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Westminster’s new neighbour

Venue host Alastair Stewart tells of fast-growing etc.venues’ ambitious new opening and why bold but meticulous design helps event planners succeed

Listening to Alastair Stewart talk about etc.venues, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was running an art gallery. He speaks fervently about abundant natural light, splashes of colour, the right ceiling height, “experience creation” and the art of space-planning.

In fact, he’s on a mission to create memorable, talking-point corporate events. Since the firm first opened as a modest training venue provider in 1992 inside a local government building in London’s Elephant and Castle, it’s been using its notable design nous to upgrade unloved buildings and trail-blaze with the newer ones.

Alastair has expanded the offering and put the contemporary back into conferences. He’s nimbly adapting to suit the millennial mindset.  “Some competitor venues focus purely on selling space. We differ in that we seek to personalise every type of event, be it corporate daytime or ambient evening. We transform our spaces into what clients actually want. For the younger conference generation, that means more networking space and more tech,” he says.

The group had six venues in 2006 when the founders sold out to Alastair and his new management team backed by private equity. “The financial crisis of 2008 ended up helping us grow quickly. It forced companies to look at how they were training. Out went expensive trips to rural residential venues in favour of affordable, accessible city-centre venues they could use by the day.

“We saw an opportunity to offer a new style of niche venue positioned between the established hotels and serviced office groups. There are so many hotel brands competing in the top end of the meetings market, just offering space of very similar design. But event planners want to be listened to and offered customised solutions – and that’s what’s at the heart of our philosophy.”

It’s worked out well, with etc.venues quadrupling in size and attracting new investment from Growth Capital Partners in 2012 after the first of the larger London conference venues was launched at St Paul’s.

Last year the firm hosted 15,000 events and 660,000 delegates, and announced bold plans to open its 15th and largest, most ambitious venue at London’s iconic County Hall. The game-changing, single-floor, 43,000sq ft, 20-room venue is a sleek, hi-tech offering, with award-winning architects Jestico & Whiles brought in to advise on the restoration of a major space unused since Ken Livingstone’s GLC was abolished in 1986. They’ve achieved a remarkable

juxtaposition between old and new, with 10,000sq ft of original parquet floor restored to its former glory alongside stylish exposed brickwork features.

“Event professionals constantly tell me they need a bigger supply of new venues and want something different. £3 million of advanced bookings encourages me that County Hall is hitting the mark. Thoughtful venue design can add significant value and difference in so many ways.”

And different is what they get. The mark of Alastair’s fit-out team, led by head of projects Iain Dix and design chief Franck Rosello, is recognisable across all 15 venues for imaginative use of colour and lighting, and for its trademark quirky focus on “art with a purpose”.

“Thoughtful art creates a great talking point, facilitates interaction between guests and even provides tempting ‘selfie spots’, our life-size horse in the Hatton being a popular curiosity. The same goes for coffee points; we make a point of designing innovative breakout spaces and have increasingly customised the coffee points to be more like co-working hubs.”

Staying in front

He’s convinced the industry can add more value to the meeting experience. “Venues can always do more to bring the hosting organisation’s content to life. Tech innovation is key. We’re exploring hologram ‘speakers’ and throwable microphone pods now. Hosts can help presenters offer more engaging content by featuring multiple projection screens that can show live social media feeds and audience participation software. Back-projection is dead. And given that face-to-face events rely on frequent interactivity, the best events see great speakers combined with informal seating layouts as well as imaginative tech.”

The importance of ubiquitous wi-fi, and understanding what overloads it and why, cannot be underestimated. “Delegates would rather sit on the floor than be told they can’t stay connected. And less experienced event planners should get familiar with how wi-fi speed really works. The smart question to ask venues is whether a private wi-fi network can help guarantee contention ratio – the number of users to bandwith rates – especially for larger groups.

Should venues go for bespoke catering? Alastair’s belief in this is unwavering. “Always ask to meet the chef. See for yourself if they’re a foodie. I regard good food prepared by a venue’s own team as absolutely critical. I would never contract this out.” And he’s out to set an example, with a food blog enjoying followers in 100 countries, plus regular trips to Shoreditch and Borough for his chefs to keep abreast of the capital’s culinary and eating trends. “All-day grazing is a thing at events now.”

What next?

The rapid expansion plan at etc.venues is set to continue, with more venues in and out of London. Manchester is on the shopping list, but outside the UK is where Alastair sees increasing opportunity. “It’s not just young contemporary Brits favouring the City for their training, meetings and events. I’m seeing this trend replicating in New York, Paris and across Asia, so international growth is firmly on the agenda.”

What else? “Next year we plan to add another 50,000sq ft and hit £50 million of sales. After that, we’ll set our sights on £100 million.” And why not?

For more information please visit www.etcvenues.co.uk

EYE FOR DETAIL: TIPS FOR PLANNERS

  • Explore the venue’s experience of what works well – they host events day in, day out
  • Look for respect, energy and fun in how the venue team communicates
  • Understand wi-fi and ask about connection
  • Always meet the chef
  • Read the venue’s Twitter feed for insight into their quality and character
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