UNUSUAL VENUES: And now for something completely different - Bored with events that take place at the usual exhibition centre or hotel? Something out of the ordinary may be difficult to organise but it could spice up the occasion, writes Philip Chadwick

Picking a venue that's unusual can leave a lasting impression on guests. 'They are great fun. People enjoy going somewhere different,' says Ethnic Exhibitions managing director Stephen Powell.

Picking a venue that's unusual can leave a lasting impression on guests. 'They are great fun. People enjoy going somewhere different,' says Ethnic Exhibitions managing director Stephen Powell.

However, going down this route is not without its problems. 'Certain venues might be considered unusual now, but six months down the line they could become run-of-the-mill,' says Anton Jerges, director of design agency Qudos. 'You have to look and think a little differently.'

And because the venue may not be used to hosting events, organisation can be a nightmare. Every eventuality has to be considered - even the unexpected.



Design agency (Qudos)

Qudos has been involved in many events at venues ranging from Lord's cricket ground to Terminal Four at Heathrow airport. Each created its own problems.

'We were at Lord's cricket ground as part of a government trade programme launch,' says Jerges. 'We took over the Nursery pavilion and restructured it. Then an architect told us the floor would not take the load we had put on it. We had ten minutes to get 960 sq m of 18mm plyboard, on which we could then spread the load.'

A more unusual event involved erecting a marquee on the runway at Heathrow's Terminal Four. People were bussed from the nearby Hilton hotel to an aircraft on the tarmac. Alongside it was the marquee, set up for catering.

'Any vehicle going anywhere near the marquee had to be insured for pounds 100m, just in case it was hit by a plane,' says Jerges.

Cost is always going to be a major hurdle as certain venues are not designed to host an event. 'The alternative venues won't be like hotels where everything is laid out for you,' adds Jerges. 'It takes an awful lot of time, money and energy. The venue may even need refurbishing.'

Considering how to get your audience to the venue is also important. It's no good having a spectacular setting if travelling there is difficult.

Qudos is currently involved in an event to be held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south London. Getting the audience there will be no problem as a boat has been organised to ferry guests up the Thames with a canape reception on board.

Choosing a fantasy venue seems to be a trickier prospect for Jerges.

'I'd like it to be somewhere hot, like Barbados,' he says. 'But I don't think you can have somewhere that you love to do an event. Every event is unique and has its own criteria.'



Exhibition organiser (Brintex)

Events at unusual venues will need a back-up plan as things can often go wrong in unexpected ways. Just ask Malcolm Taylor, managing director of exhibition organiser Brintex. In December 1997, his company was asked to assist Midland Bank on a charity concert at Battersea Power Station. It involved building the largest temporary building in the world on a narrow strip between the power station and the river Thames.

'It was riddled with trouble. It was a pretty inaccessible venue and it rained,' says Taylor. 'The dampness caused power cuts. Plus, one place where fans could make their way to the venue, Battersea Bridge Road, was closed. This meant people had to walk quite a way. It was half a mile from the nearest train station and a quarter of a mile from the car park.'

Logistics were not the only headache. The opening night's fireworks display couldn't take place outside because of nearby Battersea Dogs' Home, so it was decided to let off the fireworks in the shell of the power station.

'Mortars were let off within the walls and the sound of them taking off echoed all around,' says Taylor. 'The noise was horrendous. It could easily be heard at the dogs' home and scared them.'

In fact, it caused the dogs to fight. Three were killed with many more maimed resulting in a blaze of publicity for the event - but for all the wrong reasons.

If you were to take the risk and go for an unusual venue Taylor stresses the importance of word of mouth. 'If an event is held over a few days then you want people to have such a great time that they go back to work and spread the word. As the days continue attendance can go up and make a real difference.'

Weather also plays a significant role. In an ideal world, however, you would have no such climate worries.

'I would love to stage an event in the south of France,' says Taylor.

'Reed Exhibitions does an event in Cannes in early spring and it attracts an awful lot of British interest. This probably has something to do with the weather.'



Client (Mercedes)

'The main thing you must do is check everything 1,000 times,' says Andrew Catlin, director of Brandscape which organises off-road test drive events for Mercedes. 'You must prepare for the worst. The more unusual the venue the more uncertain everything is. You must allow a huge amount of time for checking and you must have a back-up plan.'

Mercedes organises test drive events for its M-class owners at stately homes all over the UK. The day involves experienced off-road drivers teaching M-class owners how to drive properly off-road. The day includes a meal at the estate, hosted by the owners and Mercedes.

'You get to drive in real off-road conditions. Nothing is artificial,' says Catlin. 'People learn a lot from it. They also have a great time and finish the day with a big smile on their faces.'

According to Catlin the event must give tremendous value. It's important to make it exciting and challenging.

'I would say that it is like shooting a movie,' says Catlin. 'If it's a three-day event then it's like shooting a 72-hour film in one take.

Everything has to be carefully scripted and arranged. Having said that you don't want to set things up too much. You want each event to be unique.'

One of the company's most unusual events was when Mercedes went out to the highest road in Europe, in Spain.

'We took the world paragliding champion with us. As we descended in our vehicles he flew past us and did an aerial display,' recalls Catlin. 'Another unusual place we went to was in Morocco. We drove to a house owned by an Venetian antique collector. It was originally used to house servants and extended family members. With 20 bedrooms it was probably the equivalent of a castle. It had been derelict and had taken 200 craftsmen three and a half years to rebuild.'

Going to overseas venues may sound expensive but according to Catlin, it works out quite reasonably. 'Part of the cost is covered by the guests who find out about the trips through Mercedes,' he adds. 'It's tremendous value for the customer and Mercedes. Everyone has a great time.

'But you must remember not to treat an overseas venue as just a background to the event. The great thing is the mix of different cultures, beliefs and values. You must treat the people with respect.'

For off-road events, Catlin thinks just about anywhere in the world would be a dream place to host an event. 'If you drew a 150sq mile circle anywhere on the earth, you could do something fantastic with that space,' he says.

But with any event things can go wrong. 'You must check everything on every level. From making sure that roads are clear on the day, to checking that your venue has been booked properly,' says Catlin. 'We once thought everything had been confirmed once at a stately home, but when we arrived on the day there was a note from the owners saying 'gone on holiday, back in three months'.'



Event management (Fisher)

'You have to remember that you want something at the back of the event and it's not just all for fun,' says Charlie Fisher, director of Fisher Productions, which specialises in event management. 'Unusual venues are not cheap. You have to look at who you are inviting and ask if it's worth spending the money.'

An unusual venue may look impressive but you have to do more than just let guests enjoy the scenery.

'Hosts must work to get something more out of the event,' says Fisher. 'That goes for all staff. It's not a jolly. Staff can have a separate party later on. There's always time for that.'

One of Fisher's more unusual experiences was organising an event in Turkey for a TV station. It involved building a temporary structure in a car park next to a palace. The event included performances by Whitney Houston and Julio Iglesias. But as a fantasy venue, Fisher goes for something closer to home.

'I'd like to do something on London Bridge,' he says. 'I would shut it to stop the traffic. I think the river Thames would be a great setting.'

London is an ideal setting if you want the media to attend an event. According to Fisher, the press will not always be keen to travel too far outside the capital. If you're organising a big event then you want good coverage and an unusual venue may help. Something different will have a novelty factor, but with that comes potential problems.

'If it's an unusual venue then you have to consider health and safety,' says Fisher. 'If it's a disused building, for example, check that the toilets work, that there's running water and that you've got back-up plans for everything. No one wants an event to go wrong.'



Hospitality (Elegant Days)

'Checking everything is largely down to common sense,' says Eddie Hoare, managing director of Elegant Days, which deals with corporate hospitality. 'After all a good engineer always over-engineers. But never assume anything.'

Elegant Days has secured the use of the Science Museum for this December. The attraction recently opened its new Wellcome Wing which will host corporate dinners and evening receptions. Its exhibits are unusual enough.

'Guests can dine next to Stephenson's Rocket and the Apollo 10 Command Module,' says Hoare. 'With any unusual venue you have to make use of it and enhance what's there.'

Hoare says museums used to be a novelty, but now tend to be widely available for events. His company has also used Kensington Palace for an event.

'The advantages were that it had a big outdoor garden we could use. Although we had to be careful not to damage any plants,' he says. 'It is in central London which makes it a good location and quite easy to get to. Another good point is the venue's royal association.'

However, hiring a historic building can have its pitfalls. Some have their own particular set rules that must be obeyed.

'Sometimes you won't be allowed to have vehicles from a certain distance to the grounds. And inside there will probably be rules on no smoking and no naked flames,' Hoare says. 'You must respect and preserve what there is at a venue like that. By all means make good use of it but respect the history of the place.'

Venues loaded with history are high on Hoare's fantasy list of unusual venues.

'I'd like to do an event at Buckingham Palace,' he says. 'Another great place would be the moat at the Tower of London. It's a beautiful area and would make a wonderful background. The green space in London would make it different.'



CHECK-LIST

- Check everything you can think of, then check it again and again - you don't want any nasty shocks on the day

- Make sure the place is easy to get to - a long walk may spoil guests' enjoyment before an event has even started

- At an outdoor event make sure you have permission from the right authorities

- If you go abroad treat other people's culture with respect. You will be made more welcome and may even be invited back

- Make sure health and safety standards are up to scratch, particularly if it's a disused building

- Unusual often leads to more expense. Make sure you budget for everything as there can be some nasty hidden costs.




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