CONFERENCES AND EXHIBITIONS: Finding locations with a difference - A wide range of unusual premises are finding favour as conference venues, but they do have their limitations. Sharon Greaves reports

With the cry of ’I need something different’ ringing ever louder in their ears, an increasing number of corporate-event planners are choosing to shrug off the reassurance that comes with a tried-and-tested, purpose-built hotel or conference centre, in favour of a more unusual venue.

With the cry of ’I need something different’ ringing ever louder in

their ears, an increasing number of corporate-event planners are

choosing to shrug off the reassurance that comes with a

tried-and-tested, purpose-built hotel or conference centre, in favour of

a more unusual venue.

While groups are keen to elope to continental Europe for larger meetings

that feature dedicated space and sophisticated technical equipment, for

smaller events, demanding a more exotic environment, it can often be

wiser to look closer to home.

’There are great chateaux in France and wonderful castles in Germany and

Austria but, as yet, organisers travelling abroad are not that

sophisticated or adventurous,’ says Motivforce chairman Randle Stonier.

He adds that in a country such as France, companies tend to err on the

conservative side with conference briefs, dictating little other than

hotels as appropriate venues. As a result, the hunt for a unique

location in mainland Europe needs a lot of research.

By comparison, companies organising an event in the UK tend to be more

innovative. With conferences now revolving less around stages and

keynote speakers reading from lecturns, and more on team-building and

motivational activities, organisers are increasingly hankering after

venues that will both incentivise delegates and suit an idiosyncratic


Boosting attendance

Castles and stately homes with a rich heritage, museums and art

galleries with their cultural references, football stadia, racetracks

and television studios, among others, have all been quick to respond to

the trend.

The Heritage Motor Centre in Warwick, for example, is to host a

forthcoming conference for IBM, while US investment bank Merrill Lynch

has chosen The Grand Hall at Madame Tussauds for an event for its

clients from the Asia-Pacific region this month. And in February,

Caribiner took over the SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron-hulled

steam ship, docked in Bristol, for a presentation and exhibition to

launch a defence division for British Aerospace to 200 guests and key


Unusual locations also lend themselves to promotional campaigns in

advance of the actual event - helpful when a third-party audience is

involved and needs to be wooed to attend. Moreover, original venues can

give an event a high profile and endow it with a certain elitism, while

at the same time flattering the egos of the attendees.

With this in mind, Motivforce selected Highclere Castle near Newbury and

Ripley Castle in Yorkshire for one company targeting a third party.

Spending a week at each venue, with an audience of 400 every day, the

event embraced a business presentation, exhibition and ride and


So appealing were the venues that the client enjoyed a 92% turnout - the

highest ever take-up. ’The right venue can reinforce brand values if it

is sophisticated and leading-edge. People are now so conference-drunk

that you have to ensure that you stand out from the clutter,

particularly for a third-party audience,’ says Stonier.

Increased competition

Jason Pratt, marketing manager at Tate Bramald Consultancy, agrees. He

organises an average of 25 forums a year for senior finance

professionals and chooses venues such as The Royal Armouries in Leeds

and London’s Royal Society of Arts over a more conventional hotel or

exhibition hall, largely for the kudos in the face of increased

competition. ’You have to add more and more to an event to get people

out of the office,’ he says. ’You’re battling for the same delegates who

only go to a certain number of events a year, so the market is being

flooded with invites. You have to create something different, and the

venue is part of that.’

Many venues have seen the wisdom of throwing open their doors to the

corporate market for the income that it generates - particularly as

corporate business makes such a comfortable bedfellow with the tourist

trade: when one peaks, the other is in a trough. In the tourist high

season corporate bookings are scarce, but when visitor numbers wane

during the shoulder months, the conference market is at its peak.

Add to that the fact that the vast majority of meetings held in the UK

are for under 250 delegates, a number that a good proportion of unusual

venues can comfortably cater for, and it is easy to see why, correctly

packaged with a good business message, they are gaining such a


Tourist attractions

Out of the 3000 members of the British Association of Conference

Destinations (BACD), 25% are now classified as unusual, says executive

director Tony Rogers. These range from Lord Trevor’s baronial pile,

Brynkinalt, near Chester, which hosts up to 120 for meetings, to the

lighthouse on the tiny St Mary’s Island just outside Newcastle, with a

conference room for 40. Looking to the new millennium, The National

Maritime Museum at Greenwich, with dramatic new galleries capable of

catering for dinners for 300, opens at the end of March.

As more venues jump on the bandwagon, realising that while visitor

numbers can fluctuate the conference trade offers a more regular revenue

stream, they are also becoming more commercially minded.

Corporate business now accounts for 50% of total income at Granada

Studios in Manchester, where delegates can hold a bespoke scripted

debate in a replica House of Commons or take over Coronation Street’s

pub, The Rovers Return, the Starlight Theatre, or the original set of

Baker Street. The attraction provides a total conference support team,

and positions itself against the four-star Midland Crown Plaza and The

Palace hotels in the city on pricing.

Meanwhile, The William Younger Centre, on the edge of Holyrood Park in

Edinburgh, has already taken pounds 1m in corporate bookings before it

even opens in July. A striking stone building with a tented roof and

glass walls on the upper levels, it will be home to ’Dynamic Earth’, a

visitor attraction telling the story of the planet. Two venues within

the centre have also been built with the conference market in mind.

’Stratosphere’, only available in the evenings, will accommodate 950 for

dinner for a competitive rate of pounds 1000, while ’Biosphere’ will be

able to host 450 people theatre-style, day or night.

Stonier praises Highclere Castle, where guests are allowed unlimited use

of the extravagantly appointed state rooms. ’It doesn’t have classic

conference space,’ he says, ’but it has a flexible mindset. It is

service oriented, works as a turnkey operation and will bring in

specific furniture as a matter of course.’ Other venues he singles out

include The Magic Circle near Euston in London, which has a 250-seat

theatre, and The Roundhouse at Camden, ideal for business presentations

and product launches. Pratt, meanwhile, rates the National Motorcycle

Museum in Birmingham, not just because it is sufficiently different to

attract delegates, but also because of its accessible location next to

the NEC and its parking.

However, since the meetings business is not their raison d’etre, such

venues do come with limitations. Tourist attractions are often only

available for corporate hire in the evenings and are more suited to

corporate entertaining than meetings.

Many of the buildings that are members of the Unique Venues of London

association - The Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum and

The Queen’s House at Greenwich for example, along with the galleries at

The Science Museum - will only permit corporate functions outside normal

visiting hours.

Additionally, on-site accommodation and break-out rooms for syndicate

sessions are rare. Venues may not black out properly for audio-visual

displays or be free of noise pollution. Access for heavy equipment can

also be restricted, as can smoking and drinking red wine. Some venues

even prohibit high-heeled shoes, especially those where guests are

surrounded by old masters or antique furniture.

’It is easier to go into a purpose-built hotel or convention centre if

you are doing something other than corporate hospitality,’ says

Caribiner chairman Lois Jacobs. ’The venue might be quaint and quirky,

but it may not be geared up from a personnel point of view and access

time can often be limited. The ceiling height could be too low or the

power inadequate. If you require high production values it is often not

worth risking.’

A further barrier is cost. While a hotel will offer an all-inclusive,

day delegate- or 24-hour rate, groups usually have to pay a premium for

the privilege of using a site which functions as both a tourist

attraction and a corporate venue. The first major expense is facility

hire. Some venues, such as The Royal Academy and The Tate Gallery, only

allow sponsors to use the venue; others charge anything from pounds 500

to pounds 12,000. Added to that is the question of accommodation, often

at a nearby hotel, transport to the hotel, equipment hire and food,

including tea and coffee breaks.

Hotel packages

Nevertheless, corporates are still prepared to work with such

encumbrances and expense. As Jacobs says: ’On balance it is worth doing

to make an event more special.’ A case in point, she adds, is the event

organised for the launch of the Millennium Dome last year, held one

morning in the People’s Palace, a restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall

with spectacular views over the Thames.

Because the People’s Palace is a working restaurant it was inaccessible

until dinner had finished in the evening, leaving the production crew no

alternative but to set up overnight. As the room has pillars, lots of

monitors also had to be brought in, and the on-site staff had no

previous experience of serving breakfast instead of dinner. But still,

says Jacobs, ’it was absolutely relevant. It was the right place at the

right time and suited the event very well’.

At the end of the day, a hotel will always be a hotel, whether it is The

Dorchester or the Forte Posthouse Bristol on the M4. With purpose-built

conference suites and audio-visual equipment, break-out rooms and

trained staff, accommodation and catering on site, there is no doubting

their ability to provide a suitable learning atmosphere for training

courses or mainstream conferences.

Conscious that there will always be potential clients craving a one-stop

shop, hotel groups have carved their own niche in the marketplace. This

includes the introduction of all-inclusive delegate packages and

conference brands such as Hilton’s Meeting 2000 and Stakis’ Assured


However, the fact that these offerings are now so standardised can be a

deterrent. ’If you go to a Hilton or a Stakis you are treated as just

another customer, because of the volume of business,’ says Banks Sadler

conference co-ordinator Alex Jackson.

’The smaller, more unusual venues are more flexible. You are the focal

point and there is more of a one- to-one relationship.’

Often, the most novel way is the winning way. There will always be

clients who will remain loyal to one particular hotel brand, but there

are plenty of others looking to create memorable events with real

appeal. For a board meeting, roadshow or corporate hospitality function

where a company insists on an individual experience, a readily available

hotel package is simply not impressive enough. By comparison, venues

like Cardiff Castle and the Roman Baths in the city of Bath, which the

BACD has used for its own events, will inevitably exert more of a


But although the venue is important and can act as the principal call to

action, Rogers warns that groups must still consider the purpose of the

conference and ensure that the business message is clear and


’Unusual venues help make an event memorable, but they do have their

limitations and you have to balance the requirements of the event with

the need to communicate effectively,’ he says. ’You have to identify the

real priorities for a conference in looking to choose between a hotel

and a more unusual venue. For a business session it is important to have

the highest-quality facilities, rather than a spectacular backdrop.’


For an evening event following a conference, there are few more

memorable venues than the former Royal Yacht Britannia. It now has a

permanent berth in Edinburgh’s Leith Docks, and has been available for

corporate hire since October.

The yacht is open to the public from 10am to 5pm, and can then host up

to 90 guests for dinner, and up to 250 for receptions, in the state


The resident team of event specialists can organise entertainment,

after-dinner speakers, firework displays, VIP transport, accommodation

and crested and branded table gifts. Packages range from pounds 45 per

head for a champagne reception and canapes, to pounds 145 per person for

a royal invitation, champagne reception, canapes, tour, dinner with

butler service, personalised menu and place-cards, table gift and

candelabra and flowers. On top of that is a facility fee of pounds


Ford of Britain was the first company to hold a corporate banquet on

board which included a champagne reception in the drawing room, followed

by a dinner for 60 guests and a finale of fireworks.

Last November, HMV UK also used the venue to tie in with the opening of

its flagship northern store in Edinburgh.

’We were inviting managing directors and chairmen of record, video and

games companies. These people go to award dinners every week and so we

were looking for something a bit special and different. The yacht made a

big difference in getting people there,’ says the PR events officer,

Trish Saunders.

As part of the evening the 82 guests were piped off their coaches and

enjoyed a champagne reception and dinner and a tour of the Royal

apartments, followed by the Beating of the Retreat and Scottish sword


Morrison Homes, Barclays Capital and Lloyds TSB have also used the venue

since it became available.