Bull's-eye views of the industry

Why providing choice is an ever-increasing challenge for chefs

Never before have event delegates had such varied tastes

But with trends changing all the time, what food should be part of an all-inclusive package – and what should clients pay extra for?

We were recently helping a client plan an event for 100 people and when we asked if anyone had special dietary needs, no fewer than 37 people said yes. Low GI, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, Kosher, Halal – the humble vegetarian doesn’t even qualify as ‘special’ any more.

To put that in context, ten years ago, we’d have been more likely to have just 4 or 5 people with special requests at an event for 100 people.

Buffet event food

This issue was really brought home for me when I recently attended the IACC Knowledge Festival in London with 150 industry specialists from around the globe. When food trends were debated, 45% of our audience of conference and training venue professionals stated that they suffered from food intolerances or allergies.

It shows how much more sophisticated our diets have become. Particularly here in London with one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world and where food fashions change as frequently as the window display in Selfridges.

The rise of the vegan

Last year we saw record requests for Low GI food across our five central London training and meeting centres and there’s been a huge increase in requests for vegan food in 2017. Even people without a strict dietary regime are more likely to want organic food and to be concerned about the provenance of what’s on their plate – wanting to know that meat is from a farm with high standards of animal welfare and from sustainable sources.

Another challenge is that different groups of delegates need different sorts of catering. It’s not stereotyping to say that if we’re hosting a networking event for women in business, it’s sensible to make sure there are lots of healthy and low carb options. But if we have a training event for graduates, it’s like a swarm of locust in the building who’ll eat everything in front of them - and hungry young people need large portions and plenty of sustaining carbs!

From superfood salads to super-sweet treats

Over the 25 years I’ve been running London training and conference centres, I’ve seen a huge shift from food being a pretty basic add-on, to it moving centre stage.

So many people want vegetarian food now that at CCT Venues we have a Chef who specialises in it and creates imaginative and delicious vegetarian food every day.

We also have a specialist pastry chef who creates the most amazing desserts and patisserie. People lap them up – they just don’t generally want large desserts. So I was particularly interested in two other polls at the IACC conference in London which showed that 35% of the audience had been on more than one calorie or fat reducing diet in the past 12 months. However despite that and the 45% of respondents having special dietary requirements as a result of allergies or intolerances, 56% stated that they were more likely to opt for a sweet treat than a healthy fruit platter at lunchtime.

dessert image

I’ve noticed that people visiting our training and meeting venues are, however, less likely to eat a big hot lunch when they see the huge variety of fresh, colourful and imaginative salads we have. Many opt for a plate of salad with a piece of meat or fish on the side, rather than cooked vegetables and potatoes.

The food factor

I have no doubt the increasing importance of food will continue. With the trend for people to attend fewer training events and work more in virtual teams or from home, they want a special, enjoyable experience when they get together and something equally special to eat.

All this is fascinating stuff to a self-confessed foodie like me, but a bit of a headache as someone who runs a training and conference venue business in London. Client budgets are certainly not expanding at the same rate that delegates’ food preferences are diversifying – if anything, event organisers need more value than ever before.

As always, we turn to what’s in our control and two things that help us manage costs are reducing food waste and buying seasonal, locally sourced produce which also reduces our carbon footprint.

However as detailed in IACC's latest research food trends change, it’s certain that catering for large groups will only get more complex as people get more fastidious about what they eat. Venues will need to be creative about how they manage the impact on costs. And, however we do that, we must always hit the highest level of quality while adapting to the changing needs and expectations of our food-loving clients in the Capital.

For more information, visit www.themeetingsshow.com

Let us know your thoughts

You can share your thoughts on The Bull's-eye or contact Caroline through her LinkedIn  and  Twitter

Looking back on 25 years of running venues

Much has changed since Chief Executive Caroline Bull set up one of London’s first training venues – here she shares the lessons she learnt along the way

“Back in the early 1990s, there wasn’t really a training and conference venue sector in London. In those days, more companies had rooms in their offices they could use for training or if you wanted to hire a training or meeting room in London, you’d probably get an event room in a hotel – usually in a gloomy basement.

But in 1992, as part of etc.venues limited, I led a small team who set up the first specialist training and meeting room hire business in London. At that time, etc.venues provided training and consultancy - and we’d grown fed up with the lack of good facilities for running our own training courses in London.

We’d often end up working in grotty rooms with poor facilities, unreliable equipment and inconsistent service from hotel staff who understood nothing about training courses.

So, we decided to create our own training rooms with all the right equipment, natural daylight and support from a team who specialised in helping trainers. Because we didn’t need to use our training rooms all the time, I had the idea that we could rent them out to local businesses too.

Changing times, changing tastes

Based in offices near Elephant and Castle, Central London, our training and meeting rooms business quickly grew and we saw clients’ tastes and expectations change a lot in those early years.

Elephant and castle sign

Back then, lunch on a training course usually included a few cheese and pickle or egg and cress sandwiches from the local sandwich bar, with some soggy crisps on the side, served on a foil tray. Before long we’d bought our catering in-house and were serving home-cooked hot lunches and better snacks and biscuits in the coffee breaks.

But as part of a company that provided training courses I understood that the venue business wasn’t just about providing rooms for meetings, conferences and training: it was about supporting the people that run them. When you’re organising or delivering an event, you’re under a lot of pressure – so you want to work with people who anticipate your needs, remember what you liked from last time, provide all the right equipment, and are on hand to help whenever you need them.

And of course, you want to be somewhere where your delegates are kept happy with good, clean facilities, plenty of refreshments and tasty nutritious food.

The business thrived throughout the 1990s and we developed our brand and business model – and expanded with new venues. We also saw other businesses coming into the market, though mainly focusing on serviced office space with some meeting rooms for hire, or venues specifically for large conferences.

New beginnings

After 10 successful years of growing etc limited, I felt it was time to start up a new venue business that would bring something fresh to the market.

At this time, etc was still providing training rooms for the London market along with its own consultancy and training operations.

I wanted to create a business dedicated 100% to providing great venues and outstanding customer service for the trainers and event planners who use them.

So in 2005 I opened CCT Venues in an amazing space above the historic Grade II listed Smithfield market.

Smithfield market outside

I wanted the new business to provide clients with really well-equipped training and meeting rooms, and great space for conferences in London. I also wanted it to be great value – and today we still offer one of the industry’s best Day Delegate Rates for quality space, starting at just £49.50 per person.

But just as importantly, I wanted the new business to be led as much by its values as the drive for profit. That means being a great employer and creating quality job opportunities. It also means nurturing long-lasting, friendly and supportive relationships with clients and being flexible about meeting their needs – and their budgets.

Awarding the best

One of the ways we keep this ethos alive is through our quarterly staff awards where our venue teams provide examples of their best customer feedback. There have been occasions when a member of staff has had to hold the fort with a roomful of delegates when the trainers been late or taken sick, or the venue team has jumped in to save the day when something unexpected has happened.

In the 13 years since I opened our first training venue above Smithfield market, we’ve opened four more. And during that time the venue market has grown, diversified and become much more sophisticated.

Of course, everyone now expects very well-equipped space with a high-quality finish and high-speed WiFi as standard. People also want more choice, so we have bright, flexible modern space in our Farringdon and Barbican City venues, as well as very high-quality corporate space, with top-class dining in our Bank Street venue in Canary Wharf.

Food for thought

What people want to eat has evolved a great deal over the years. When we first opened CCT Venues, it was pretty progressive that we always had a vegetarian lunch option on the menu. Today we provide all sorts of healthy options, vegan meals, gluten-free, halal, special breakfast options, fine dining for corporate dinners, delicious platters of food for business receptions and drinks tastings for those wanting a fun team building event. Although, of course, we ask bookers to let us know any special dietary needs in advance, so no-one’s disappointed.

Cofffe picture

London’s also become hooked on coffee in the last decade. So, we’ve banished the old instant coffee and now provide the best Lavazza fresh coffee in all our venues, which is every bit as good as what you’re used to at Pret or Café Nero!

The drive for value

In recent years, the London training venue market has got a lot more competitive. We went through a horrendous economic downturn 10 years ago, used it as a chance to sharpen up some areas of our business, and came out in good shape. But there are new businesses in the market all the time and the cost of hiring rooms for meetings in London hasn’t kept pace with the huge rises in the cost of London property - or the hikes in business rates.

Many companies now also book through agents who have their own commission structure. So, we have the challenge of client expectations continuing to grow and grow, while our costs get steeper and steeper.

We’ve responded by offering a wider choice of options to meet a range of different budgets and requirements across our five training and conference centres in Central London and Canary Wharf.

And our success is due in part in that unwavering commitment to being a trusted and reliable partner to our clients – who come back time and again

No doubt the London venue market will continue to change, but one thing’s for sure: this is a business that’s still ultimately about people - whether that’s the delegates who deserve great facilities and delicious food and refreshments, or the trainers and event organisers who need a trusted, reliable and flexible partner to help ensure their events are always a big success.

Let us know your thoughts

You can share your thoughts on The Bull's-eye or contact Caroline through her LinkedIn  and  Twitter

The Bull’s-Eye

Views that are right on target from our Chief Executive, Caroline Bull.

Caroline blog image updated

Our Chief Executive Caroline Bull has been a leading light in the London independent training and event venues sector for over 25 years. Caroline set up CCT Venues to provide the capital with dedicated training, event and meeting venues, where customer service and strong business ethics are always at the forefront.

In this occasional blog, Caroline shares her views on some of the topical issues affecting the training, meetings and conference venues sector in London.

You can share your thoughts on The Bull's-eye or contact Caroline through her LinkedIn  and  Twitter

Choice, the ever-increasing challenge for chefs

Challenge for chefs

Never before have event delegates had such varied tastes

Read article

25 years of running great venues

25 years of running great venues updated

Much has changed since Chief Exec Caroline Bull set up one of London’s first training venues – here she shares the lessons learnt along the way

Read article

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