So you're considering planning a conference or retreat OR you've already committed to do so, and you are wondering what questions to ask of potential venues? After I wrote this post, I came back up to this top paragraph to tell you not to panic at what is below. This is my mind palace of venue planning information! :) I hope it doesn't overwhelm you with information but instead equips you with the questions you need to decide if a location is right for your conference or retreat. I have heard tales of (and experienced!) many beautiful and life-giving locations where groups returned again and again because of the pleasant and welcome atmosphere. You have already taken the first step to share your passion for Charlotte Mason Education with strangers, aka friends you haven't met yet. You don't have to ask all of these questions at your first meeting either! Just read through this and keep the points that apply to your retreat or conference in mind as you visit venues. Here are some things I suggest you consider...
If you are planning a local event that will attract a local audience, accessibility isn't as important an issue unless you live in a location that has limited or costly parking space. This often occurs in a large city, and sometimes a good option is to start your event in the evening when parking is more available and less costly. Depending on the location, weekend parking can also be more available and less costly. Many downtown community centers and churches have agreements with their local authorities to allow reduced cost or free parking for event participants. It would be nice to avoid a situation where your attendees have to pay extra for parking, even if that means incorporating it into your registration cost so that you can provide guaranteed space when your attendees arrive.
If you are planning a regional or national event, you will want to add airport accessibility to your list of considerations. It is often less expensive for attendees to fly into hubs of major airlines. Discount airlines such as Frontier and Allegiant fly into smaller airports, but their flights are usually restricted to certain days of the week. Does your venue have a shuttle? How will flyers get to your venue? Before booking a venue, consider how your participants will get there, and when there, where they will park and where they will stay.
Demand is so high for CM educational retreats and conferences right now that it is likely you will draw from a far greater geographical area than you are expecting. When I planned a regional event in Lexington, KY several years ago, we had participants from 7 surrounding states. I was expecting about 45 registrants; we had 70 registrants, and that was before CM education really exploded in the last few years.
You will want to research lodging options for your attendees and include these your conference website or event page. Suggest local B&Bs, hotels, and airbnb options. If your event is at or near a university, college or school that offers boarding, contact that location and request lodging cost information. At these venues, ask about linens. Are they provided or is it an additional fee? You'll want to let your attendees know how to prepare.
Unless you are planning such a large event that lodging is a required part of the contract, let your participants make their own lodging plans. In the event that you are planning a large event, ask your venue if there is a discount on facility or other fees if you fill a certain percentage of their rooms. At one national event that I planned, we received a 70% discount on meeting space if we booked over 75% of their rooms. This allowed us to keep our registration price very reasonable because we knew we could easily fill those rooms. One last question when you are coordinating lodging at a site - ask about local or state room fees and taxes. There's nothing like being quoted a room rate and basing your price on that and then learning after the event that the room rate didn't include taxes and fees. :(
There are numerous caterers that will deliver food to a venue that doesn't have its own kitchen service. Food trucks may also be an interesting option if their variety is wide enough that they can serve most of your guests. Note that food trucks often have a dollar or customer minimum. Ask about gluten free, sugar free and dairy free options.
If you are planning to meet in a space that has its own meals, it is helpful to know if you are dealing with employees of the venue or a third party caterer. Either way, you will likely need to meet with the person in charge of meals. Venue owned catering can often be more flexible on menu, price and meal times. Third party caterers often have strict rates established by their corporate office that cannot be negotiated as part of the overall price. They may not allow attendees to bring in outside food either, which can be frustrating for attendees who have dietary needs that are not accommodated by that caterer's offerings. Depending on how many people they serve concurrently (if other events are hosted in the same timeframe), they may be able/unable to modify their menu to meet your group's needs. If there is anything that attendees remember when they go home, it seems to be bad food. I think food should be a major factor in your decision on venue.
Does the venue have a person who handles meetings on a regular basis? It is a real blessing when this is the case! They usually have a meetings packet or brochure that spells out what they can provide. Document your conversations and send your notes to the venue's event coordinator for confirmation of your understanding. This will minimize misunderstandings because you will have followed up oral conversations with mutual agreement on what was discussed. When planning an event, I try to have most of my conversations with the venue's event coordinator and/or the caterer in person. I suggest you follow up with a small token of appreciation to that individual or individuals after the event is over.
Also at the top of your consideration list is the actual meeting space. Do you need a very large room for main sessions? If so, how is the lighting for your speaker and attendees? Are the chairs comfortable to sit in for several hours? What about the technology your speaker needs to give a successful presentation? Is there a stage or raised area so that he/she is visible from the back? How are the acoustics? Do you need microphones and speakers, and is there a separate charge for this? (See A/V section)
If you allow babies and young children at your event, will you be able to hear every cry from the back of the room? Are there enough doors so that a mama could slip out with an upset child? Is there somewhere she can go and nurse? These are things that attendees really appreciate knowing about a venue when they arrive.
Most likely you will use a number of breakout rooms for chats or workshops. The most important question to ask about these rooms is if they have the A/V needed for your speakers to give a presentation. They may not need a microphone, but they may need to show a presentation on a screen.
This may seem a strange thing to note, but if you settle on a venue, one thing to note on your walk through is how to change the temperature of the room, and if that is allowed. I once attended a conference where the main session room was about 10 degrees cooler than outside. Attendees literally brought blankets from their rooms because it was frigid!
How are rooms set up? If you want to change the set up of tables, chairs or sofas, etc., is this allowed? Do you do this, or does the venue do this? Is there a cleanup fee for the room? Can people stay late and talk? Is there a time when the facility will be locked and everyone needs to go home?
Will your venue allow signage? These may be directional signs (they look like yard signs) or simply colored paper taped to a door. Some venues require pre-approval for signage.
Audio/Visual and Technology Needs
I mentioned technology needs for speakers, but I'd like to break it down in more detail here. Speakers can need a variety of tools to present, including:
Printing and Copying
I once spoke at a conference on a university campus and had more workshop participants than they had estimated. I needed to make additional copies of my handout, but every copier on campus required a university card. It didn't accept real money! I finally found a professor who was willing to let me pay him to use his card! No matter the size of your venue, it is very nice to tell your volunteers and speakers where they can print out or copy documents, so you'll want to ask the venue how to make that happen (and how to pay for it) if it's needed in the middle of your event.
One thing that many new event planners don't think about is insurance. You should be insured. Let me repeat, you should be insured. Many venues require that you carry a separate liability policy to theirs. The venue will most likely have contacts for purchasing short-term insurance event policies, but you can ask your insurance agent and even HSLDA's insurance group for assistance.
Get everything in writing, and when you do, go over it carefully before signing the agreement. Note your deadlines and do your best to meet them. Sometimes there is a penalty if you don't send a list of attendees or a number of meal plans to the venue. Some venues are stricter on this than others, but I don't like to take chances. :) Is there a cancellation policy at the venue? Do they charge tax and/or a service fee on their services? These affect your budget and how you set your registration price. If you happen to be a 501(c)(3) organization, ask for tax-free billing.
Some venues want you to guarantee a certain number of attendees. They can offer a lower facility usage fee, for instance, if you book a certain number of meals and rooms. Be careful though, because if you don't meet a minimum number of attendees, you can end up paying the balance. Even if you negotiate to a lower attendee count, your facility usage fee could increase because they won't be making the lodging and meal money so they need to make it up by increasing the facility cost.
Are there places on the grounds where retreat attendees can walk, journal, do a nature study or just sit and chat? Will you want to have an outdoor workshop or perhaps an outdoor retreat bonfire or singalong? Retreats are even more memorable when there are opportunities for attendees to escape to the outdoors for a while.
I hope these suggestions have been helpful to you! Happy Retreat Planning, and remember, all this hard work on the front end will pay wonderful dividends when you see how your attention to detail has ensured a smooth and lovely time for your attendees.
I live with my husband and three children in the beautiful bluegrass region of Kentucky. I am passionate about my faith, home educating my children, and seeing as much of God’s creation as possible! I grew up in a home that encouraged self-education, so Charlotte Mason’s philosophy was a natural fit for our family. After moving to Kentucky and struggling to find an established CM community, I decided to host information sessions on Mason’s philosophy of education. Those sessions led to a book study, which led to a summer cottage school, which led to the 2012 establishment of Overstone School, a Charlotte Mason cooperative school. Today, there are over 300 CM home educators and many support groups and book studies in the Bluegrass region, connected through the Bluegrass CM Community Facebook page.