Organisers and owners: it’s time to talk

(by Chris Hartley, Commercial Director at LiveBuzz)

Venue operators up and down the country have something of an image problem within the industry, I believe. It’s an unfortunate situation which I think stems from a commonly held characterisation of them as being inflexible, expensive and unwilling to go the extra mile.

The problem is that I believe this to be an out-of-date – and unfair – characterisation; one which could be resolved if venue operators and event organisers simply talked a bit more often.

Call me old-fashioned but I liken the situation to talking to your bank manager (back in the day when such a thing was possible). Far from being the ogre they were sometimes painted as being, there was often much to be gained – and little to be lost – by taking the time to talk through plans, ideas and even shared ambitions.

In the context of organising an event, being prepared to open a more constructive dialogue might just help see away the following popular misconceptions:

  • There’s little room for negotiation with venue owners. You’ll have to rent the whole hall and there’s no scope to create a commercial deal outside of the £-per-square-metre day rate.
  • They’re not interested in helping a new event become established on the annual calendar. It’s just about shifting floor space.
  • They’ll shut down negotiations the minute they feel there is a “profile issue” – i.e. that your show has even the slightest possibility of taking business away from another event on their schedule.

Let’s start with the first point. From the four years I spent working on the venues’ side, I saw plenty of organisers who held this assumption.

It’s not true. Plenty of owners will ask for reasonable minimum commitments for space an organiser wants to take, especially with launch events. Of course, they still need to make their margin but they’ll do this by looking to charge higher rates for any additional space required. The point is that there is plenty of flexibility available for even a small launch event. From experience, it’s always worth having the conversation on this point.

As for not helping a new event find its feet, that too is a misconception. Venue owners always see the value of supporting what could turn into long-term repeat business. They can offer all sorts of other incentives, such as sharing an element of risk in return for revenue-sharing options or laying on additional space, free of charge, as long as it’s used for non-commercial purposes.

In my experience, venues want new shows to succeed and will work collaboratively to help reduce the risk inherent in any new venture. Some of the early incentives they provide could result with organisers paying higher rates in the longer term – but at least that means the event survives into the longer term!

As for the profile issue, I get the feeling that venues are now far more prepared to stand up against incumbent event organisers and to demonstrate how another, similar show coming onto their roster is not about to cannibalise the business of the existing event. More sophisticated research and a better understanding of audience sub-segments and buyer cycles has helped here.

The net result is that venues now seem far more comfortable having what could have been a very awkward conversation just a few years ago. This will likely lead to more shows which may previously have been considered as competitors both taking space at the same venue.

The other interesting point about the research which some venues are undertaking more frequently is how it can be turned to organisers’ advantage. I would suggest that any organiser looking to move to a new venue should be urging the operator to prove to them why this would be a good thing. What does their research show about the impact this would have on their existing audience, for example? And how much of a new audience will they pick up from moving to a new location?

While I would like to think that any improvements in the owner / organiser relationship would come about from both sides being more open-minded and progressive in their thinking, we cannot ignore the impact of the existing power dynamics.

The power dynamics in any industry are constantly shifting. I would suggest that in our industry, the balance of power currently resides with the event organiser, especially at the smaller end of the market where they really are spoilt for choice in terms of possible venues (this applies far less at the larger end of the market). Therefore, any organiser taking the time to forge stronger relationships with the venue owners will likely be pushing against an open door right now.

Question is – do they want to take advantage of having the whip hand in order to screw down costs or do they want to build more collaborative relationships with the venue owners?

Regardless, I think it makes good commercial sense to think of a venue operator as more than just the person who sells you some floor space. They can be so much more than that and, nowadays, I believe they want to be more than that.

It’s all about the conversation. It’s good to talk, after all. Old school assumptions and misconceptions can be left at the door though.

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