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Etc.venues' Alastair Stewart talks:
London-based meeting and event space company Etc.venues plans to expand to New York by the end of this year with its first of three NYC spaces on Madison Avenue. Construction began in August, and the company grew its U.S. sales team from two members to eight this year. BTN meetings editor Donna M. Airoldi spoke with CEO Alastair Stewart.
BTN: What is Etc.venues?
Stewart: We were founded in 1992, and we are No. 1 in London for what we do, which is [providing] urban venues for conferences, training, meetings and events. We have no bedrooms, so in the U.S., that is called a day center. … Companies and organizations are training people over much shorter durations and are [now] more willing to use day centers rather than venues that have overnight accommodations, [especially] as companies in many cases take out their own internal space that can be allocated for meetings or training. Over the past 12 months, we had 900,000 delegates over 18,000 events. We have 278 rooms in central London.
BTN: You position the company as an alternative to hotel spaces. What makes your venues different, aside from not offering sleeping rooms?
Stewart: The primary benefit our clients talk to us about in London is focus. We really host only business events and not any other kind of hotel-related activity with overnight guests like weddings or bar mitzvahs. [We don't] have people coming in and out for lunch or dinner on a social basis. Our total focus is business-to-business. Yet we offer all the same types of services people would expect from a hotel: food and beverage, technology and hospitality.
BTN: Who are your key customers?
Stewart: We do a lot of business with large organizations, a lot of professionals, top accountancy firms, some fairly large legal firms, large banks. All of these organizations have a strong commitment to train their people. … The second big group of customers is corporate organizers, people who put together conferences and sometimes small expositions attached to them. One thing they tell us is they can have the space to themselves and can apply their branding, and when in the space, they do not have to mix with other customers or hotel guests. It helps with security and particularly helps with branding.
BTN: Why the decision to move to the U.S. market now, and why New York?
Stewart: I've wanted to do it for five years. Customers have said, 'You will do well in New York if you offer us what you offer in London.' Almost 60 percent of our larger customers have an existing New York presence. … The cost of the best hotels in New York is very expensive, and we see a good opportunity to bring something of value to New York clients seeking what we offer. And there is some fairly tired product out there, as well, that we'd like to take on.
BTN: What makes you stand out from your other non-hotel competitors?
Stewart: Food and beverage is the key differentiator for us. We put in our own kitchens and we try to employ all our own chefs. That's an important part of our DNA. The other most important service we provide is technology. We are fanatical about the Wi-Fi being good. And it's part of the inclusive charges, which means clients don't have to spend a fortune on a third-party audio/visual contractor where the cost can run up quite significantly.
BTN: Tell me about the 360 Madison Ave. space.
Stewart: We're aiming to open in early January 2020, and we'll be investing $15 million into that space. It will be two floors of conference space, very much in the model that we've seen great success with in London. We love public transportation hubs, and Grand Central is the natural starting point for us. We have a reputation for being easily able to be found and for people to use public transport [to get to our venues]. We are taking inquiries. We've already got about $7 million in inquiries in just the [first two months after we announced the New York location]. That tells me there is strong demand for what we are going to offer.
BTN: What are the other two locations planned for New York, and what are your plans beyond New York?
Stewart: We plan to open between nine and 12 venues in three to four years' time. That's our master plan. We're very close to signing our second lease [in New York] and have a third one in the pipeline, so we'll be able to provide coverage between Midtown and Downtown. Then we'll look to expand further in the next 18 months with the next three venues.
BTN: Where will you go next?
Stewart: Initially, [we'll focus] on the East Coast, then across the States, and more globally from there. We'll start with the usual suspects: New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia. Chicago is an obvious spot for us. The larger the city the better, but for the starting point, we want to prove it out in New York.
BTN: Do you have outside funding?
Stewart: Etc.venues is funded by private equity. As part of [our expansion], we are expecting to go to the capital markets in the next nine to 12 months to raise some growth capital and will be announcing more details about that shortly. We took in two American investors last year, Gencom and global hospitality company Benchmark.
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