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Conferences: Signs of life?

11 April 2014
Conferences: Signs of life?

After years of company cutbacks during the recession, the business, meetings and conference market is recovering and is now worth up to a potential £19b. But hotels will have to second-guess what their clients want to keep up with demanding delegates, says Rosalind Mullen

You can't get through many cutting-edge conferences today without experiencing the joys of iPad check-in systems, holograms, live streaming, 4D audiovisual extravaganzas or the tap-tap of at least half the delegates tweeting. And that's if you make it back from the coffee break, with its dazzling range of protein-enriched nibbles designed to invigorate the brain. As for meetings, be prepared to dabble in a game of trust-building Twister or take a turn on the Wii.

Yes, meetings and conferences are gearing up for a resurgence after the recession and are even more smart, interactive and creative than before. And to meet the needs of a more demanding client, hotels are investing in innovation and refurbishment and launching quirky delegate packages.

"It was clear that clients reduced the number of meetings and promoted conference calls and videoconferencing, and that had 
a knock-on effect with regards to international travel. They also created and used in-house meeting spaces," says Anthony Worrall, 
general manager at the 203-room Crowne Plaza London - The City.
In addition, there has been growing competition from other types of venues, including universities, museums, palaces - even former fish markets and zoos. Nevertheless, according to Eventia's UK Events Market Trends 
Survey 2013, hotels still account for 59% of the market and have the advantage in that they provide accommodation, leisure facilities and the event all under one roof.

So how bad has it been - and how good might it get? The UK Events Market Trends Survey 2011 estimated that the level of spend in the business events market was worth £18.8b in 2009. In 2010, this was estimated to have dropped to £16.3b. The good news is that a new Business Visits & Events Partnership report entitled Events are Great Britain, which was launched on 13 March at International Confex, estimates the market is now worth £19.9b. To put this in context, the overall value of the events sector is £39.1b and a recent report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Events Industry stated that there is potential to grow this figure to £48b by 2020.

Potential profit
"I think it's probably true that the meetings and events sector is potentially a high-yield business for hotels," says Tony Rogers, managing director of Tony Rogers Conference & Event Services. "But it does depend on how much they put into winning this business and how geared they are, in terms of facilities and staff experience, to servicing it effectively and professionally. There are a lot of hotels for whom this is not their core business."

Key areas hotels need to consider include space, location, facilities, natural daylight, technology, service and the fact that lead
time for bookings has shortened from months to weeks. US hospitality consultant Benchmark Hospitality International has identified trends that Rogers says replicate those in 
the UK. These include the expectation of a 
customised meeting package; Wi-Fi; plenty 
of charging stations as more delegates use iPads and tablets for note-taking; healthy, 
protein-rich, gluten-free food; menus to reflect international delegates' cuisine; increased security as a result of the greater use of
technology; and more break-out rooms and creative spaces for team-building.

"Social responsibility and sustainability are important, but they're not game-changers - they are part of the mix and not an end in themselves," adds Rogers.

Among those hotels ploughing money into their conferences is the 312-room Pullman London St Pancras, which opened last year after a £15m upgrade from a Novotel. Besides 17 flexible conference and meetings spaces, it offers a Business Playground, which features a poker table, a canopied area lit by a digital projection to recreate a space "outside, under trees" and curiosity boxes displaying unusual objects and books designed to trigger ideas.

Five-star tech
Technology is a challenging area, but one that is increasingly crucial. Corporates expect 
the same level of technology they have 
in their offices, so hotels need a robust infrastructure. Not only do delegates rely on fast access to the web, but organisers want mega 
bandwidth to support presentations or to 
live-stream content across the globe.

One hotel pushing these boundaries is 
London Marriott Grosvenor Square, which offers organisers a host of options including a virtual - or holographic - host, interactive kiosks and projection mapping. This is the use of audiovisuals to turn the entire room into 
a screen - from ceiling to floor. There's even 4D potential whereby you might, for instance, project a video of a glacier and then turn the air-conditioning down.

If that's all too much, organisers can access Marriott's Meetings Imagined concept, which was launched last year to make it easier for the client to collaborate with the hotel team. Besides giving expert tips on ice-breakers, food, music, meetings trends and inspirational visuals, it also allows planners to tailor their menus, set-up and technology.

Crowne Plaza also aims to roll out its 
Greatroom lobby concept by 2015, which is
a flexible, open lobby space for guests to use for business, leisure or relaxing.

While the conference and meetings 
industry has faced challenges, it is also true that it is demonstrating huge resilience and the ability to reinvent itself.

"You could argue that there's competition from virtual meetings, teleconferences and webinars et al, but the trend seems to be that although these are creating new and different ways to 'meet', they don't replace the need for face-to-face interaction. The expectation is that 'hybrid' events will become the new norm," says Rogers.

"Although the research suggests that organisers' budgets are increasing, they do expect greater value and are under pressure to demonstrate a return on investment.".

CROWNE PLAZA LONDON TAKES A HOLISTIC APPROACH

Anthony Worrall, general manager of the 203-bedroom Crowne Plaza London - The City, admits that recession chipped away at the hotel's meetings market, but he reckons the business is back on track following a £250,000 investment in 2012.

"We are delighted to say we bucked the trend after our investment in our conference areas in 2012, and our meetings and conference revenue has grown 35%
from 2012 to 2013," he says.

As a flagship hotel, it recently completed a pilot initiative developed in response to parent company IHG's research that revealed business travellers wanted a personalised service geared towards work priorities and schedules. This led to the "Focused on your Success" philosophy, which includes initiatives such as the grab-and-go breakfast box.

A lot of success is also down to the hotel's holistic approach. For instance, it recognises that clients are looking for high-speed and hassle-free connections when it comes to technology, that service should be seamless and that there should be a variety of food options and outlets for them to either meet, dine or entertain in.

"Connectivity has long been a focus for the Crowne Plaza and we have now incorporated wireless secure printing, IDAPT multi-device charging units and USB charging into our rooms and conferencing areas," says Worrall. "We have high-speed internet throughout, which is complimentary in our lounge and conference rooms. It was also important for us to invest in smart boards to facilitate meetings and videoconferencing."

As for food, the options include the hotel's restaurants, complemented by a Fast and Fresh menu in the City Lounge and a new upcoming conference offering, Food for Thought, which is accredited by Food for the Brain and designed to keep attendees alert and nourished.

LANCASTER LONDON HOTEL GOES GREEN AND GLAMOROUS

As well as giving its conference rooms an £11.5m upgrade in 2010/11, the 416-room Lancaster London hotel has come up with an on-trend way to outdo the competition. Its launch of the Bee Green package taps into organisers with an eco-conscience and underlines the four-star hotel's award-winning green credentials.

Besides serving Fairtrade drinks and snacks, a percentage of the £70 delegate rate is donated to Carbon Clear. "People like the Green package and they like to feel conscious of the environment. They will check our CSR policies and they might not absolutely pick us because of it, but it helps," says director of events Craig Robertson.

The crash triggered a 20% drop in revenues - mainly due to fewer social events rather than corporate, as companies didn't want to be seen throwing ostentatious parties at Christmas.

Despite the drop in business, Robertson says the £11.5m investment was crucial to remain competitive. A particular focus has been on improving food presentation. Cookery programmes, education and social media have spawned a savvier delegate, so the outdated silver service had to go.

"People want healthier food and more options; allergies are more commonplace," explains Robertson.

Zapping up technology was also seen as crucial, accounting for £100,000-£150,000 of the budget. For instance, high-speed broadband internet access has been installed
to withstand ever-more sophisticated presentations and support delegates who use social media for real-time feedback. But it's an ongoing job. Despite being supported
by an IT company, the hotel still has to think ahead to what the requirements might be in four years' time.

Organisers also chase versatility. While the hotel's ability to hold receptions for up to 3,000 people gives it an edge, Robertson says there is also pressure to be able to contract and expand spaces. For example, partitions to create separate areas to facilitate multiple speakers.

"The organisers want us to make it more interesting and add value for money by using the space more effectively," says Robertson.

"It's a client's market. There are tough negotiations out there. Organisers have had more choice in London in the past three to four years. Our investment was to stay
competitive, keep focused and show we are not stuck in our ways."

And he's confident that social business is coming back. "There is room for growth - we are chasing a 50% improvement in revenue in four years' time."

DOWNHALL HOTEL OFFERS CUSTOMISATION WITH BESPOKE DELEGATE PACKAGES

Anna Snoep, director of sales and marketing at the independent Down Hall Country House hotel, near Stansted Airport, believes the key to survival during a recession is to provide clients with facilities and services that meet their needs and budgets - and that it is equally true as we move out of recession.

That's why the 99-bedroom hotel has invested £150,000 in event spaces and kitchen facilities over and above the £1.5m refurbishment of 71 bedrooms and a new gymnasium.

"Additionally, we have created flexible conference packages. The packages have a high-value base product that works well on its own, but 'modules' can be added, meaning that whatever a client's budget, we can offer a package that works for them,"says Snoep.

With 26 multi-purpose rooms, the meetings and conference business represents about a third of the hotel's income. This dropped by around 20% during the worst of the recession, when cash-strapped clients were holding smaller, shorter events and ordering only the basic catering options.

"Pragmatism was essential. Understanding clients' challenges and being flexible has helped us develop strong and lasting relationships with a portfolio of loyal clients," says Snoep.

The overhaul reflects the need to appeal to a variety of budgets in the modern business climate. Therefore, the new conference packages are flexible, offering a wide choice of healthy menu options with the opportunity to customise meals. Day packages start at £49 and 24-hour rates from £149 (both including VAT).

"Caution with budgets is still the norm, and clients are keen for us to achieve value, but when they're confident you can deliver services to a high standard, they are willing
to spend extra," says Snoep.

Four conference rooms in the hotel's historic main building are being given a facelift and four breakout rooms will be created. These will consist of two executive
boardrooms with honesty bars and flatscreen TVs; a café-style room; a creative hub with whiteboards, a Wii, a Twister carpet, ice-breaker games, bean bags, stress
toys; and board games. There is also complimentary Wi-Fi, presentation technology and power points.

"We can host conferences for up to 200 delegates, which is perfect for our client base, so our capacities will remain the same while we add value," says Snoep.

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