With construction underway on two new halls, managers at the council-owned Harrogate International Centre hope the solution to its two biggest problems is just around the corner. Mike Trudeau reports.
The Harrogate International Centre (HIC) has unrealised potential. Nestled in the centre of a northern spa village, steeped in history and boasting an elaborate centerpiece in the Royal Hall, it’s no wonder the venue has developed a loyal following of a number of small- to medium-sized shows.
However, it has been held back by two basic things: space and access. Narrow halls with low ceilings not only make it impossible to hold some of the larger displays, but the lack of direct trains adds an 30-minute ride on a rickety commuter train, presenting both a psychological and logistical barrier.
With a total of 13,202sqm of exhibition space spread over eight halls, it’s not the biggest venue in the UK by a long shot. Also, with sloped ceilings dipping below the three-metre mark, the quarters can feel cramped.
Fortunately, plans for spacious new exhibition halls and lobbying campaigns for improvemed train access will potentially give the small exhibition town a competitive boost.
The final frontier
“Our halls work very well generally,” says HIC MD Stuart Quin, “but they suffer from low ceiling height and access can be difficult. The width can be difficult as well because they are too narrow. Going forward we need halls that can easily accommodate what events are demanding these days.
“Height is obviously an issue,” says Robert Anslow, founder of Harrogate Nursery Fairs. “Loading and breakdown is never easy, but you get round it.”
Fortunately, the HIC has been taking very active steps to address these problems.
Last month, venue staff and exhibition organisers celebrated the formal ground breaking for two new halls.
Due to open in autumn 2011, managers of the HIC hope the new space will take big steps towards solving one of the venue’s biggest challenges.
"From my point of view it's very exciting," says David Tallent, director of G&T Events, organiser of tipper-truck exhibition Tip-ex. "Although we do get our trailers and trucks into halls A and B, we have to limit overall height." He adds that only hall M can comfortably fit the bigger machines involved in the exhibition.
“The new halls willl be much more suitable for our products,” he adds.
Tallent last month committed to holding Tip-ex at the HIC in 2012 and 2013.
Although Hall M is taller than either new hall, the added floor space will mean a lot for heavy-equipment and big-stand shows like Tip-ex.
“The two new halls are nearly as tall as M but much taller than the rest of the ones we use now,” says Tallent.
As it is now, manouevring a tipper-truck or other big display component is like trying to get a large sofa up a spiral staircase.
Hall M is eight metres high, but the other halls are mostly three and a half metres high on average, and as low as two and a half metres where the sloped roofs meet the walls.
Averaging six metres tall, the new halls will accommodate large features and stands that would otherwise have to pass Harrogate by.
“We need halls that can easily accommodate what events are demanding these days,” says Quin. “There is a tendency for exhibitors to book space only, instead of shell scheme.” He adds that exhibitors who use the same big stands at multiple exhibitions every year will be discouraged by the daunting prospect of cramming their stands in to the lower-ceilinged halls, if it is even possible. As larger exhibitors attract other smaller exhibitors as well as visitors, their absence has a knock-on effect.
If you build it, will they come?
If the new halls solve the problem of height and width restriction, it will open the venue up to a pool of trade shows and events that would otherwise stay away. There is, however, still the problem of access.
“There is a shortage of parking,” says Tallent, “but then it doesn’t cost a fortune like it would in big cities.”
Although HIC contains two sizeable underground parking lots, there is no significant over-flow room in the surrounding streets. Harrogate Borough Council, owners of HIC, have devised a unique way of getting buses from parking lots outside the town centre to the venue without hassle: the ‘green wave’.
Quin says: “We have in the past worked with traffic engineers to ensure that in certain periods the lights to access the town would be coordinated with the buses of the delegates.
“It’s not something we do all the time,” he adds. “We do a number of events when the number of delegates staying outside the hotel is significant. When the cameras saw the coaches coming they could make the lights go green.
“It was a matter of the community using the facilities available to support an event,” he adds.
The other access issue is that rickety extra link from Leeds or York.
“There is a strong, overt lobbying attempt for a direct rail line to Kings Cross in London,” says Quin. “35 or 40 per cent of our delegates come from London and South East England.
“There is also a move to improve the local links. The rolling stock is old and tired. What we need is a convenient local rail link to Leeds or York. Better rolling stock and more frequent,” he says.
“The interest in the new halls is quite encouraging.”
“Our meeting cycle seems to be a year behind everyone else and so we were later in to recession and will be later out of it,” Quin concludes.
The Harrogate International Centre and the town of Harrogate itself have a lot to offer the prospective organiser: a tight-knit community, social atmosphere, a surrounding town appreciative of visiting events business, as well as a historical and centrally-located venue.
With the construction on promising new halls underway and active lobbying for better train service, the HIC is seeking to address two of its main complaints and increase its competitiveness among northern venues.