Conferences are usually three things. Essential, long-winded and boring. It's almost inevitable because it's so difficult to be all things to all people. A topic which some find stimulating, others will find sleep-inducing, it's just the way it is.
There are a few classic ways around this. A world-class keynote is a great way to either kick things off or keep people there in anticipation (like waiting for the headline act at a concert). I'm not saying that public speakers are the new rock stars, but in the stagnant world of dull conference agendas, they better be! Another way to break up the day is via frequent smaller 'break out' sessions which enable delegates to pick n' mix their own mini-agenda whilst the organiser selects the key plenary (headline) sessions that everyone attends. This relies on a flexible venue with a series of smaller breakout rooms, preferably centered around the same central communal 'hub'. The whole point of a conference is to make use of the delegate community so the more 'social' aspects you can provide, the better. Otherwise you might as well hold a webinar. Remember them? Yeah, they didn't work. Meals and coffee breaks are a great opportunity for your delegates to network and make useful new connections. Like an offline social media opportunity which, perhaps ironically, will inevitably turn into an online social media relationship if you really like the person.
The perfect conference combines three things. Great content, flexible sessions and an engaged delegate list. Combine these and your event will enjoy some degree of success.
However, there's a fourth way and it'll make a big difference. An unusual, out of context venue (or at least a creative use of your existing venue) can enhance the experience dramatically. Even the classic conference venues (many of which have made a huge effort to reinvent themselves in recent years) can be utilised in an original way to create an unexpected environment. We've done exactly that this year on two stand out occasions. Firstly, our recent LiveTECH event at the Barbican. In fact, with this one, we've experimented with something else too - over the past couple of years, we've changed the format from a whole day event to an evening event and, as with this iteration, a morning event. This means that we cram lots of content into one action-packed and intense morning but that it doesn't knock out an entire day and delegates don't have the chance to get bored. It's bite sized and brilliant. What's more, we began with a power breakfast in the Barbican's sensational, yet surprisingly little known sub-tropical interior gardens. An unlikely hybrid concrete jungle, reminiscent of a lost temple which nature has dramatically reclaimed after a nuclear war (well, that's what I imagined anyway!). Then there was the auditorium itself. We replaced the standard screen with a gigantic, free-standing state of the art LED screen courtesy of Saville AV - a screen so vivid, awe-inspiring and bright that it instantly enhanced the conference all on its own.
The other outstanding conference we were involved in this year was the world's first Crowdfunding summit, Crowdfinders at the Crystal. The Crystal is itself a state of the art conference centre (although their broadband situation where every delegate needs their own unique password is a baffling and wholly unnecessary obstacle!) but to avoid 'terminable dirge' syndrome (a phrase that was once used by the NME to describe my band's album) we mixed it up with some dramatic, unexpected and completely out of context entertainment - from the world champion beatboxer to breakdance troupes and even an impromptu business pitch from some secret tenors who conveyed their message through the medium of opera, we kept everyone hungry for more and on the edge of their (super comfy) seats, in anticipation of the next wave of masterful madness...The next Crowdfinders Live event is on October 15th where we'll be progressively rising up the Millbank Tower, starting in the Millbank Media Centre, ascending through Skyloft (for Drangon's Den style live pitches) and culminating with our 'Crowd in the Clouds' after-party on top of the world in Altitude.
But first, what are the best alternative venues which lend themselves perfectly to the new wave of Conference or 'Non-ference' as I like to call them!?
Well, here are ten (actually fourteen, but who's counting?!) to get you started:
1. Center Parcs, Woburn. If you want to get away from it all, on a grand scale, then head for the woods. There's an aerial adventure, a sub tropical paradise and just about everything else of an outward (and inward) bound nature! With a state of the art woodland conference venue for up to 600 delegates, this really is the ultimate in "in/out" conference awesomeness! (Not to be taken in the wrong way - that's entirely extra curricular and optional, depending on whether you live by the 100 mile rule or not!)
2. Altitude. The special thing about this venue for new wave conferences is its diversity on so many levels. Literally. The upcoming Crowdfinders conference will start off in the Millbank media centre on the ground floor, rise to Skyloft, the Uber-cool New York style urban basketball court in the sky, for lunch and live pitches, culminating with a 'Crowd in the Clouds' VIP after-party in Altitude. One tower, three venues, one hell of a conference! Hey, you should come!?
3. ArcelorMittal Orbit. I once said this venue looked like a giant helter-skelter. Well, now it's about to become one. Imagine ending your conference on a giant slide. Where else can you do that? With an excellent conference venue called The Podium and a completely unique environment for your conference, this place will send your conf-kudos into Orbit!
4. Boisdale Canary Wharf. This is a huge (and very cool) Scottish restaurant in Cabot Square. There are so many hidden secrets and surprises from moving masterpieces (spot the framed painting with the moving sea!) to the thousand whiskies behind the bar but the real piece de resistance is the fully loaded jazz stage which could be used for conference keynotes on a medium sized scale. Ideal for up to 100 guests. I had lunch with Alistair Cook at Boisdale and he wrote all sorts of exciting things all over my cricket bat! Cool guy. Even cooler place.
5. The Matcham Room at The Hippodrome. We've staged lots of things here from LiveTECH to the London PA Awards and it's perfect for up to 150 guests. It's designed for live music and world class entertainment so if it's good enough for Prince, it's good enough for us. Amazing back-line, in-house AV and catering facilities. Beautiful 'all inclusive' conference venue with entertainment on tap...
6. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. Remember Richmond Events who discovered the (genius) secret formula of hosting events on a cruise ship? Well, it's still referred to as one of the cleverest ideas ever conceived in the events world. The ship's layout is perfect with a central theatre acting as the auditorium and more breakout rooms than you could shake your money-maker at! But most of all, the venue was a huge draw (who isn't excited about exploring a huge ship?) and, from the organiser's perspective, you have a complete captive audience. Forced networking, in a good way! Welcome aboard!
7. Harrow School. In the school holidays, this magnificent mecca of learning (and stable of greatness) is available for inspiring conferences of the historically intriguing kind. Hold your plenary sessions in the magnificent old Speech Room and break out to a variety of beautiful smaller spaces such as the Alex Fitch room, with its oak floors derived from an Elizabethan battleship and the Fourth Form Room - possibly the most famous school room (complete with engravings from the likes of Byron and Churchill) in the world. Earlier this year we held a dinner here and it was nothing short of magical (and only 10 miles from the West End)!
8. Lee Valley Velo Park. This iconic Olympic theatre of two wheeled dreams is more flexible than you might think. With a vast space in the centre of the oval track and an awe-inspiring roofline, the Lee Valley Velo Park, with all of its in-house facilities (and proximity to Stratford station on the Central Line and the mighty Westfield Centre as well as, of course, endless parking) is actually an inspired choice for an alternative conference - and then you can have a go on the track afterwards! Contact Cavendish Hospitality for details...
9. Ministry of Sound. This world-famous Superclub is actually perfect for conferences. With lots of space, an iconic brand, state of the art audio-visual in-house and lots of different areas to make use of, you can really give your conference some cred and do something radically different at MOS.
10. The Bomb Factory, Osea Island. As a destination conference venue, it really doesn't get much better. Ever. Anywhere in the world! The recently restored Bomb Factory (an actual WW2 torpedo base) on the stunningly beautiful private Osea Island estate near Maldon really is a magical (almost romantic) get-away, ideal for corporate conferences with a gigantic twist. For theatre style events up to 400 guests, check out Osea Island for your next conference, you'll be amazed and that's a guarantee!
11. The Royal Institution. As the actual home of science and the historic location of the famous Christmas Lectures (where legendary astronomers from Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore to Professor Brian Cox have all addressed the audience) this magnificently located central Mayfair venue is both iconic and logistically perfect for modern day conferences. Their theatre is ideal for plenary sessions and they have a myriad of interesting alternative break-out spaces, both modern and classical. You can even go down to Faraday's original private office where he literally changed the world (well, in an electro-magnetic kinda way!). What's more, they can set your conference alight (Err...literally) with their amazing array of spectacular live science experiments which will ensure your event goes with a bang! That'll wake 'em up, whatever the subject!
12. St.James' Theatre. As the only 'West End' style theatre to be built in the last thirty years, this venue offers the best of both worlds - a perfectly appointed raked-seated theatre for up to 312 delegates as well as modern things like air conditioning and a beautiful modern lobby area and restaurant. A perfect alternative London conference space and a sensible choice.
13. Tobacco Dock. Once in the middle of nowhere, now at the heart of everything going on in the docklands (and even walking distance from Canary Wharf), Tobacco Dock is increasingly popular as a large, urban space with huge capacity for a wide variety of events. From tattoo conventions to corporate seminars, their event spaces are spacious, cool and plentiful. Their entire ground floor has been converted to a high-tech, incubator and accelerator hub so will shortly be teaming with Uber-cool start-ups and mini little Zuckerbergs. Definitely on the up.
14. Wembley Stadium. I know you know this place but, chances are, you haven't experienced their amazing event and conference spaces? With a super modern and cooly clinical minimalist feel, Wembley Stadium is one of the best alternative conference centres in the UK. Oh, and if you haven't been for a while, you'll be amazed to see that an entire Westfield style village has grown up around the area, making Wembley itself a desirable new destination packed with great hotels, restaurants and shops. And our nation's most iconic stadium, of course.
Will Broome, CEO