How to pick a venue

4 July 2017

by Simon Fraser

One of the things to decide when running a convention is where to host it. This is a tricky choice, because of a few small factors that need balancing with any choice of venue.

The first thing to remember is that for a convention of our size, negotiations with a venue need to start a long time in advance. The contract needs to be signed before memberships go on sale, so that 700 people aren’t left with time taken off work and booked travel, with nowhere to go if the venue falls through. We try and work out the requirements based on who turned up in the past, as we don’t yet know who’s coming this time.

Most places that can host events go one of two ways. Business meetings, which means event rooms with smaller capacity and maybe one large flexible space. Or, they go the route of the Birmingham NEC and have huge event spaces and rely on others for accommodation. The number of people that come to a Discworld Convention is nicely between those two approaches. It’s a bit too big for most meeting room focused venues, and far, far too small for exhibition centres. This means the convention is usually limited in choice to a few hotels that have larger event areas, and with enough places to sleep either in the hotel itself or nearby.
At least one event room should hold all of the attending membership, all with a good view of the stage, space for the sound & video technology, have good accessibility for a range of mobility needs, and a green room. Other event rooms should hold a varying number of members, the exact number to be decided by the programme about a year later. There shouldn’t be too many event rooms needing audio/visual tech, as this adds to the membership cost.
An ideal venue has enough single, double and family rooms to accommodate the number of people who choose each, without us knowing in advance precisely how many that might be. The rooms must also be of decent quality, with a sufficient number of rooms that can be adapted for accessibility needs. Each location has its own idea of what counts as ‘meeting accessibility needs’, and we know some of our members have stories to tell about that.

In order to get event spaces and for a hotel to sign a contract for about 700 people arriving, we must guarantee a number of hotel rooms are filled. If the rooms aren’t filled, the convention is responsible for paying the penalty clause in the contract. Contracts without that guarantee for the hotel… they just don’t exist. The number of rooms we fill helps cover the cost of the event spaces, too, although we do negotiate discounts. Breakfast should not be included by default, since not everyone eats it.
The catering has to be able to cope with a wide range of dietary requirements, that restaurants don’t deal with on a regular basis. Not because they don’t have customers who need them, but because they, well, don’t deal with it. We make them deal with it, and most of the time it works. A lot of work also goes to convincing a venue that they should provide real ales, ciders and other drinks that our members prefer. The venue must also be open to negotiation about the food and drink availability, as we often need it for different times and locations than their usual provisions. Food is a notable part of a hotel’s revenue, so they are often reluctant to adjust prices. We make them.

People also need to be able to reach the venue, meaning good travel links for road, rail and being close to an airport. The hotel must also be within walking distance of a variety of places to eat out or shop, and also remote enough that there are nice views, and that we are not disturbed by traffic or late-night noise.

On top of all of the above, the hotel must also want to host our event. We have had complaints in the past about things as simple as people being in costume (and not just feegle-blue marks on the upholstery).

Once these few small things are worked out by the small number of people volunteering their time, a hotel can be arranged.