One organisation that has been working to get the balance right is the Development & Support Organisation for Voluntary and Community Groups, Charities and Social Enterprises in Staffordshire (VAST). In 2013, the charity was looking to host its annual conference for 270 delegates, which would not only bring together staff from its three offices, but also investors, businesses and volunteers that had worked with VAST during the last 12 months.
Keen to make the programme as beneficial as possible for attendees, VAST wanted to combine a traditional conference speaker programme, featuring VAST’s senior team and an introduction from the Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, with more interactive sessions. As well as engaging delegates in a Q&A session, the charity wanted breakout areas to run a series of workshops and seminar sessions throughout the afternoon and enough space to host an informal networking buffet lunch. Subsequently, booking just one large conference room in a hotel venue was not suitable and the charity was looking for a venue that had ample space to accommodate all 270 delegates, as well as flexible, smaller rooms. In addition, a central part of the brief was to find a venue that had the ‘wow-factor’ to demonstrate to delegates the scale of VAST’s operation and represent the best of Staffordshire, while also working within a not-for-profit events budget.
With a range of venues on their doorstep, VAST chose Keele Hall, a historic Grade-II listed building at the heart of Keele University’s 600 acre countryside campus. Not only was Keele easily accessible for delegates across Staffordshire, but it is also home to one of the largest banqueting spaces in the region and has a series of bookable meeting rooms and exhibition space all under one roof. The Hall’s meeting rooms also overlook Keele’s landscaped gardens and picturesque lakes, with hilltop countryside views.
The charity decided to hire the whole of Keele Hall to allow maximum flexibility when it came to how the space could be used. The morning’s speaker programme and Q&A panel was held in the Hall’s ballroom followed by a networking lunch. For the buffet, the award-winning chefs at Keele helped to develop a Staffordshire themed menu, which included delicious food using local producers and retailers. Not only did the buffet showcase the best of Staffordshire’s food offering, but it also helped to cut the cost of a more formal sit-down charity dinner. Delegates then broke off to attend the afternoon’s seminar sessions, which were held throughout Keele Hall and covered topics such as social media, funding and how to attract volunteers.
To help the day run smoothly, VAST was assigned a dedicated event planner who helped to tailor the space to suit the charity’s needs, as well being on hand to advise on the running programme for the day. Keele’s event planner also helped the team to rearrange the conference when heavy snow meant the event had to be postponed from February to April. The event planner ensured that VAST could have everything they’d planned from their original package at no additional charge and the operational team on the day oversaw the delivery of event.
Andrew Thompson, Operations Director, comments: “It was important to us to host the event in Staffordshire, as we had a number of delegates who weren’t able to travel far, so Keele was the perfect location. The space at Keele Hall meant that we could get all 270 delegates in one room for parts of the day, while also using other areas for breakout sessions. “We were really impressed by the team at Keele who were very helpful throughout the whole event process from helping us organise the running order through to ensuring we had the right accessibility for any delegates with mobility problems. We were also delighted with the Staffordshire themed finger buffet, which added a personal and regional touch to the whole event. We had extremely positive feedback from everyone that attended and are looking forward to returning to Keele later this year.”
Marcus Wilson, head of commercial marketing at Keele University, comments: “We understand that charities don’t always have the resource or the budget to invest in multi-day conferences, but by carefully planning your event, you can really make a one-day conference work hard for you. We’ve been working with Keele University’s Management School to understand more about what benefits delegates at conferences and what we’ve found is that incorporating a range of conferencing methods, from traditional speaker programmes, through to networking sessions, Q&A panels and breakout sessions, is the best way to ensure delegates remain engaged throughout the day and that you get the most out of everyone attending.
“It was great to see VAST implementing a similar strategy for its annual conference, demonstrating how not-for-profit organisations shouldn’t rule out big venues when they are looking to host a large-scale event to help encourage investment or engagement. There are plenty of ways charities can cut costs while also putting on a stand-out event to impress delegates and raise the profile of their operation.”