“ Built for functionality, this facility consists of 3 auditoriums, 18 breakout rooms and a multi-purpose hall. „
The BT Convention Centre in Liverpool's King's Dock is a shiny new building that is part of the new Echo Arena complex - known collectively as the ACC, the Arena and Convention Centre - that was opened in January 2008. Despite only being open a short time, it has already made something of an architectural statement on the area, becoming a new landmark on the Liverpool waterfront. The centre claims to be the most environmentally friendly building of its type in the world (but interestingly doesn't say what it means by "type" - the most eco friendly conferencing facility? Glass fronted building? Building of this size? What?). The ACC is the UK's first purpose-built arena and convention centre in one building, and was named after a sponsorship deal with BT, the official sponsor of the Capital of Culture campaign (Liverpool of course being the European Capital of Culture 2008). Due to its association with BT, the centre therefore claims to have the latest technology and to be one of the best equipped convention centres in Europe (although those of us who have tried to use BT's technology ourselves might dispute this). It has 18 meeting rooms of various size and 70,000 square feet of exhibition space. The International Confex Conference held at Earl's Court in February apparently named it the best event venue in the UK - before any delegates had even entered the building. While I'm not entirely sure who Confex are (a convention convention maybe?), this does sound like quite an impressive boast.
- "A Beginning"
I recently attended a training course in the convention centre, and having read some of this information that was supplied about it I was quite excited to be visiting such an innovative building. On my arrival in Liverpool the night before my course, I found the area was crowded with people flocking to the arena for whatever show was on that night; it seemed like a popular attraction, and this only increased my enthusiasm for visiting the building the next day. Having stayed the night in a hotel in the nearby Albert Dock, I approached the ACC from the arena end; the building is huge, and shaped a bit like a figure 8, with the arena in one half and the convention centre in the other, and a huge glass frontage all the way around. It is built in a pedestrianised area (with car park and taxi drop off points nearby) near office blocks, and just feet away from the dockside. As I was approaching from the "wrong" side, I was pleased to note that the entrance was well signposted, to save me having to walk all the way around! The outside had that glossy look that many new buildings exude, and it impressed me as much close up as it had when I saw it from a distance.
- "Good Morning, Good Morning"
My first impression of the interior was good. There was a large entrance space with lots of natural light coming in, a well laid out registration area for delegates, and everything was clean, new and brightly coloured (although admittedly after I had been in the building for a couple of hours I had began to think of the colour scheme as being something chosen by an artistically-challenged pre-schooler, as it was dominated by loud, and not necessarily complimentary, primary colours). Another positive element was that they offered a cloakroom (for £1 per item), something far too often lacking in UK venues in my experience, and I was only too pleased to bestow my overnight bag upon the nice lady running it. The rest of the entrance space - which stretched across the entire width of the building, I should add - seemed strangely empty and unused. There were free computers for delegates to check their vitally important emails on, but only four of them. This seemed a little pointless to me; too few machines to service the large numbers of people using the building, they seemed to be there to fill a space and tick a "we have free internet available" box than to be actually useful. I walked past this area several times during the day and there was never a PC free. Not that I wanted to visit dooyoo when I was supposed to be working, of course. Oh no.
- "Here Comes The Sun"
Moving upstairs to the first floor on the escalators (what? no stairs? I thought this was meant to be an environmentally friendly building!), we have a selection of meeting rooms leading off a lobby. While the lobby has glass walls on two sides giving impressive views out over the sunny waterfront (good), it also has a selection of strangely coloured and shaped furniture, most of which I am able to confirm was not designed with comfort in mind (bad). Still, the seats were fashionable, which is the main thing - and you wouldn't be able to fully appreciate how stylish it all is with people sitting all over them and spoiling the lines, would you? The upstairs lobby also felt quite warm and stuffy, which of course is the big downside to have two large glass walls on a summer's day.
The particular meeting room I was in was an internal one, painted in a rather garish bright orange and well equipped with the latest AV equipment, which ran smoothly for the whole day. What struck me as odd, though, was that a venue that had had so many eco-friendly claims put forward for it would have rooms that had no windows; anyone using it would therefore be automatically dependent on electric lighting and air conditioning. However efficient these systems were, I still can't help but feel that natural light and opened windows would have created a more comfortable environment than the impression of being hermetically sealed in a bright orange box that rapidly got very hot (as well as saving an awful lot of electricity). That is the other thing about being reliant on electrical devices - they don't always work. A large group of us sat sweltering in that orange box over the course of a very long day because the air con decided it didn't feel like working that day, there were no windows to open, and the door couldn't be left open because we were next door to a service lift, and it simply got too noisy. As interesting as my course was, sitting in such an uncomfortable environment really spoiled it for me.
With the arrival of our morning break, we were all only too happy to escape our stuffy room and sample the refreshments on offer. I had expected these to be put out in the lobby for us (what with the service lift and all), but instead we all had to troop down to the basement to get it ourselves. Now, admittedly my experience of such things is limited, but what there is of it suggests that a "coffee break" will also include tea, a cold drink (usually water) and, if you're lucky, some biscuits too. Well, there was coffee and tea...but that was it. I wasn't bothered about the biscuits, but I was parched and (like a lot of people) don't drink tea and coffee. One of the catering assistants did fetch me a glass of lukewarm tap water, but given that the speakers and course organisers were presented with a tantalisingly frosty jug of ice water at the start of each session, I think it wouldn't have been too difficult to provide the same for us delegates. The same situation was found at lunch - despite the obvious heat of the building and my earlier request - but fortunately I happened upon a water cooler by the reception desk when I went to order a taxi to take me to the train station at the end of the day (it was hiding behind a group of other people from the course, also desperate for a cool drink).
But what of the lunch? Well, it was a pretty Spartan affair with a pathetically small pile of sandwiches, a small quantity of some unidentifiable hot food, and a bowl of oranges. This was a stand-up buffet with nowhere to rest my plate while I ate, so just how exactly am I meant to eat an orange? Swallow it whole? With the buffet being so small I felt guilty about taking enough food to fill me up, so I ended up eating one small and very bad cheese sandwich (in fact, given how bad it was I was rather glad I hadn't taken anything else). I was distinctly unimpressed; my employers had spent nearly £300 on fees for a one day course, and here I was trying to fill myself up on water from the cooler because the catering was so bad and there was nowhere I could buy food in or near to the conference centre.
- "It's All Too Much"
As much as my course interested me, it was a relief to leave the BT Convention Centre in the end; I arrived optimistic and left tired, hot, hungry and a bit fed up. After being open less than six months, I'll accept that there still could have been teething troubles in the building, but to cater for visitors so poorly, especially when they had doubtless been paid a lot of money to host our event, was really unacceptable. The building may have looked good from the outside, but inside I found the design and layout poor; it was ugly (to my eyes), it made bad use of space, and I hated the feeling that I was hermetically sealed in a giant glass bubble. A few more water coolers wouldn't have gone amiss either. But, in the interest of fairness, I will say that the receptionist was helpful in booking a taxi for me and the toilets (when you found them) were numerous and clean. This building is a triumph of style over substance, of aesthetics taking precedence over the needs of the people who would actually use the building. I hope the arena is better!
Further Details: www.accliverpool.com/venue/cc/index.asp
(P.S. Yes, I know there is more to Liverpool than the Beatles, but I was in need of inspiration, OK? Let It Be).