Selecting the ideal venue for your athletic event is not an easy task. It is impossible not to visualize the event space when initially conceptualizing the event. Though easy to imagine, finding the events venue that actually exists in your mind’s eye is more difficult. The challenge is breaking down the components and amenities of your ideal venue and then prioritizing them. Ideal is “subjective” and will vary from event to event. With that, your program will have absolute needs required of the events venue. Elements that fall under the “needs” column are binary. The venue either works or it doesn’t. Once you identify needs, you can start considering “wants” and ranking them in order of importance. At this level, you should be thinking about the “wants” that most contribute to the success of the event (rather than the venue choice that strokes your ego). Even in your ideal venue, there will be the need to compromise on some items on your wish list. This is why the prioritization exercise is important.
Event booking from the perspective of the venue is the process of identifying desired events or activities appropriate for the venue and/ or community, working with the event promoter and then engaging in the negotiation process. The venue determines priorities in its booking model by factoring the venue mission and relationship with its anchor tenants and stakeholders. Event booking is a relationship based on process. It only works when there is honesty and accountability on both sides. To facilitate the booking process, many event promoters create a Request for Proposal (RFP) that specifies their needs and wants in an events venue. The RFP may be a formal document or presentation deck that is used to solicit competitive bids from events venues, convention and visitor bureaus (CVB) and host communities. The formal RFP process is usually in place for large events that have significant impact on a community in terms of publicity, good will and economic impact (new money coming into the community by way of hotel room nights and tourism spending). RFPs also exist for event promoters seeking venue partners to promote (venue contracts for the event to happen and accepts all of the financial risk) or co- promote (venue contracts for the event but shares the financial risk with the producer or event promoter) an event. RFPs are typically less formal for events looking to lease event space as a third party promoter.
Event planning is unique in that it is both a creative process and an operational exercise. In some cases, event promoters might be looking at the venue as a source of inspiration. The promoter will have the event objective in mind and thoughts on how to achieve those goals; but uses the venue sourcing process to piece together the specifics. The venue then, is key in the event design and is a driving force in how guests and participants experience that particular event. Venue selection is a critical variable in the event planning process; it influences the event logistics, program content, sponsor activation and guest experience. The events venue sets the tone for the event and often dictates magnitude and scale. It is one of the critical decisions event promoters make and absolutely affects the outcome of the event. When considering needs and wants, there are six primary dimensions event promoters must evaluate to make a selection on an events venue.
Is the events venue available? For all intents and purposes, this is one of those binary questions. The venue is either available or it isn’t…sort of… there are some shades of gray here. Event venues typically have a priority scheduling model. This means that their anchor tenants or primary stakeholders get first hold on calendar space. In the case of athletic programming, venue booking managers will be familiar with the seasonality of their athletic programming. They know the NCAA compliance limitations (where applicable), the coaching staff practice and game prep preferences and the league scheduling patterns. Event promoters may be able to accept a secondary hold behind the anchor tenant hold if there is enough time between the venue’s anticipated hold release date and the required planning timeline for the event. In other cases, a secondary hold may be able to challenge an existing first hold. In a challenge situation, the first hold is given the choice to confirm their reservation by signing a contract and giving a deposit or releasing the date to the secondary hold who must then be able to sign a contract of their own. Event promoters who source their venue with significant lead time (six to twelve months in advance) stand a better chance of securing their preferred venue. Events that have scheduling flexibility and can consider multiple date sets can mitigate some of these scheduling challenges. It is worth noting that different venue types have different scheduling timelines and procedures. For example, institutional sports facilities like collegiate arenas and high school stadiums may only be able to consider event rentals a few months in advance. This is because their mission is to serve their athletic and recreation department programming. They must wait for the anchor programming to confirm their calendar before the venue can consider booking third party events. On the other hand, hotel ballrooms, convention centers and theatres are often booking more than a year in advance because of existing long term contracts and because of the need to drive hotel room nights. These facility types have a different purpose (revenue) and their booking philosophy reflects that.
The cost of an events venue relative to the event budget is an important dimension in the venue sourcing process. Event spaces quote rates differently. Some venues quote a base rate but then require the event promoter to source and pay for event support services like crowd management, law enforcement, special event permits, production, etc. Other venues require these services, coordinate them on behalf of the building and include those costs as line items on a formal quote. And still, other venues quote a package rate with certain services and amenities included. Often these packages are structured as minimum charges. The venue can still tack on additional services and costs as needed. Because of this variation in billing models, it is important to compare the costs of venues on like terms. A more expensive or more recognizable events venue does not necessarily mean a better venue for your event. If for example, your event consistently draws 4,000 spectators in attendance, it is not likely that booking a 12,000 seat arena is going to mean you have 12,000 people show up to your event (unless you do something with marketing to drive greater attendance). In fact, 4,000 people in a 12,000 seat arena could feel empty and create a lack of energy which could be harmful to your event experience and create perception issues for the crowd who is there. It is important to have a realistic understanding of your event, the budget and revenue model and the needs of the participants when making a venue selection relative to cost.
In simple terms, sourcing an events venue is a real estate transaction. The first three rules of real estate are:
This is true in the events industry for the same reasons. It is important for event promoters to know where their audience is and how far they are willing to travel for the event. Often times, events draw tourism and travel from distant places. If this is the case, is the market your event is located in a desirable tourism destination for your audience? Being in San Diego, a vacation destination, we often see out of town events come into the market for this reason. Other criteria that could be considered based on the location of an events venue would be things like proximity to hotel accommodations, dining, entertainment and nightlife. Safety (or perceived safety) of the area surrounding the event venue should also be a consideration as should ease of access. How will attendees be getting to the venue and could that mode of transportation create limitations that might inhibit participation? If the event is being hosted in a busy community, could other events or activities create conflicts of attention that might diminish your event crowds (this would also be a scheduling issue)?
It is important to be self aware of your event’s need as it relates to size. Different venue types communicate size in different ways. Arenas and stadia typically address size in terms of crowd capacity (number of people) whereas convention centers are most often speaking in terms of square footage. If an event promoter underestimates their space or capacity needs they are going to have significant issue on event day.
For example, a jiu jitsu event has accepted registration and put together a competition schedule assuming they will have 8 mats on the floor. When they get to the arena however, they realize the floor is only large enough for 6 mats. This situation is going to either destroy their competition schedule (creating staffing issues, cost overruns and unhappy participants) or force the promoter to refund registrations he can’t accommodate. Either situation is unacceptable and is going to cause major damage for that event and promoter moving forward.
If venue needs are underestimated with regard to seating capacity, a promoter might find himself in an over- sold situation. This creates an unnecessary ceiling for ticket revenue and could create a public relations issue if ticket purchasers aren’t able to get into the event they paid for. In some situations, booking a venue that is a little too small is a sound strategy to creating a sellout. This tactic though, is something that needs to be planned for to control ticket inventory, address PR concerns and to properly staff the event to manage the crowd. Conversely, booking an events venue that is too large is also problematic. The first issue is that one way or another, you are paying for square footage. If you have secured more space than you need, you likely have paid too much. Larger spaces also require more support in terms of staffing, production, utilities, etc. This increases venue related costs unnecessarily. Successful live events elicit energy and emotion. Events hosted in spaces that are too large, are often unable to capture the desired energy and emotion. It escapes into the empty space. 3,500 people in an arena built for 4,000 feels and looks great. The energy is lively and guests feel like they are a part of something. A full building also builds value and creates demand for different ticket pricing tiers and packages. 3,500 people in an arena built for 8,000 is going to lose all of that demand. It will feel empty and misplaced.
Similar to buying a car, events venues come with a wide range of amenities and features. It is important for the event promoter to have a clear sense of event needs and wants when going through the venue sourcing process. Some amenities are absolutely vital and must be present for a venue to be considered by that event promoter. Other amenities are important to have, but could be provided by a vendor outside of the venue. Power for example, is something that is much more convenient (and cost effective) to be provided by the venue, but could be adequately provided by a contractor bringing outside resources in. Some amenities that are important to consider are:
- Production capabilities/ rigging
- Internet Connectivity
- Concessions/ Bar/ Catering (any exclusive providers? Concessions rights fee?)
- Ticketing Infrastructure (presence of exclusive ticketing provider?)
- Hospitality Space
- Sponsor Activation/ Vendor Exhibition Space (are vendors permitted? Is there a merchandising fee?)
- Loading Dock Functionality
- Digital and Static Signage
- Locker Rooms, Meeting Rooms, Green Rooms
- TV Broadcast Infrastructure
When considering these events venue amenities, event promoters will need to decide what is critical, what is possible, what is desirable, but not necessary and what is completely unnecessary. This evaluation not only determines the viability of a venue, it also functions as negotiation points when working with the booking manager.
The last critical dimension to consider when sourcing an events venue is the venue support staff. A skilled venue manager can captain an event to success. They are a partner to the promoter and an internal conduit of information to champion the needs of the event to the venue service departments. If the venue contact is non- responsive during the venue sourcing process, it is likely that they will be difficult to work with throughout. This means the event promoter is spending too much time working with the venue on operational aspects and not enough energy on the revenue producing activities associated with planning a successful event. Additionally, the venue will often provide part- time support staff to the event on the day of. This includes front- of- house staff like ushers, ticket takers, parking attendants and ticket sellers. This staff is representing both the event venue and the event. It is important that they understand their role because they, in many ways, are responsible for the well being and enjoyment of the event by your patrons. The venue may also provide back- of- house staff like stagehands and electricians. This staff plays a critical role in the event execution. They can make the event seamless for event promoters or they can make it an impossible experience. With back- of- house staff, it is important to understand their explicit role because sometimes event promoters and event venues are not on the same page in this regard. Will the back- of- house staff assist the event promoter with his setup or are they only there to support the needs of the venue itself? It is also important to know union status of the venue you are working with. The union may dictate who can do what in that specific building. This has an impact on costs, timing and work output and must be well understood to avoid labor gaps and cost overruns.
Selecting the ideal events venue is a critical part of the event planning process that has a huge impact on the event outcome. Venue sourcing is a labor intensive activity- full of ups and downs. Event promoters are often challenged to find venues that are available, on budget and adequately equipped to present the event properly. Evaluating potential venues using these six dimensions will help event promoters focus their search.
About the Author:
Cameron Ungar, President of Stylehawk Event Services has been managing, booking and scheduling sport event venues and public assembly facilities for more than a decade. He has worked in university, municipal and private venues and has an impressive track record of developing organizational structure, building powerful operations teams and driving significant event revenue. He is an active member of the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) and is an Adjunct Professor in the Sports Management Graduate Program at the University of San Francisco.