A wide range of unusual premises are finding favour as conference venues, but they do have their limitations.
With the cry of "I need something different" ringing ever louder in their ears, an increasing number of corporate-event planners are choosing to shrug off the reassurance that comes with a tried-and-tested, purpose-built hotel or conference centre, in favour of a more unusual venue.
While groups are keen to elope to continental Europe for larger meetings that feature dedicated space and sophisticated technical equipment, for smaller events, demanding a more exotic environment, it can often be wiser to look closer to home.
"There are great chateaux in France and wonderful castles in Germany and Austria but, as yet, organisers travelling abroad are not that sophisticated or adventurous," says Motivforce chairman Randle Stonier. He adds that in a country such as France, companies tend to err on the conservative side with conference briefs, dictating little other than hotels as appropriate venues. As a result, the hunt for a unique location in mainland Europe needs a lot of research.
By comparison, companies organising an event in the UK tend to be more innovative. With conferences now revolving less around stages and keynote speakers reading from lecturns, and more on team-building and motivational activities, organisers are increasingly hankering after venues that will both incentivise delegates and suit an idiosyncratic approach.
Castles and stately homes with a rich heritage, museums and art galleries with their cultural references, football stadia, racetracks and television studios, among others, have all been quick to respond to the trend.
The Heritage Motor Centre in Warwick, for example, is to host a forthcoming conference for IBM, while US investment bank Merrill Lynch has chosen The Grand Hall at Madame Tussauds for an event for its clients from the Asia-Pacific region this month. And in February, Caribiner took over the SS Great Britain, the world's first iron-hulled steam ship, docked in Bristol, for a presentation and exhibition to launch a defence division for British Aerospace to 200 guests and key customers.
Unusual locations also lead themselves to promotional campaigns in advance of the actual event - helpful when a third-party audience is involved and needs to be wooed to attend. Moreover, original venues can give an event a high profile and endow it with a certain elitism, while at the same time flattering the egos of the attendees.
With this in mind, Motivforce selected Highclere Castle near Newbury and Ripley Castle in Yorkshire for one company targeting a third party. Spending a week at each venue, with an audience of 400 every day, the event embraced a business presentation, exhibition and ride and drive. So appealing were the venues that the client enjoyed a 92% turnout - the highest ever take-up. "The right venue can reinforce brand values if it is sophisticated and leading-edge. People are now so conference-drunk that you have to ensure that you stand out from the clutter, particularly for a third-party audience," says Stonier.
Jason Pratt, marketing manager at Tate Bramald Consultancy, agrees. He organises an average of 25 forums a year for senior finance professionals and chooses venues such as The Royal Armouries in Leeds and London's Royal Society of Arts over a more conventional hotel or exhibition hall, largely for the kudos in the face of increased competition. "You have to add more and more to an event to get people out of the office," he says. "You're battling for the same delegates who only go to a certain number of events a year, so the market is being flooded with invites. You have to create something different, and the venue is part of that."
Many venues have seen the wisdom of throwing open their doors to the corporate market for the income that it generates - particularly as corporate business makes such a comfortable bedfellow with the tourist trade: when one peaks, the other is in a trough. …