The cardinal rule of taking an event off-site to an alternative venue is this, and never forget it: Neither the primary purpose of the venue, nor its design, nor the mindset of its staff, is geared toward meetings and functions.
In particular, it is difficult to gauge whether a venue is the right size for your group, merely by asking officials of the facility. And that is a valuable piece of information for a meeting planner to know, when word comes down from above that a fresh, interesting location is desired.
Let's look at a specific hypothetical scenario. Say it's a new product launch, envisioned as a two-hour, theater-style presentation followed by a big reception for about 500 media, customers, and other guests. The message from above is specific: No hotels or conference centers, please.
Sounds like the case for an "alternative venue", right? No problem. You brainstorm with your staff and come up with two great ideas: a hot new nightclub and a funky art gallery.
The nightclub is perfect, it seems. It's the trendy, chic place everyone reads about in the gossip columns, but that no one you know is cool enough to get into. During the day, however, it sits empty, and they'd love to host your meeting and reception.
So, the day manager shows you the club's two rooms, one of which has great audio-visual built in and would be perfect for the presentation. The other is gorgeous but seems like it might be tight for the reception. Five hundred people? No problem, he says. Last Saturday night they had 700 in that room dancing up a storm.
Well, he's the manager, right? He should know his own club's capacities, right?
Doubtful. Remember, this nightclub may be able to serve your meeting very capably, but its staffers are not in the meeting mindset, so you have to be careful.
In this case, the nightclub was designed for nightcrawlers to be elbow-to-elbow, dancing, hobnobbing and flirting. Those 700 people probably were packed in a lot tighter than your VIP guests are accustomed to.
In addition, it is unlikely that all 700 nightclub patrons were there at the same time. Maybe 700 people entered during a six-hour time frame, but the most number of people at any given time was 400.
Club managers tend to focus on the number of paying guests on a given night. Don't take their word regarding capacity. Get references from other meetings and receptions held there. Get a floor plan and do the proper analysis yourself.
OK ... The art gallery is next. It has high ceilings, pristine white walls, great lighting, polished hardwood floors, and beautiful modern art on the walls. This could be it.
Having learned your lesson at the nightclub, you brought along the trusty capacity-calculating slide rule that Meeting Professionals International gives its members for free (this alone is worth the dues). You ask for, and get, a floor plan with square footage. You measure it off and confirm its accuracy. The space seems more than ample for your event. Ready to rock-n-roll?
Not quite. Did you check out the restrooms? Remember the cardinal rule! An art gallery has lots of space - bit it's designed for low traffic, maybe a handful of wealthy collectors and buyers. It ain't K-Mart.
Maybe 500 people could physically fit comfortably in the space, but don't be surprised when you find two bathrooms (not a full men's room and a full ladies room, but two toilets). Two bathrooms are probably plenty during the gallery's normal course of business, but are no match for 500 people who've been sitting through a two-hour presentation and are about to be served drinks.
Along those same lines, a cursory check of pay phones may turn up only two regular telephones at the reception desk. Again, this may be sufficient for the gallery's normal use, but not for yours. And what about a registration area and coat check? You need to earmark space for those things, which may have to be deducted from the gross square footage you've been dealing with.
Getting the point yet? Gauging capacity is of paramount importance and should never be taken from granted, not even at hotels.
Alternative venues offer tremendous advantages in their excitement, privacy and exclusivity. With a little extra homework, there's no reason functions held there shouldn't run just as smoothly as if they were held at hotels.
Knowing what to look for, and understanding how alternative venues define their capacities, can make all the difference in the world.