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What do organisers look for from a conference centre?

Conference centres form a fundamental piece of an event mosaic. But what makes an excellent conference centre? As sponsors of the ‘Best UK Conference Centre’ category at the upcoming M&IT Awards (1 March 2019), we asked our event profs to tap into their design thinking mindsets and distil the key qualities they look for from […]

By Lucy Holden

Conference centres form a fundamental piece of an event mosaic. But what makes an excellent conference centre? As sponsors of the ‘Best UK Conference Centre’ category at the upcoming M&IT Awards (1 March 2019), we asked our event profs to tap into their design thinking mindsets and distil the key qualities they look for from a conference centre when creating experiences and building communities.

Every event has a story and needs the right environment to showcase that story. Think of a conference centre as a library hosting an anthology of event stories. Catering to so many audiences, the venue must adapt, flex and evolve to truly showcase each event’s uniqueness and individuality. We like to challenge the pattern of traditional thinking and choose conference centres with a design thinking-focused mindset. Read on to see how we drill down using a non-linear design thinking process.

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At its heart, design thinking is about holistically understanding humans. With every event, we take valuable time to identify what our client’s needs, challenges and aspirations are. Events are more than logistics – they’re about creating a feeling, a journey, a legacy.

Design thinking steps

Empathise

Empathising is the first step: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We ask who is the audience? What is the event’s purpose? What do we need attendees to think, feel and do? How can the venue help to facilitate that?
Once we understand the event’s purpose we can then begin to scope out a conference centre that fits the brief and brings it to life. Location is a key driver and time is of the essence for many of our delegates. When we look for a conference centre, we prefer those that are close by to international airports or offer direct flights. On top of that cities need to have functional travel infrastructure – we’re talking efficient train networks and road systems.

Attractiveness also comes into the equation. The destination must appeal on some level and offer a hyper-local experience; whether it has an educational, cultural or scientific allure because of its universities or history; or alternatively the city is a tourist hotspot. It’s important to think of the attendee as more than an attendee – what are their interests outside of the conference matter, what sparks joy? This is imperative when deciding the geographical location of the venue – does the area offer frictionless travel, navigable infrastructure, and interesting, location-specific things to see and do? These valuable insights feed into decision making, especially if a social programme falls into the remit.

At this crucial empathising stage, we also introspectively look at what we, as event designers, need. We look for a proactive and responsive conference centre team who are supportive throughout. A consistent level of service and adaptable, can-do attitude is essential and we love nothing more than establishing a meaningful partnership with a venue to achieve everything that our client desires and more.

Define

Next, we define the business objectives and attendee’s needs. By understanding the audience, full scale of the conference and the programme requirements we can then frame a solution.

A conference centre’s architectural design lays the framework for all activity to follow. Event designers need honest, realistic capacity sizes to scale an event effectively. Structural flexibility is important and rooms should allow for change. Being able to turn the rooms around based on the conference programme allows organisers to create smaller sessions but then also expand out to bring everyone together. An adaptable framework can revolutionise the attendee experience – changing up the traditional educational conference format often aids learning and increases concentration levels, while creating relaxed seating areas that are open-planned and welcoming can do wonders for guest networking. All of these careful touchpoints are considered before the attendee even walks through the door: a truly design led strategy.

When searching for the right conference centre fit, we consider the whole person: their physical, mental and spiritual needs. This may mean prayer rooms or space for quiet reflection. Large spaces for delegates to sit, relax, and decompress before their next session are also increasingly desired. Not to mention plenty of daylight! Natural daylight leads to higher productivity and let’s be honest most attendees do not want to spend 2 – 5 days enclosed in artificially lit rooms. Accessibility should be a given and we expect lifts as well as staircases to suit a diverse audience, and readily accessible conference areas.

When sourcing a venue for a traditional congress format, we look for one that boasts a large space perfect for an exhibition hall. In an ideal situation, the plenary room would lead off from the exhibition hall: this increases footfall, maximises space and equals happy sponsors and attendees! It’s also helpful to have high ceilings so that we can adapt to the changing requirements of our clients.

Aside from the architectural design needs, attendees expect excellent IT infrastructure regardless of industry or size. Superfast 5G networks are making inroads and it won’t be long before we see coverage across the UK, with China, Japan and the US leading the way. Content will be effortless and uber-efficient: seamless live streaming to global audiences will revolutionise the way we work and play. Conference centres need, now more than ever, to have robust WIFI systems that can handle these increasing demands from clients and attendees.

Ideate

Ideation is a critical element of design thinking – an aspect that arguably distinguishes the approach. Here we critically challenge assumptions and take a solutions-focused stance to satisfy the brief. By brainstorming or ideating, we push through barriers, experiment with conceptions and find innovative solutions. Each event has its own unique identity, branding and messaging requirements. We seek to reimagine the conference space through our client’s eyes, asking whether it can be hyper-personalised and entirely exclusive to their needs. Regardless of whether the conference space is steeped in history and character or a blank canvas entirely, we ideate to see how we can produce the most impact. Here, we might design a bespoke brand world where attendees can immerse themselves at every touch point. This school of thought taps into environmental psychology and the relationship between the attendee’s senses and their surroundings. We begin to breathe life into the event at this crucial ideation stage and look for a conference centre that will help us make it a reality.

Ideation covers every aspect of the event, notwithstanding sustainability. We take on board a brand or associations corporate sustainability commitments and see how we can support them to achieve their mission. Sustainability needn’t be daunting. To begin with, we consider the conference centre’s location to see how the event can give back to the local community. Working closely with conference centres we ensure we are being as eco-friendly as possible. The six conference centres shortlisted in this year’s M&IT Awards all boast collective sustainable attributes like international sustainability industry accreditations, community investment, responsible purchasing, water saving measures, and renewable energy to name a few.

As event organisers, we push for carbon-neutral events with our clients and partner with conference centres who take on social and sustainable responsibility. Collaboration between the client, organiser and venue is paramount to reducing an event’s footprint, improving attendee’s experience, and producing tangible return on investment.

Ideation helps us to see how we can personalise an event even further, gain rich insights from data driven tactics and put the attendee and their community at the very centre. Establishing a legacy can generate return on investment and sustained engagement. Live events have the power to inform and change behaviour; the setting, the content, the message can encourage attendees to think in new ways, work more collaboratively and ultimately build communities. Attendees respond to engaging environments like exhibitions or installations – those that allow them to emotionally interact with one another, make their mark and share with their networks. Ideation is crucial for us to maximise venue connectivity and create those all-important legacies.

Prototyping and Testing

Prototyping and testing is where we turn our visualised ideas into solutions! At this stage, we arrange site visits with our clients to understand how the venue will look with our proposed ideas in place. We test our prototype solution and take time to work through any challenging scenarios that could arise. These stages require ongoing experimentation which ultimately allows for us to successfully develop targeted empathy for the attendee.

Having worked up and down the UK and around the world, we’ve seen our fair share of some superb conference centres. Ultimately, we design our events with the attendee in mind. Their personal needs, challenges and aspirations all influence our design thinking approach. When looking for a conference centre on behalf of our client we seek out a partner who is responsive, flexible, and willing to collaborate to fully realise our client’s vision. We are delighted to support the M&IT Awards – roll on March when we can all come together to celebrate the very best UK conference centres in 2019.