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
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
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
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
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
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
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
’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
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