Learning patterns/Step by step guide for finding the right venue for a conference
Within this learning pattern we would like to share our learnings and knowledge about finding a suitable conference venue with you. It is based on WMDE's experience in organizing different conferences, especially the Wikimedia Conference 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Scouting and deciding for a location can be done by six steps along the way. These steps are depicted in the subsequent.
What problem does this solve?
Location scouting is a challenging aspect within the overall planning process of a conference. Choosing the right event location is one of the decisions that will have a large impact on the success of an event. It has the biggest impact on the overall performance and the budget. The conference venue has to serve the event’s program by creating a perfect environment. By achieving a good atmosphere, conference organizers can enable the participants to interact, relax and seize the event’s proceedings. This enhances the participants’ conference experience. Moreover it is a crucial factor for the conference organizers in achieving the goals of the conference.
Large conferences with multifaceted programs (especially when implementing new innovative event formats) need large and flexible venues. When organizing conferences for participants from all around the country or the world often also facilities and services beyond the main venue are needed (for example nearby located accommodation and a catering provider that can fulfill specific catering needs like vegetarian and vegan options).
Many event organizers in the Wikimedia movement are volunteers who are passionate about supporting our mission, but organizing larger events and finding the perfect venue can be especially challenging due to the scale and inexperience. This learning pattern is applicable for volunteers and staff alike.
What is the solution?
Wikimedia Deutschland (WMDE) has organized the Wikimedia Conference and other large events for several years now and made good partnerships with venues as well as other service providers. On top of that, WMDE has a professional event team on-site. Thus, thanks to the year-long experience, WMDE got practiced in finding suitable venues for different events.
This learning pattern serves as a step by step plan on how to find the perfect conference venue. It helps event organizers by giving them better knowledge and skills in defining venue requirements based on the needs of the program as well as participants. Additionally, recommendations on finding and assessing available locations are given.
Before you begin your search for a perfect conference venue, you need to have a strong understanding of your budget, possible event dates and number of attendees. When choosing dates for your conference take into consideration public holidays, other big events in the city, low and high season etc. because these factors influence the availability and prices of possible event venues. Also you need to know the structure of your conference program: how many tracks are running simultaneously, which event formats you have (presentations, discussions, workshops) and therefore how many different rooms you need.
6 steps for finding the right venue
WMDE advises to follow the subsequent 6 steps for finding and choosing the right venue for a large conference :
- 1. Set up venue criteria list (checklist)
- 2. Research for possible venues
- 3. Venue inquiry
- 4. Make site visits
- 5. Compare locations
- 6. Make a contract with the most suitable venue provider
In the subsequent paragraphs detailed information on each single step can be found.
1. Set up venue criteria list (checklist)
Before starting with the research, speaking with a sales manager of any venue or asking for offers, you should make a list of your venue requirements. This ensures that you get suitable offers and will ask the right questions when you visit a venue (plus you will be able to compare the venues more effectively). Think about the needs of your conference program and participants concerning the venue. Attach specific requirements to each item in your venue checklist. For example for the Wikimedia Conference a venue with a hotel in walking distance with capacity for all participants is needed. As the conference participants mostly arrive by air, the organizing team attaches importance to a venue, which is easily accessible by public transport from the airport (short travel time, not too many changes between lines etc.). Besides, the surrounding of the venue plays a major role as well (safe area, attractions/facilities nearby etc.). At the venue itself one large plenary room for 200 participants plus 2 workshop rooms of 100 m², 3- 4 Workshop rooms of 50 m², a back office, a registration and catering area, Wi-Fi with sufficient determined speed and so on is indispensable.
Besides the hard facts such as the price, size and location of the venue, the soft facts such as the atmosphere and impression the venue adds to the experience of the participants should be also considered: ask yourself whether the venue appeals to the target audience and suits to the particular event etc. Having the right venue for the type of event you are holding will enhance the atmosphere in itself.
Also think about what type of venue fits best to the event. There are different types of conference locations. Depending on what type you choose, the organizational effort may be higher or lower. The most common ones are conference centres, hotels and convention centres. Nowadays there are more and more newcomers on the traditional event stage (e.g. universities, libraries etc.). Conference/convention centres often provide the premises and a bundle of other services while hotels cater for all hospitality needs (hosting and housing the participants). Whereas hotels offer in house catering, you may need to hire external catering suppliers at conference or convention centres. These centres may often also have a supplier list you have to choose from. Hosting the event at a conference or convention centres often implies higher organizational effort.
Here is a sample checklist for you to build your own on. Depending on your event you may not need all the items listed there or you may need to add some. This checklist will also serve as a crucial item for the site visit (see also step 4).
2. Research for possible venues
Thinking carefully about the venue requirements and writing down the most important venue criteria facilitates the research and further processes enormously. Of course there are many ways to scout for possible venues. In the following a few options are depicted:
- Use venue listing websites, that specialize on finding and promoting venues. Most of the websites allow to filter venue options according to capacity, room needs, category of event, budget, accessibility, amenities etc. to facilitate the search.
- Google Maps has a feature of showing nearby conference venues if you type in “conference”, “conference center”, “conference hotel”, “event space” etc. (try also your local languages).
- Contact the area’s local convention & visitor’s bureau to inquire about venues that best suit your needs. They may also have a website with venue search module.
- Think of venues which you have been at for an event in the past or ask for recommendations of acquaintances. Also ask your partners and like-minded organizations for venues they have successfully used for their own events or which they visited as participants. They might also be able to inform you about contact persons for possible in-kind donations for venue costs.
- Search for similar events and check where the events are hosted to gather further venue options.
- Local universities, libraries, community centres may have conference rooms and facilities that suit your event.
Most of the web presences of the venues feature pictures, floor plans and an overview of their rooms and capacities as well as other services. Check this information carefully, before sending out an inquiry.
3. Venue inquiry
Before sending out an inquiry, it is sometimes easier to call first (particularly when being under time pressure) to indicate your interest and ask whether the venue is still available on the chosen dates. This has the advantage that you get a direct contact person and a real time feedback about the availability of the venue on the chosen event dates. As a follow-up send an email with detailed information.
An inquiry should contain the following details:
- Short description of the event (if possible include the link to the event website) and the organizer for introduction and attracting interest. This gives the venue manager a better understanding of the host, the target audience and the scope of the event.
- List of the most important requirements (participant number, number/size/capacity of rooms, additional spaces such as registration/catering area, technical equipment, catering needs). If the venue has its own accommodation then include also requirements for that.
- Event dates: Is the venue available on your desired dates? If you have several possible dates, include them all.
Ask for an offer. The more elaborated and detailed your inquiry is, the better the venue can prepare an offer that suits your needs and you will save time afterwards (otherwise you will be spending time changing the offer/ asking follow-up questions). An offer should contain information about their ability to meet your requirements (list of rooms and capacities, floor plan etc) and prices. We advise to send the exact same inquiry to each venue to better compare incoming offers.
Here you can find a sample venue inquiry for the Wikimedia Conference.
4. Make site visits
After receiving an offer that is not absolutely exceeding your budget, ask for a site visit if the venue provider didn’t offer one already. Print your venue criteria checklist (see step 1: “Set up venue criteria list”) and take it with you when going to a site visit. Ask questions about your list items. Make notes and find out which of your required equipment and services they have on-site and which you will have to take with you or order from elsewhere. Take photos of the venue both in- and outside. This will help you to remember and distinguish if you visit several venues.
Additional questions to ask:
- Will there be other events on-site that clash with your conference?
- Is the venue at your service only during daytime or 24-hours?
- Are the venue spaces reserved only for your use or are some of them accessible to general public?
Branding and signage at the venue is key, so ensure that you can do it! Ask the venue manager about the branding and signage possibilities available throughout the venue (Are there in-house electronic marquee? Can you stick things to the wall?).
Notice the behaviour of the venue manager and other people from the venue who you are in contact with (service personnel). Are they responsive, supportive, friendly, but also professional? These soft factors also play an essential role in the planning and execution of the event. A collaborative relationship between the manager and you easens your work.
Use the site visit to give the venue more background information about your event, for example what the objective of the event is, and if it’s financed from donations only. Excite them! This may help you for further price negotiations.
5. Compare locations
Create a table of comparison where you put in the costs and other important data from venue offers you received. Include corresponding catering and accommodation costs as well. Compare filled out checklists from site visits. Add advantages and disadvantages to each option. Narrow down your options. Primarily the costs are determining. If the venue costs heavily exceed your budget, the venue may not be interesting for your shortlist (unless you are able to heavily negotiate the price). After having identified the locations that fall into your budget, consider the venue requirements you set up and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages. Before you have not made your final decision and signed the contract with your favourite venue, we recommend to not cancel the other venue offers to have a fallback option.
After having settled the final choice, make sure to inform the other venues accordingly. In this way they are able to put the rooms on sale again, you do not unnecessarily waste their time and in case you are hosting another event, they are more likely to propose you again a good offer.
6. Make a contract with the most suitable venue provider
Having the venue booked at least six month before the event, is recommendable. The booking date influences the timeline and milestones for further planning.
When you have found the perfect place for your event, negotiate with the venue provider highlighting the value of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects. Especially public institutions and foundations are easier to convince to give you a discount. Think about negotiating an in-kind donation.
When entering into a contract with the venue, check carefully that the contract states all the things that were offered and promised to you and what you negotiated, including the booked dates, times, lists of all promised venue spaces and services and the respective fees, including the maximum cost. A well-written contract locks in the pricing you have agreed on and determines what exactly you are purchasing. Also read carefully the rules and restrictions written in the contract and notice the cancellation policy and fee. Make sure that you understand all of them before you agree to them. Make all agreements in writing, not only orally.
After making a contract and before the actual event, make at least another site visit to test technical equipment and meet the venue staff. Imagine yourself into participant’s shoes and walk through the routes and procedures that your conference participants will pass through.