The events industry in Scotland needs to place greater ‘value on itself’ if venues, agents, events management companies and the wider supply chain are to enjoy a sustainable future together.

That was one of the key messages that came out of EventIt’s first-ever Best Practice Forum, held at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on Wednesday.

More than 50 senior events industry professionals gathered together for the inaugural training day, branded ‘Working Together to Deliver the Perfect Pitch’.

The full-day training event was conceived as an opportunity for industry practitioners from various standpoints to come together and discuss areas of common concern, including helping end clients understand the events process, the importance of writing a clear brief, who influences the final decision in terms of where business is placed, as well as feedback and evaluation.

Divided into four sessions, the day was panel discussion-based and was designed as a forum for best practice ideas to come forward but also as a way of events industry professionals to better understand each others’ roles and how that can be ultimately conveyed to clients. The first session, titled Setting the Scene, was designed to inform ‘end users’ who frequently engage in the events process with a venue, without being aware that their requirements are actually far greater – with fears that various elements of events management, creative, delegate registration and technology often being an afterthought.

With the involvement of an event management company (Lux Events), in-house corporate (Standard Life Aberdeen), a venue (Royal Society of Edinburgh), a venue finding agency (ExecSpace) and AV company (Catalyst Event Production Services), there was unanimous agreement among panelists that the process would be easier if clients better understand the roles and responsibilities of all contracted parties to deliver a successful event.

“We had a big event that we did at Gleneagles and the space had been contracted to the brief that they were given by the client, but the reality was that the client didn’t really know what they wanted to do; so when we sat down and had a chat, actually the reality of what they wanted to do was completely different to their initial thought,” said Elise MacDonald, of Lux Events. “So suddenly we had twice as many people and we had to look at where we were going to seat them, how are we going to run this?”

Emma Little, of ExecSpace, said: “We can’t be tempted to be too many things to too many people; at the end of the day I made the decision, I guess about three years ago, just to do venue find and to do that really well. Companies that do event management, that’s not our bag. We’re not going to wing it and make a fast buck.”

The second session explored the challenge of responding to a deliberately “insubstantial” brief, which is a frequent challenge for all those involved in putting on events; David Peters, from Saltire Hospitality, joined the panel from a caterer’s perspective, given the tendency now for food to be such a dominant component of an event’s success. There was a general view that events companies need as much information as possible and there should not be a fear of suppliers speaking to directly to clients to gauge their requirements.

Grame Craig, of Catalyst, said also that on too many occasions even basic information on the venue is missing, such as whether there is a vehicle delivery point. He gave a recent example of where his staff had to hand deliver large equipment by hand, adding to the manpower and cost. “If there’s not enough respect to the brief, it’s often not worth our time,” he said. Peters added that the brief must include the type of audience, to allow a caterer to work out what the requirements might be. “Is the food going to play a big part in the event or is to support the conference? And also the target audience is important. Is it international visitors or is it local, because that will all influence the menu?,” said Peters. “It’s linking in to the client demands.” Isabelle Jarmin, from Standard Life Aberdeen, said her challenge is often to get the right level of information from senior people in her organisation, who she may only get 30 seconds of their time.

Session three – ‘Who influences the final decision?’ – had the potential to cause the most friction on the day, given the implicit issue – aside from whether events suppliers were adequately qualified to make recommendations on where to place business – was over cost, and whether some suppliers, particularly venues, were unfairly excluded from a procurement process because they didn’t pay high enough commissions to agents. The emerging consensus from the panel and the audience, which contained a number of staff from venues, was that everyone in the industry seemed to be ‘sucking it up’, i.e. accepting the fact that they will lose money on certain jobs. Emma Little, of ExecSpace, was candid about the fact that her company’s business model required them to charge commission, as it was their only income stream but that she does strive to be transparent and fair in order to put everyone on a ‘level playing field’; she also accepts the fact that will absorb some non-commissionable rates as part of a good service to clients.

She said: “I think there’s a common misconception although it might be prevalent in the agencies that are bigger than us, that agencies are pushing the venues that are paying the higher commission; for me, we do need to squeeze the venues for commission – we have to do that because it’s our only income stream, it’s the only way we can make money, it’s the only way I can pay my guys well. But in order to be transparent and fair we try and keep everybody on a level playing field because I think as soon as you start, as an agency, putting commercial return for us above what’s right for the customer, then you’re on a slippery slope.”

She added: “When I pick up the phone to my lawyer who’s also a client he’ll charge me money for chatting over the phone but we’re supposed to service all of their needs for free, right. Which means we have to then get our income from somewhere, which means we need to speak to the venues about getting more commission from you guys. I don’t think the industry should have been free in the first place because we work hard, we provide a good service, so why is it free? People don’t value free.” Gilly Anderson, from YOURgb events, agreed, but said it would require a whole culture shift, because people were too afraid to be upfront about what they cost. But Little said: “It’s got to work commercially for everybody – it’s got to work commercially for the client; first and foremost, we’ve got to get the very best deal for the client but it’s also got to work in a way where the venues are making money and the agents are making money, otherwise it’s not sustainable.”

From a corporate perspective, Isabelle Jarmin said she had been unaware of such huge variance in commissions, saying: “The answer is obvious isn’t it, that it is transparent for everybody and consistent.” And Greg O’Donnell, from Glasgow Caledonian University, said from a venue’s perspective he would quantify from the volume of people they were likely to receive whether or not he could pay a higher or lower commission rate.

As to whether there should be a industry Code of Practice, there was no clear ground on who might be responsible for setting any rules, nor for enforcing them. According to one audience member the HBAA – the trade association for the hotel booking agency – does have a code of practice, although there was little awareness of it among attendees, nor a clear idea as to whether it would need an association or a statutory body to apply a financial governance framework.

The final session of the day – session four – was an opportunity for all parties to discuss the importance of feedback and evaluation; the panel was joined by Mark McGauchrane, a freelance technical producer and Gilly Anderson, of Yourgb Events. There was near unanimous agreement that there was often insufficient feedback, meaning suppliers were unable to improve their offer the next time around. There was also a consensus that suppliers often themselves do not ‘get under the skin’ of a brief and therefore put forward inadequate proposals. Little said: “If you give a client a proposal with 12 options on it, you’ve not listened to the brief, and the client might as well have Googled; there’s too many options, you’re not getting under the skin of it properly. We’ve got engage our brains and use tech and communications, but not as a substitute for thinking.”

Thanks to panellists:

Isabelle Jarmin, Standard Life Aberdeen; Elise MacDonald, Lux Events; Gilly Anderson, YOURgb Events; Emma Little, ExecSpace; David Peters, Saltire Hospitality; Greg O’Donnell, Glasgow Caledonian University; Mark McGauchrane, Freelance Technical Producer; Martina Hlinkova, Royal Society of Edinburgh; Graeme Craig, Catalyst Event Production Services

Thanks also to Hospitality and Catering from the Scottish Storytelling Centre and Saltire Hospitality

The next EventIt Training Day – What’s Trending in Events – will be held on December 12 at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. Visit here for more details.