Once, the traditional venue in which to hold events, meetings and exhibitions was a specialist conference centre — a big, concrete box, usually located near a motorway and equipped with specialist staff and services. But that's changing says Paul Colston, Managing Editor at Mash Media, publishers of the titles Conference News and Conference and Meetings World. These days, delegates are demanding more glamorous backdrops for their events; which is why the events and hospitality industry is witnessing the rise of the 'unique venue' as a conferencing location.
“Generally, a unique venue's primary focus isn't conferencing and events,” says Colston. “It could be a museum, a palace, a castle, a theme park or sporting venue. These are places that deal with the public, offer big party facilities and are used to catering — so more of them are stepping into the events space.”



Take theme parks, says Colston. They thrive when the weather is warm. But what about the (many) other months of the year in the UK when it isn't? “On a cold, damp February — with their huge spaces, accommodation and parking — they figure they can appeal to the conference market. Some even have a special conference centre within their facilities. Plus they can offer delegates plenty of excitement after hours in the theme park itself.”
Yet while their locations may be out of the ordinary, unique venues can have an Achilles' heel. Because conferencing isn't their main revenue stream, their facilities may not be on a par with those specialist centres that only host meetings and events. It's why some unique venues turn to the likes of specialist hospitality caterers. “Delegates expect to walk into any kind of venue and find the same standard of service, social media and special effects that they would in a specialist venue,” says Colston. “But with unique locations, that's not always the case. No-one wants to be in the middle of nowhere without wi-fi, for example.”



Still, planners are attracted to venues which offer something that others can't — or, even better, those that are 'connected' to the subject of their conference in some way. “For example, if you're planning an agricultural conference, you might want to hold it in a converted barn in Gloucestershire,” says Colston. “It may be quite basic, but it could have everything you need. And universities can be good value for medical conferences as their facilities often fit the delegate profile very well.”
Unique doesn't always mean 'expensive', either. “Coming out of the recession, events planners are used to paying less and demanding more,” says Colston. “So I think there are deals to be had.” His advice, though: find out exactly what facilities a unique venue has to offer. “If you're an IT specialist, you might want to check that that castle you are thinking about has wi-fi and all the other event tech that you require,” he says.