‘Be brave’: creating a thriving events business in heritage venues

The Director of Commercial Enterprises at National Museums Liverpool reflects on a record year hosting major events,  creating £1.3m in revenue. 

Hosting events in venues with historic significance has a unique set of challenges. But what makes cultural buildings complicated also makes them special – and provides an opportunity to deliver events with a genuine point of difference.

At National Museums Liverpool, we’ve grown our events business significantly over the past 12 months. It’s been an inspiring time for our team, which hosted 453 events and welcomed more than 28,000 guests across our seven venues in the last financial year.

Looking after some of the most visited museums outside of London means we’re often approached about venue hire and private events, but making these requests a reality isn’t always easy. We need to be considerate to our surroundings and work seamlessly alongside the day-to-day visitor operations of our art galleries and museums.

We’re lucky to have a stunning portfolio of venues, from World Museum in the city centre to Maritime Museum on the dock and the exquisite Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight village. They provide a unique range of spaces for corporate and private events – from a small boardroom with a history dating back to 1901, to a 1,000-capacity gallery.

Historic success for the events team

We launched our events department a decade ago and rebranded as Hosted by National Museums Liverpool in 2018. But it has been our post-Covid commercial strategy that has seen this area of the organisation take its most ambitious steps forward.

The pandemic hit us hard. It meant we had to refocus and work relentlessly behind the scenes to be more creative in how we use our venues as event spaces. Hosting the G7 Summit at Museum of Liverpool in December 2021 marked our return to major client events after the lockdown. With 500 guests to cater for, international delegates and VVIPs, as well as crew, it was high-profile and logistically demanding. But it became a catalyst for us. We started thinking bigger and became more confident in the complexity of events we deliver.

By networking across the city, we also now collaborate with some of the bigger venues in the region and often host fringe events during city-wide events and help to promote ‘brand Liverpool’.

The Hosted by National Museums Liverpool team (Pete Carr)

We played an exciting part in Eurovision earlier this year – with the ‘turquoise carpet’ launch event at Walker Art Gallery, spinoff events across several venues, and an ambitious catering provision for crew and artists over 10 days, as well as hosting the BBC’s media hub at the Museum of Liverpool.

Things have accelerated for us. Our run of high-profile corporate events, filming projects and other private venue hire, led us to achieve our most successful year in 2022/23.

There was 38 per cent growth in events income, compared to pre-pandemic levels (2018/19), which resulted in our events business generating more than £1 million in revenue for the first time. It was a major milestone for the team, with several regional and national award wins along the way.

Preparing for future growth

Growing at speed has brought fresh challenges. It’s crucial to respond effectively to new enquiries and have the team in place to deliver. We’ve done this by structuring our team to clearly differentiate our operations and sales processes and have strong leadership in both of those areas.

We’ve developed a great team with the skills needed to create, manage and sell events in our unique spaces. Knowing how to work successfully in the realms of heritage venues is in our DNA. We’ve made some strong new appointments too – bringing fresh ideas, enthusiasm and capacity for growth over the next three years.

Recent bookings range from corporate conferences and bespoke hospitality to location filming, wedding celebrations and our own themed evening events.

Building a commercial events strategy

We have refined the way we deliver event services and have big plans. We’ve adapted and learnt a lot. Here are some of the key things that helped our growth journey:

Sell the uniqueness

Don’t try to be something you’re not. You may not be able to offer the simplicity of a designated conferencing venue, but you are able to offer unique events spaces and locations.

Make heritage restrictions a positive

We are often faced with venue-specific restrictions. Some of our spaces are home to world-class collections, so in certain situations we have introduced a white food only policy, dancing limitations and no red wine rule. We make this a quirky element to an event though – and part of the story of such breathtaking places.

Let the spaces work for you

Recent developments saw us recreate spaces within the Museum of Liverpool to provide a ‘blank canvas’ for clients to brand and visually customise events, alongside the day-to-day visitor experience. This work has seen a 15 per cent increase in event bookings at the venue. We’ve also made a new bookable meeting area with an iconic view of the city, as we were frequently being asked for a boardroom style space on the waterfront. The team is now in the process of developing a plug and play media room for our broadcast clients too.

Work with curatorial teams

Work endlessly with your museum management and curatorial teams, to get a real understanding of the challenges and opportunities of these special spaces for the events business.

Keep evolving your offer

We recently launched an external catering service, using our renowned in-house chefs for other venues and events in the region.

Share your knowledge

Reach out to others in the industry, discuss best practice and see how things can be done differently. Our brilliant events business head of sales has visited peers in London and brought back lots of new ideas.

Most importantly, be brave. You have a special set of skills and unique spaces to offer, so test what you can deliver. Sometimes the things you think are impossible, can be achieved with a new way of thinking.