Conferences are undergoing fundamental change. Gone are the days
when delegates would sit patiently and be talked at. A conference
nowadays is more likely to be called a forum or an event and will
include workshops, panel discussions, live demonstrations and one-to-one
More often than not, there will be activities, video links to other
sites and new features, particularly for IT-related events, like an
These trends were recently showcased at Confex ’97, held at London
Olympia from February 25 - 27. Representatives from the meetings and PR
industry attended debates on the value and economic impact of the
meetings industry, the impact of market changes on facility design,
technology and services, as well as the impact of the European Union on
the market and global conference and incentives logistics.
’Developments in conference programmes will lead to added value for the
organiser and for the audience,’ says Pete Brady, chief executive of
Clearwater Communications, which launched its new global Internet venue
finding service at Confex ’97. ’This will be more important in the
future because it is already difficult to get people to attend a meeting
if they’re not employed by the company sponsoring it.’
The recession was one of the biggest catalysts for this revolution.
Companies are thinking much harder now about why they are holding an
event and what they hope to achieve.
’Events that might have been an annual beano in the 1980s are becoming
more focused and part of a company’s total communication strategy,’ says
Duncan Beale, managing director of Line Up Productions. ’Because of the
recession, events had to be made to work. There had to be a pay-back.’
And because companies are finding that there is a pay-back, Beale says
more budget is being allocated to below-the-line activity like
conferences and roadshows.
The conference business is certainly growing following its
recession-induced slump. According to the latest British Tourist
Authority’s British Conference Market Survey, conferences in the UK
showed healthy expansion in 1995 over the previous year.
A survey based on monthly reports from 100 venues in the UK showed a 29
per cent increase in the number of events held, with growth in all types
of venue except universities, which tend to be used for large
association meetings. Residential centres saw the biggest growth, up 58
per cent on 1994, followed by city hotels, which enjoyed a 41 per cent
rise. The majority of events still take place in city centre hotels (36
per cent), with some 10 per cent of buyers choosing country house
venues. But trends are for shorter events, starting early and finishing
late to avoid an overnight stay.
Even so, hotels in the UK are enjoying boom times. ’UK hotels had
fantastic occupancy in 1996, their best year since the 1980s,’ says
David Hackett, chairman of event management company The Travel
Organisation. ’Its difficult to find space now and you have to book
early. The biggest problem in Britain is the lack of facilities to host
the growing numbers of big events.’
As far as overseas events go, budgets are slowly increasing as
confidence in the economy returns. The Travel Organisation carried
26,184 delegates on overseas trips in 1994; 27,046 in 1995; and 34,500
in 1996 - an impressive leap.
’But the thing to remember is that we took the same number of groups -
there were just more people,’ says Hackett. ’It’s not that there are
more events, just bigger numbers and higher spend.’
The three most active market sectors in event organising, Hackett
continues, are automotive, financial and IT, running anything from
dealer events and product launches to staff sales incentives.
But how much does the PR function actually include event management?
At last year’s Confex exhibition, 33 per cent of the 9,143 visitors had
a PR, marketing or sales role, with some five per cent having PR as
their main responsibility.
Press conferences and launches aside, some agencies do get involved in
arranging corporate meetings, although specialist conference organisers
tend to take a dim view of this. ’We recently had to bail a PR company
out that was trying to run a show,’ says Hackett. ’The client realised
they were incapable.’
PR companies tend to worry about the message but not the environment in
which it is delivered. This one hadn’t considered registration, badging,
timetabling or information on how to get to the venue. Unless the
environment is positive from the start, delegates won’t be in the right
frame of mind.’
Many hotels however, accept the fact that a lot of companies will not
use a specialist and over the last few years, the service on offer has
become far more streamlined. Several groups now have dedicated
conference desks, acting as a one-stop-shop for enquiries and most
promise a single point of contact once an event is booked. Hilton
National and Hilton International have Meeting 2000, which includes an
easy booking guarantee, fully equipped conference rooms, dedicated staff
in each hotel, flexible meal service and fast checkout.
Queens Moat House hotels, now rebranded as Moat House and County Hotels,
is currently introducing purpose-built meeting rooms into selected
Modern Meeting rooms are based on extensive client research and include
state-of-the-art technical facilities, audio-conference lines, cordless
phones and super comfortable meeting chairs.
Thistle Hotels, meanwhile, offers a venue finding service,
Conferenceplan, which covers more than 90 hotels in England, Scotland
and Wales. The service promises immediate response to enquiries,
complimentary basic equipment in meeting rooms, clear terms and
conditions and guaranteed one hour lunch service.
The question is, how do you gauge the effectiveness of what, hopefully,
was a successful combination of message and logistics?
The trend in the 1990s is to evaluate every event, according to Jerry
Starling, managing director of The Eventworks. ’Before anyone
commissions a meeting, they should analyse in detail what the purpose of
the event is. Only by doing this can specific measurable objectives be
set,’ he says.
Something else the meetings industry is beginning to embrace is new
technology, from video-conferencing to live Internet demonstrations.
Video-conferencing - although not exactly new is now being used in
meetings to link several sites around the world. Friendly Hotels, Hilton
and De Vere are particularly active in promoting this.
But video-conferencing is unlikely to affect the conference business
adversely. ’It will reduce some meetings,’ says Iain McKeracher,
chairman of the European Tele-conferencing Federation (ETF). ’But you
can’t replace the social side of business. Besides, there is a natural
desire to meet someone in the flesh who you’ve met over a
Video-conferencing adds an edge to conferences, too. The term live
theatre took on new meaning at the European Society of
Anaesthesiologists recent event. Several hundred delegates in Londons
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre witnessed revolutionary surgery,
live, in Scotland, on a video-conference link.
’Everyone was on the edge of their seats,’ says Professor Gavin Kenny,
who developed the surgical technique. The alternative, a pre-recorded
video, would have lost all the spontaneity.
LAST RESORTS: TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE UNUSUAL AND EXOTIC
With money being spent once more on overseas events, more exotic and
unusual destinations are trying to get a slice of the action. Iceland,
India and southern Africa all vied for attention at Confex, while
destinations battered by international politics like Israel, Egypt and
Northern Ireland are back in force with new marketing campaigns.
Places that were once unacceptable, such as South Africa, or too
far-flung for anything but the highest-spending clients, like Australia,
are now high on the list of in destinations.
Whole new areas are opening up, too. Abu Dhabi has just launched a
multi-million dollar conference and exhibition centre. Awareness of the
United Arab Emirates capital city will, no doubt, have been boosted by
the superb PR job done by Dubai, the marketing of which has transformed
the desert city into a winter playground with world-class conference
But an attractive venue does not have to be a glamorous one. Conferences
in Northern Ireland, apparently, pull in the delegates with a curiosity
factor. ’I don’t know of any conference where we have ended up with
fewer numbers than planned for,’ says Northern Ireland convention bureau
manager Michael McCormick.
Certain overseas conferences do, however, have an element of jolly in
them because the choice of venue seems to influence the number of people
who turn up. Powder Byrne is a corporate ski specialist which runs a lot
of banking conferences and seminars in the Alps and includes Morgan
Stanley, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs and BZW on its client list. ’For
a bank, the cost of a three-day ski trip is a drop in the ocean,’ says
director Will Herrington. ’One client told us that their whole weekend
event was cheaper than renting a marquee at the Wimbledon final. And by
holding a conference in a prestigious resort, they know they’ll attract
good speakers and the right delegates from all over the world.’
A problem for anyone organising overseas events is access to information
at short notice. With lead times so short, conferences often have to be
put together with just weeks of notice. This has been made easier by the
profusion of new sites on the Internet dedicated to the conference
Destination management companies, conference centres and hotels are all
featured on the Incolink site (http://www.incolink.com/), while
Clearwater Communications’BusinessMeetings.com lists convention centres
worldwide, along with details of support services and local
infrastructure. The system will automatically fax or e-mail suppliers
for prices and availability if required.
HOW SUITE IT IS: BOOM TIMES FOR NEW CENTRES
London is undergoing a surprising amount of investment, spurred on by
the need for bigger and more hi-tech meeting venues.
Hotels are pouring money into new facilities. The Royal Lancaster, for
example, is undergoing a pounds 7.2 million refurbishment, while the
Gloucester Hotel has opened its pounds 14 million Millennium Conference
Centre in Kensington, with over 1,100 sq metres of function space.
Last year saw the opening of the pounds 40 million Regents Plaza and
Suites in Maida Vale, a modern four star venue, accommodating up to 200
for meetings, and the reopening of the Royal Garden in Kensington
following a pounds 28 million refurbishment.
London’s newest hotel, the Metropolitan on Park Lane, is likely to be a
big hit in PR and media circles for small, exclusive gatherings, with
its chic interiors and DKNY-clad staff. The meeting room takes up to
On a larger scale, the ExCeL exhibition centre, planned for the
Docklands, is still scheduled to open in late 1998. The London Arena,
meanwhile, has managed to change its image from a concert venue to a
serious conference centre - some 60 per cent of its business in 1996
came from corporate events.
Good, purpose-built convention centres, however, continue to be fairly
thin on the ground in London and the Queen Elizabeth II centre in
Westminster is still unusual in offering many features essential to
press launches and events. ISDN lines for video-conferencing, vigilant
security, in-house edit suites and production facilities and
award-winning catering by Prue Leith have all contributed in attracting
events like the Windows 95 launch, the Euro 96 press events, BBC Sports
Review of the Year and Shell’s AGM.
Outside London, there’s a trend towards unusual venues for conferences
and hospitality. Sports grounds are investing millions in meeting
Kempton Park race course is rebuilding its conference and exhibition
space, while Murrayfield in Edinburgh is building 10 boxes and 16
suites, each seating between 14 and 40, for hospitality and small
In Huddersfield, the Alfred McAlpine Stadium, one of the most advanced
in the country, has been granted pounds 5.2 million of lottery money for
a new stand which will include a hi-tech conference suite. ’The stadium
is already a great crowd-puller,’ says Irene Zdziebko, sales and
marketing manager for Ring and Brymer, which operates the hospitality at
the stadium. ’A lot of buyers are looking for unusual venues now.’
Scotland’s largest conference venue, the Glasgow-based Scottish
Exhibition and Conference Centre , is building a new pounds 30 million
conference facility alongside the main building which will seat up to
600. For small, exclusive press receptions, the city also has a superb
boutique hotel, One Devonshire Place.
Edinburgh, meanwhile, has some unusual venues for press launches or
events - if the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s private club is too staid,
the Deep Sea World aquarium will do press events in an underwater
perspex tunnel with sharks circling above.