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Venue Hire

On 24 September, 34 delegates from across the UK came to the Ashmolean Museum for the second event in the ASPIRE Commercial Enterprise series: For Weddings and a Film Set: An Introduction to Venue Hire.

Corporate Events and Weddings
The day was kicked off by Bene Montain, Head of Events at the Ashmolean.  Bene joined the Ashmolean six years ago to expand their capacity to deliver corporate events in the wake of the Museum’s refurbishment, and continues to develop innovative ways to gain income from the museum as a venue.

Atrium Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford © Tom Weller Photography

Establishing your offer
Although income is a key driver, Bene stressed that part of her role is to ensure that the Ashmolean’s venue hire activities are consistent with the museum’s core functions. The mission statement of the Ashmolean is: to make its collections available to the widest possible audience, now and in the future, by exhibiting, preserving, and interpreting its objects for study, enjoyment and inspiration, and to promote the understanding of them by teaching and research at the highest level.

While the Ashmolean has 61 galleries, a restaurant, café, lecture theatre and boardroom as potential events venues, before they can be used, Bene must take account of the primary purposes of these spaces. The primary purpose of the galleries is to be freely accessible to the public during opening hours, and the primary function of the café and restaurant is to provide services to visitors during those hours. Although the lecture theatre and boardroom are not always accessible to the public, the lecture theatre is heavily used for lectures and education purposes, and the boardroom for internal meetings.

Bene must also ensure that in whatever she and her team do, they are respecting both the collections housed in the museum and the fabric of the building itself.  While some restrictions may be common to most venues and most museums (no smoking, no naked flames), other limitations can be specific to some galleries, for example the Government Indemnity Scheme and some private loan agreements may dictate where food and drinks must not be served, or where photography may not be permitted.

With these factors considered, the Ashmolean is able to hold drinks reception for up to 900 guests, dinners for up to 250 guests, presentation or concerts for up to 180 guests, and boardroom style meetings for up to 18 guests. This makes the museum appropriate for corporate events (drinks and dinners), weddings (civil ceremonies and receptions) and the acoustics in the museum are good for concerts, and even the occasional fashion show…

See the Ashmolean Museum’s venue hire webpages.

Randolph Sculpture Gallery, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford © David Fisher Photography

Managing the process
At the Ashmolean, each event is planned by an Event Manager, with different remits: weddings; corporate hire; university events; etc. Managers must take into account a range of both legal and logistical considerations.

On the legal side, events need to be planned in accordance with the different licenses held by the venue, ensuring all licences are valid and all licensable activities suitably covered. All events have to meet health and safety standards, fire regulations, food hygiene standards, insurance regulations, premises licence conditions, venue hire terms and conditions and general museum policy.

On the logistical side managers must factor in setting up requirements and access for suppliers and clients; payment and cancellation policies; the pricing structure; catering requirements (do clients need to commit to a minimum number and when must they confirm final numbers and special dietary requirements); staffing; security; cleaning. It is also necessary for the customer to take out public liability insurance, at the Ashmolean for a minimum of £10 million, and this needs to be broached at the beginning of the relationship.

At the Ashmolean the details of each event are recorded on an event sheet which is reviewed at a weekly events’ operations meeting attended by the events team, caterers, front of house and security. During events the galleries are staffed by the Ashmolean’s own visitor services and security teams to ensure the smooth and safe running of each event.

Bene discussed the importance of managing client expectations and the importance of knowing your assets and their limitations, which can be presented positively to clients while still making restrictions clear. The key is to highlight the unique things that your venue can offer.  Bene also recommends knowing your competitors and what they offer. You cannot always provide people with what they are looking for, and people will appreciate and remember the quality of service if they are pointed in the direction of a venue that is more suitable to their needs.

Top Tips

  • Measure risk and then stretch the boundaries where appropriate
  • Invest time and energy in developing positive relationships with the museum’s departments
  • Network and put yourself out there – work of mouth is still the predominant way customers hear about the venue
  • Be meticulous and leave nothing to chance.

Mallett Gallery, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford © Barker Evans Photography

Film Hire
After lunch Dec McCarthy, Commercial Services Manager at the Ashmolean, shared his experience of managing the Museum as a set for filming. He explained that the Ashmolean’s income from filming is modest in comparison with some of the other Oxford venues, as it is not as old as some of the other buildings in Oxford – but has a high demand for documentary filming because of their objects, which is the Museum’s unique selling point.

He explained that the museum is usually found either through research that leads to their objects, or for commercial film hire through The Knowledge, the film industry’s Yellow Pages.

The Ashmolean requires film companies to sign a contract which covers who will be coming into the building, what they will be doing, how long they will spend, and what areas of the building they will be able to access. They also require that any filming is preceded by a reconnaissance visit to ensure there are no surprises.  For example if they are intending to bring sunlight generators, because the Ashmolean in a grade I listed building their locations may require approval from English Heritage, which takes time. Like with venue hire, film companies must take out public liability insurance for a minimum of £10 million.

See the Ashmolean’s Film Location Agreement.

The Ashmolean usually charges £350 per hour for filming, but prices are negotiated, depending on the nature of the request, such as access to additional objects or a curator’s time. Dec said that he rarely agrees to do anything for free, and the argument many film companies make that their work will provide free publicity to the museum is unmoving: the museum doesn’t need the free publicity, it needs the money. Dec did explain that on one occasion he did allow someone filming a pilot for a crime thriller they hoped to sell to Fox free filming, in exchange for them filming a short promotional film for the museum, and the promise to return if the show was picked up. He also communicated the need to negotiate on intellectual property at the outset and get the best possible deal for the museum, especially considering the lack of resource to follow up on any breach in the future.

Dec emphasised the need to stay in charge when filming goes ahead: it is your venue and they must follow your rules, you can’t be afraid to step in and tell them they can’t do something, you have a duty of care to the building, they don’t. Dec also suggested keeping the numbers in the building as low as possible, for example, if they plan to bring a significant number of extras, ask for them to be kept on a bus outside the museum rather than keeping them in the museum where they may be a security risk. Dec also highlighted the importance of carrying out a condition check before and after filming so that damages can be charged; film units can be especially prone to mistakes during the take down when they are in a hurry to get away.

Café, Ashmolean Museums, University of Oxford © Rob Wheal Photography

Case Study
The day concluded with a talk from Sue Shave, Director at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, which has been the site of significant filming including Downton Abbey, Chickens, Comic Relief, Horrible Histories, Midsummer Murders, Call the Midwife, Mitchell and Webb and more. As a site with so many different historic buildings, they are in high demand.

Sue’s top tips included:

  • Manage public expectation if they visit during filming and some of the site is closed: let them know before they pay to come in, offer a possible reduction and, if appropriate, a chance to see some of the filming.
  • Do look out for PR opportunities and get photos, but any such activities need to be checked with the film company which may impose restrictions on publicity.

As we do at all our ASPIRE events, at the end of the day we asked delegates what they would do differently in their organisation following the day. Top responses:

Improve internal communications across the museum to ensure awareness and buy in to commercial venue hire activities.

Weddings are emotionally charged, they need a dedicated members of staff: nothing worse than if the bride calls up and you can’t remember her name immediately!!

Maintain control of filming, and go high and negotiate down.

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