FOCUS: CONFERENCES AND EXHIBITIONS - Confex presents exhibits A to Z/Talk of recession has failed to dampen the conference and exhibition industry . If anything, competition among exhibitors is hotting up to a greater degree than ever before

As the UK gears itself up for the year 2000, the conference and exhibition business appears to be booming. In 1997, the number of exhibitions increased by 37 per cent.

As the UK gears itself up for the year 2000, the conference and

exhibition business appears to be booming. In 1997, the number of

exhibitions increased by 37 per cent.

But there are fears in some quarters that belts may be tightened in

1999, in anticipation of millennium extravaganzas or due to fears of


In these circumstances, large or lavish events may seem


However, Rosie Featherstone, managing director of communications agency

Audax - which supplies PR services to the exhibition and conferences

industry - thinks that such events are as important as ever.

’Often the only way to attract a buyer’s attention is at a trade

exhibition, so exhibitions are getting larger and larger and the levels

of professionalism and quality of stand design is increasing,’ she


It is not just attitudes towards the purpose of exhibitions which are

changing. The planning process itself is also undergoing a


Back-slapping jamborees are for the most part heading out of vogue, as

the economic climate forces issues such as raising standards and

productivity back to the top of the agenda.

Public and private expenditure on promoting the UK as a world class

destination shows an underlying long-term confidence in the UK’s events


However, the Meetings Industry Association’s (MIA) quarterly survey of

members’ views on current trends in the conference buying market,

published last December, indicates that the meetings industry as a whole

is moving at a faster pace. There is a noticeable trend towards later

bookings with 80 per cent of respondents stating that the average

booking lead time was less than three months. This suggests that while

the budgets for events still exist, companies are nervous of committing

themselves to long-term expenditure.

The MIA report also shows a decrease in the size of meetings, with the

majority of meetings attended by less than 50 people. Most

significantly, seven out of 10 respondents stated that only 50 per cent

of conference bookings were residential, with an equal number now taking

place during the course of one day.

However, Tony Rogers, executive director of the British Association of

Conference Destinations (BACD) thinks that it is too early to tell how

current business worries are affecting his industry. ’The big trade

associations book events two or three years in advance,’ he explains. In

addition, he says that much depends on the kind of meeting being


’Companies still have to hold AGMs,’ he says, ’and when times are hard,

it is more important than ever to motivate the sales force.’

For PR practitioners involved in putting events together, the good news

is that continuing investment in exhibition and conference centres is

broadening the number of venues available.

Confex, the industry’s most prestigious showcase of new and existing

conference centres will be held at Earls Court 1 from 2-4 March. The

exhibition has been rebranded International Confex ’99, to reflect the

increased focus on the UK as ’the world’s leading millennium

destination’. Now in its 17th year, Confex will feature over 1,300

exhibitors and promises to attract an audience of more than 9,000.

The show will be divided into key industry sectors: UK venues and

destinations; international venues and destinations; corporate

hospitality and events, and event support suppliers.

To help visitors identify areas of interest, these four sectors will be

clearly defined by colour coding - including the carpet, stand

numbering, signage and on-site visitor floorplans. There will also be

fully trained guides roaming the aisles to offer assistance. However,

for the majority of visitors who are short on time and want to prepare

in advance, this year’s Confex also boasts a comprehensive web site, so

the nature of exhibitors’ business and location can be identified in


Information on a wide range of new conference centres will be available

from either the various tourist office stands or individual stands at

International Confex ’99. The most recent developments in Scotland, for

example, include the 85-room Carnoustie Golf Course Hotel and Resort,

which will open in April 1999, with conference facilities for 300


More unusual new venues, include the former Royal Yacht Britannia and

The Lighthouse in Glasgow - the recently refurbished Charles Rennie

Mackintosh-designed listed building.

In Belfast, the Waterfront Hall Conference and Concert Centre which

opened in 1997 is doing well and is set to play host to the first

European conference for the State Of The World Forum this year. Its

neighbour, the Belfast Hilton hotel opened its doors at the end of

September last year, and now boasts eight purpose-designed conference


Meanwhile London is benefiting from millennium madness. As money is

pumped into the capital in the shape of the Millennium Dome, the

futuristic Millennium Bridge and the BA observational wheel, so a whole

raft of opportunities for the conference, event and exhibition organiser

are born.

The Stakis London Metro-pole, the capital’s first purpose-built

convention hotel is currently undergoing a pounds 90 million extension.

Due for completion in October next year, this will offer 33 meeting

rooms - two of which can hold 1,900 people theatre-style - and over

1,000 bedrooms. Following the long-awaited reopening of the London Arena

in the Docklands last October, ExCel, London’s newest exhibition venue

at Royal Victoria Dock, is also promising to open its first phase in


This year, there are also a host of London venues newly available for

smaller events and corporate hospitality. These include The White Tower

at the Tower of London, which now houses the refurbished Royal Armouries

and the British Library Conference Centre, which has a 225-seat

auditorium equipped with audiovisual facilities including Dolby surround

sound cinema.

Vinopolis, a new conference and events centre with a wine theme, is set

on the south bank of the Thames by The Globe theatre is also likely to

be a popular venue when it opens in July.

The Wales Tourist Board’s (WTB) business travel unit has chosen Confex

to launch its updated incentive planner and major new conference and

hotel facilities. The latter includes Cardiff’s recently opened Sir

Rocco Forte’s St David’s Hotel and Spa and the new Centre for the Visual

Arts, due to open in autumn.

Much of the focus for Wales in 1999 will centre on the Rugby World Cup

at the end of the year. But Pat Crimp, WTB business travel manager says:

’While we expect media coverage of this event to generate further

interest in Wales as a business travel destination, our primary role at

Confex is to remind visitors that Wales already has much to offer by way

of modern conference and business incentives and that there is on-going

commitment to improving the sector.’

Alongside the attractions of UK city destinations, including Manchester

which is investing in facilities in readiness for the Commonwealth Games

in 2000, there will be interesting offers from many hotel chains. The

Regal Hotel Group will be unveiling its new brand identity Corus at

Confex and celebrating the first birthday of its conference product

Simply Meetings, currently available at 80 sites around the UK.

In addition, there will be representatives from many of the most

up-to-date European and long-haul destinations. First-time exhibitors in

this sector include the Polish National Tourist Office, Prague

Convention Bureau and Hong Kong Trade Development Council. Similarly

there are many newcomers in the Event Support Services sector, covering

areas such a lighting, audio visual equipment and stand design.

According to International Confex ’99 organiser, UN Miller Freeman, this

year’s event will also feature a 13 per cent increase in corporate

hospitality and entertainment exhibitors. With new names such as

Powerwaves, Essential Entertainment and Reefer Racing already

registered, this sector will encompass all aspects of team building and


Another first this year, are free seminar sessions available throughout

the day, featuring UK and overseas speakers from all sectors of the

meetings industry. These will cover topics ranging from updates on the

European market by the European Federation of Conference Towns, to a

talk entitled ’Booking Celebrities and Speakers’ presented by The

Celebrity Group.

Tony Rogers, executive director of BACD, will also be leading a

discussion on how not-for-profit organisations can expand their event

budgets. ’I will be looking at ways these bodies can access funds to

support their conferences, conventions and similar events,’ he says.

Among the many schemes he will be highlighting are the British Tourist

Authority’s joint funding programmes for events that help attract

international delegates to the UK.

In addition, John Bird, sales and marketing director of Kendal-based

Catalyst Event Management, will be examining how to get the most out of

team-building activities in his seminar ’It is feasible to have smart


’Rather than drag everybody out of the office to talk at them for two or

three days, you can be more creative in reinforcing messages,’ he


Bird stresses that he will not be advocating outward bound activities’

but rather intellectual business games based on measurable corporate


With such an abundance of new venues and event ideas for 1999, any talk

of recession in the conferences and events market is clearly


Event organisers are out to prove there will always be a market for

fresh ideas and innovative venues.


Victrex is a manufacturer of high-performance thermo-plastics used in

cars, aeroplanes and medical equipment. Based near Blackpool, it has a

35-strong commercial team scattered around the globe and uses computer

software developed by US company Saratoga to track its global


Whatever their location, Victrex sales staff send details of their most

recent deals back to headquarters using a modem.

However, towards the end of last year, Victrex realised that this sales

automation system was not being implemented equally by all its reps. So

international product manager Andrew Walker organised a conference to

train everybody on the computer system and to establish business


On 1 September, the Victrex sales force flew into the UK and booked into

a four-star hotel in Bournemouth for the week. They were then put

through their paces by team-building specialists Catalyst Event


’The theme was growth and how we were going to achieve it,’ says


’But with people from Germany, the US and Asia-Pacific we had to do

something that hooked everybody together, motivated people and that

everybody would talk about for a long time afterwards.’

On the first day, the company’s commercial strategy was outlined and

goals were set for the week. For the rest of the conference, the sales

team were fully trained on the Saratoga software program ’Avenue’ and

underwent team-building exercises. The latter included playing a stock

market game ’Shocks and Scares’ and performing together on whistles,

maracas and drums as a samba band - with commercial director Paul Syms

wielding the baton.

One of the most entertaining challenges of the week was to make

15-minute videos recreating well known films. The delegates were divided

into three teams and given three hours to plan and shoot their own

version of either Gone with the Wind, a Batman movie or a James Bond

adventure - with the proviso that Syms was given a prominent role in

each film. The final night of the conference was a mock Oscars


Walker says: ’Many of the delegates came up to me afterwards and said

that in all the years they’d been going to events like this, they’d

never attended one that was so well targeted and organised, but also

unique and really good fun.’ He says that Victrex senior management were

so pleased with the results that the week provided the template for an

internal communications programme rolled out to the rest of the



At the end of last year, IT giant IBM staged a series of executive

conferences in Paris, the US, Latin America and Japan. These events were

platforms for the company’s global board to meet face-to-face with the

chief information officers of its key accounts and prospects, to discuss

business challenges and future strategies. In Paris, the company also

held a second conference of equal size for its third party vendors.

As IBM had a single corporate story to share with its business partners,

it was vital that the events were consistent in look and core


So, the IBM global events team in the US approached live communications

specialists Caribiner International, to put together a global package

for EMEA audiences in Paris and its North American business contacts in


’The key part of the brief was that all events should appear to be

totally seamless, with an identical look and feel for all programme

content, set design and on-site management,’ says Lois Jacobs chairman

of Caribiner Europe. To achieve this, Caribiner assigned its US office

as the lead agency, then set up communication channels between IBM HQ at

White Plains in New York State, IBM EMEA in Paris and Caribiner’s US and

London-based European operations. To ensure this four-way system

functioned effectively, an event editorial team was established which

met regularly and held weekly video conferences.

The end result was a universal product. Everything at the conferences,

from the seating and lighting to the external branding was


All customers and partners, regardless of location were exposed to the

same content and style of presentation.

In addition, according to Patrick Louppe, manager of customer executive

events at IBM EMEA, one of the most important aspects of the conferences

was one-on-one meetings between delegates and IBM senior executives. ’We

held these events for better relationship management with our top

customers so we could have them meet our top people,’ he says. In Paris

- to arrange as many private face-to-face meetings as possible -

Caribiner Europe used its own software tool to create an electronic

diary system. This was highly successful. From a maximum of 360

available one-hour time slots with IBM executives, 352 appointments were

made. In addition, as delegates were gathered together in the one

location, guests were also able to catch up with colleagues they might

not meet at other point in the year.

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