A common misconception a lot of new user group leaders have is that they need the perfect location for their user group. While that thought is partially correct, there are a lot of things to consider when trying to find a location for your group.
Why Location Matters
The rule in real estate has always been "location, location, location".
The location of your user group should be somewhere people want to go, or at a minimum, at a location this centrally located to the people who would attend. Another way to think about this is that the location of a user group should be equally inconvenient for everyone.
User groups commonly meet in the evening. This means that 90% of your attendee base will get off of work around 5:00pm, and have to commute to the location of your group for the meeting. If it takes 45 minutes for someone to commute from their job to where your group is, there is a good chance that person will simply say "nevermind" and go home.
For the Hampton Roads .NET Users Group, we have had three locations over a 6 year period. The first location was on the outskirts of the greater area. Not ideal for those working on the otherside of the region - but it was our first venue, which I'll talk about more in a moment.
The second and third venues were more centrally located, with interstate access. It was nice for folks who lived close by, but the majority of our attendees were coming in equal distances in every direction. Equally inconvenient. We believe this has helped with the growth of the group overtime.
Your First Venue
As I mentioned above, our first venue was not ideal. It was a conference room at the company I worked for. It held 20 people packed in, and was not in a good location for most of our attendees. It was also in an office park that wasn't easily found via Google Maps. To combat that problem, we provided detailed instructions in our emails plus put out physical signs pointing people to the right location.
Your first venue doesn't need to be perfect.
The Roanoke .NET Users Group is famous for having started at an IHOP for it's monthly meetings.
My colleague, Bret Fisher, runs a local Meteor meetup at a Starbucks. They taken over the place on more than one occasion.
Your first venue needs to be a place people know about. Get folks coming out. The rest will take care of itself.
Consistency and Venue Hopping
Make sure that the venue you choose is stable. I've discussed in the past that you shouldn't jump dates. Consistency is key!
Venues are the same way. Your goal is to provide a location that becomes a habit to people.
Venue hopping - or sometimes I like to call it the Olympic strategy - can often keep people guessing where your meetings are being held. When a member is in doubt, they'll just go home. Remove the doubt, stay consistent.
For the Hampton Roads .NET Users Group, our current venue is going 3 years with no chance of changing. Time to time we will pack the house, and the discussion of a new venue will happen. It always concludes with "a new venue will only be discussed if we constantly pack this venue".
It could be easy to jump to a new location on a dime, but I'd warn you to look first and consider if it's the best move. I've jumped before and had to find a new venue 3 months later.
Venues don't need to be much, but here are a couple things to consider:
1. Venue Size
How many people can you fit in the venue? Can you grow marginally without needing to find a new space?
Repeating ourselves. Find a location that is equally inconvenient to everyone.
Unless your region has great public transit, consider parking. Do people need to pay to park? And be realistic. If it's "free" to park on the street, but 10 bucks to park in a garage, assume everyone is going to have to pay to park.
People need to feel safe. Is the area your group is in prone to crime? How well lit is it in the evening?
5. Proximity to After-Meeting Fares
How far are you from a diner or bar? Attendees naturally want to loiter after the meeting, so it is a good idea to have a predefined place for them to go afterwards.
Your location is important. It helps build the identity for your group, and memories will be made.
Sometime you need to go with "good enough" venues and sometimes you'll find the holy grail. Keep looking and good luck!