A challenger mentality in a traditional space

Starting life as the answer to a frustrating lack of quality training spaces, etc. venues was the answer for those who craved more than a boring room with a flip board and marker pens. The business has grown from its first venue, Avonmouth House in South London, to comprise a collection of venues. Today, training and conference needs are continuously changing – both for the event planner and event attendee. With an apparent abundant supply of venue space, what must a modern company do to ensure their secure business?

etc. venues would argue that it has a challenger brand mentality, an unusual approach for a leadership team from mostly corporate backgrounds. ‘Disruptors’ change how a business in a market thinks, behaves and goes about its day-to-day activities. etc. venues is moving its strategy by recognising that a different generation of delegates has very different needs to their parents, who typically went off to the countryside for their training courses. So by amending its approach, has etc. venues become an entrepreneurial player? Can a core team from a corporate background become destructive and creative in a changing arena?

Alastair Stewart’s manner is relaxed but confident in etc. venues latest venue, County Hall, the famous imposing building on the south bank of the River Thames. Surrounded by a large expanse of restored original parquet floor, he speaks with the assurance of a man in charge of a company that has quadrupled in size since he arrived in 2006.

Backed by private equity, Alastair has overseen the growth of the business into a leading conference brand. It has been a special journey and the core team has unusually been together for 10 years now. 

Finance Director Paul Keen arrived shortly after 2006 –Buy in Buy out – to join Margaretha Welsford, Director of Sales, who was already with etc, Iain Dix, Director of Property & Projects, Dominic James, Director of County Hall and Guy Booth, Director of Operations –

all following Alastair from Initial Style Conferences to etc.venues. It is this team that’s playing the disruptor game and this year they are, according to Alastair, stepping up to the next level with their latest openings.

What have been the challenges for a team that have been together for this long? “Paul Keen came from outside the venue industry and that has been the key to challenging some of the norms that can block innovation and new ideas. We have a very healthy level of debate and challenge between us, but when the brainstorming period ends and we make a decision, everyone unites behind a common goal.”

“The business has always kept to the mandate of being a B2B specialist who brings people together around a mission of communication.” Alastair says in one of the colourful open spaces at County Hall. “We believe we operate in a position between the established hotel and serviced office groups competing for the meetings market. Increasingly we have been targeting larger conferences and events and believe this space can add significantly to our presence in the events market.” 

Steady growth
The journey since 2006 has seen sales increase from £9m to £43m in 2016, – hosting some 15,000 events and 660,000 delegates. “We have been successful but there have of course been challenges along the way.” Alastair admits. “When the financial crisis hit the training world, many companies had to change their strategies. Despite the cutbacks, we found a silver lining in some companies stopping away days with overnight stays in the country and switching to the city centre. Our offer became more appealing because with no relevant status, a company could use our services and not be seen in the same way as the equivalent in a five star hotel.”

County Hall venue is memorable, which must be one of the essential requirements that event planners seek. It provides a talking point with views over the river Thames and towards the Houses of Parliament. The building includes the London Sea Life Aquarium, London Dungeon, a Marriott Hotel and several restaurants.

The fourth floor, where etc.venues is based, has unusually been unoccupied since the 1980s. “The landlord has been waiting for the right company to come along and add to his vision of making the building come alive. Our objective of making this a top London space matched this ambition.” Alastair explains. Their plan is to establish the new site as a key competitor in the Westminster market and follow this by positioning themselves as a brand that can provide prestigious events at any time or day. It is clear where Alastair wants to drive the company.

During this time of change the core philosophy of customised event solutions has never wavered. Alastair and the team want to transform their spaces for what clients actually want and County Hall supports this approach. “The millennial generation no longer wants to journey out to the country and spend a few days away from home, especially if there’s poor public transport and limited Wi-Fi. There has been a structural shift where attendees want a quicker experience. At the same time the event planners role is changing. Fundamentally it is the same job but they are under increasing pressure to find something different and our role is to go beyond their expectations.

With social media before, during and after events, the feedback is instantaneous.” It has also been important for etc.venues to try and match the delegate expectation of an experience. “They don’t want to sit and listen to a speaker all day. We must help an event come to life.

Whether that’s networking on arrival, live twitter feeds or throwable microphone pods. The ratio of conference space to breakout space has changed. County Hall’s 20 rooms can match this desire and with smaller spaces it can feel more personal.”

Expansion is set to continue and their first venue in Manchester opens soon. However Alastair in a bold move is increasingly looking further afield. “London is world leading in this market but we keep a close eye on what is taking place in New York and Paris. I believe that younger millennial delegates are seeking different spaces for their training, meetings and events. These new trends bring further opportunity for collaboration.”

Alastair’s 20 year corporate background now blends with his last 10 years as an entrepreneurial disruptor. He and his team are carving a niche in the market where they are a contradiction to what is expected of an established player. They are simply business people who seek to utilise the best of both corporate and entrepreneurial skillsets to delivers some of the sector’s best growth and performance.