It’s a question on the lips of every conference organiser or internal comms manager, almost all the time. “Where do we hold our next event?”
Despite the proliferation of venues across the UK and the world, we are often drawn to locations that, on the face of it, appear impractical when it comes to accommodating needs and expectations.
And is that wrong?
We at Firehouse work very hard to find exciting, unusual, yet appropriate venues.
We think creatively and we push the envelope, because we truly believe that locations for experiences, meetings, events and conventions should challenge er...conventions.
We avoid anonymous, corporate spaces in hotels or conference venues as much as possible, as we believe the environment can and should be an intrinsic component in any communications solution.
We consider the venue story and endeavour to ensure that this story adds value to the content of the experience.
We ask: How does the space bring messages to life through its character, history and architectural narrative? We make sure the venue has a voice.
Of course, unique venues tend to come with their own unique challenges.
Many lack basic infrastructure. They are sometimes working environments. Some are in need of a decorative face lift. A number are in locations that aren’t easily accessible. And, in tackling the challenges of unusual, individualistic venues we must ask ourselves further essential questions: Wouldn’t it just be easier to go to a nice warm hotel, with clean loos, room service and situated a few minutes’ walk from a convenient train station?
Well, call me a rebel, but the answer should be no…no… and thrice no – more often than it is.
Because conferences, live events, face to face, experiences - whatever you want to call them – thrive and succeed, the more memorable that they are… And because, whenever we confound audience expectations and create a new context and setting for messages to be delivered in, the more messages are embedded - the more we should invite people to sit within an exceptional space that encourages them to literally sit up and take notice.
The right choice of space for engagement doesn’t mean that everything around that space is right.
It might be hard to get to the cross on the map. But, getting where you need to be can be part of the message… part of the adventure. If the kitchen facilities are limited, then this provides the opportunity to have a very different catering experience. If the layout is unorthodox then this can mean that presentations become less traditional and standardised. The space invokes a fresh and more exciting approach to conveying ideas. And this is a major positive.
Characterless conference rooms can be stupefying, for both presenters and audience.
There are stereotypical spaces that typically suck the life out of anyone trapped within them… places where sleep comes more easily than during a deep body massage. There are places that come with an energy sapping climate and places where the grotesquely blinding carpet has been laid purely to hide the soup stains.
Our recent live event solutions have included photographic studios, innovation hubs, showrooms, boatyard facilities, old turbine halls and disused warehouses. Each was challenging and needed some delicate negotiation with the managers, but the reward was worth it.
We recently produced an event in Barcelona where we could have recommended one of the very many excellent hotel locations, offering typically nice conference suites. Instead we negotiated with the owners of a working shipyard with a large warehouse. This was an unconventional and unforgettable venue, in an amazing position on the sea front. The attendees had to find their way to the location threading through dry-docked boats and other marine buildings.
But rather than be frustrated by the route, our guests were thrilled by an adventure that was far more exciting than following the signage to the winding staircase, leading down to the hotel conference ‘bunker’. The location made a massive narrative statement and provoked animated conversation about attention to detail, teamwork, networking and collaboration.
The story of boat building - an intensive and collaborative process dependent on signature expertise – was enhanced by the unique proximity of the sea and the inherent sense of journey.
The combination of the venue and its location proved extremely conducive to changing the audience mindset.
It wasn’t all plain sailing – pardon the pun – we were on constant alert for unpredictable boatyard activity – but we are always ready to respond to the unexpected and deal with these challenges, quickly and efficiently. That's our job.
Of course, it is vital to question and double check what you are told by managers eager to sell these spaces. One innovation hub we used promised exclusive access to certain parts of the rentable space. But as it was a working environment inhabited by inquisitive individuals, we were soon having to manage the attentions of the curious - who were drawn to our space and trying to access all areas. Not least because we had a coffee station in the environment. Naturally we managed the situation quietly without anybody noticing. And was the caffeine-induced hiccup worth the ensuing trouble? Absolutely. The client was thrilled with the experience, loved the buzz and the activity of a working space which told a relevant story about innovation, originality and diversification.
But to be entirely honest, we never do the unconventional just for the sake of being different.
We make these recommendations when we know the innovation will enhance the audience experience, helping them to think differently and engage with messages about transformation in a way that is innovative.
There may be some pain to be endured.
There may be some lateral thinking to do.
There may be a need to strike a proper balance between luxurious comfort and motivational simplicity. But an experience built on practical reality can be an excellent way to drive home a point.
There are times, when it comes to bringing messages to life in ‘fitting’ venues, that we have to make like Tom Cruise, nod with grim determination and accept the mission…