Visitor Attractions: Heritage affects hiring

The people who run Britain's leading museums and tourist venues need to be unusually choosy when they're employing suppliers, writes Claire Bond.

As historical national treasures and futuristic leisure attractions join the corporate hospitality market, events have diversified beyond all recognition. With the help of experienced suppliers, it seems that the sky really is the limit when creating a bespoke event that will cater for a client's every need.

How a supplier is chosen depends on the venue, but tendering is one of the more favoured methods as it provides an overview of the various contractors in the marketplace.

"For most venues, especially those requiring a sensitive approach due to their exhibits, a tender process is used," says Charlotte Baines, event and marketing manager at the Scott Harris catering company. "Often if the supplier has taken a client to the venue they stand a better chance of being included in the tender process."

Working within museums and attractions also throws up a number of considerations involving the sensitivity of the surroundings, which means that in many cases contractors have to provide evidence of their expertise in this regard.

It's a familiar issue for Carolyn Gemmell, director of hospitality and events for the National Museums of Scotland - a consortium including, among others, the Museum of Scotland, the Museum of Flight, the National War Museum of Scotland and the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

"All complete a risk assessment form," she says. "Our suppliers are those who have the experience to work in a museum in terms of health and safety requirements and have gone through a security check."

On the other hand, many venues lean towards a preferred supplier list to maintain a certain amount of flexibility. Madame Tussauds, for instance, works with six external caterers.

The venue's head of events, Michael Aldridge, says: "I have no contracts with suppliers as I feel we need to be able to change suppliers if service levels fall instantly. We do however have service level agreements so that we understand each other's needs and requirements."

At Manchester's Imperial War Museum, also known as IWM North, only the catering contract goes out to tender despite external suppliers also providing lighting, audiovisual, flowers, discos and total event management packages.

Its caterer, Milburns, is under contract.

Helen Plant, head of business development, says: "All other suppliers that we use are recommended to clients based on the company's expertise and the quality of service displayed in their particular field. The client does have the option to use its own suppliers with the exception of catering."

The factors involved in choosing a supplier range from quality of service and level of commitment to professionalism and reliability. Experience of working within a similar venue is also a significant advantage, as is the budget.

Maintaining a certain level of supplier retention can also be key to a successful event. Most venues are able to name a list of hand-picked suppliers that they have worked with for many years.

For example, Lightech, Corporate AV, TLC, Absolute Entertainment and Springbank have been recommended suppliers to IWM North since its opening in July 2002. "Each came strongly recommended due to their extensive knowledge of working within the museums unique space," says Plant.

Of course, working with suppliers on a long-term basis has obvious advantages.

Blackpool-based Stageworks Worldwide Productions boasts 60 years of professional experience and was set up purely to provide production support for events at Blackpool's Pleasure Beach.

It has continued to expand and now offers event production services to projects beyond the Golden Mile. The long relationship, however, has helped the two to create new events that stretch the boundaries of the venue, and Stageworks remains the Pleasure Beach's primary production supplier.

"Working closely with a company for such a long period of time means there are questions that you don't need to ask," explains Stageworks' entertainment director, Phil McCandlish. "You already have a better knowledge of the venues and know what you can do and what restrictions there may be."

Gemmell, of the National Museums of Scotland, says the consortium has worked with the majority of its suppliers for five years, with a panel of caterers appointed for three years at a time.

Scott Harris is exclusive caterer for Simon Drake's House of Magic in London and the preferred caterer for Tower Bridge, the Imperial War Museum and the new corporate events offering at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. "For the majority of venues we are on a contract with them that is reviewed annually or every couple of years," says event and marketing manager Baines. "Caterers are assessed on their performance, how many jobs they have done at the venue and how many clients each has taken to the venue."

Once suppliers have been chosen, a consultation process between the venue and the supplier is integral to making an event work. Both sides need to have a clear outline of the brief and be able to collaborate on defining the logistics of the event.

Even if time is limited, most venues will insist on a detailed consultation process with suppliers.

Plant says: "The corporate hospitality team at IWM North will contact all contractors to be used at an event to ensure each party has a comprehensive overview of the requirements of the event. We will also organise an onsite meeting prior to the event that will involve IWM North staff, the client and all involved contractors to make sure everyone is aware of their role and responsibilities."

Last year, contractor Sodexho Prestige was involved in transforming HMS Belfast, moored in London, into a music venue for an exclusive Eminem concert for 100 guests. Nicola Butler, Sodexho Prestige's senior sales manager, maintains that working closely and having a shared understanding helped to produce a polished event.

"Transforming a venue that could be used for a concert in under a week was certainly a challenge," she says. "With lots of narrow staircases and a very confined area to work in, the ship is not designed for filming. We had to work closely with the BBC (which filmed it), the production company and the PR agency to ensure confidentiality as well as a slick, well-coordinated event."

Needless to say, themed venues such as museums and leisure attractions sometimes present their own particular requirements that demand consultation from third parties. At Warwick Castle - which is able to host gala dinners and receptions in addition to product launches - accurate theming remains an important issue.

"A lot of our theming needs to be historically accurate so third parties are involved," says a spokeswoman at the castle. "The majority of the time, client liaison is direct with the event manager, who will then put together a proposal. However, there are certain occasions when a client may benefit from direct discussions with a third party, especially if their requirements are quite specific."

Providing a strong basis from which to build events is key. For Madame Tussauds' Aldridge, it is vital that any changes at the venue are implemented with the corporate market in mind, providing a sound basis for individual event preparation.

"Firstly a thinktank will come up with new attractions. These are then tabled at focus groups," he says. "At this point I will be involved as part of the senior management team sign off and I will ensure that the needs and requirements of the corporate market in general are considered and realised.

"For individual events we have adapted the attraction to a point now where installation for events is very easy. This has been achieved by listening to our clients' needs."

A recurring theme that emerges is that suppliers need to remain flexible and capable of adapting to short lead times while also being willing to provide creative input. For some suppliers there may even be the need to diversify the company's offering and expand its involvement in events.

Scott Harris for example, has found that clients want to hand over more aspects of the event management to just one company.

As Baines says: "Scott Harris is essentially a caterer - but it also provides a free venue-finding service and can co-ordinate lighting, flowers and entertainment for its clients. The client then only has to deal with the venue and us."


Last year more than 300 guests - including national and local press, industry VIPs and staff - attended the launch of Blackpool Pleasure Beach's latest thrilling ride: Bling.

The theme of the event was based around the decadence of the ride, which lifts riders 100 feet above the ground and then spins them through the air in three different directions on giant, glittering gondolas.

Stageworks Worldwide Productions was brought on board to provide staging, lighting and sound equipment.

Other responsibilities included special effects, performers, production content, technicians, a management team, administrative support and co-ordination.

The team had a four-week lead time and was afforded one week onsite to build and rehearse.

The Pleasure Beach internal PR department worked closely with Stageworks, holding a brainstorming session out of which the bold, glitzy and glamorous theme was decided.

Catering remained inhouse, provided by the Big Blue onsite hotel.

Phil McCandlish, entertainment director for Stageworks, says: "We have a corporate technician that attends meetings and we are able to discuss the brief and review how we can take ideas forward from there."

A VIP drinks reception and registration were held at the Star Inn, followed by entertainment on the Big One stage next to the ride. The Blues Bar and Brasserie at the site's Big Blue Hotel also hosted a VIP luncheon.

Stageworks proposed all creative elements including the live entertainment which comprised a four-piece cover band, a comedian and an illusion show entitled 'Jesus wears a Rolex'.


High Impact Events hosted a corporate client's Christmas Party at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, treating 600 staff to a formal, black tie dinner dance whose theme was 'See the Stars at Knebworth'.

Sodexho Prestige is contracted to run both the catering and hospitality at Knebworth, and needed to provide an event that catered for the wishes of the client but also respected the privacy of the Lytton-Cobbold family, who have inhabited the stately home since 1490.

The Sodexho Prestige team at Knebworth worked closely with High Impact Events on the party which took place last year.

High Impact Events installed fountains and floodlighting in the grounds to create a festive atmosphere. They also hired Danco, a Bristol-based company, to set up a marquee in the grounds.

Richard Wheeler, from Sodexho Prestige at Knebworth House, says: "The success of the event was all down to the open communication and co-operation between the Knebworth estate, Danco, High Impact Events and the Sodexho team.

"For example, the marquee had to be large enough to seat 600 people and placed with the best views of the grounds.

"However, in order to protect the 500-year-old building as well as the privacy of the Lytton-Cobbold family, we had to be very careful about how near the house the marquee was positioned." Johnsons Hospitality provided the kitchen equipment, tables and chairs, Stalbridge Linen provided the racing green tablecloths and linen and Sodexho's Prestige People Recruitment supplied staff for the event.

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