Every industry has its deal breakers - those telltale signs that you should run away as fast as you can from a particular product, service or vendor. The events industry is no exception, and venue sourcing and selection is one of the biggest decisions an event planner can make with regard to the success of their events.
In fact, choosing a venue is so important that no amount of amazing catering, content, and entertainment can make up for a poor venue choice. Plus picking a venue that disappoints can have all sorts of other negative repercussions for future events you plan (like turned-off attendees, unhappy clients and bad word-of-mouth for you and your organization).
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Most venue searches begin with drawing up a list of criteria based on the needs of the event and the target audience. Once that list is built, it's time to collect and assess information, and this article has helpful tips for spotting the red flags you need to look for to weed out inappropriate event spaces and find the perfect venue for your event.
So what should you be wary of as you evaluate a venue?
1. Keep an Eye Out for Negative Reviews and Lukewarm Recommendations To Avoid a Costly Venue Mistake
For most event management pros, conducting online research is already a part of the routine of selecting a venue, and rightly so.
Indeed, reading the reviews of a venue on social media sites like Yelp and Facebook as well as conducting searches on Twitter and Google is a great start. And there are also industry-specific sites and directories where you can read planner and attendee feedback.
Online reviews should certainly not be your only source of advice or feedback though. First of all, online reviews can be unreliable. Only about 1.5% of all people provide online reviews, and this audience has a propensity to offer extreme and over-embellished reviews. A good practice when evaluating online reviews is to look for middle-of-the-road reviews (which tend to be more measured and accurate) and read their comments for any specific details.
A few things to attend to while reading online reviews:
- keyboard_arrow_right Keep an eye out for any replies to reviews by venue staff. Most venue managers are smart enough to know that a few bad reviews in the wrong places can damage their business, so pay attention if the venue responds to bad reviews and, if so, what their tone and approach is like.
- keyboard_arrow_right If the venue lists their offerings on their own website or on online directories, check this information against what they present to you on the phone and in person. Any venue that stretches the truth too much might be prone to mislead you later on if you decide to hire them.
Your peers and other event planning professionals may be the best sources for feedback on venues. You can check out industry forums where event professionals and attendees share their experiences regarding venues. You can also use these forums to solicit input as well as employ online tools like LinkedIn Groups and Quora to pose questions to a wider audience about the venue in question. And you can always talk to members from local chapters of event industry associations (like Meeting Professionals International or International Live Events Association) and get their opinions.
2. Trust Your First Impressions of the Venue to Gauge Their Service and Responsiveness
First impressions are everything in the events industry. If your first experience with the venue staff isn't stellar or if they wait three days before responding to you, you have to wonder if they really do sweat the details if they don't bother to train their front-facing staff properly.
Providing attentive customer service is a basic tenet of competent venue management. So whether your first call is with the venue GM, the event/catering manager or an admin, you are looking for attentiveness, tactfulness, quick comprehension and a desire to assist. The individual doesn't need to have all the answers on your first call, but they do need to know where they can find them and have a passion for helping you achieve your goals.
Also, your first interactions with venue staff (including the site visit) should have them talking less and you talking more. A seasoned venue professional doesn't assume anything and has a flurry of salient questions to ask you about your event and what you will need to make it successful. The best venue pros will ask lots of questions and craft their presentation and walk-through based on your needs and those of your target audience. (Note: Unfortunately, this does not absolve you from assembling your own checklist of questions to ask venue staff.)
3. Always Collect References for Confidence in Your Venue Selection
"Um, er, we like to keep our clients' information confidential."
"Our policy is not to share that kind of information."
"Our facility speaks for itself."
"You won't need to contact anyone else ... I can tell you everything you need to know."
Any venue that has been in business for longer than a few months has already served customers who can speak to the quality of their service and their space. So if you ask for a list of past customers who you can call on for references and venue staff give you excuses like those listed above, you should wonder what they are trying to hide.
Most venues have at-the-ready a list of happy customers you can call, and you should certainly reach out to those people. However, you should also do your own research and try to locate past customers of the venue who don't appear on the venue's referral list. You may hear a different story from them, and even if you don't, you will feel more confident in your eventual selection if you have multiple positive recommendations.
4. Be Observant: Cracks and Clutter Can Reveal the Venues to Avoid
Cracks or holes in walls. Water stains on the ceiling. Dirty or frayed carpets. Squeaky doors. Restrooms with foul odors, broken furnishings or missing tiles. Light bulbs that haven't been replaced. Kitchens with greasy floors. Cobwebs in corners.
None of this says to attendees "Come right in and enjoy yourself." In fact, many will see these things and wonder who in their right mind was responsible for booking the venue. And that first thought will taint the rest of their experience. So inspect corners, run your finger over furniture, check out the facility's restrooms, ask for a tour of the kitchen/bar and ask about their cleaning schedules and routines.
Another major drawback can be if a venue either has outdated decor/design or has a flow, layout or atmosphere that does not gel well with the event you are planning. Out-of-date decor is easy to spot. But with regard to flow, you may want to have the venue put together an event layout schematic with all the areas of your event mapped out. That way you can walk through the space with this map in hand to make sure attendees can stroll unimpeded from the foyer to the exhibit area to meeting rooms to the main hall.
5. Attend to the Language the Venue Uses in Their Policies and in Their Interactions With You to Gauge Their Level of Flexibility
From large corporate events and meetings to smaller galas, parties, and fundraisers, one event is rarely identical to another, and this uniqueness of each event compels successful event vendors, including venues, to offer a certain level of flexibility.
Of course, event spaces need to have policies and requirements in place to ensure guest/staff safety and preservation of the facility and its assets as well as to ensure they earn a fair profit.
But as you speak with the staff about venue policies and start negotiating with the venue, listen to their language and tone to gauge if they will work with you to achieve your goals or if they won't budge from their stated policies and pricing. These early discussions can point to either a good working relationship that allows for give-and-take on each side or they can be a harbinger of a one-sided, inflexible arrangement where you feel you are always the one making concessions.
If you are planning an event for a client, remember that your client will be the venue's client too, and if they don't see themselves as part of a team in serving the client, then they probably aren't the right fit.
Areas of negotiation with venues can include:
- keyboard_arrow_right Rules and regulations for outside planners and vendors. Do they hold you to a different standard than their in-house planners or preferred vendors? If yes, how so and can this be modified?
- keyboard_arrow_right Rules and regulations for guests. What are they, are they reasonable, and how would they impact, if at all, the ability of the guests to fully enjoy and participate in the event?
- keyboard_arrow_right Room capacities and space flexibility. Can the venue be configured or divided up as you require? Will this configuration adequately hold your maximum guest count without overcrowding?
- keyboard_arrow_right Costs/fees and budget constraints. Are they willing to work with you to provide maximum value for your budget? Where do they have room to negotiate? What concessions or value-adds can they provide?
- keyboard_arrow_right Date/time scheduling. Can they accommodate your desired event dates and times? Can they offer incentives if your dates are flexible?
- keyboard_arrow_right Restrictions and minimums. Are there minimum headcounts, food-&-beverage minimums or room attrition penalties? What leeway do you have with these?
6. Steer Clear Of Venues That Display Poor Follow-Through or Lack of Responsiveness
Do you have to wait a day or more for the venue to respond to your emails or phone calls? Are their replies incomplete or fail to supply the information you asked for? Do they not follow through on your requests or deliver on the items they have promised?
If any of these scenarios pops up, either the event staff are overworked or they don't care that much about your business in the first place, neither of which is a good sign.
What's more, a reputable venue will:
- keyboard_arrow_right Be proactive and anticipate things based on your stated goals and your audience.
- keyboard_arrow_right Keep you in the loop in and notify you promptly if anything changes regarding your contract with them.
- keyboard_arrow_right Ask for feedback, suggestions or input when they are unsure of something or need more information to deliver on their promises.
7. Scrutinize Vendor Policies and Lists Before You Are Tied Into a Contract
If a venue doesn't provide one or more services themselves, they often have a preferred list of vendors who can provide those additional services, which can include catering, bar and bartending service, rentals, security, AV, and lighting.
This practice serves both venues and event planners well because both prefer to team with reliable, proven vendors that know the venue and its staff well and will serve as a good partner for the event. However, with that said, you should ask your venue these questions about their vendor list:
- keyboard_arrow_right Has it been updated recently? First, any venue that makes you choose from a stale list of vendors might not be looking out for your best interests to begin with. Second, an out-of-date vendor list may include out-of-business vendors and may omit newer vendors that could be a huge asset to your event.
- keyboard_arrow_right Does it offer a range of vendors in each category? Their list must provide you with real choices and not shoehorn you into picking a particular vendor. Look for a list that offers 3 or more vendor options in all categories with varying price ranges, service options and, for catering and food-and-beverage vendors, cuisine/menu options.
- keyboard_arrow_right Which vendors do they recommend from their list? If the venue is making you pick from their list, they absolutely must provide you with good, insightful comments about them and have good ideas as to which ones they think would best serve your particular event.
- keyboard_arrow_right Can you pick a vendor not on the list? If a particular outside vendor is a must-have for your event, see how flexible the venue is about bringing them in and what kind of training, fees and setup are involved for bringing that outside vendor into the venue.
8. Don’t Let Bad Location or Poor Accessibility Turn Off Your Guests
Is the venue located on a super busy street or corner? Is it situated in a questionable or unsafe area? Is it hard to find or difficult get to?
If the answer is "yes" to any of these questions, you may want to think twice about booking a venue with potential accessibility issues.
Inadequate, distant or overpriced parking can also be a deal breaker with regard to venue location, as you want your attendees to be able to find adequate, nearby and affordable parking. Any parking setup that is located more than a few blocks away from the venue may quickly snowball into a major source of discontent for attendees.
If any of your guests will be using public transportation to travel to the venue, you should look into nearby bus stops, taxi/Lyft/Uber drop-off points, train stations and airports to assess how easy or difficult the commute would be.
Finally, you should consider any special needs or requirements your audience may have regarding location, because if your guests are elderly or are persons with physical disabilities, then location and accessibility immediately become top-of-list criteria.
9. Test the WiFi and Cellular Signal To Ensure Attendees Can Use Their Devices During the Event
The last thing you want to see is your event guests battling their cell phones, trying unsuccessfully to make calls, read emails and use apps. In 2018, good WiFi and cell phone service are simply expected, and if your venue either offers inadequate WiFi coverage or sits in a cellular dead spot, you will hear about this issue as much as if the roast beef was overcooked or if the DJ played rotten music.
Many venues provide a basic WiFi service that is included in the venue rental cost, and many also offer WiFi bandwidth upgrades if you anticipate excessive usage among your attendees (like if your event is intended for a tech audience). You should anticipate how much your attendees will be using their devices and talk with the venue about what they can offer with regard to WiFi and how they have served similar audiences.
10. Unnecessary Venue Drama is an Early Warning Sign for Event Planners
But what happens when your venue point-of-contact or manager calls you freaking out about an unforeseen problem or an unanticipated change in plans? It certainly doesn't instill confidence in their ability to handle such issues as well as to direct others in addressing these problems.
Unfortunately, sometimes you aren't aware of the emotional tenor of your venue staff until it's too late (like the week or day before your event), but you can certainly test out their ability to address change and controversy by throwing special requests or changes at them early on and see how they handle them. If they go into histrionics over small things, it does not bode well in how they would address much bigger issues.
To their credit, most event halls and venues know that helping you achieve your event goals and wowing your attendees is how they stay in business, so you will probably not see very many extreme cases of the scenarios we have outlined above.
However, every venue has its strengths and weaknesses, and the venue staff will be more forthcoming about the former as opposed to the latter. So it’s in your best interest (and that of your attendees) to do your due diligence when scouting out venues and tune into the potential drawbacks that could hamstring your event.