The following survey is based on data gathered from users of hearing space between 2013 and 2015. We canvassed counsel and arbitrators around the world with a detailed questionnaire on their hearing centre preferences, building on research from previous editions. You can see a geographical breakdown of our responders in Table A. This survey represents a blend of new and older research.
Are arbitration-specific hearing spaces really necessary? You'd think so – just judging by how many new ones have been announced in recent years.
But not everybody likes them.
"I have a strong preference for holding the hearing at a hotel," one Swiss counsel told GAR: "This enables us to set up ‘war rooms' on-site that can be accessed outside of ordinary working hours. This greatly facilitates hearing preparation before and after the actual hearing time. In contrast, at [a well-known arbitration hearing centre] for example, it is very difficult or impossible to access the breakout rooms before or after standard working hours. For this reason alone, I am not a big supporter of stand-alone dedicated arbitration hearing centres."
Not everybody, of course, wants to visit their files in their pyjamas (and not every hearing centre is off-limits to those who do – many enable it). But it shows that people have preferences.
Overwhelmingly, users prefer hearing centres to hotels (Table B): some respondents even felt the need to add "by far" or "for sure" to emphasise their vote for centres. This isn't a symptom of there being something wrong with hotels, but rather a reflection of a pervasive attitude among respondents that bespoke hearing spaces are somehow safer, given the pressure-cooker world of international arbitration.
"My view is that a hearing centre is better equipped to assist lawyers in a demanding environment," said one source. "A hearing centre is more likely to be responsive to urgent requests than a hotel." Another source emphasised the fact that no one else understands the needs of an arbitration like a centre built to purpose.
While Table C may appear to show general satisfaction with the current stock of arbitration hearing space in the world, the opposite is in fact true. Many of those who opted for "neutral" made it clear they were in fact dissatisfied in a follow-up question. Cities or regions that emerged as problematic (or, as the questionnaire put it, "where finding a good space for a hearing can be difficult") included Geneva ("Go to Lausanne," was one person's tip), Zurich, New York and Stockholm (prior to recent improvements in the latter two cities). Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, India and "the whole of Africa and many parts of Asia" were also described as "difficult".
But wherever you are in the world, there's usually at least one hotel of sufficient quality happy to oblige.
The Swiss Arbitration Hub, launched by the Swiss Arbitration Association in 2013, for instance, claims that dedicated hearing space is not necessary, or even desirable, as the country has a surplus of hotels and conference centres that routinely host arbitral hearings as well as arbitration-specific service providers. The website allows users to select a region or city for the hearing and then choose hotels, hearing rooms and breakout rooms, which can be arranged on the basis of size and budget.
So why the dissatisfaction? Well, for one thing, availability.
"Have you tried booking [meeting] space for a long period in Hong Kong?" said one contributor to our survey. "It's nearly impossible to book the same hotel for the entire duration you're likely to require." (This, he added, is true even of the hotel you will actually be sleeping in.)
"In some cities," agreed another respondent, "it's always a scramble to find your space." And it's worse, he added, when other big events are on, "like fashion week!"
The client can make it hard too: they sometimes balk at paying top dollar at an expensive hotel. One contributor remembered a four-star hotel that was "so bad we immediately tried to upgrade our rooms to the suites". Unfortunately, their opponents had arrived a day earlier and had the same idea. "So none were left." The case settled on the first day "and we were all very happy to leave".
The second key problem is familiarity. Laying out and minding an arbitration is an art unto itself and, with the exception of a few hotels in Switzerland, it's not one in which hotel staff have usually been trained. That creates annoyances such as the continual re-explaining of room layouts, mix-ups over security and confidentiality, and confusion about who's allowed access to which rooms.
"You can make hotels work," said one US counsel and arbitrator, "but it definitely requires a site visit beforehand to avoid surprises."
Even then there are always things you can't plan for. The life of a grand hotel is rich and varied, and will often spill over into the arbitration. One arbitrator reported having to move his hearing after an Arab princess arrived unannounced and demanded the use of the hotel's entire conference area. Where did the arbitration end up? Downstairs, in the disco.
It's more likely, however, that you'll be interrupted by the noise of a wedding DJ or a round of "Happy Birthday". And sometimes it's none of the above. "My bête noire," says a Dutch lawyer, "is soup, which our hotels insist on serving if it's part of the lunch deal – irrespective of time. They just leave it there, and then you've got a bubbling smelly pot in the middle of a room. On one occasion they left it in the breakout room overnight. Not only was the smell truly impressive, the thing got so overheated that I burnt my hand lifting the lid."
Law firm offices or the arbitrators' offices may be an option; indeed Table B finds a small percentage of users who favour them above any other option. But the meeting rooms in firm offices can be small, and arbitrators' chambers aren't neutral territory. (The survey produced anecdotal evidence that a few law firms are indeed unwilling to welcome a hearing – with all the hubbub it can entail – into their otherwise silent halls.)
Approve or disapprove, more bespoke hearing centres are appearing. So, what do users most prize in a hearing centre?
In June 2015, Lord Goldsmith QC provided a good answer to that question. He told attendees at the launch of the British Virgin Islands Arbitration Centre:
"It should offer the services that its clients have become used to – comfortable surroundings that are conducive to work; easy and quick internet access; easy access to refreshment and accommodation; transcription and translation facilities; adequate hearing rooms able to accommodate small hearings and large events […]; good document management systems."
As a list of deciding factors in users' choice of hearing centre, this is hard to argue with. When we asked arbitrators and counsel what would make them favour one centre over another, their responses adhered closely to Goldsmith's checklist (Table D).
These findings suggest that, for now at least, it's the basics that matter most: a good location, value for money, adequate space and comfort, reliable IT and helpful staff.
Having established these criteria, the logical next question is, which centres best fulfil each category?
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the more recently established centres often seem to be setting the benchmark.
One source, in support of their nominations for NYIAC (established 2013), said, "It's had the opportunity to learn from and improve upon the older centres," which is true of other young centres too.
Location, as Goldsmith noted and our respondents affirmed, is the key factor in the choice of a hearing centre.
Maxwell Chambers offers incredible facilities, and is in a great part of town. NYIAC has been able to tap into the pent-up demand for hearing space in New York. The impression Toronto-based Arbitration Place has made is all the more remarkable in this context, given its host city hasn't yet attained similar "hub" status.
While a "good" location is less measurable than room size or cost, and more open to personal taste, Table E shows that some centres have, by general consensus, placed themselves well in their home cities.
The HKIAC's "excellent location at the heart of Central" won over more voters than any other centre, and they were happy to go into detail. One stated, "Without a doubt, the HKIAC has the best location – it's close to a large number of business hotels and is convenient for law firms. It also has excellent transport links and is very near the Airport Express."
The IDRC was also praised mainly for its centrality, but Maxwell Chambers' feedback was more mixed: respondents noted that it was harder to access good hotels and that the offices didn't have as central a location as some would like. But the appeal of Singapore itself appears to be enough to assuage these concerns.
Established centres in Paris and London generated a fair amount of adverse comments when it came to perceived costliness, while newer counterparts generated almost none.
Table F shows the average cost for hearing space per day in US dollars, while Table G shows the hearing centres that respondents said offered the best value for money. Arbitration Place and ICSID have been omitted from the second chart because flat-rate figures were unavailable.
PERCEIVED VALUE FOR MONEY
The HKIAC and Maxwell Chambers – while ranked in first and second place respectively for perceived value for money relative to other centres and hotels – are also among the most expensive of the centres surveyed. When asked for further comment, sources noted that the HKIAC's costs were easily justified by the benefits it offers: "The prices at the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre are very competitive and very reasonable, taking into account of the location and facilities provided," said one, while another praised the centre's "Reasonable prices compared to other hearing venues in the region."
While we found that, true to respondents' perceptions, the ICC hearing rooms in Paris and the IDRC in London are also among the most expensive centres (with the latter topping this list at more than US$1,600 per day on average) they were ranked similarly to cheaper competitors like the ICDR, AIDC or KLRCA when it came to delivering value for money.
ROOM SIZE AND COMFORT
While neither the ICC or Maxwell Chambers lead the field in terms of available space – the refitted IDRC in London is the largest centre in the survey (see Table H) – it came out on top in a category where voters argued the importance of everything from capacity to shelf-space, and from overall tidiness to the quality of chairs.
Maxwell Chambers enjoyed vocal support: it "stands out for the variety of room sizes, layouts to choose from, good natural lighting, easy availability and user-friendliness," said one user, while another praised its "24-hour availability and holistic support (as well as the best post-it pads ever)".
The ICC stood out for the volume of recommendations.
"All should (and seem to) have these," said one user about IT facilities at hearing centres – and yet there are variations.
Here, perhaps more than in other categories, the nature of the case at hand was relevant to users' recommendations. At the Peace Palace, for instance, each IT and WiFi setup is bespoke – the needs of that case are taken account of in the setup, which is created and dismantled anew each time. "[The] advantage [of this] is arguably a better WiFi and IT service that targets specific user needs and has immediate troubleshooting," said one source "[The] disadvantage is greater cost for IT vis-à-vis hearing centres."
Others were recommended for particular innovative services: "We used the videoconferencing facilities of Maxwell Chambers@Centennial in order to cross-examine an expert witness in London, and they were very good. The video and audio were very clear and there was very little lag."
The HKIAC was again the most highly nominated centre, combining innovation, such as "videoconferencing at relatively short notice," with everyday essentials like free, reliable WiFi.
And in spite of the expectations of some respondents, the recommendations we received cut across the generational divide and recognised qualities in both old and new centres. That commentators frequently noted that there was "no significant difference" between most centres in this regard speaks well to those older operations that have retrofitted recently. Those that haven't, meanwhile, were criticised.
HELPFULNESS OF STAFF
Unlike other categories we considered, our questions about the quality of centres' staff garnered very few critical responses – "I am not aware of any centre where there is not a helpful staff," said one source, and another added that the staff in all the centres he'd used were "attentive and helpful".
Particularly strong praise was reserved for the HKIAC, where the staff are "very warm-hearted" and "really amazingly helpful", and Maxwell Chambers, where they are "quick", "responsive" and "very welcoming".
Again, the "other" section is large, suggesting a broader cross-section of centres that have got this aspect of their offering right.
The survey also asked which centres respondents had heard good things about but never used – perhaps unsurprisingly, considering how long they've been operating, the newer centres dominated the list. However, the fact that they were mentioned at all speaks well of their respective publicity campaigns and the power of word-of-mouth. "I have used the prior HKIAC facilities but I understand the current facilities are exceptional," said one source, "I've heard great things about the new New York Arbitration Centre," said another, while the new KLRCA centre "has potential to be the best outside the Peace Palace".
If nothing else, the GAR survey highlights how far things have come in a short space of time. As one contributor remembered, "For the longest time it was the exception rather than the norm that you could find good-quality arbitration centres. As a younger lawyer I recall being shocked at how poor hearing facilities were in some of the well-established seats: Paris, Zurich, Geneva."
To go back to Goldsmith's remarks, clients have become used to a certain standard of service from a hearing centre, and this standard has been set, it would seem judging by the above results, as much by regional centres like the HKIAC and Maxwell Chambers as by time-honoured institutions such as the Peace Palace.
As more and more new centres emerge, and as consensus over what makes a good centre grows, it looks like the future will be a good deal more comfortable.