the only message delivered by the expert, who made great play of seeking anonymity for understandable security reasons. However, the effect was somewhat undermined by the speaker publishing his own name at the end of his slide.

The advice, though well intentioned, was simply common sense that any 12-year-old could have told us. Let us hope NaCTSO has some more sophisticated ideas back at base to help reassure those in the venue business who are looking for a proper guide to action and real insights and advice on what they can do to keep their venues safe for all.

The afternoon sessions brought more good discussion on experiences and customer service from the world of attractions led by Craig Dunkerley of Merlin Entertainment and a view from the airline industry from Paul Kehoe, chief executive of Birmingham Airport.

The social side of the AEV Conference included a gripping preview of the Dinosaurs in the Wild installation at The NEC and a networking evening in The Vox’s Sky Bar.

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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