No matter the experience level, any event professional will be quick to tell you – one of the very first steps is choosing the venue.
I’ve sourced event spaces for events throughout the Midwest and Australia, including conferences for Australia’s most senior marketers at brands such as American Express, McDonald’s, Toyota, Twentieth Century Fox, and Virgin Mobile. The pressure to get the event right always started with the venue.
You don’t need an event manager to tell you that events begin with the location. Think back to your tenth birthday party. (Or perhaps you have kids, and are facing an upcoming children’s party looming on your to-do list!) In that excitement of planning your party, what’s the first question your parents asked?
“Where do you want to have your birthday party?”
“What do you want to do for your birthday this year?”
From there, the negotiations begin (“But Mom, I want to invite the ENTIRE basketball team!), but it all starts with the venue.
Well, be it B2B or B2C, “grown-up” events are no different!
Broken down to its simplest form, an event is a group of people gathered together. It’s pretty hard to bring people together without telling them the time and place! And, you need to secure that place before you can begin inviting them.
The good news is this can also be a fun step – you get to leave the office and go explore! You can even think of yourself as a detective or an explorer, discovering the paths and places you will lead your guests. The venue is the literal destination of your success!
Event planners know how much your success is woven into the venue. It's one of the basics of event marketing. While atmosphere doesn’t have as much of an effect on a one-off speaker presentation, I guarantee the location will!
People are tired after work. I’ve had after-work events I am super excited about for weeks, but come 5:30 on the event day, exhaustion sets in. Sitting on my couch with Netflix and a glass of wine sounds quite tempting. A close location makes it much easier to overcome that temptation.
In larger events, you need to consider many added factors besides location. (Although that still remains a crucial element!) Aside from the event logistics, you can use the space to create an atmosphere, and turn the venue itself into a selling point.
For example, on the event website for MarketingProfs’ B2B Marketing Forum, there is an entire section devoted to the event venue:
In addition to location, there are plenty of other factors to consider. You need a place which fits within your budget, and can physically hold all guests, speakers, and sponsors.
The nine items on this checklist will cover each of these, plus every other factor I have considered myself when evaluating and deciding on an event space!
At the end of this post, you’ll find a worksheet you can use to compare all of these factors.
With that, let’s get started with the very first, and often biggest, decision factor – the venue’s cost!
1. Cost of the Venue – The Impact on Your Budget
Some venues will be eliminated right away if they don’t fit in your budget. However, you do need to meet minimum standards for quality! The statement “you get what you pay for” exists for a reason. Your venue will need to have a balance between what you want vs. what you can afford. Cost can be a reflection of the venue's event day staff. They will be interacting with your guests on the day, and if they don’t have satisfactory customer service skills, it reflects poorly on you.
It makes sense that, given the venue is so crucial, it can also be a massive part of your budget. This is especially true for large-scale events such as conferences. According to a 2016 study by Bizzabo, 36% of event planners spend the majority of their budget on the venue. This is the most popular choice among those surveyed (over catering, marketing, and speakers). Deciding how much of your budget you can devote to your event space is an important element in the event planning process.
2. Venue Employees – Your Point of Contact
When you reach out to a venue, you will be put in touch with one of the venue’s event managers. This person will become your point of contact for the event. Think about how much you like working with them. Are they responsive answering your questions during the decision process?
A good relationship with the venue will go a long way towards getting the information you need in a timely manner. If you hit a bump in the road, having a person who is receptive to your needs will also keep your stress levels down. (Especially in the final weeks leading up to the event day!)
3. Flexibility – How They’ll Fit Your Unique Needs
Venues often have a number of requirements written into the contractual use of their space. However, sometimes the “standard” doesn’t fit your specific needs, and you don’t want to pay for anything you don’t need! Make sure you read the contract very carefully. (Don’t assume anything!!)
It could be a minimum number of hours the space is rented for, or their on-site staff required per number of event attendees, or when you can get into the space for set up. Each venue is different, but many are willing to make adjustments to suit your requirements.
Then, when you reach agreed upon negotiations, get them in writing, and ensure your contract has been adjusted accordingly. Midwest Meetings has some great tips for event contract negotiation.
Flexibility also relates to any required suppliers. Some venues may have specific suppliers they work with.
For example, they could require you to work with their chosen audio-visual (AV) company. If this is the case, you can’t shop around for your own AV team, no matter how great the service or how much money you’ll save!
The advantage is the AV team will know the space, so you shouldn’t have any issues on the day. You also don’t have to spend time sourcing the supplier yourself!
4. Food and Beverage
Speaking of requirements and flexibility...some venues will require you to use them as the food and beverage provider. This is definitely a place to have discussions around your needs. (And what you don’t need!)
As my father stressed during my wedding planning process, food is critical to an event’s success. Make sure the food is a good quality, especially if it is an all-day event. (You might even score some samples in the process!) You also need to make sure the venue can work with any dietary requirements.
Food and beverage tie back to flexibility – can the venue create a custom package for you? Do your best in negotiations to make sure your guests have plenty of food, but not an excess. Pay for what you need, and nothing more. Aside from hurting your budget, no one’s a fan of wasting food!
5. Venue Location
Location usually does mean “something in the city,” but think about how your guests will actually get to the venue too.
Is there parking? Here in Chicago, I can guarantee it’s not likely (or it won’t be cheap!) but you could look into providing discounted parking for guests. Or, your venue may have a parking garage it can recommend.
Regardless of parking, if you are in a big city, you also need to consider how close your event is to public transit. (Most people who work in metropolitan areas don’t drive to work!)
It’s much easier for guests to attend if the place is easy to get to – especially when your event is before or after work. If your event is centrally located, it will help both your RSVPs and actual attendance on the event day.
When hosting any event where you might have out-of-town guests, you should also make sure your event is close to accomodation. This is why some event planners choose to hold events at hotels – guests shouldn’t get lost when they don’t have to go outside!
6. Size – Not Too Big and Not Too Small
Just like Goldilocks, you want a venue which will suit the number of guests in attendance.
Consider how many guests you think will attend, as well as the venue’s capacity. You don’t want to be turning guests away because you’ve run out of room! “Maximum capacity” is a question you must ask.
And, while you need enough room, you also don’t want your space to feel empty. 50 people in an area designed for 400 will make your event feel lackluster, even if you did hit your attendance goal.
When you look at capacity numbers, keep in mind anything else you need in the space on the event day. (You know, the stuff besides people and chairs!) How big will your stage be? Do you need space in the room for any sponsor displays? (More on this in the last point - additional areas for registration, networking, and more!)
7. Seating Options
When an event involves a speaker, think of your seating options. This is especially valuable to consider for an event where guests will be seated and taking notes for the entire day. You may want to provide your guests with tables for taking notes and eating.
Seating is essential when considering a venue for two reasons:
- The direct effect on capacity
- Knowing what type of seating (tables and chairs) the venue can supply for you
Table seating is nice, especially if guests will be in the same location for the entire day. However, it will significantly reduce the room’s capacity. Here is an example of table seating from RESET, run by the Australian Association of National Advertisers:
Image credit: The Australian Association of National Advertisers
If you have a celebrity speaker, and you want to pack in as many guests as possible, find out what capacity is when you skip the tables.
Whenever you want tables at your event, it is ideal for the venue to provide them. Otherwise, you will have an additional rental cost (as well as delivery fees), plus you will have to source your supplier – it’s another person to communicate with and confirm leading up to the event day!
8. Venue Layout
When you arrive at your event space, notice whether or not it is easy for you to navigate. Take note of this the very first time you attend, before you get to know the space.
If your space is a hotel, which could have multiple events and ballrooms, will your attendees have trouble finding your event? Can they easily move from one event space to the other? I have definitely gotten lost in the depths of more than one hallway! (Although I am somewhat directionally challenged!)
It’s not a dealbreaker if your specific ballroom is hard to find. However, you should keep in mind that you may require additional signage to direct guests. And, if that is the case, you need to ensure the venue allows that signage!
9. Additional Areas – Networking, Registration, and More
When you visit a venue, you will automatically be thinking about the “main event”: The room where your speakers are presenting. But don’t forget about the other elements of the day!
I saved this section for the end, as there are plenty of potential areas to keep in mind. Your event may not require each of these elements, but it’s good to be aware of all possible needs.
Consider the following:
- Registration: Whenever you are handing out name badges or conference satchels, (also known as “swag bags,”) you’ll need a space for that to take place. In addition, some larger events also have a central hub for information. This is where your guests can go should any questions arise.
- Catering: Where will the food go? It is especially important to consider if you have buffet stations. Food doesn’t usually require too much space, but there will be people standing around the buffet. They’ll also want a place to sit – something else to remember!
- Networking: Where will people mix and mingle? People are always going to network at an event, that’s one of the reasons you are there! Networking will happen naturally before and after speaker presentations. However, you can also have a set space for networking. This is often by any refreshments. It gives people the opportunity to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.
- Outdoor Space: Speaking of fresh air...I am seeing more events which have a designated outdoor area. Sometimes it’s for networking, other times it provides a breath of fresh air. (I’ve even seen swings!) Attendees appreciate the opportunity to see daylight!
- Speaker Room: In a conference situation you need a specific area (at least one) for speakers. It is a place they can go to do final preparation, or just sit back and relax. Speaking to people takes a lot of energy, and presenters want a place to focus and recharge. Many of your attendees want to talk to speakers; this also gives your honored guests a respite if they don’t want to do a lot of chatting with guests. Remember, you may have to pay an additional rental fee for this room.
- Press and Interview Area: If you have invited the media to conduct interviews, they will need a space to do so. (This will depend on the size of your event.) Some may want a quiet room for a one-on-one interview. Others may prefer video footage of a speaker with all the action happening behind them. When thinking about press attendees, you should also consider if you want a media wall. This will give you a backdrop with your event logo for event pictures with speakers, sponsors and VIPs.
- VIP Area: If you sell VIP tickets, this will give those attendees a space to “get away from it all.” Perhaps there is extra seating here, fancy food, or phone chargers.
- Sponsors: When selling space to sponsors, don’t forget to map out where they will actually go! Make sure your venue provides enough space to fulfill every sponsor’s contractual requirement.
- Production and Set-Up Space: Setting up an event involves empty boxes you will need to repack when the event ends, leftover swag, and plenty of other odds and ends. Don’t forget that you need a space for those items You could have a conference room at a hotel for specifically for this staging area. Or, if you are using one ballroom for your event space, master event strategist Christy Lamagna recommends saving one-third of the ballroom for production set-up:
Each of these elements could require additional space, which could mean you need to allocate added budget. The good news is, the more space you want to rent, the more negotiation power you have to bring down the set price.
Handy-Dandy Event Venue Worksheet
The items discussed throughout this checklist cover every major and minor point to consider when choosing your venue.
Once you have looked at several locations, and created your shortlist, you can use this worksheet (designed from the checklist, of course!) to score your potential venues.
You will create your shortlist once you have found potential event venues which:
- Are available on your required date
- Fit within your budget
- You like!
By now your gut probably has a “yes” or “no” feeling, which has brought you down to the final factors.
The highest score will not automatically be your “winner.” Some factors will be more important to you; take those into account. Consider any elements which are deal-breakers, regardless of a high score.
For example, if I love a venue, and it fits in my budget, but I don’t think my contact will be flexible or communicative, nine times out of 10 I’ll pass.
Score your vendors on a scale from 1 – 10. Give high scores when you are happy with their flexibility, location, or any other aspect, and low ones whenever you have doubts.
If there is an element which does not apply to you, cross out that row, and it will not affect your results. (Yay math!) For example, if you know you don’t want tables, and every venue can provide you with chairs, eliminate that row.
I’ve also included room for any other considerations which may be necessary for you.
If you have anything to add to the checklist find me on Twitter (@AusmericanGirl) and let me know, and happy venue hunting!
Learn more about event marketing with these additional resources: