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Roundtable discussion

Butlin's Bognor Regis

Editor Molly Dyson took a trip to Butlin’s Bognor Regis to visit PAs in the Sussex area for our regular roundtable discussion. Topic: How to find the perfect venue for your corporate events

Emily Darnell, EA to CEO of PVL UK
Esther Dawson, EA to CEO at Ridgeview
Nancy Joy, PA to Resort Director at Bourne Leisure

How do you start your search for a venue?
Esther: I think about who’s coming and the logistics of getting there. The biggest external event I’ve done was about 600. The smallest was 45. For me it’s all about the audience. Every venue has a purpose.

Emily: When you’re asked to do an event you immediately start thinking about places you know of that would work. I always look for a place with plenty of free parking. I don’t think it’s right to expect people to come to an event and have to pay for parking. I wouldn’t put on an event somewhere without this amenity. It’s a bugbear of mine.

Nancy: I find out what the purpose is and what they want to get out of their time together. I organise tiny meetings for 13 heads of department right on up to our big annual meeting of 150 leaders and everything in between. A lot of my events happen on the Butlin’s resorts, but for external events I always look at the function first. Free parking and wifi are a must.

Does the venue team make a difference to you?
Nancy: I always buy into a team. If I don’t feel a connection, I know I won’t get the best out of them. It’s really important that if something goes wrong they’ll be there to help.

At what stage do you start doing site visits?
Nancy: I do a lot of research online and look at reviews, then come up with a shortlist for site visits.

Esther: I’ve done many familiarisation trips. Tried and tested is definitely the best method of choosing a venue.

Emily: I sometimes worry that people think it’s a jolly old time going out to these hotels, but it’s not. It’s hard work because we’re looking at every aspect of the venue and trying to imagine if it will work for our events.

Do you use venue-finding agencies?
Esther: Sometimes you want something unique or you have a bigger budget, and I think agencies can find something you didn’t know about. However, if you don’t have a massive budget you can save a bit of money by doing it yourself.

Emily: If it’s something a bit further afield I’d definitely use an agency. They’ll save you a bit of time on research if you know nothing about the area.

What features do you look for at the venue?
Nancy: Accommodation is quite important for external events. In terms of spaces I like light and airy rooms because if you’re going to be sitting in it all day it’s important for it to not be dull and uninspiring. I also love places where you can get outside for a break.

Esther: It all depends on the agenda. I’ve had one event with team-building activities, so I looked for venues that had areas where we could do everything all on site. At another the delegates were all men, but their wives were joining them in the evening, so I found a place with a spa they could use.

What sort of lead times do you work to?
Nancy: A few months; maybe longer if it’s a big event. We have our calendar of meetings planned a year in advance, so I can always start looking at spaces ahead of time. Things can change; something that was originally set as an internal meeting might suddenly become an off-site function.

Esther: I usually start about nine months out – longer for bigger events. It can be difficult to start that early because you don’t always have the agenda, but I like to give it as long as I can.

How far outside of your local area do you typically go?
Nancy: It depends on how long the delegates can spend out of the office. We have around 5,000 guests checking in every Monday and Friday during the season and the weeks that we’re closed will be booked up with other companies having their conferences here, so taking our team out for too long is really hard.

Esther: I usually don’t go more than an hour from our office or transport links because it’s hard to get delegates there otherwise.

How involved does your boss get in the planning process?
Emily: Mine doesn’t really get involved at all. I run things past him if I need his opinion, but usually I try to find a solution first. It’s not something he’s got time to do.

So are you given free reign with the budget?
Emily: Our bosses are too busy. If we have to get them involved in the nitty gritty then we’re not doing our job properly.

Nancy: My boss gives me a brief and the budget but that’s it. When it comes to negotiating or deciding if we need to spend money on something it’s all down to me.

Esther: My boss will set the theme, then the marketing team makes it tangible. I’m given a budget and it’s up to me how to spend it. I keep her up to date but she gets more involved towards the end.

Some suppliers say they don’t think PAs have any purchasing power. What would you say to that?
Emily: Really? I mean it’s our job! If our company is having an event it’s my responsibility to make it work.

Do you look for a complete package, or do you use various suppliers?
Esther: I normally start with my own list. That might be cynical, but it’s nice to give business to people you’ve used before to build the relationship.

Emily: Maybe with your first few events you should keep everything in house to make it easier, but as you gain experience you can start to source other suppliers. The more events you do the more relationships you build.

Has anything ever gone wrong that has made you think on your feet to find a solution?
Emily: Esther and I had a speaker’s car break down on the night of one of our networking events. We just had to be honest with the PAs. Luckily, one of the ladies who came along was someone who has a very interesting career story, and she offered to speak for us instead.

Esther: At my old company we’d held our Christmas party at the same venue for four or five years and suddenly one year everything just seemed to go wrong. I was honest with my contact and she was mortified. We booked it again the following year, so that bad experience didn’t ruin my relationship with them. I remember another event where some of the delegates were sharing rooms but the hotel had only issued one key per room. We only had an hour and a half to programme more. I got big brownie points because my boss saw me working out the solution before they even knew there was a problem.

Do you have the power to negotiate if something goes wrong?
Nancy: There’s no harm in asking. If you have a relationship with a venue they’ll want to give you compensation. It’s important to have the courage to negotiate.

What sort of thanks do you get after the event?
Nancy: I’m quite lucky in that there’s always a thank you for everyone, from the chefs to the cleaners. He understands there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it. All the stress and pressure is worth seeing an event go well. It’s not the biggest part of my role, but it’s still my favourite part.

Esther: My boss takes the team out for lunch the next day and gives us the afternoon off. I normally write a note to everyone afterward to thank them for helping me.

Do reward schemes matter?
Emily: I’d rather pay a little more and know the event is going to be good. People judge me on my events so I can’t be seen as doing a mediocre job for the sake of a freebie.

What tips can you give other PAs when planning events?
Emily: Speak to other PAs. Esther and I run a regional PA network for that exact reason. There are lots of online groups too. We all want to help each other.

Esther: Ask your boss questions to get more information. When you find a venue, they can recommend suppliers for AV and theming. Utilise other people’s knowledge rather than relying on your own research.

In conclusion
This discussion proves that PAs really do hold the power when it comes to booking venues and suppliers for their company events. Even if it’s not a large part of their job, they’re still trusted to make decisions on where they spend their budget.