President of the AIPC, Edgar Hirt asks are venue operators keeping up with changes in the meetings and exhibitions sector?

EDGAR HIRT
AIPC PRESIDENT

Meetings, conventions and exhibitions are evolving constantly and rapidly these days, driven by a host of factors ranging from changing attendance and financial patterns to the more sophisticated communications and technology demands of a new generation of delegates.
But while a decision to change the format of an event is relatively easy, it is not as simple a matter for a convention centre that is, after all, a solid structure with only so much design flexibility.
As far as finances are concerned, there is also a somewhat fixed model that needs to be addressed, given that some of the most basic assumptions around convention centre financing – the role of governments, for example – are now under a lot of stress due to the ongoing financial crisis enveloping the world.
Responding to different service and configuration expectations as well as adapting financial models have thus become major pre-occupations for both centre managers and those engaged in planning for the facilities of the future.
In this two-part series we’ll look at some of the big issues facing centres today – and how this may affect their interactions with suppliers and clients.
The first issue is about space – how are expectations changing, and what can be done to respond within the limitations of a largely fixed structure?
Managers are responding in a number of ways, all of which are of importance to event planners looking at potential changes in their programs.

flexibility is the priority

Events used to have a largely predictable combination of space requirements, where even the proportions of different spaces were well established, and most centres were designed accordingly. Now, along with changing formats are coming spatial requirements that are testing the limits of how spaces with solid walls and particular combinations of finishes can respond.
A major overhaul of spaces is simply not an option for many centres – and besides, there is little reason to think that these will not simply evolve again in the future.
For new design, the emphasis has shifted to flexibility; spaces that can serve a variety of purposes and that can be organised in a variety of ways without major dislocation. In fact, “multi-purpose spaces” have become one of the most important design factors in new centres on the assumption that we really have no idea what the needs of the future will be.

designing for the business

Centres are also having to become increasingly realistic about the kind of business opportunities they can expect, based on external factors such as transportation access and accommodation as well as the capabilities of the centre itself, since design can and should be directed toward the best opportunities rather than creating a more generalised configuration that will require endless and potentially costly adaptation.
Another new and important trend along these lines can be seen in the growing priority for centre designs to offer a better ability to host multiple, simultaneous events rather than single larger ones. This is a logical reaction to the fact that the majority of events now in the market are of small to medium size and the ability to offer discreet and dedicated combinations of space to more than one event at a time not only expands the overall business opportunity but often offers greater efficiency in related areas such as accommodation, transportation and even the loading in and out process.

working in the envelope

For existing centres, the job is tougher, but lots of strategies exist that enable centres to create more flexibility and more are being developed every day. Large spaces can be subdivided to accommodate demands for more breakout spaces, while informal areas can be redeveloped in what may have been public or pre-function spaces to accommodate growing interest in small group gatherings.
Often it can be a matter of something as simple as replacing or even just re-arranging furniture, particularly when meetings are spontaneous and self-generated.
Given that setup and take-down of specialised configurations can be costly for both the centre and the client, some centres have been exploring more or less permanent changes in configuration, up to and including things like dedicated exhibition units that can be left in place to be used by exhibitors on an ongoing basis. On the other hand, in many cases finishes are being made less specialised so that the same area can serve many different functions and be differentiated through the use of lighting and floor treatments that can be more readily changed than distinctive finishes.
Space configuration is a big issue in an evolving industry – but it’s not all that’s changing. Next in this series: how the “softer” side, including technology, food and beverage and changing business relationships is requiring every bit as much attention as event space.

Edgar Hirt is the president of the International Association of Congress Centres (AIPC) and managing director of CCH, Congress Center Hamburg. AIPC represents a global network of 170 leading centres in 54 countries with the active involvement of more than 800 management-level professionals worldwide. Visit www.aipc.org to learn more.