Association Business UK: What venues can do for you - Taking the strain

The effort that UK venues put into making association events run smoothly means that practically all demands can be met. Report by Sharon Greaves.

The lack of a major convention centre in London is sometimes cited as a constraint to the UK capturing more international association business, but generally the level and quality of venue infrastructure across the country is considered a strength.

While there is no disputing the scale and variety of product, venues refuse to sink into complacency and are always strengthening their product.

On a physical level, the space many of them offer is becoming even more flexible.

Some 60% of Edinburgh International Conference Centre's (EICC) business is association derived and the venue is aiming to increase that further upon completion of a £27m expansion. Due to open in 2008, it will provide an extra 2,000sqm plus 11 breakout rooms and a cafe. Central to the project will be a 1,600sqm main hall with moving floor technology, which will enable the space to seamlessly shift into an almost endless number of configurations, from a flat-floor exhibition area to a raked auditorium.

Importantly, the investment will allow trade bodies to hold exhibitions, dinners and meetings under one roof.

Association business has always been core to Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) and head of conferences, exhibitions and events Clive Tyers reports that it will maintain the sales impetus, particularly as 60%-70% of that business is repeat. "Where we have begun to see a falling off over the past five years is that certain associations have outgrown our facility," he says.

To address the problem a £20m development scheme, with an October completion date, will add a 500sqm hall and increase the seating capacity in the largest auditorium - Windsor Hall - from 3,500 to 4,200. BIC is already attracting former clients: the Royal College of Nursing used to alternate between Bournemouth and Harrogate for its annual event but it got to the point where the BIC simply ran out of space. Now it is returning in 2006 with up to 2,500 people for a main conference session in Windsor Hall and an exhibition.

Along with flexible space, UK venues offer a flexible approach to event management, which organisers consider essential. In Conference managing director Margaret Sherry says: "The whole concept of being flexible is crucial. Clients change their minds. They get ideas from competing events and venues and want to transpose those ideas."

Graham Shearsmith, exhibition manager of machine tool show MACH, says: "Organisers want venues to be more amenable with contracts and the tenancy.

If it's a new show the organisers do not necessarily start out with a rigid structure and ideas. They want leeway, the ability to fly an idea for a while. When exhibitors have confirmed and a certain amount of square metreage has been booked, then they can sign contracts, but not before."

That flexibility should even stretch to budgets. MACH has remained at the NEC for more than 20 years and its importance is reflected in the fact that the venue is willing to negotiate costs instead of hiking charges year after year.

Similarly, the Business Design Centre incentivises associations to return annually by holding the same fee. The complexity of association events means the venue's on-site team will also provide as much input as the client demands. Business Design Centre conference sales manager Max Bull says: "We hold customers' hands and take as much of the logistical and administrative burden off their shoulders as they wish. We provide one point of contact to build continuity and recommend audio-visual and catering suppliers."

Certainly the venue is not alone in adopting this approach. "Associations are recognising how important it is to have a qualified event manager," says the BIC's Tyers. "Once we have got through the sales stage we will allocate an event manager and in-house specialists to the event. In the final months, when the organisation is topping and tailing the event, the venue operations team then moves into place."

The EICC forms a client service team for each event - a group of experts from the catering, security, technical and engineering fields - plus it will manage exhibitions and advise on the social agenda.

Maugie Lyons, head of sales and marketing at the Royal Horticultural Halls and Conference Centre, adds that it is the venue's business to offer organisers some direction. "We have seen successful and unsuccessful exhibitions and are able to share our long-term experience. The exhibitors need results. We know how our facility works and can put examples of best practice the clients' way. No idea is patented," she says. The venue therefore will suggest visitor flow, where to have "grab and go" points, and where to position the primary stand, potential hospitality areas and suitable places for registration.

Above all, organisers expect total co-operation and buy-in from the venue.

"Continuity is important," says Lyons. "Knowing that the people in the facility who have worked with you in the build-up will be there on the day of the event. What clicks is the personnel." The fact that staff will go that extra mile has led, she believes, to long-term business.


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