FOCUS: CONFERENCES AND EXHIBITIONS: Inviting a new global audience Experts predict that Britain will soon become the leading destination for international conference visitors and business is reaping the benefits. Nick Purdom reports.

The conference business in the UK is booming. The latest Government figures show that spending by overseas conference visitors to the UK jumped by 31 per cent to a record pounds 472 million in 1996. And the International Congress and Convention Association has predicted that Britain will overtake the US to become the leading world destination for international association conferences this year.

The conference business in the UK is booming. The latest Government

figures show that spending by overseas conference visitors to the UK

jumped by 31 per cent to a record pounds 472 million in 1996. And the

International Congress and Convention Association has predicted that

Britain will overtake the US to become the leading world destination for

international association conferences this year.

Such growth is taking place against a backdrop of increasing investment

in new conference and exhibition facilities. In Scotland, the 3,000 seat

Clyde Auditorium opened in September at the Scottish Exhibition and

Conference Centre in Glasgow, making this the UK’s largest integrated

conference and exhibition centre. It rivals the impressive Edinburgh

International Conference Centre, which opened in 1995.

In Belfast, the Waterfront Hall Conference and Concert Centre was

completed last year and seats 2,235 in its main auditorium. Next door

the 200 room Hilton International Hotel recently opened after an

investment of pounds 21 million.

In London, the pounds 35 million Millennium Conference Centre opened

last year, linking the Millennium Gloucester and Bailey’s hotels in

South Kensington.

In Manchester, a new international conference centre, linking the G-Mex

Centre and Bridgewater Hall concert venue, is earmarked to open in


Back in London, the Confex show at Earls Court 1 from 3 to 5 March

provides the ideal opportunity to check the pulse of the thriving

conference and exhibition industry. Over 1,300 organisations will be

represented at the show from three main sectors - worldwide destinations

and venues, corporate hospitality and entertainment, and event support


Running alongside the show will be a seminar programme. This year it

focuses on marketing, with topics including Conference Sales and

Marketing on the Internet, Successful Conference Marketing, and Winning

New Business.

One of the world’s fastest growing conference locations is Wales, which

will be well represented at Confex. As the country prepares to host the

EU European Council Meeting in June and the Rugby World Cup in 1999,

major new facilities are springing up.

Celtic Manor in Newport, Gwent, will become Britain’s largest

residential, conference and leisure venue when a new pounds 100 million

extension is completed in January 1999. Its new Wentwood Suite will be

able to hold 1,800, while another 29 meetings rooms are being added,

plus 6,500sq metres of exhibition space, and a third 18-hole golf


Penny Thomas, sales director of event organiser Banks Sadler, is looking

forward to the opening of Celtic Manor. ’It will be really


We have a client currently using the Birmingham Metropole who is looking

to move to Celtic Manor. There needs to be an awful lot more of this

kind of facility,’ she says.

Cardiff, in particularly, seems to be set for spectacular growth.

’During the next two years, Cardiff will emerge as one of Europe’s prime

world-class locations for conferences, meetings and incentive trips,’

says Pat Crimp, Wales Tourist Board’s business travel manager.

Cardiff Bay waterfront is being transformed by the addition of a new

pounds 191 million barrage across the bay. The five-star St David’s

Hotel and Spa, featuring state-of-the-art teleconferencing facilities,

is due to open on the waterfront in May.

Hilton International is building another five-star property with a

business centre, VIP penthouse suite and health centre in the city

centre in time for the Rugby World Cup. The Wales Tourist Board will

launch a new Conference and Meetings Planner, giving full details of all

facilities, at Confex.

Not far over the border in England, the four-star Carden Park Hotel,

Golf Resort and Spa opened near Chester in June last year. The hotel has

conference facilities for up to 400, including the latest

’video-conferencing’ equipment, and is increasing its bedrooms from 125

to 192. July will see the opening of a second 18-hole golf course at the

centre, co-designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

One of the trends in conferencing has been for venues to introduce their

own high specification presentation technology. ’There has been a real

improvement in the audio-visual and production technology at major

conference venues recently, saving clients money as they don’t have to

pay production companies to bring equipment in,’ observes Thomas.

One of the new breed of hi-tech venues is the Concept Centre at

Millbrook, Bedfordshire. Billed as the ultimate venue for

millennium-themed events, with its twin silver domes, the Concept Centre

can accommodate up to 500 people for conferences and offers a full

multimedia presentation theatre.

The 700 acre site at Millbrook provides plenty of space for satellite

exhibitions and there are also a variety of specialist driving tracks

for cars.

Other new venue developments being showcased at Confex include the new

800 capacity Hotel Suite at Aston Villa Football Club, two new syndicate

rooms at the Bournemouth International Centre, the opening of Keele

Conference Park as a year-round venue with new exhibition area and

restaurant, and the extension of facilities at The Castle arts centre in

Wellingborough, made possible through a National Lottery grant.

Overseas venues and destinations will also be well represented at


Luxury hotel group Ritz-Carlton will promote new hotels in Kuala Lumpur,

San Juan in Puerto Rico, and Shanghai, China. The Maison de la France

hotel group is opening the Palais de l’Europe in Le Touquet, France and

the Palais de Congres de Paris will be extended. Lausanne Tourism in

Switzerland is announcing a new convention centre, Le Forum, while

Lucerne Tourist Board will present details about a new cultural and

congress centre. Among other destinations with a presence at Confex will

be San Diego Convention Bureau, Switzerland Convention and Incentive

Bureau, Cyprus Tourism Organisation, the German Convention Bureau and

the Firenze Convention Bureau.

While major new venues continue to be built around the world, there are

many in the conference industry who still bemoan the lack of adequate

facilities, particularly in the UK. ’We have traditionally had a great

shortage of space in this country. There are not enough facilities with

adjacent exhibition space,’ says Lois Jacobs, chief executive of

Caribiner, one of the largest live communications group in Europe.

Lack of space is becoming even more critical because of certain trends

in the conferencing industry. ’Conferences now are all about

interactivity, and experiential type activities need more space,’ says

Jacobs. She cites a recent project for a car manufacturer which involved

creating eight different environments for delegates to visit. New swipe

card technology is helping to facilitate such events by only giving

delegates access to areas relevant to them and monitoring where they go

and for how long.

Other technology developments are also aiding interactivity. ’Audience

response systems are now more sophisticated and you can use them to

write your own programme, get instant feedback, prioritise and

regionalise, so you can have a much more fluid presentation,’ says

Jacobs. She has also noted a lot more use of interactive kiosks and

touch screens in live events. ’They make it much easier for people to

access the material they are really interested in,’ she explains.

Another trend, which highlights the lack of suitable venues, is the

increasing size of conferences. ’Annual conferences have got

considerably larger, often involving 200 to 400 people,’ says Geoff

Webster, operations director at event management company the Peter Rand

Group, an exhibitor at Confex.

At the same time presentation techniques have changed. ’People work very

hard in conferences now, there is a lot more development of


Groups are using ’breakout rooms’ far more and it’s not uncommon to

handle a conference for 400 and to need 30 to 40 breakout rooms,’ says


One of the consequences of this new style of large scale conference is

the growing use of overseas venues, which traditionally offer more space

than UK venues. ’Our overseas business has increased dramatically over

the last five years, principally in Europe. Clients tend to want to

limit flying time to two hours,’ says Webster.

Thomas is also noticing the increased use of overseas venues. ’It’s an

expanding side of our business. Once you get 200 plus delegates and you

want to accommodate them under one roof and use 20 syndicate rooms, the

choice in the UK is limited,’ she says. But she adds it is a myth that

overseas conferences are cheaper. As she points out: ’You’ve got to get

delegates there.’

So what destinations are popular for overseas conferences? Thomas says

that Banks Sadler is involved in a lot of work at Disneyland, Paris and

the French Riviera. She also mentions Tenerife, Cyprus, Crete, Barcelona

and Prague as prefered locations.

Jacobs comments: ’Until recently people have been very keen to go to

Asia and China because these are held up as development centres and they

are very cost-effective, but I imagine Asia may go a bit quiet now’.

The search for ever-more unusual destinations continues and among the

unlikely places now promoting themselves are Estonia, Uzbekistan and


To simplify the search for venues and destinations more directories,

CD-ROMs and web sites are being introduced. Among those being promoted

at Confex are directories from Bath Conference Bureau, Cheltenham

Conference Desk, Jersey Conference Bureau, and Coventry and Warwickshire


The English Tourist Board is publishing England The Venue, a glossy

guide to 100 quality meeting and incentive travel venues, while the

International Society of Meeting Planners is launching its new

International Directory of Meeting Planning, Travel and Tourism


The German Convention Bureau will be promoting its website as a vehicle

to organise events in Germany. Among the hotel groups, Hilton Hotels

will be giving details about Hilton Direct, a freephone enquiry line

providing a one-stop shop for conference organisers, which was launched

in January.

All these developments are designed to make life easier in what is

becoming an increasingly large and complex industry.

KPMG: Building links within the business

Last November, professional services firm KPMG decided to open up its

annual conference for the first time to senior managers and directors,

creating an event for 1,500 people. It had previously been limited to


The conference was also the first to take place following KPMG

restructure into different lines of business, including corporate

finance, corporate recovery, and manufacturing, retail and


KPMG’s director of corporate communications, Neil Sherlock explains: ’It

was important to help cement the strategic direction the business was

taking and give people the opportunity to talk to colleagues in an

informative and challenging environment.’

The event also served as an opportunity for the different business units

to get together and discuss their own strategy and direction.

Corporate events agency Catalysm was called in and helped create eight

mini-conferences within one conference. Catalysm producers were assigned

to work with teams from the different lines of business to create a

conference that would meet their needs while reflecting the key messages

from the main conference.

The technical and logistical challenge facing Catalysm was


In just 11 hours it had to strip out the Birmingham International

Convention Centre following a CBI conference and set up a main

auditorium and eight separate auditoria for groups of between 80 and

500, a task which involved using a crew of 200.

The two-day conference began with a strategy presentation by the

chairman before the lines of business split into their own

mini-conferences. The business units were given the freedom to determine

their own style and content of their conference.

Day one concluded with an opportunity to network over dinner, an awards

ceremony and entertainment from the Comedy Store Players and a Spice

Girls tribute band.

The second day was designed to show the common ground between the

separate lines of business and to focus on overall company strategy.

Former British athletics coach Frank Dick gave a presentation on

teamwork, and video clips, shot by two roving camera crews on the

previous day, were shown as part of a 40 minute presentation to

illustrate the common issues being faced.

’We tried very hard to make the conference participative and to give

people the opportunity to ask questions,’ says Catalysm director,

Christophe Stourton. A final Q&A session, facilitated by professional

presenters, gave delegates the chance to question the chairman and other

senior directors about any issue they liked - including the news, which

had just broken, about a proposed merger with Ernst & Young.

’We’ve had very positive feedback, particularly from people attending

for the first time,’ says Sherlock. ’They appreciated the opportunity to

question the leadership of the firm, to watch them in action, and to see

what the strategic direction of the firm meant in terms of their own

line of business.’

A tale of two airlines: Air UK goes Dutch

When KLM - the Dutch national carrier - announced it was merging in the

UK with Air UK to form KLM UK it wanted a launch event that would

reflect the youthfulness and vibrancy of the new airline.

KLM UK operates in the new middle market sector between the likes of

British Airways and no-frills competitors such as Ryan Air.

As the new airline would be a UK-based service, the company focused on

the UK - and Cool Britannia - aspect of the new company.

’The event needed to be as brief and powerful as possible, and very

different in terms of image and style from what people expected from KLM

or Air UK,’ says Phil Watton, head of events at London-based Line Up,

which produced the conference.

Working in co-operation with KLM’s PR agency The Saltmarsh Partnership,

Line Up was briefed just before Christmas to produce an event for around

100 trade representatives and 80 journalists at the end of January.

The Royal Garden Hotel in London’s Kensington was one of the few venues

of the right size available at such short notice, but turned out to fit

the bill exactly.

Opening with what Watton describes as an ’in your face’ video on the

trendy theme of Cool Britannia, the presentation included a speech by

the marketing director and an upbeat closing sequence showing in air

footage of the newly liveried plane, shot from the air on 35mm film

stock for maximum image quality.

’The conference was all about image,’ says Watton. ’We used abstract

sail shapes to give a fresh, contemporary backdrop to the stage and


Beautifully designed graphics, which were placed behind the speakers,

were used instead of charts or bullet points to create a mood.’ The

presentation was limited to 25 minutes, to respect the time pressures on

the audience, and was followed by a Q&A session.

Outside the conference room, the Cool Britannia theme was continued in

an exhibition, which was held in the reception area and featured

abstract images of the new plane.

The Saltmarsh Partnership worked closely with Line Up and KLM’s

marketing department to ensure the success of the event. Line Up was

instructed to shoot suitable images for a video news release and the

press pack during the shoot. As well as handling all press invitations,

Saltmarsh was also involved in logistics and administration for the

trade launch.

The press launch was well attended and regional coverage on television

and radio and in the press has been very good. However, national

coverage was effectively scuppered by British Airways’ last minute

decision to announce its new low-cost carrier to rival easyJet - Go - on

the same day.

The wonder of the web: Virtual conferences

If the thought of never having to travel for hours to listen to a string

of potentially dreary speakers in a faceless hotel fills you with

delight, then ’virtual conferences’ may be right up your street.

The technology is now in place to replicate many of the features of real

conferences on the internet, with obvious benefits in terms of saving

time and money.

Oxford-based Virtual Environments International (VEI) promises to create

a web site with features such as registration, presentations,

exhibitions and even a virtual bar where delegates can ’meet’ to discuss

topics of common interest.

Presentations can include a transcript of speeches, audio, graphics and

still images. ’Bandwidth is improving slowly and in the

not-too-distant-future it will be possible to have moving images making

the technology even more attractive,’ says VEI managing director, Barry


VEI’s background involves running virtual conferences for the

international academic community, but the company is also targeting the

business sector.

’We’ve found the conference industry in the UK relatively slow to pick

up on the opportunities, perhaps because they feel it threatens their

existing business,’ says Hardy.

’We’re trying to explain how it can complement physical events and we’re

now talking to several organisations about broadcasting presentations

from real events on the internet.’

ConferNet, based in Petersfield, Hampshire is another company hoping to

open up the market for conferences on the Internet, by providing on-line


’Before a conference takes place, the internet can be used for a teaser

campaign,’ explains ConferNet managing director Stuart Wilson.

’During the conference, a daily newspaper can be published on the web

site, copy can be posted based on actual presentations, and forms

provided for instant feedback. Staff who are not at the conference can

also have access to the website and feel part of the company.’

Post conference, the website can be used to gather feedback and help

determine the direction of future conferences.

Both ConferNet and VEI are also interested in another market - virtual

press conferences. ’I think this would be particularly suitable for

press conferences with an international appeal. An event lasting a

couple of hours would probably cost about pounds 2,000,’ suggests


Whether virtual conferences will ever replace the real thing remains to

be seen. What does seem certain is that many more conferences will be

either conducted entirely on the internet or supported by it,

particularly if someone can work out a way of providing a pint over a

web site.

Venues: From ye olde castles to hi-tech surroundings

There may be a shortage of venues for very large events, but when it

comes to distinctive and upmarket locations the UK has an abundance of

riches. From historic country houses and castles to hi-tech meetings

rooms there are hundreds of places that can add a touch of class to the

most distinguished events.

Unsurprisingly, London is particularly well-off for upmarket venues.

At its prestigious conference and banqueting centre, One Whitehall

Place, Thistle Hotels is converting the cellar, containing the

foundation stone laid by William Gladstone, to create an intimate

meetings and dinner venue.

Next door, a pounds 12 million refurbishment is underway at The Royal

Horseguards Thistle Hotel.

As well as being one of London’s top tourist attractions, Tower Bridge

is also an inspiring conference venue. This year the Bridge Master’s

Dining Room has been completely renovated in traditional Victorian style

and opened up for business meetings, training seminars and dinners.

Tower Bridge also offers a Victorian Theatre in the Engine Rooms

suitable for presentations and product launches, and the glass-sided

walkways 140 feet above the Thames, can be hired for functions.

Possibly London’s most hi-tech venue is the new Invision suite at the

Congress Centre. The suite, which can accommodate up to 135 people, has

a built-in video-conferencing system and ISDN lines for high-quality

connection anywhere in the world.

Outside of the capital, country house hotels can offer the advantages of

an exclusive atmosphere and fine grounds for delegates to explore during

breaks in conference proceedings. Ghyll Manor Country Hotel, a 17th

century manor house set in 40 acres of Sussex countryside but close to

Gatwick Airport, recently extended its conference facilities by adding a

purpose-built boardroom which seats 24.

Castles can add a dramatic sense of history to conferences. The

800-year-old Auckland Castle offers its three state rooms for

conferences and seats up to 220. The largest state room, the Throne

Room, has a gothic- style vaulted ceiling, the acoustics of which make

it suitable for music recitals. Two further rooms have been refurbished

and form the Victoria Conference Suite - designed for training sessions,

seminars and interviews.

The National Railway Museum at York also promotes its Premier Class

packages for upmarket events. Three main meeting areas are available for

up to 120 delegates with audio-visual equipment and a fully staffed

business centre.

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