‘Experts’ may not be so expert, after all, says John Fisher

The rapid rise of venue search suppliers comes as no surprise to observers of the Internet. The voracious need for timely information delivered instantly is the basis for all digital businesses around the world - from comparison websites to GPS app users.
Venue search agencies have not been slow to exploit the needs of public and private organisations who require a suitable venue for their next event at the right price…as quickly as possible. It all takes time to do that for yourself and, as we all know, if you have no venue, you have no event.

But algorithms are not all-seeing. As an event organiser there comes a point when someone human needs to say…wait a minute, the ceiling is too low, or there is no ground level access for a car or the venue has a glass roof. From the perspective of booking a venue, this is irrelevant. But if a Marketing Director in the automotive industry needs a presentation room to be completely blacked out for a product reveal, you may have a problem.

The manipulation of data becomes more and more clever and it is easy for us all to get just a little bit fooled into thinking that they are ‘so experienced’ in venue search, they must know what they are doing and that they cover the market completely. After all, they are the ‘venue experts’.

Not so, I’m afraid. So, let’s look at this in more detail.

When you do a venue search, you want a space that fits the event management brief. But venues do not exist in a vacuum. If it is a national conference, some thought needs to be given as to how delegates are going to get there and back and sometimes by what time of day. If half the delegates arrive too late for the important networking event in the early evening on day one, the event gets off to a bad start.

The issue gets worse if they are coming from overseas. A two-day residential event in a beautiful, 5-star hotel on a sunny island sounds great. But not if it takes your delegate from Kazakhstan two days to get there…and three days to get back because it is a weekend.

Many events are stretched to include pre- and post-main event meetings. Often it is the only time that a disparate team of managers can get face-to-face. So having options either side of the main group for them to meet up is crucial. The additional 10 rooms either side of the main event could prove to be a deal-breaker.

Sometimes the perfect venue looks great on paper, only to discover that your arch rivals will be using the same facility at the same time for a very similar meeting. It may be that you are so confident in your own organisation that having them there is no issue. But, for most people, having a competitor within touching distance is too much of a good opportunity for them to poach staff and any new product literature, given half the chance.

The other nagging doubt is whether you have really got the best possible deal. Venue search businesses rely on volume deals from their basket of venues to make their profits. Although, in theory, getting them to book your event ‘costs nothing’, they do get a commission from the venue which is often increased if the agency books a lot of space there. This can lead to inappropriate selling of venues that really don’t work for your kind of group. Most venue search administrators are also incentivised by hotel groups to make specific suggestions. So the advice you are given is not as objective as it would first appear.

It is also worth bearing in mind that venue searches are not like comparison sites in the true sense of scouring the market. You would be surprised to discover that when a venue search agency says there are no options on your dates, it really means there are no options at the hotels they looked at. Many agencies claim to cover the market fully. But this is virtually impossible and there will be ‘favourite’ business partners within every venue agency that always get the bulk of the bookings business.

No software programme, however sophisticated, will provide weightings to reconcile these factors, as only the client knows what the client’s red lines are. There is no doubt that for a client looking to book smaller venues on a regular basis at short notice, then venue search agencies provide a useful job that saves time - but not necessarily money.

But for larger, flagship events there is no substitute for a good, old-fashioned event managers who know their clients and know their markets and have probably had personal experience of the venues they have shortlisted.

In business you get what you pay for, of course. But sometimes you simply have to do the job yourself to be absolutely sure.