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community building

How to find low cost/free, high quality venues for community events

July 2022

Richard Lucas

This blog post first appeared on the Village in the City blog on the invitation of Mark McKergow.

At a recent Village in the City monthly meeting we discussed how to find venues. I have a lot of experience and I offered to put together a guide for our webpage and my blog. This is it.

The good news is that for non-profits it is possible to get good venues either free or very inexpensively.  I’ve done events in the Brighton, Calgary, Cambridge, Cape Town, Edinburgh, Kraków, Lisbon, London, Lviv, New York, Oxford, Rome, Spokane, Taipei, Vancouver and Warsaw, for as many as a thousand people to as few as five, and in the vast majority of cases I didn’t pay anything.  The venues have been Accelerators, apartments, Bars, Cafes, Churches, Clubs, Companies, Conference Centres,  Co-working spaces, Houses, a Jewish Community Centre, Libraries, Offices, Museums,  Restaurants, Schools, Technology Parks, Theatres, Think Tanks, Town Halls, and Universities.  

Not all venues are equal, and some places that “look great” are anything but, so…..

What makes a good venue?

Friendly management and staff 

(And not just the owner/boss). A venue is not just bricks and mortar, space and stage – it is also the people who work there.

Just as someone very good looking can have their personality spoiled by their physical appeal and become smug and superior, so the staff at a lovely venue may become entitled and arrogant, knowing that people will be lining up to get that function room with (for example) a view of the Eiffel Tower, no matter how snooty they are.  Try to get a feel for whether the people who work at the venue are going to be helpful, and make sure you know who will be on duty/in charge in the hours running up to your event.  This is a two way street – be friendly to the staff who work there, from the cloak room, security and bar staff, asking their names, explaining what the event is about, treating them as people, not “service providers”. 

Dedicated space

Is there a side/function room that you can have exclusive use of? It is problematic to have mixed use of space, with other things going on in “your” event space at the same time. For example if there is a group eating at a table, while you are trying to present something, you will both disturb each other. If they are paying, it is hard for you or the staff to ask the paying guests to be quiet.  If there is a DJ who was expecting to be in the limelight, he/she may put on music,  making it hard to talk. An open plan coworking space may have people who have paid to be there who expect quiet.

Dedicated space is usually best, sometimes hybrid works well so you have some space to yourself from 18-20:00 and from then it is open to everyone so the place gets lively as you finish and your group can, but don’t have to, stay on to socialise.

Technical set up 

Depending on the size of the gathering you may well want a microphone, projector and internet access.  Make sure to test everything beforehand. Missing cables, not knowing where the power is and so on can be fixed ahead of time, not on the day. Assuming that “the venue” knows how to set things up is risky. The person who knows may not be there.  Find out who the technical point of contact will be on the day,  

Timing, chairs, tables, signage

Will they give you access before and and permission to move chairs & tables around, put up welcome posters, make a registration desk?  Once people start arriving it’s too late. You and your volunteers need to get this done, before the first guest arrives.

Special deals and promotions

Sometimes in commercial venues where the venue are hoping to sell extra drinks, they will offer some kind of drinks promotion. If they do, and it is the type of event where people do not always show up punctually then make it time or numbers limited.
First 25 guests get a drink for “X”, where “X” is a bargain price, or
“Happy Hour” until 1930”
which encourages guest to be early/come on time. 

(Don’t overdo it, it is not a good sign if too much has to be given away in order to get people to come).

Look, feel and location

It’s good to be somewhere easy to find and get to by public transport, that matches the kind of event you want to have. An upmarket hotel (even if free), may not be the right place for a low budget NGO,  and will be expensive if people want to stay on after your meeting to socialise. If it is a room on a School or University campus, make sure there is crystal clear information about how to find the room for people who do not know their way around. 

What happens afterwards

When your event ends, it is very nice to be able to say: “The event is over but you are welcome to stay”.  This works well in a commercial venue like a cafe or pub because the business gets extra revenue and will close up whenever they normally do. A meeting room in a library will need to be tidied up and cleaned, creating a danger of you the host being left behind while others troop off to relax. It is a good idea to get everyone who attended involved in the “tidy up”. 

Summary 

It is important to be pragmatic and flexible. Beggars can’t be choosers. There will always be something to compromise about for any venue, and if you find a good venue, do not take it for granted, make sure you keep excellent relations with the staff, and thank them publicly at your event, and send ‘thank yous” afterwards. 

How to find venues

The best way to find venues is to research where other events happen. Every community has spaces in which people hold gatherings.  There will be “what’s on” listings in local newspapers, notices on notice boards, events on social media like Facebook and dedicated event listing platforms like Meetup and Eventbrite. Unless the event is online, there will always be a venue.   If you are hunting for a venue, copy paste the name and addresses into a spreadsheet, and google them, to find the opening hours, contact details, and who is in charge.  Make a note of the types of event that are being held with a link, to get a sense of the capacity. You may find details of the spaces available at an address and a price list, together with information about any discounts for community events. 

If the organisation and person organising the event seem to be suitable, note their details too. The organisation hosting the event may be quite separate from the team who manage the building.    You may want to ask the event organiser for advice about why they chose that venue. 

If a venue looks promising and you have the time, go to an event there to see what it is like and make notes about how things work there, (and maybe take photos). 

Think about the business model and interests of the venue owners.

A cafe, bar, or restaurant may well be interested in having events on non-busy nights of the week,  where bringing people into the venue means extra revenue.  Usually that means Sunday to Wednesday.  Thursday to Saturday are not just typically busy nights, but also when people and companies make bookings for parties which are a major revenue source. Unless you can give a revenue guarantee, it’s hard to make exclusive bookings for busy nights.   

Co-working spaces often promote themselves as having a community function. Provided the event you are organising may be of interest to their members, and fits their goals, they can be very open to something interesting that they don’t have to organise, even better if they believe the event can build awareness of their existence. It may often be the case that the event should be booked by someone who is a member of that co-working space. The same will often be true of schools and universities. They almost always will have space available free or very cheap for School and University societies.  

Community centres, church halls, think tanks, and foundations have quite a lot of discretion over the rates they charge. If your event appeals to their raison d’être and the people in charge, they may be very willing to help, and even if they do not exist to make money, they will almost always welcome praise and publicity.  

Once you have identified suitable spaces, figure out who is in charge, who the right person to talk to is, and how to approach them. You need to be ready to explain who you are, what track record you have and what your organisation stands for and does. If you are at a venue which seems suitable, simply asking the staff who the right person to speak to about events is a great way to start. A face to face exchange of information makes a far better impression than an email, and the person you speak to will be able to pass on their impressions of you to the decision maker.  If they ask you to “send us an email” ask for the names of both the person you have spoken to and other people who are deciding. so that you can add that information in the message you send.  

Remember the adage “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”. The decision maker will ask you to send them some details of your organisation and event. Have that pre-prepared so you can send a personalised email within minutes of your conversation, showing you are well organised and a good communicator. 

In conclusion, this approach has worked for me, in countries all over the world. It’s not guaranteed, of course, and you need to realise you are not entitled to free space. You must make the case, and be persuasive, but if you follow the steps I suggest above, I believe you will find somewhere.