Emma Cartmell, CEO of CHS Group, says organisers should see a lack of traditional exhibition venues as an opportunity, not an issue.
I’ve seen some comment in the industry about the lack of exhibition venues in London now that we don’t have Earls Court. But do you really need a ‘traditional’ exhibition hall to house an exhibition? There are so many large or blank canvas venues that the industry could embrace if we all thought a little more creatively.
Since the Conference and Hospitality Show was born in 2010 we’ve never actually used a traditional purpose-built exhibition venue and our choice of venue has helped shape the event we have today.
Using a non-traditional venue has meant that we’ve had to think differently, be creative in our attitude, set up and logistics, and it has even influenced the branding, the marketing campaign and the whole ethos and feel of the show.
By 2015 the show had outgrown our venue, Elland Road in Leeds, and we were looking for a new home. We were keen to stay in Leeds because all of the different organisations representing the city – such as Leeds BID, Conference Leeds and the Leeds Hotels and Venues Association (LHVA) – work collaboratively and they were always extremely supportive of our event. The move to the firstdirect arena – a venue 50 percent bigger than our last – was an exciting but scary move. But it paid off.
This amazing venue, better known for housing international rock stars, inspired us to create the ‘Rock Star’ organiser theme – which became a fully integrated marketing campaign. This creative and exciting theme confirmed and truly cemented our ethos of business and fun combined. It ran through all our marketing, social media and PR and afforded us some great ways to create fun interactions with our visitors.
CHS was the first business event of its size to be held at the firstdirect arena, and using a venue that was predominantly for music gigs has its benefits and drawbacks. A non-exhibition venue may not have the loading capacity of an exhibition hall – yes, the firstdirect arena has a great loading bay, but both the bay and the venue team are more accustomed to just a few contractors coming in to unload for a gig, rather than the steady stream of hundreds of exhibitors that we have.
The firstdirect arena doesn’t have catering concessions on the hall floor – so how do exhibitors and visitors buy their lunch? Again, we turned this problem into an opportunity and decided it would be a great customer benefit to provide a free lunch to all exhibiting staff and VIP visitors. Our exhibitors love it because they feel loved and can easily grab lunch and get back on the floor, whilst the VIPs get the treatment we are known for (and it’s really not that expensive for us to cater for everyone en masse).
A non-traditional venue may have lots of additional space that you can use – we have used the backstage dressing rooms for VIP activities in the past, and we plan to use the corporate boxes next year for specific entertaining of invited guests and dignitaries.
Inviting them to a lunch in a box overlooking the arena has a certain exclusivity and wow factor that you just wouldn’t get in a conference room next to an exhibition hall. We are also looking at using black draping and more fun imagery this year to create a more appealing VIP bar. This is something that sits well in, and totally suits, the firstdirect arena but would look very odd and out of place in a grey box of an exhibition hall.
Another consideration is the fact that you may have visitors, guests and staff spread out over different spaces rather than all in the one hall. Our registration area is on a higher level than the show floor so it can be harder on the team physically to get around, and more time has to be allowed to get from A to B.
I see the lack of traditional exhibition space as an opportunity for our industry and not necessarily a bad thing. Think differently and embrace the quirks of a non-traditional exhibition hall. Turn the challenges into opportunities to change the way you do things and the way your exhibition looks and works. It may just be the very thing that your event needs.