10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Conference Venue

by Francesca Pinder,

14 April 2021

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Chairs in a green field conference venue

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With Europe’s health authorities rolling out vaccines, an end is now in sight for our industry. We can begin planning for 2021, safe knowing that people will be attending meetings and conferences again soon.

But when we eventually return to normality, we’ll be reacquainted with all those old dilemmas and conundrums that come with being an event manager. One of the most pertinent questions of all is ‘how do I find a conference venue that will suit my event?’. It’s a question that has boggled event organisers since the dawn of time and only becomes more perplexing as the variety of venues increases.

Well, the answer actually lies in more questions. Specifically, the series of questions that we must ask whenever we’re choosing a conference centre. When we’re negotiating with potential providers, we need to get as much information from them as possible.

In this piece, we’ll take you through these questions in detail in the hope that they make the conference venue hire process that little bit less stressful for you. Happy booking!

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1) Is the Venue Secure?

Ok, this is a fairly obvious one. Nonetheless, it’s such an important question that we couldn’t ignore it. Even when we can return to something approaching normality, there’s a good chance it’ll still be important.

Beyond that, the venue will have its own requirements depending on the country and industry. In the UK, for example, the Health and Safety Executive has different advice for different types of facilities, from pubs and bars to theatres and sports halls.

A secure venue will have achieved a minimum standard of health and safety and taken essential steps such as providing access controls, creating two-way traffic flow and preventing congestion in its core areas.

To avoid any uncertainty, make sure you ask the conference venue manager:

1) When their health and safety protocols were last reviewed

2) Whether an external body has moderated them.

And make sure they give you physical proof: Kirsten Sorensen, a venue sourcing executive at Ashfield Meetings & Events, says you should “always ask for the venues to send their COVID H&S documents – as clients want to review these as well as us.”

2) The Basics

Once you’ve established that the venue is safe, it’s essential to get all the basic queries out of the way to ensure the conference centre has the core logistics you need.

“There are a lot of obvious essential questions,” says Verity Deaville, aka VerityVenue, who runs largevenues.com. “How many spaces are there? Is parking free, and if not, can the venue offer a conference discount? Where is the nearest train station (plus are there taxis readily available at the station)? Can the venue offer an event B&B rate for delegates wishing to stay over?”.

Kirsten Sorensen, meanwhile, adds that it’s worth asking, “does the building have AC & Pillars? What floor/level is the meeting room on? And what is the length, width and height in metres?”. She also recommends asking for the venue’s star ratings, as certain industries, such as pharmaceuticals, will require this.

Once you’ve dealt with all these small details, you can go onto the bigger and more important ones. But make sure you’ve ticked them off first.

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3) What is the Cancellation Policy?

This is another crucial one, particularly in the current climate. If something goes wrong, such as (heaven forbid) a new lockdown or virus variant, you want to be able to cancel the conference venue without taking too much of a financial hit.

Most conference venue operators are likely to be flexible if you have to cancel an event. However, it is worth checking before you book the venue. Some will offer a full refund within a reasonable timeframe: others will retain some or all of your money.

4) Can I Use My Own Caterer?

Many venues will require you to use their in-house caterer, which is fine if you like their food and it fits your requirements. But many event planners would rather organise their own – it’s infinitely better for groups with specific dietary or cultural needs, and it allows you to pick a caterer you know and trust, too.

In light of the pandemic, conference centre managers may be more inclined to insist on their own caterer to avoid any potential contamination risks. But it can’t hurt to ask!

5) What is Included in the Room Hire?

Again, each conference venue has its own specific policy on what to include in its overnight facilities. Many venues will make this clear when you’re discussing the booking, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

Again, Verity Deaville has some clear advice for event bookers:

“When booking larger venues, it is essential to check in detail what exactly is included in the room hire. It may sound daft but even check the chairs – some venues include the chairs, others charge per chair. Some include the stage and AV. For other venues, it’s an empty space, and even electricity is extra.

“I know this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at how many venues only have, say, 500 chairs, and you need say 750, therefore adding extra costs.”

6) What Technology Facilities are Provided?

Each conference venue has distinct technological capabilities. Most provide decent WiFi as standard, but their ability to accommodate microphones, speakers and other more advanced audio-visual facilities will vary. A Victorian mansion is unlikely to be as digital-friendly as a venue constructed in the last few years.

When talking about the technological capability of the venue, make sure you ask where the plugs are, and check these locations against your intended layout. It’s no good having a bleeding-edge venue if you can’t reach the sockets!

7) Can I Provide My Own Decorations?

Most events rely on some form of visual identity, be it signage, branded rugs or banners at the entrance. But some venues are rather precious when clients wish to change layouts and furnishings.

When talking to the conference centre, it may be helpful to show them pictures of the events you’ve organised before, so they can visualise what you have in mind.

8) Does the Venue Offer Staff?

Finding temporary staff for events can be a real headache for event organisers, not to mention a big hole in the budget. So it’s definitely worth asking the conference venue management team whether they will provide staffing for your event.

At the same time, you should ask whether there is any charge for using the venue’s in-house crew and how the staff usually work with clients. They may have their own management team, or you may have to provide this yourself.

9) Will I Have Sole Use of the Venue?

In the post-pandemic scramble for business, conference centre managers will push for all the business they can get. If they have a large venue, they may be inclined to host several events on the same day.

So if you want exclusivity, or you want to ensure your attendees get full use of the facilities and parking spaces, make sure you clarify the usage of the conference venue from the outset.

10) What is the (Real) Capacity?

This question might seem like a straightforward one – but the answer the venue provides might require closer inspection. The capacity advertised online will typically only be a guide, and the actual number may be significantly lower once you’ve applied your own layout and AV facilities.  

“Always ask if there are any pillars or alcoves in the room, and check where the fire doors are that need to be kept clear,” Verity Deaville says. “These can drastically reduce your numbers depending on the size of your stage and room layout.”

If you’re not completely satisfied, go for a bigger venue. With venue capacity, as with all aspects of conference venue hire, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Featured image: Chairs in a Field via unsplash

Francesca Pinder
Francesca Pinder

Operations Director and executive tea hoarder.

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