A new perspective: Harrogate International Centre

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Harrogate International Centre (HIC) is getting a new lease on life. A £13m expansion fund has given the Yorkshire venue two new exhibition halls, increasing total capacity by 3,100sqm to 18,500sqm. But it’s not just space that’s on the business agenda. Last year’s appointment of former Ricoh Arena director Angus Houston after the departure of 14-year veteran MD Stuart Quin ushered in a fresh push towards improving the venue’s image in the eyes of event organisers. Houston points out there have only been four serving directors of HIC since its inception. Each retained council responsibilities alongside their venue duties – an indicator not only of the integration of venue and borough, but also the importance of events to the local community. “It’s kind of like being pope – such is the respect and support for the HIC in this community,” Houston joked. Likewise, a major part of the venue’s new sales strategy is better promoting its event heritage, destination and ability to pull the whole town together for every show that arrives on its doorstep. Houston said his brief is to do whatever is necessary to bring events business back to Harrogate. “The market has changed and we have to be more aggressive,” he said. “A different structure is needed and we need to do business differently.  We recognise that we haven’t been present in the marketplace for a number of years and we are  working on this. Having the new space offers us a great opportunity to develop new initiatives to gain business.”New space HIC’s two new halls will add 3,100sqm of employable space to the HIC’s total exhibition offering, across two floors. The top, pillar-less hall is 1,620sqm and links directly into the venue’s Hall D. It is also joined via a walkway to the venue’s 2,000 seat auditorium and lobby area plus breakout meeting rooms. The lower hall is 1,480sqm and accessible via a staircase and lifts. To demonstrate its commitment to more sustainable events, the new space has a green roof to provide more energy-efficient heating and cooling options. HIC has also invested in a double-decker entrance off Kings Road and widened the pavement to account for the new foyer. The first event being staged in the new upper hall is the Christmas and Gift Fair in January 2012, an existing exhibition that was wall-bound, sales director Paul Ashton told EN. Given the direct connection to the auditorium, the new halls will also suit confex business while the 5.8m height should prove attractive for product launches, corporate events and exhibitions with double-decked stands and displays.  Ashton said HIC’s largest show is the 50-year old Harrogate Home and Gift Fair, which will also expand into the new space next year. At present, 40 per cent of the venue’s total business is exhibition against 60 per cent conference. Ashton anticipates this ratio will remain the same even after the new halls are completed. HIC is already supported by several hotels but another 160-bed budget facility has been approved beside the venue and the appointment of an operator is imminent. “We have a massive impact on the town and businesses in the area realise and support that,” Ashton added. Finding a new voice Houston admitted HIC lost its way in recent years and is often perceived to be parochial. The recession and its impact on regional exhibitions and visitor attendance has also been felt. “Regional exhibitions have been hard hit and people have had to cancel events and change their position,” Houston said. “But we have an ability for blue-sky thinking and an appetite to bring new business to our town. “Perception is everything; and the most difficult thing for us to overcome. We recognise our shortfalls [like the fact we’re not easy to get to] but it’s about what you want to do here. “We have had to make redundancies, but the underlying business is strong and we’re creating a different business model.” One way HIC hopes to move forward is via a new joint venture scheme providing financial, marketing and operational assistance to organisers running exhibitions in its halls. This model, while not new at venues, will allow HIC to partner on the products that fit the destination. “For example, we’re not necessarily the right place for a Heavy Metal exhibition,” Houston said. “We recognise exhibitions are cost-led, so we have to share in that to help them succeed. “Our joint ventures are about using the destination, not just the venue. We will help with venue hire and marketing costs. We’ll achieve this by having an exhibition start-up package.” HIC isn’t going to suit everyone and nor should it, he claimed. As a result, Houston said HIC devised 10 concepts that will work in Harrogate and is in discussions with regional media agencies to expose events in the town more successfully. “HIC is a great venue, but Harrogate is an incredible destination,” he said. “It’s not just about competing on square feet.” A lot of business at shows is done outside the venue and in well-loved local pubs or restaurants – something Houston believes the town of Harrogate has in spades. “There is a great affection for Harrogate within the exhibition community and we want to embrace and celebrate that,” he added. Any comments? Email exhibitionnews@mashmedia.net
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