Getting together

Do you have a business function to organise? Don’t take it all upon yourself – there’s no shortage of conference venues and organisers out there ready to help you. Patricia Moore reports
Seminars, conferences, product launches, planning meetings, team building, client functions, corporate events – there are dozens of reasons why a business may want to get people together off-site. The big issue for those charged with the organising is finding the right venue. The range of options is staggering, but the good news for SMEs is that the size of the group involved is rarely an issue. One dozen or a hundred dozen, your wish is their command!
Mystery Creek, near Hamilton, for example, is synonymous with Fieldays and the hundreds of thousands who attend. But regardless of the size, the Events Centre has a unique support capability for those planning business meetings, conferences, client functions and exhibitions, says general manager Barry Quayle. “From 30 person gatherings and team building events to conferences and exhibitions for more than a thousand, we have a team of professionals that knows how to maximise the outcomes and deliver a spectacular event. They know what works, what is risky and how to create a professional but value-for-money event. What’s more, the advice is free.”
At Castaways, comfortable meeting spaces handle up to a dozen in their stand-alone chalets, and as many as 120, theatre style, in the main conference area. Uninterrupted views of the waves crashing in from the Tasman are also part of the deal.
And for companies that prefer a city location, the former Duxton Auckland, newly re-launched as Amora Hotel Auckland, takes a maximum 100 people and is ideally suited to off-site meetings away from office disruptions and distractions, says director of sales Catharine Power. (The brand also hosts meetings and conferences at the Amora Hotel Wellington and the Amora Lake Resort Okawa Bay, Rotorua)
Then there are the ‘venues with a difference’ – wineries, high country resorts, camp sites that will test the endurance of the team, or something a little out of this world, like Auckland’s Stardome Observatory and Planetarium. Marketing co-ordinator Gina Dance says they offer a choice of two meeting or function spaces. “Both options include access to WiFi, digital projectors and projector screens, electronic whiteboard, and access to a fully equipped catering kitchen, with the ability to self-cater. Or for a truly memorable event hire out the Planetarium for your own feature show, customised to your own requirements.” 
But locating the perfect venue can take time; word of mouth’s a great start and the Corporate Events Guide conference and event planning website is a valuable source of information on venues and available team building and entertainment options. Developing relationships with venues that meet and exceed your expectations is worthwhile, says Dance. “This makes planning future events easier and much less time consuming.”

Loads of technology please

State-of-the-art technology is an essential for today’s conferences. “Wireless broadband is very important, as is good cellphone connection when peaks of demand are required,” says Barry Quayle. “People need to be in constant touch with their businesses and excellent communications are essential in a venue.”
However, it’s important the volume of interruptions is controlled and people are able to focus on why they’re together away from the office, says Kylie Hall of Castaways. “The importance of wireless depends largely on the type of conference being organised.”  She suggests delegating a few members of the group to receive email messages on behalf of the rest which can then be checked and responded to, if urgent, during break times.
In smaller organisations putting together an off-site event invariably falls into the lap of someone already juggling a number of different responsibilities. As a venue, they’re sometimes working with inexperienced organisers who have been landed with an event to organise in just two weeks, says Hall. “Venue conference organisers are there to help. They can provide ideas on how to add that WOW factor and offer different options to match a client’s brand and style of doing things.”
Venue organisers know the venue and what can be achieved, says Amora’s Power. “While the client makes the decisions on what is required, the venue organiser can make suggestions to ensure the event works well for both parties. But it’s important they’re flexible and prepared to go that extra mile to meet a client’s expectations.”
But if the client’s a new kid on the block, just what should be expected? We asked Barry Quayle at Mystery Creek Events Centre. Heading his list: a venue that understands and listens to the objectives of the event and the type of people attending. He says a venue needs to provide solutions – preferably more than one – that match the requirements of the event and also be prepared to consider variations to their standard layout to meet the organiser’s ambitions. “Responses need to be prompt, helpful and interested in the event – not just treat it as room hire – and they should provide value-added options and minimise cost opportunities for an organiser.
“Contracts should be clear on what’s included and what’s not. Expect details on access and a list of competent suppliers for event services such as dressing, exhibition stands, hire gear, audio-visual and food and beverage.” The availability of parking, a comfortable environment (how efficient is the air conditioning?), communication facilities including broadband, reliable power, a high standard of ablutions, and banking facilities should also be highlighted on any checklist.
As for the event itself, venue conference organisers agree the following points are critical to success:
• Define your objectives and know what you need. This applies to the venue, numbers, catering and access to technology.
• Know your budget – having this clear will help you work through your various options.
• Find and book a venue that meets all your requirements AND is flexible enough to handle last minute changes of plan. The venue that can deliver may cost a little more but it will be worth it. Check parking facilities. This can be expensive for delegates going into a CBD.
• Add a WOW factor – an interesting theme, setting, or break-out area can make all the difference in creating a memorable event.
• Test the technology and equipment before the event.
• Re-confirm your expectations with suppliers a day or two in advance.
• Keep delegates informed – even knowing what to wear can be useful.
• Get feedback. Measure and debrief. How did attendees feel about the venue and the programme? Were their expectations met?
• Always have a Plan B.

Off-site events are not cheap to run and with ROI more important than ever, companies are conscious of their spend, says Hall. “But instead of not conferencing, they’re packing as much as they can into the time away from the business. This means full-on conferencing, while still allowing for some fun and team time.” She points out conference topics can frequently be quite serious, but including activities in the programme enables people to relax and find themselves in a better headspace when they return to conferencing. “They also bring a team together which is usually the goal of any conference.”
Motivational or guest speakers are popular with conference organisers and can help relax the agenda and add some variety, says Catharine Power. “If it’s a residential conference often dinner together is time spent interacting and relaxing with other attendees.”
Indeed, for residential conferences or exhibitions lasting longer than just a day, organisers need to consider the importance of both tourism and related business tours and interactions, says Barry Quayle. “The event experience starts from the time someone leaves their home or place of work and ends when they return home. The whole experience must cater for travel, social, food expectations and communication needs.”

A conferencing edge

As the three time winner of Corporate Events Guide’s Best Nationwide Conference Venue award, the team at Castaways obviously knows a thing or three about providing the perfect meeting venue.
Sales and marketing manager Kylie Hall puts their success down to a number of factors, not least of which is a unique site on the rugged cliffs above the Tasman Sea at Karioitahi Beach. But forget remote. Castaways is just an hour from the CBD and Auckland Airport – a distance that works well for companies that want to spend their time meeting, not travelling.
Castaways offers quality accommodation for as many as 80 guests, plus multiple dining options and a wide range of activities for delegates. “It’s about meet, eat, stay, play,” says Hall. But the key is a dedicated team of professionals that ensures every aspect of the event, however large or small, goes according to plan. “Our staff is our brand. Our staff is Castaways, regardless of whether they’re working in the restaurant, housekeeping, conference management or overseeing team-building and leisure activities such as blo-karting, clay target shooting or 4WD off-roading.”
Hall finds her previous experience organising company conferences and meetings over the years puts her in good stead when it comes to advising others. “Often people organising conferences may be new to the role so we’re happy to provide guidance and ideas to assist them. We encourage conference organisers to visit Castaways so we can talk through their need, take them on a tour and enable them to get a feel for the place, something that’s not always possible through printed material or via a website.”
That visit may not always be possible of course, so Castaways full conference pack is available online. The venue recently hosted an Australian company which had held previous conferences in Fiji and Vanuatu. “They found us online, experienced Castaways and rated us as good, if not better,” says Hall.
Patricia Moore is an Auckland-based freelance writer. Email









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