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Field Research
Gather audience demographics and event objectives to make a more informed decision when selecting a venue for your next off-site event. By Candy Adams
epending on who you ask, site inspections are either absolutely necessary pieces of the larger event-planning puzzle, or they're pointless boondoggles that generate little to no useful information. I beg to differ with the latter opinion.

I've tried selecting a venue site unseen, in hopes of saving money and time. And I've tried – and have given up on – working with cities' convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs). I found that I don't generally receive any worthwhile recommendations from them, just lists of their members in various categories. That makes sense since the sole purpose of a CVB is to market the products and services of its entire membership database, and I understand that it can't play favorites among its paying constituents. So CVBs usually just send a general inquiry on a planner's behalf to all of their members. These inquiries may or may not include specific requirements such as "needs to accommodate 300 people for an evening reception plus seating during a one-hour presentation."

I've also tried selecting venues based on Internet searches. And while it's OK to start your hunt for the perfect event property via Google or by perusing venue brochures, don't rely on those resources alone to learn everything you need to know. Anyone who's booked a hotel room based on the property's website only to be sorely disappointed upon arrival can attest to that fact. Maybe that seemingly meticulously maintained beach turned out to be a 10-foot square plot of sand covered in seaweed and rocks. Or perhaps that spacious and spendy executive suite with the amazing views actually overlooked an active construction zone. To see the best collection of photo retouching and creative photography in the hotel industry, visit www.oyster.com/hotels/photo-fakeouts. In many cases, you wouldn't even know it's the same property. Therefore, there's nothing like going out and kicking the tires to objectively evaluate an event property before you book.

In my opinion, conducting your own site inspections isn't just an excuse to go on a free trip and get out of the office. Site visits, also known as familiarization (fam) trips, are hard work and tend to be grueling. Between compiling dozens of event considerations to share with the venue, making notes of things to look at when you're on site, and collecting all the venue-specific documentation (such as price sheets and contracts), site inspections – when done right – are difficult tasks to say the least. To help mitigate some of the stress, I recommend doing a fair amount of prep work before you hop on the plane or climb into your car. Here, then, are the things you need to determine prior to the inspection itself.

Lay the Groundwork
Site inspection is so much more involved than simply picking a pretty/inexpensive/posh venue. First, you need to establish the purpose of the event. Common reasons for hosting events include educating, networking, gathering input and feedback, enhancing relationships, celebrating milestones, entertaining, strategizing, recruiting, motivating, etc. Not surprisingly, each of those reasons requires a different type of event, and thus, varied venue requirements. For example, if your goal is to facilitate networking, then you might host a reception or party at an event center located downtown. If, on the other hand, you want to recognize employees for exceptional work, then an incentive trip might be in the cards, in which case you may look to more tropical or adventurous destinations.

In addition to squaring away the type of event you want to host, you will also need to establish the event's goals, target audience, date, length, activities, etc. before visiting your first venue. To help you do all that, here's my site-inspection questionnaire:

What outcome does the event need to produce? Similar to exhibit-marketing objectives, event goals can range from increasing brand awareness and building stronger relationships with current clients to motivating partners, employees, and salespeople.

How can the benefits of the event be measured? Before spending big marketing bucks on an event of any type, corporations want to know they'll be getting the most bang for their buck. Will there be an immediate measurable payback, or will the results only be visible in the long term? Will that payback be measured objectively or subjectively? And who will be in charge of following up with attendees to determine the value of the event to the company and if the return on investment or return on objective was met? Articulate what you want your attendees to do or how you want them to feel about your company, products, or services after the event.

Who will attend the event? Determine how invitees will be chosen and figure out how many attendees there will be. Where will they be coming from? How will they be invited, and how far in advance of the event will they receive their invitation? Also find out their expectations based on past events your company has hosted or events put on by your competitors.

How much time do you have to plan? Depending on how far in advance of the event you begin planning, your opportunities may be more or less limited when it comes to site and date selection. Conventional wisdom will tell you that planning sooner is ideal, but that isn't always the case, especially if your company's management team has the tendency to change its mind on crucial elements such as scope at the last minute. Speaking from experience, it's not easy to get out of contracts without paying penalties or cancelation fees.

How long is the event? Are you planning a half-day, full-day, or multi-day event? The length will influence the dates selected. For example, will it be held during the week, on the weekend, or a combination thereof? Take your attendees' schedules and even workloads into consideration and check the calendar for religious and secular holidays. And keep in mind that some invitees might not be available to attend work-related events outside the 9 to 5 workday.

Also check with the local CVB for other large citywide events with dates that overlap your ideal time frame. Such events could increase hotel occupancy and even travel rates. If your event is during a trade show, ask show management for a list of the other sponsored activities happening so you can plan around them.

Determine the Variables
After you have answered the aforementioned questions, use the info gathered to narrow down the types of venues that are suitable for your event. Depending on the demographics and psychographics of your guests, you'll want to match the interests of your target audience to your venue. For example, if your attendees are under 40, live in urban areas, and are heavy drinkers, a nightclub party could be a good fit. On the other hand, if your group comprises retirees that live in the suburbs, then perhaps a country club setting or even museum is more suitable. You want to pick the venue that will provide both the ambiance and services that appeal to your target audience.

In addition to demographics, take the venue location into consideration. Think about how the locale affects your attendees. Would they be more comfortable downtown in a metropolis, near an airport, in a rural setting, or at the beach? If this is an elective meeting, how far and/or long are attendees willing to travel to get to the event? What is the air lift (number of flights per day and number of seats on those planes from major airports to these locations), average airfare, and ease of getting to the final destination? Calculate the distance from the airport(s) in both time and cab fare during peak and nonpeak hours, and identify all the transportation options such as free or shared shuttles sponsored by your venue, metropolitan transit systems, rental cars, chartered group transportation, etc.

Then there are also questions of weather-related delays or cancelations. For instance, it might not be a good idea to have your heart set on a ski resort for your February event if the venue is located near an airport prone to snow-related closures. And if you're hoping to take your group to the Gulf of Mexico, the event better not be scheduled anywhere near hurricane season. On the other hand, these variables can affect the seasonal economics of your geographic selection. Every locale has a "high season" and "low season," both of which affect pricing and demand. Obviously, you'll want to book in the off-season for the best deals.

Make a Short List
Now that you know details such as event dates, audience demographics, desired outcomes, and more, you can apply that information to your site-selection process as a sort of filter. This exercise helps narrow down the possibilities. Let's say you're planning a customer-appreciation event in July for 100 people, who you know enjoy the outdoors. Based on those parameters, you can likely eliminate large cities in hot climates, and lean more toward lakeside retreats or beach resorts. You can also cross out the days before and after Independence Day, as few guests would want to cut short a holiday to attend a work-related event.

If you're hosting a high-end awards celebration, on the other hand – and the guest list includes industry VIPs and influencers that you want to impress – a hip, downtown venue that's high on style (and possibly price) might fit the bill. A chic venue can go a long way toward improving brand perception, and armed with your demographic and psychographic research, you will have a better shot at justifying the higher price point to upper management.

Taking the time to pinpoint the type of event you want to host (including everything from target audience and desired outcomes to schedules and even accessibility) before you visit venues could potentially reduce the total number of site inspections you need to conduct, thus reducing the impact on your company's pocketbook – and no one is going to complain about that.

Candy Adams, CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM,
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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