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Meet in the museum?

Paul Colston examines exhibit M for meetings to see what museums bring to the conference party

National Museums Liverpool is a collection of museums and art galleries around the city region and reports that as demand from event organisers has grown for the venues’ services, so has the need to offer something a bit different. The museum’s events arm has undergone a refresh and operates under the new identity of ‘Hosted by National Museums Liverpool’. 

The new identity, fresh web pages and engagement of a PR agency, have all helped to promote the new messaging to a client base that includes The Women’s Organisation, Rathbone Investment Management, Aston Martin, University of Liverpool, CBI, The British Association of Paediatric Surgeons and Unilever. 

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“We recently hosted a launch event for our Double Fantasy – John & Yoko exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool, welcoming corporate clients, museum supporters and notable figures from the Liverpool music scene,” Christopher Green, events operations manager of Hosted by National Museums Liverpool tells CN. 

For that event the museum team created a range of themed cocktails including ‘ImaGIN’, ‘Rum Together’ and ‘Juicy in the Sky with Diamonds’. With the venue dressed as a lounge bar, guests also enjoyed private access to the Double Fantasy exhibition. 

Event success, it seems, is knowing how to create such selling points for delegates. 

“When welcoming corporate clients, we don’t just offer them events spaces, we provide creative elements such as private viewings of our exhibitions and talks and tours from curators and key figures,” Green adds. “Offering additional options makes an event more experiential and ‘hands-on’.”

One recent event, the Knowsley Education Awards at the Victoria Gallery & Museum on 27 June, drew 150 attendees for a drinks reception in the Grand Entrance Hall. 

Exceptional hot weather did cause some complications, but staff brought in aircon units and a water station was provided.

The client is now looking to make it an annual event.  Knowsley Council’s Heather Piggott, tells CN that Victoria Gallery and Museum was the perfect setting for the celebration, as it is located in Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter - the University of Liverpool’s original headquarters.

“By hosting the event here we were able to bring young people, their parents, teachers, council staff and our partners together in to an environment that highlighted the brilliant Higher Education opportunities our young people have locally in the region,” she said, adding: “The venue allowed for our guests to enjoy a drinks reception in the Grand Entrance Hall before proceeding to the awards ceremony in the Leggate Theatre… The staff at the Victoria Gallery and Museum were very professional and the few minor challenges we faced were met with pro-active solutions.” 

Piggott did note that the venue required minimal decoration, although that may be a consideration for some if the museum’s natural backdrop is not in line with the desired theme.

Appliance of meetings science 

London’s Science Museum is pro-active in its search for new seams of events business and recently launched an exclusive Bar/Bat Mitzvah package for its newest gallery, Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery. 

Featuring 50 exhibits in seven zones, the gallery is the museum’s most interactive space and can accommodate 220 people. Guests can take part in 50 immersive experiences including live experiments at the venue’s Chemistry bar, and see live lightning demos at the giant Tesla coil. 

The museum has partnered with Uptown Events to include a disco package with a DJ, party host and dance floor. Catering is provided by Ben Tenenblat and Food Story. 

Bryony Mitchison, event sales manager at the Science Museum, says: “We are excited to be focusing on a new market with our new Bar/Bat Mitzvah package. Wonderlab is the perfect location to host them because guests can socialise among the exhibits and enjoy watching live demonstrations.”

The Science Museum also opens a new, multi-functional events and conference venue, Illuminate, on 1 February 2019. 

The Illuminate project is in response to big demand from companies and associations wanting to hold daytime events at the museum. 

Situated on levels four and five of the Science Museum, the space will be available for daytime and evening hire for 400 people for dinners/conferences and 450 for receptions. 

How a CVB markets museum meetings magic 

Paul Szomoru, director of business events at NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau, promotes his region’s numerous venue types. So, how can organisers can get the best out of museums for conferences and events?

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“Museums offer organisers the opportunity to create a truly memorable conference or event, with genuinely authentic settings that are unique to the destination," he says. "Often housed in spectacular architectural surroundings, they offer a grand setting while their permanent displays and changing exhibitions allow organisers to add a quirky and memorable backdrop to their event and for delegates to take in the exhibitions as part of the conference programme or social event. 

“In museums, you are surrounded by history and examples of innovation – a hot topic for many conferences which can take inspiration from their setting. This has been particularly evident during Great Exhibition of the North, with NewcastleGateshead’s museums displaying examples of Northern innovation at its best, including Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive and astronaut Helen Sharman’s space suit. 

“Organisers can choose a venue that aligns their conference topic with a museum’s exhibitions – for example, where better for a zoology conference than Great North Museum, where delegates could enjoy dinner in the Living Planet Gallery alongside a full-size elephant and great white shark? Or an offshore company could choose to host a drinks reception beside the world’s first steam turbine powered ship, Turbina, which dominates the central hall at the Discovery Museum. 

“Whether the museum’s exhibitions are built into an event’s conference programme, or as an exciting reception or dinner with a private viewing of the collections, the museum setting will leave delegates with a lasting impression.” 

Agency view: 

Leigh Cowlishaw, director of proposition – accommodation and meetings at  Capita Travel and Events agency, says unique and unusual venues are as embedded in our industry as other venues. “They’re defined by their differences, heritage and wow
factor. It’s those differences which can support and reflect the event’s content and messages to make sure event planners maximise return on event (ROE), not just return on investment (ROI). 

“Content is a journey and the venue will aid this. Having said that, you have to get the right match!

 “Gone are the days when an events agency needed to speak to multiple contacts at an unusual venue in order to put an event together. We now have a dedicated point of contact to ensure smooth running, and that’s because those venues are totally savvy with the corporate market. If anything, the challenge is overcoming that dated perception that they aren’t. 

“Corporate buyers need to be aware that these spaces also have multiple purposes (as do hotels) and access can be restricted until the closure to the general public. That said, they are slick operations that will guide and support to make it work for all parties. It is a big tick from us.”

The Cambridge effect 

Cambridge is a university city where museums are to the fore and now organisers are using these venerated spaces for a packed syllabus of events.

Cambridge’s museums house over five million works-of-art and antiquities.

Sarah Banbery (pictured at top of page) is event manager at the recently-refurbished Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge which can host small conferences, up to 60 maximum. 

A one-day Florian Roithmayer Conference is booked in for September for 60 delegates and the venue recently hosted a concert and drinks reception for the Cambridge Music Festival and a reception for a local law firm.  

“An event at a museum or gallery feels special as delegates are gaining privileged access to great institutions and have the opportunity to see exhibitions without the usual restrictions of public access,” says Banbery. “Adding in a welcome or speech by a gallery director or curator is an extra insight which a member of the visiting public may not have.” 

Many museums offer tailor-made teambuilding or workshops focusing on creative activities built around their collections. And, depending on how they are funded, some galleries and museums can close early or indeed altogether. 

The National Portrait Gallery in London recently closed for a day and hired its galleries out to a designer for a fashion show during London Fashion Week.  

“The key is long lead in time. Organisers should engage with the venues as early as possible to see what can be scheduled around exhibition installs or de-installs,” Banbery adds.

IWM Duxford 

Imperial War Museum (IWM) Duxford incorporates conferences and events. Its 2,000sqm Airspace Conservation Hall is one of the largest event spaces in Cambridgeshire, seating up to 800 for a range of events, from trade shows to product launches and conferences. 

The Conservation Hall houses three aircraft exhibits, offering an atmospheric backdrop with a large open event space in the middle of the hall. 

Organisers can also add on teambuilding packages – anything from flying a plane to driving a tank, all of which is already on site.  

Cam Lates is a popular initiative that incorporates everything from escape games to talks and jazz, which makes them an excellent ‘after conference’ activity for delegates looking to do something a bit different.

Exhibits also offer a conducive networking environment and museum-based welcome events are often excellent ice-breakers. 

Case study

LNER Discovery

What: London North Eastern Railway’s Business Leadership Team Update

Date: 24 July 2018

Venue: Discovery Museum

Delegates: 60

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Senior managers from LNER travelled to Newcastle for a meeting at the Discovery Museum’s Grand Hall, which took place just a month after LNER took over operation of the East Coast line. 

The day involved updates from across the business as the leadership team used the time together to plan out some of the ways they will start to do things differently.

Discovery Museum featured a rare opportunity to see a new North-East built LNER Azuma train, which was parked outside the venue. Highlighting both old and new Northern innovation, the museum was also home to Stephenson’s iconic locally-built Rocket locomotive during the Great Exhibition of the North. It had returned to its birth-place for the first time. Visitors were also offered a taster of what it’s like to drive the Azuma train and to discover the different jobs on the East Coast line with LNER’s VR experience.

Organiser verdict:

Kayley Marchant, internal communications manager at LNER, said: “With the Great Exhibition of the North happening this summer, it was crucial that Newcastle was the location for this event. Discovery Museum was a natural choice with LNER so heavily involved in the programme there. 

“The Rocket defined a new era in transport during the 1800s and it provided a great contrast for our session, where we were working on creating a modern, forward-thinking railway while not forgetting our heritage.

“The museum’s Grand Hall may have seemed large for a relatively small number of people, but it meant we could use the space cleverly for business updates at the front, break-out sessions at the back and lunch in the middle – keeping things fresh for our delegates.”