Focus: Conferences and Exhibitions - Coming up with a crowd puller/No longer the beanos of the 1980s, the new breed of conference is being viewed as a valued element of communications strategies. Sue Bryant reports

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 meetings.

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

Internet Cafe.

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.


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 (, while

Clearwater Communications’ 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.


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.

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