CONFERENCE CENTRES: The trend is towards residential conference venues
with full technological facilities
PRESS FACILITIEs: PCs and modems in the press room are fine, but
journalists also want peace to work
EXHIBITIONS: With so many events focused in one area, PR should play a
vital role before and during shows
A successful conference requires a combination of an appropriate venue
and a well targeted presentation. Kate Nicholas reports
News of UK and foreign investment in new and existing venues is music to
the ears of conference specialists such as Pump House Productions’
managing director Nick Eve. ‘Finding good venues of the right size,
accessibility and the right level of hospitality is a nightmare,’ says
‘There has been a desperate shortage of venues which can take large
groups of people,’ agrees The Presentation Company managing director
‘People are becoming more aware that to hold a conference you need basic
things like a better power supply, soundproof rooms and the facilities
for large groups of people to move around in.
In the conference industry we have been creating these facilities, but
often working in environments that are not designed for it.’
During the past 12 months, however, there has been a spate of
refurbishments and new buildings ranging from a pounds 1.5 million
conference facility attached to Coombe Abbey (a former Cistercian Abbey
near Coventry), to the announcement of a proposed London Docklands
Development Corporation’s Exhibition Centre.
The newly-opened Edinburgh International Conference Centre should be an
answer to most conference organisers’ prayers. It panders to the
increasing synergy between conference and exhibitions with just under
2,400 sq ft of exhibition space, a main auditorium that can fit 1,200,
an additional theatre which can accommodate 600, plus eight breakout
‘The EICC was planned specifically with the application of exhibition
and conferences in mind,’ says Rene Dee, managing director of London’s
Royal Horticultural Halls.
‘Increasingly market targeted exhibitions are running conferences
alongside as a means of attracting a wider audience, while also
providing added value. There is the understanding that if you build a
new facility you have to offer both,’ he says.
The Conference People partner Robert Enefer also pinpoints a trend
towards the use of residential conference centres: ‘People want a more
sophisticated conference facility which has a slightly more academic
atmosphere, and which has proper training rooms and support for PCs,’
says Enefer. But the clinical style facility is all the more desirable
if its technological attractions are matched by four-star leisure
facilities and accommodation.
Style Conferences has been quick to realise the potential for such
residential centres, recently adding Barony Castle, Peebles and Eastwood
Park, Bristol to its portfolio of 21 centres.
These training centres, normally used by the likes of IBM, Xerox and
BP, are increasingly available during ‘down-time’ for small scale
Earlier this month, Sedgebrook Hall owners, Hayley Enterprises also
opened a four-star conference centre at Ettington Chase near Stratford-
on Avon, offering the combined benefits of ISDN links and a golf course.
De Vere Hotels tends to lead the way in terms of hi-tech conference
hotels. The hoteliers pulled in Spectrum Communications as advisers on
the fitting out of its Southampton venue, The Grand Harbour.
The pounds 24 million hotel includes sound and lighting systems,
comprehensive cable networks, a hanging system for sound rigs and
lighting and closed-circuit television which enables delegates to keep
an eye on conference proceedings in their rooms. ‘The De Vere hotels are
unusual,’ admits Geoff Webster a partner of the Peter Rand Group.
Hi-tech gadgetry is also in vogue at the novelty end of the market. The
London Planetarium re-opened this summer, complete with a three-tiered,
interactive exhibition and a Digistar II projector which combines sound,
video and special effects to create an all-surround experience.
The IPR will be one of the first takers, using the 400-seat theatre as
the venue for its Young Communicator 1995 Awards on 30 November.
The shape of the conference is also changing as the pressure of the
recession begins to ease. ‘The methods we are being asked to employ are
very different to those of, say, three years ago,’ says Nick Eve of
‘During the recession people were unwilling to break away from the man
standing on the lectern format, even if they could afford it. But people
are now looking at more innovative approaches - they don’t just want to
be preached at.’
The whole conference concept has become interactive, according to
Earlier this year The Presentation Company’s team of animators and
designers, worked halfway through the night with break-away teams of
Whitbread staff, to create their own slick visual presentations.
Others, like Pump House Productions, use audience response devices such
as on-screen multiple questions with delegate handsets. ‘About 90 per
cent of the conferences we do now feature some sort of question and
answer session,’ says Eve.
Despite the frequency with which the term ‘multi-media’ is bandied
about, most agree that its use is something of a misnomer in the
conference industry. ‘The much publicised arrival of multi-media is not
really with us yet,’ says Eve. ‘There seem to be more 15-man-type
presentations involving multi-media packages, but this hasn’t really
transferred to the main production houses. When you have 500 people
looking at a screen it is not a mouse-driven scenario.’
Spectrum Communications chairman Peter Berners-Price believes, however,
that the growth of multi-media will have a profound effect on the
information-giving side of the industry. ‘It is becoming increasingly
practical for companies to invest in multi-media packages delivered on
CD-ROM and on a networked basis,’ he says.
‘People will be able to receive information at the time that suits them,
at a speed that suits them. With old style conferences 500 people had to
see the same thing at the same time, but multi-media means that 500 will
now have a better chance to understand.’
CD-ROM is also likely to fuel an increasing trend towards roadshows. As
Mark Wallace managing director of MWA points out: ‘The increased use of
CD-ROM programmes will enable users to present sophisticated
presentations incorporating film, video, slides, graphics, sound and
text from one easily controllable source. Programmes can be written so
that they can be easily altered by adding new graphics and text to suit
the different locations where the show will appear.’
But don’t such advances undermine the whole point of a conference?
Ironically, they are more likely to increase the need for physical
contact as staff have less face-to-face contact with management and
peers. ‘In future it will be more important for people in live networks
to receive messages though live events,’ says Wallace.
Berners-Price, also, believes that the reason for bringing people
together will change. ‘What conferences of the future will do is
encourage people to think about the information they have received and
to use the knowledge,’ he says.
Berners-Price also suggests that it may be time to stop talking in terms
of conferences and more in terms of integrated communications.
He associates the word conference with ‘...national and international
association events [where delegates] come together and confer and
expect nothing more than to listen to a learned paper.
‘In the corporate arena, we have to address more than that - conferences
must be seen as a vehicle for real understanding and motivation and not
Case study: TNT gets the message across in 60 languages
Earlier this year, international freight carrier TNT Express Worldwide
brought in The Presentation Company to launch a corporate plan on
customer service to its 13,000 staff -- 98 per cent of whom work in the
field in 211 countries, speaking around 60 different dialects and
‘The audience included people at varying levels of education and
sophistication,’ says The Presentation Company managing director Miles
‘TNT came to us and asked us how to develop the kind of architecture
which could cascade the message down through that kind of culture.’
The Presentation Company’s solution to this problem involved a series
of three large regional conferences, held in Amsterdam (where TNT has
its headquarters), New York and Singapore during September and October -
supported by a series of DIY mini-conferences.
Over 700 hours were spent interviewing TNT’s top management and writing
scripts, in conjunction with TNT’s public relations agency Shandwick,
that could convey the key messages in an easily digestible form. These
were then tried out on a series of what Johnson calls ‘sanity checkers’
- as far afield as Khartoum, the Bronx and Dublin.
The initial conferences were designed to motivate TNT’s international
management teams, but the real challenge was to convey the importance of
the customer service message at a grass roots level ‘to the telephonist
at the end of the phone in Bogota’.
To do this, the Presentation Company devised a series of DIY mini-
conference packs containing a translated script; an accompanying video
- including an introduction from the chief executive; a montage of
images and music relaying the ten core customer service values that
staff were being asked to embrace; and interviews with customers and key
managers. Depot managers responsible for running the half-day
conferences, were also offered a choice of supporting visuals on OHP, 35
mm slides or CD-ROM for a half-day conference.
Managers attended introductory workshops at the three lead conferences
and a 24-hour hot line was set up for each country.
‘The pack could be used to present equally well to 200 people as to
small groups of, say, two,’ says Johnson. ‘Some of the more
sophisticated nations are using it to hold large scale conferences of
their own,’ he added.
Venues: From coal mines to historic houses
The number and type of directories and agencies offering advice on
suitable venues is growing rapidly.
Miller Freeman Information Service’s The Blue Book and The Green Book
have, been seen as the industry bibles since 1978 - the former
providing listings of conference and exhibition venues across the UK,
the latter providing full-colour pictures and details of ‘specialist’
sites. However, increased competition has necessitated changes to the
The 1995 issues, due out in November, will contain a regional venue
finding section. ‘We are also investigating electronic versions,’ says
Elaine Soni, associate publisher. Several electronic publications are
already available. Berry Marketing Services, for example launched Venue
Directory in 1994.
This Windows-based disk directory is updated three times a year and
users are able to make notes on venues alongside the listings.
Updated every six months, CID Publishing’s Viewpoint Corporate Venue
Directory, which is available on floppy disk or CD-ROM, contains full
Venue Findings System International, publishers of disk-based
publications Venue Finder and the less memory-heavy Venue Finder Lite,
has recently put its service on the World Wide Web. The company also
produces the companion data-base Visit Planner, launched on-line at the
end of September, which lists local attractions such as historic houses.
‘Our products combine the comprehensive nature of a yearbook and the
immediacy of a daily newspaper,’ says sales and marketing manager Chris
The number of venue finding agencies is growing rapidly. Gill Smillie,
chief executive of Conference Venues Countrywide, admits: ‘Theoretically
it is a job that can be done in a back bedroom with a telephone and a
directory.’ A reputable agency, however, will guarantee the quality of
the management team at the venue and provide experienced advice and
buying power. Members of The Meetings Industry Association (MIA) also
have to adhere to a code of conduct which includes ensuring staff visit
all venues before recommending them.
Many venue finding agencies also have bespoke databases, which extend
beyond the parameters of exhibition halls and hotels. ‘We can offer a
diverse range of venues, from coal mines to aircraft hangers,’ says
Robert Enefer, a partner of The Conference People.
Regional government bureaux also offer venue finding services on demand,
from general enquiries to specific checks on availability.
Press rooms: Maximise media support
‘Press rooms are where you assume you can go to get away from people,’
says Jon Burnstein, news editor of Network News, ‘but often you can’t,
because they are full of PR people.’
His comments reflect the sentiments of many journalists who, in the
words of Sarah Harron of What Personal Computer, yearn for ‘a place to
collect your thoughts and write up your notes.’
Other exhibition gripes include a frustration at the mass of press
releases, the majority of which have negligible news value: ‘Show
organisers let anyone who has a stand put out a press pack, even when
they have nothing to say,’ says Andy Redfern, editor of PC Magazine.
Blenheim Exhibitions and Conferences attempted to redress some of the
traditional failings of the press office at Networks ’95 at Birmingham
NEC in June. The show attracted over 420 exhibitors and 370 journalists
this year. The press office was sponsored by IBM, who provided PCs,
modems and printers. Telephones were installed and an on-line news desk
service, available on each PC, contained all press releases from
exhibitors at the show.
The press office was large enough to allow for quiet areas where
journalists could relax, and to facilitate entry into the show, 150
journalist were pre-registered. ‘We tried to provide an editorial office
away from home,’ said Elizabeth Ivins, public relations manager at
However, Blenheim’s follow-up survey of 100 key journalists who attended
the exhibition showed that, for many, tranquillity came before
technology. While 90 per cent felt the layout of the press office was
exactly as it should be and 70 per cent felt pre-registration was
useful, only 50 per cent appreciated the on-line news desk.
Redfern sums up why: ‘A show is about trawling the floor, talking to
people and getting stories; there is no time to go playing around on
However, demand for facilities varies. Burnstein believes Blenheim is
showing the way forward in the UK but feels UK shows generally trail
behind their European counterparts. He cites Telecom ’95, Geneva, where
Internet access and e-mail facilities were available, with each
journalist provided with a personal e-mail address on registration.
Elizabeth Ivins reports that requests for Networks ’96 included ‘an
armed guard to keep out the PR people’.
These demands for solitude are taken seriously at Blenheim. In 1996
separate lounges will be provided for PR agencies.
Show management: Effective exhibiting made easy
Various attempts have been made since the early eighties to establish an
event for the exhibitions industry, but it wasn’t until last year that
Gordon Holt, group managing director of Show Management Services and
event organiser Keith Reading hit upon a winning formula.
Unlike previous attempts, which also embraced the conference industry,
Show ’95 focused purely on exhibitions, creating a forum for the
industry with a series of seminars and workshops. A post-evaluation
programme revealed that the seminars, although very popular, were felt
to be too short.
‘Last year we started with a series of 20 short, sharp workshops and
three or four larger sessions, but subsequent research showed that
delegates wanted more in-depth conference material,’ says Keith Reading
commercial director of Show ’95 and ’96. ‘Delegates wanted to be taken
from formulating marketing plans through to assessing the results of the
Show ’96 which opens at the Royal Horticultural Halls on 10 January,
will offer two streams of conference activity: Effective Exhibition
Management, which is aimed at organisers, consultants, contractors and
venues; and The 39 steps of Effective Exhibiting, which outlines plans
for effective marketing for the end-user. On the second day the two
streams merge for an industry forum, with a debate chaired by BBC
presenter Roy Sheppard.
The conference theme has also been clearly linked back to the exhibition
though the creation of a central interactive feature which takes
visitors through the 39 steps of effective exhibiting with interactive
displays on data capture, interactive video on CD-Rom, video production
‘Last time it was an exhibition with a conference going on alongside.
This time the show is a lot more focused,’ says Reading.
Gaining alternative media coverage at exhibitions
On 18 October, around 4,000 UK and international members of the media
turned up at Earls Court for the press day at the London Motor Show.
The day kicked off at 8.00 am with a Ford press breakfast, followed by a
further 28 press events including the world launch of the Rover 200.
But are press days all they are cracked up to be? Kursha Woodgate,
account director Argyll Public Relations who recently attended Telecom
95 in Geneva on behalf of US company Telematics International said: ‘I
am not sure the press day worked out quite the way that some exhibitors
‘These is so much noise at an exhibition it is difficult to
differentiate your client’s launch or message from others going on
Operators on the other side of the fence usually, however, feel that PRs
should be more involved in a process which often begins up to year
before the first journalist steps on to the stand. ‘PR people are often
the last to know about exhibitions and are rarely given a specific
brief,’ says NGA founder Nina Gardiner who runs many of Reed
Exhibitions’ show press rooms.
Elizabeth Ivins, PR manager at Blenheim believes, however, that PR
agencies have a vitally important role to play in the exhibition market.
‘From our stand point, they are important in making exhibitors realise
that PR is important - an issue that can easily slip through the net.’
Blenheim now plans to put out a quarterly newsletter as a reminder of
press deadlines for shows such as Systems, Database Expo and Software
Most organisers now send out some form of pre-publicity and marketing
guide and some hold exhibitor open days with seminars on subjects such
as stand psychology.
These days exhibition media relations alone is a complex business. It is
no longer enough just to stick a press pack in the press room. Many of
the major shows run a daily newspaper, others hook up with trade
magazines whose news team prowl the exhibition on the look out for
stories on a daily basis.
An increasing number of exhibitions are also now accompanied by parallel
conferences, opening up a number of valuable speaker opportunities for
clients. The London Motor Show, for example, kicked off its preview day
with an industry seminar on the globalisation of the motor industry.
‘This kind of activity gives manufacturers a platform to define the
agenda for the future, in the knowledge that their PR company has
secured the attendance of top journalists and broadcasters,’ says
Caroline Moore, group communications director for the Earls Court
According to Gill Price, QEII Conference Centre commercial director
there is, however, a major concern among exhibitors that associated
conference events will act as a distraction.
‘If you are selling space in an exhibition you have to ensure that you
also get delegates to that exhibition,’ says Price. Most organisers use
food as the lure while other insist that delegates register in the body
of the exhibition, giving them no option.
Exhibitions have inevitably become more broadcast- aware. The London
Motor Show is equipped with its own radio and TV crew. By the time the
show opened 200 hours of airtime had already been booked for pre-
recorded or live-down-the-line interviews with exhibiting companies,
which are primarily picked up by regional radio and television and
satellite and cable channels.
Live ’95 made spectacular use of narrow-cast TV, with its own exhibition
TV studio TV Live run by INM. The show, which included pre-packaged show
reels as well as live items, was distributed internally to walls of
screens and individual monitors throughout the halls.
According to Live ’95 event director Bob Denton, PR companies were
quick to pick up on the potential. Canon, used TV Live to get in-show
coverage of a sponsorship deal signed with Euro ’96, using football
stars Darren Anderton, David Platt and Teddy Sheringham as a hook to get
people to the stand.
Carlton TV’s involvement in the show provided another media outlet with
Caron Keating of the After Five programme. After Five producers met with
exhibitors to discuss ideas prior to the event. ‘While there was no
agreement that they would do a puff for the show, After Five was in a
position to focus attention on the show because they were broadcasting
live from the event,’ says Denton.
Last month also witnessed the inevitable encroachment of the Internet
into the exhibitions arena, with exhibitors using the World Wide Web to
promote their presence at Manufacturing Week. M2 Communications worked
alongside the exhibition organisers Reed to allow exhibitors to display
company and product information on its News WEB site.
But, with information flying through the airwaves and travelling down
the superhighway, will press days of the future be run in absentia?
Moore thinks not: ‘While the media is fragmenting - and at a time when
it is more difficult to get the media out of their offices - a show
remains the easiest way for journalists to make contact with all the
major players in the industry.’