The Big Interview: Venues and Events International's Anita Lowe
Martin Fullard sits down with Anita Lowe over a homemade lasagne, to talk how Venues and Events International started, how to get one over your rivals for an interview, and swanky uniforms.
The people of the events industry are bound by one common trait: enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is perhaps personified no better than it is by Anita Lowe, chief executive at Venues and Events International.
I paid her and her team a visit on the outskirts of Swindon, stumbling across not only the annual family Easter Egg hunt, but also an office full of dogs, among them Teddy, the agency’s chief hotel inspector. I sit with Anita over a homemade lasagne in the office…
How did you start your career in the events industry?
It wasn’t the career I was originally planning, I am actually a qualified riding instructor, so my plan was to have my own riding school. I gave it some thought, and I concluded that your hobby shouldn’t be your career, so at a young age elected to go into the world of travel.
My first role was working for an off-shore oil company where I managed the travel arrangements for the men
on the rigs.
I was then given an opportunity at the international sales office for what at the time was Holiday Inns Incorporated. There was a funny moment ahead of my interview. When I got there, I was in a bit of a rush and noted there were two other people in reception interviewing for the same role.
Anyway, the interview had been delayed, so to psyche out the competition I said something along the lines of “isn’t it terrible, a big company like this keeping us waiting so long. I’m not sure I’d want to work for an organisation like this, I’m not sure I’ll stay.” They agreed, and then left! I stayed, and I ended up getting the job.
What’s the story of Venues and Events International?
We have been in the industry for 30 years and experienced huge amounts of success. However, in 2010 we decided that it was time to sell, so we went out to look for the right kind of partner, and we found one called Expotel. They were a large travel management company with a small meetings and events offering, so it wasn’t a conflict at all and in fact we strengthened that side of it for them.
For two years we had the most wonderful relationship but, sadly, Expotel had equity partners who had a high shareholding and they decided they wanted to change their portfolio. We were turning over £33m of client spend with a team of 120 and were eventually bought by Capita Travel and Events.
I stayed for about 18 months before realising it was time for me to move on. I had missed the high-touch personal experience of running a small agency, and my husband said I shouldn’t leave the industry, so we started again as Venues and Events International in 2015.
Can you tell us some of your clients?
We have some amazing clients, clients who came straight back to us. We have MAN Truck and Bus, Allied Bakeries, Kinetic, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and BP.
How have client expectations changed?
The biggest change we’ve seen over the years is in procurement. We have a great relationship with our clients and procurement contacts, but we do see different companies with different balances. When there’s something like a recession, procurement steps in heavily, but at other times the client says the stakeholder is the one with authority. It’s interesting to see where the balance is and having the stakeholder and procurement working together.
Of course we want to make sure we’re making the right savings, but we also want to make sure we’re doing what the client wants.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is another thing to have changed in recent years. It’s a real focus for SMEs and for us as an agency. A while ago you never thought about things like diversity and inclusion, but today it’s a key component.
Not too long ago we had a client overseas, and diversity and inclusion is very important to them. We had to provide some entertainment and we were looking at belly dancers, well, you try and find a male belly dancer! We did and it was great!
Do you see event skills as transferable?
I was sitting with a client the other day, and if you’re an event manager in healthcare, petrochemicals, or software, in some ways your skill is being that event’s manager. It’s understanding event strategies and delivering on them. It doesn’t matter, then, what industry sector you’re in because you can transfer those skills across.
Also, isn’t it wonderful that the events industry has its own qualifications? Degrees are great, and in fact I was involved in the first one created in the UK, which was run by the University of Leeds. It’s great that we have properly skilled people in events now. That’s not to say that we’d not look at anyone with experience over a degree, both are valuable, but this industry is very much about project management.
Certainly, the industry is catching up with others.
What do people love and hate about venues?
As with anything, you only have one first impression. Here’s an example of an impression that I absolutely loved: the Grand in Brighton. The first people we met when we visited were the concierge, and they all had brand new uniforms (pictured top left), and they were fantastic. They had designed them themselves as a team and they were stunning. Even the shoes matched this fantastic tweed outfit with ties and waistcoats… it was such an amazing first impression. But it has to be followed through (it always is at the Grand).
Conversely, walking into a hotel on a bright sunny day and meeting someone in a black suit can cause issues. It’s shiny, it’s creased, the white shirt isn’t white: it’s the same impression, but not a good one.
First impressions on showarounds are key. One thing that’s always concerned, amused, and even bemused me is why, when you’re part of a group on a hotel tour, your guide knocks on the door and says “housekeeping”? I’m not housekeeping! If someone did open the door I don’t want them to think I’m the maid.
Clients these days are also looking for innovation. We were at an event recently at the Great House at Sonning, and they have these wonderful little restaurant pods in the garden overlooking the most spectacular view of the river (pictured above). The twist is that it has a franchised restaurant: the Coppa. Why aren’t more hotels doing this? They focus on their skills in the most wonderful locations.
Health and safety is another thing clients are looking out for. Health and safety has to be the raison d’être for any hotel. We will absolutely turn away a hotel if they don’t meet our criteria in health and safety, I even check the fire extinguishers are in date when I’m showing clients around.
And on that note our interview came to an end. Well, almost. Teddy didn’t want me to leave.