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The Interview: Etc Venues' Alastair Stewart

Alastair Stewart, Etc Venues’ managing director, tells ABTN about why travel buyers should look more closely at their meetings spend.

Meetings has been referred to as the last big area of unmanaged travel. Have you seen a rise in TMCs and buyers negotiating with you?

Yes. I think some of the larger companies are well organised and certainly we’ve got some of our bigger clients where we are the preferred supplier, and we benefit from them being well organised. I think the general trend is for better management information. I think individuals within organisations still hold quite strong views about being sent to venues that aren’t fit for purpose. Sometimes there is a conflict of interest between procurement trying to source the cheapest venue and the internal clients of the larger organisations being unhappy about where they’re being sent. Not in our case of course!

What we’re providing are contemporary learning environments. What I think is important is that hotels on the whole don’t provide very good learning environments, and what Etc Venues tries to do as an absolute specialism is provide that. We really do focus on that. You will never see a wedding or birthday party. There are no children, no coach parties, no tourists. It’s a business venue and I think one of the reasons we’re doing well is that experienced travel buyers, particularly who are buying training, want and like that business focus. And the trainers particularly like a good learning environment.

Is the meetings industry recovering?

Capital cities have done well. We’re in London and Birmingham, and we can see that. London has held up well. It’s been boosted by very high hotel occupancies which can mean that some hotels are less interested in meetings business, which I think is good for us because it pushes prices up. I think it can also lead to a slightly different attitude towards the meetings buyers, as the hotels get all their profits from their bedrooms. This is something I hear from buyers quite regularly – hotels do ebb and flow in their interest in our sector.

So for business travel buyers and managers a dedicated meetings space that is always interested in them is a good thing?

Yes, I think they’re reporting that the balance is shifting slightly more back to the venue, from it being a very buyer-led market. There are certain periods of the year now that certain venues are very full. We are very heavily booked already for the autumn. I think in general buyers are going to have to work ahead a bit more than they have been. I think they’ve been used to being able to ring venues up at very short notice and get the space, and I think the experienced buyers are reporting that pattern is beginning to change.

Do you have any other thoughts on negotiations with buyers?

I think that the dedicated conference and meetings venues are not showing the same price elasticity as the hotels are. I have heard reports of sharply increasing prices in hotels, but i think the dedicated venue market are being more buyer-friendly, and trying to be more consistent on price. From Etc Venues point of view, part of our brand reputation is to be consistent on price and to continue to offer value through the up and down of the cycle.

Are buyers booking further in advance? In the recession lead times reduced dramatically, with venues often being booked just weeks in advance...

I think some buyers will find there is less availability at their first choice venue on short notice now. I think one of the things that happens in a recession is that buyers in general can go to the venues of their first choice. I hope that Etc Venues has been and will be first choice, but the better venues do fill up more quickly. There are always going to be offers and availability in the poorer venues.

You follow an all-inclusive model...

Yes, it is an all-inclusive package, which appeals to those, dare I say it, who get irritated by the hotel extras bill. We are pursuing an all-inclusive model and I think for the astute clients and experienced buyers – and there are plenty of those about – they do appreciate the inclusiveness, because they really get wound up by the extras.

I think experienced buyers like it. People who buy fairly regularly in this sector do get annoyed at what can appear very cheap prices at some alternatives to us, and they only realise after the event that what looked like a low headline price is not so low in the end. I always think Ryanair has done us a service here, because people are pretty wise to these pricing tricks now.

Tell me about the history of Etc Venues...

Etc Venues was set up in 1992 and I arrived when I bought the business in 2006, where we had five venues. We are now 10, so Etc Venues has effectively double in the last five years. We’ve opened three new venues in the last 12 months: Moorgate, Paddington and Victoria. I think that makes us one of very few companies expanding at the moment and opening new venues.

Paddington and Victoria are both centred on major transport hubs, which for Etc Venues is very important. They are slightly new parts of London for us. The new Paddington venue is literally overlooking the railway tracks. We’ve had a very positive response to its location, which is a big driver for any venue. The links out to Heathrow on the Paddington Express are very important. Paddington is on a major transport infrastructure with five different underground lines serving it.

All of our venues are highly accessible by public transport. I have seen a big switch from people going out to the country for their training as a lot of these country house training centres are very difficult to get to by public transport. For companies pursuing integrated travel and meeting policies, where they’re trying to get people out of their cars and into public transport, they will always know that Etc Venues you can walk from a tube station or a train station.

I think we’re very unique in being absolutely explicit in saying that. And I think that’s why for someone who focuses on travel as well as meetings, that’s the model which I think is hopefully of interest to readers of ABTN, because it does bring the two together. For example, our venue in Birmingham, which opened in 2008, is five minute walk from New Street station, and was very precisely positioned.

Who are your main competitors?

Our competitors are in two different groups. There are lots of hotels in London. Some are good and some are not good, but I think in general we’re positioning ourselves as an alternative to expensive hotels. That’s a general broad-brush statement.

The other category of competitors I would say is the serviced office groups, some of whom flit in and flit out of our market. I think there we compete, ironically, on service. For instance, the number of on-site staff we have tends to be much higher, we’ve got our own on-site catering teams with our own kitchens. The vast majority of serviced office groups don’t have that. They buy in the catering.

We also put quite a lot of effort into technology. Things like IT support and audiovisual support tend to be quite important. Most of that is included. Some of it is not – for the bigger, more elaborate conferences there are extra charges, but the basics are included.

Do you plan to expand more?

I’d like to have more venues out of London. Whether that’s a second venue in Birmingham or other major cities such as Manchester, Bristol or Leeds, the usual suspects, we shall see.

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