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Venue insight: recovery and looking towards the future

HBAA, soon to be known as beam, highlights how its academic and religious venue members coped during the pandemic and prepared for the future.

Now that the recovery of the events industry is underway, many venues are putting into action plans that they formulated while they were unable to host live events. For HBAA member venues, this was not just planning how to return to business quickly and successfully, it was using the ‘downtime’ for radical changes.

A time for innovation

For academic and religious venues, the pandemic created time for innovation, an opportunity to overhaul existing business models and introduce new technologies.

A good example of this is Central Hall Westminster. The London-based conference and events venue became the HQ for a new organisation, Central Hall Venues, which manages similar venues in the UK. It also introduced a venue management platform and launched packages for hybrid events.

Church House Westminster embraced the digitalisation of events by creating a virtual events studio, enrolling the team in virtual events training, and establishing partnerships with virtual event team-building companies. It also installed new technology to enhance its capacity for broadcasting. The venue team were tasked with identifying new revenue streams, such as essential training events, on-location filming, tribunals and hiring out its kitchen to a ready-meal enterprise.

RCP London Events also developed its own virtual events platform. Warwick Conferences launched hybrid meetings and created outdoor spaces to aid mental wellbeing and inspire creativity. Like many venues, it also became an NHS Covid-19 testing site.

Charitable initiatives topped the priority list for many academic venues, too. The Queen Mary Venues team focused on supporting local charities and vulnerable people with food deliveries. It also supported local NHS staff by providing more than 8,000 room nights during the summer of 2020 and transformed one of its key spaces, the Octagon, into a lateral flow test centre for six months to support staff at the university.

Key challenges

The chief challenge was navigating changing rules and determining the best course of action to ensure all stakeholders were safe. This is something Paul Bartlett, director of Warwick Conferences, remembers. “One of the biggest challenges for academic venues was the interpretation of the Government’s guidelines. The categorisation of venues was not always clear, meaning we had to continuously adapt our services, introducing a number of new services, such as virtual meetings."

An ongoing challenge unique to academic venues has been balancing the need to support the academic community with the re-introduction of commercial bookings. Victoria Chappell, commercial sales executive of Queen Mary Venues, explains: “We are now focused on balancing extended teaching hours with the demand for corporate and private client events.”

Another hurdle with clients has been communicating Covid-safe policies and fostering confidence. This was all made harder as teams were reduced in size through furlough, redundancy, or reduced hours. Staff have needed to be flexible and multi-skilled to cope with erratic demands or redeployment to other areas of the business. Staffing, recruitment, and salary range remain a major problem for the events industry.

Marina Papadopoulou, business development manager of Church House Westminster, adds: “There is tremendous pressure on event organisers to navigate not only tech but also contracts, event communication and attendance. We have seen enquiries increase four-fold since July and the spike has a knock-on effect on not only responding to enquiries but also event planning and operations. It was essential to act swiftly when the workloads increased to ensure the team remained agile and responsive.”

Preparing for reopening

To prepare for reopening, venue teams were enrolled on training courses including Covid health and safety, crowd control and security. 

Covid certifications have been popular, too. Natacha Allen, head of commercial events, RCP London Events, says: “We focused on making our venue safe for all in-person meetings. We secured the Visit Britain ‘We’re Good To Go’ certification as well as undertaking a full audit to secure the AIM COVID secure accreditation, which demonstrated that we were adhering to government and public health guidance and therefore could open our venue safely.”

A major focus for Church House Westminster was a strong marcomms strategy that highlighted four key messages: flexibility, event safety for in-person events, hybrid and virtual event technology, and the venue’s expert in-house team.

Reopening was less of a challenge for Imago Venues at Loughborough University. Marketing manager Rob Chamberlain, says: “We never really closed fully throughout the pandemic. We are lucky to have amazing sport facilities and one of the sectors that was allowed to continue ‘normal’ activity was elite sport. Some long-established sports clientele used our hotel and meeting facilities for pre-season camps and pre-Olympic activity. It meant we had to be quick to implement stringent Covid-secure measures.”

Demand for virtual, hybrid and in-person-only events

Enquiries have increased significantly for academic venues since the easing of restrictions on 19 July. For example, Westminster College is looking to double this year’s event bookings in 2022.

The appetite for in-person events is on the rise, too. Church House Westminster has experienced month-on-month growth for both corporate and association events, with the largest bulk of incoming enquiries made up of live and in-person events (55%), followed by hybrid (35%), and virtual only (10%).

Warwick Conferences, on the other hand, is seeing strong interest in hybrid. Bartlett reveals: “Hybrid enquiries continue to grow in popularity, and as such, we will continue to offer these services for the foreseeable future. We have started to see demand for virtual-only events slow down, particularly as clients become more proficient with online platforms, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.”

King’s College London has partnered with the online event platform Hopin. Sales and venue manager Chelsey Kendall, says: “We can deliver world class virtual events and also offering exceptional hybrid event solutions. I think all venues need to be more flexible over the next 12 months whilst corporates gain confidence to book events again.”

Trends in the corporate, association and charity sectors

“Some corporates are reviewing their events on a weekly basis, while others have decided not to hold any in-person events until 2022,” adds Papadopoulou. “The latter is due to the risk of staff having to isolate after an event. Virtual events are deemed the safest for this reason and will continue as 2022 comes into play. Association events are most effective when in-person so for this reason, events from this sector are lagging in terms of confirmations. 2022 seems a safer bet for enquiries from this sector than 2021 due to ongoing uncertainty.”

Ultimately, while the past 18 months have presented a challenging time for academic venues, there are now clear signs emerging that confidence is beginning to replace caution. While the option for hybrid and virtual events is important for event planners, the desire to meet face-to-face remains high.