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.
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.
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.
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.
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.