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Opportunities in the conference market

13 March 2008

It's not yet noon, and you've booked out every room, secured a deposit for meeting facilities, and served 100 for coffee and biscuits. Still to come is lunch and dinner with every guest in attendance, and a good chance that your bar will be packed out into the small hours. Sound good? Most hotels think so, which is why the conference market is so sought-after.

Of course, it all depends on whether you're a large hotel looking to consolidate and expand an existing offering or a smaller hotel considering dipping your toe in this lucrative market. "The conference market is split into different sectors," explains David Watt, managing director of conference and incentive agency Corporate Innovations. "At one end you've got hotels that are the equivalent of SMEs in business, and then you've got your larger, well-known hotels, which are often part of a chain."

When it comes to attracting conference trade, these two groups need very distinct strategies, according to Watt, and smaller hotels in particular should beware of trying to imitate the strategies of larger establishments. "If a smaller hotel chooses the same marketing route as a larger one, it's probably not going to work for them," explains Watt. "Larger companies, like Pepsico and Orange, are unlikely to look at a small hotel for a conference unless it's right on their doorstep. So if local establishments start advertising to the likes of these big companies, they're just going to be wasting their money."

Local groups

Instead, Watt suggests a rifle rather than scattergun approach, targeting specific local groups and cultivating a niche in this area. "I advise hotels to give away 20% of their meeting space for free to local groups as part of their marketing strategy," says Watt. "These are groups of people who spend time in their community and will appreciate the gesture as a hotel giving something back. But this isn't about simply becoming known as the free meeting space it's about gaining word-of-mouth recommendation.

"If you give away meeting space to a local group at a time when the rooms aren't being used, then whenever they think of a place for an event, they think of you. This could be a conference, or their son or daughter could be getting married."

The message for smaller hotels is to scout locally for their conference trade rather than aiming for the big names, who will most likely want a recognised brand for their events.

But that's not to say that large hotels can't also benefit from a more considered approach. "Larger hotels do tend to take a blanket approach to attracting conference trade," says Watt. "Obviously, this is effective for them to a certain extent, but I think they could also benefit from putting measures into place which appeal to distinct groups of conference organisers."

Once you've touted for your conference trade you're faced with the no-less-complex feat of attending to their various needs. To a certain extent, this comes with practice, and an experienced hotelier will be able to gauge which groups are likely to call for extra bar staff into the wee hours and which will need extensive car parking facilities.

Logistics

But it's also a simple matter of getting the logistics right. And as conference organisers are busy people, the best way to ensure they end up singing your praises is to keep in line with their busy schedules.

"Because of economic uncertainly the booking lead times for conference business are getting shorter - often just a few days," says Pamela Carvell, chairman of the Hotel Marketing Association, who recommends a fast pace and seamless organisation to get bookings. "Have all meeting rooms set up at all times, either ready for show-arounds or ready to be occupied," says Carvell. "Give clients an immediate response when they make an enquiry - they don't want to wait five days and then get 20 pages of banqueting menus. If they want a price and availability, give that to them straight away."

According to Carvell, conference hosts should also be using their booking diaries to best effect, which includes scope for some flexibility. "If a client just wants a half-day meeting in two days' time and that meeting room will otherwise be empty, don't insist on a day delegate rate or a full day's rental," she says. "And eâ€'mail regular clients your meeting room availability at the start of each week. You can save people a lot of time if they know you have space available.

"You should also have some sort of yield policy in place for meeting space. If you let out your large meeting rooms too far in advance for non-bedroom-related business, you may then turn away more lucrative residential business nearer the time."

Carvell's approach is all about making life easy for the clients, and it's one that every hotel should adopt if they're keen to make a dent in the conference market. But while seamless logistics and a well-kept diary are a vital part of a hotel's conference arsenal, green issues are also becoming a more significant part of the trade.

"I was reminded of the importance of the hotel's CSR policy recently when a potential new corporate client asked for details of our green credentials," says general manager Michael Sloane of the Novotel London West hotel. "Her company would only hold events in venues that could prove they were environmentally responsible in line with its own CSR policy."

Luckily for Sloane, the Novotel London West was, in fact, the first hotel in the UK to achieve ISO14001 environmental accreditation in 2005, and to partner with the CarbonNeutral Company. But for those with less laudable environmental credentials, it might be time to consider what they're worth to your customers.

CSR policy

"Obviously, having a good CSR policy is important for reducing a business's impact on the environment, but I also believe that it makes very good business sense," says Sloane. "For the first time, I believe we are seeing that those businesses that have environmental policies in place are reaping the rewards."

Environmental accreditation is less complicated than some might think, and as your business will have to do it eventually, it makes sense to get in first while the move still counts as an accolade with customers.

There is plenty of room for some creative touches as well when it comes to the conference trade. The Jumeirah Carlton Tower and Jumeirah Lowndes hotels in London found that introducing a more imaginative and client-centric approach had a significant impact on their repeat custom. "Last year we pioneered ‘meetings with a difference', which is essentially about asking the clients what they want at the point of booking rather than handing them a package which they don't have much control over with pre-chosen options," says director of sales Simon Barnett. "We did a survey of meeting organisers and found that they often felt boxed in to a package, so we wanted to give them something more interesting and more stimulating for delegates."

The result was a range of tiered options with creative touches clients can choose to buy in if they wish. These include brain-booster kits for clients, and refreshments such as fruit smoothies and chocolate fountains. "You can get really quite creative with the food," says Barnett. "And we also like to theme things on events which are happening at the time. So, for Wimbledon, we brought in a Wii for the delegates to play tennis on during the break, and we've done things for Hallowe'en like having hollowed-out pumpkins on the tables."

Repeat custom

The hotel has also organised everything from handwriting analysts to opera singers to entertain guests between meetings, and has even presented organisers with a bound book of photographs taken at an event as a thank-you for booking. "You can be creative, even if a guest isn't on a big budget," says Barnett. "I think for smaller hotels it might even be easier to add these sorts of touches. And since we've started on the approach our repeat custom has increased significantly."

As many events organisers will tell you, it's often about the extra 5% creating 50% of the experience for your customers. And as with most business events, bookers want a bit of merriment along with their meetings.

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