In the first of three articles on the conferences and exhibitions world Daniel Butler looks at the wide range of demands the organisers have to cope with and how these can influence the choice of venue.
It is late October 1990. Sky, the troubled satellite television company is alive with rumours. Debts are piling up, sales are lower than projected and all of its key staff have disappeared. Has Rupert Murdoch finally thrown in the towel? Perhaps the team is in Italy, talking to Silvio Berlusconi? Or maybe it's in Sydney, negotiating with Kerry Packer, last of Australia's solvent media tycoons?
In reality the team is just 80 miles away from London, in the secluded splendour of Lucknam Park, near Bath. In fact Sky is not for sale, but buried in delicate negotiations to buy arch-rival BSB. With each company's share price balanced on a knife edge, neither can risk rumours leaking to a jittery City. When privacy is vital - what setting could be better than a stately home, its grounds surrounded by walls designed to keep out poachers?
Contrast that with this summer's G7 meeting. The world's attention is focused on London. Politicians, diplomats, security staff and the Press are all in town, demanding every possible modern facility. Big, central and fully equipped with the latest security, translation and telecommunication facilities, London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre is the only possible choice.
Similarly there is little freedom in the political calendar. Both Labour and Tory Conferences alternate between Brighton and Blackpool as the only places with enough cheap accommodation to cope with the vast influx of delegates. As a much smaller party the Liberal Democrats have fewer constraints and use a wider variety of venues, while the Greens favour Wolverhampton because it's central and less wasteful of transport energy.
These two meetings show the extremes covered by the loose term 'conference'. Every occasion puts different demands and constraints on its organisers, and hence its possible setting. Fortunately there is an almost bewildering range of locations from which to choose, from the stately splendour of Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire, the isolation of former Scottish hunting lodges, to the size and modernity of Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre and International Conference Centre.
The demands of today's events tend to dictate the venue more than any other factor. The recession has restricted the amount of executive time available for conferences. As a result, for a conference to be a success the best possible use of time must be made. 'If a chairman is going to leave the office for a day, he wants to know it will be worthwhile,' says Vanessa Cotton, partner in The Event Organisation Company.
Presentation thus becomes more import. 'Today's conferences tend to be IT-oriented,' explains Phil Soar, chief executive of Blenheim Exhibitions. 'They need the most up-to-date facilities and this often rules out all but the most modern venues.' Amateurish slides, haphazardously arranged in a noisy slide projector and rough sketches on an overhead projector are gone. In their place come professional actors performing on stands, backed up with expensive videos and impressive computer graphics: I hate the word "slick" but that's the trend,' agrees Cotton. She points out, too, that in many cases organisers want maximum publicity and venues which can offer faxes, telephones and even studio facilities for the media will always have an edge over less state-of-the-art venues.
When picking a venue, the delegates themselves are often the most important factor according to Soar. He believes London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre is the obvious place to invite foreigners. Easy to get to from the West End and overseas and with views over Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, it has a 'high prestige value' to the overseas visitor. The attraction of West End theatres, shopping and the historic sights of London are a powerful encouragement to international delegates.
But London is far from the only city venue on offer and its competitors have different attractions. Blenheim's Soar believes Birmingham is well-suited to many domestic events: 'If you were running a conference in telecommunications in the UK, you'd be much more likely to go to Birmingham's ITC - it's geographically more central and cheaper,' he says, adding that the sight of Big Ben hardly has the same cachet for a regular viewer of News at Ten that it does for an American.
David Tonnison, managing director of the Marketing Organisation, thinks staff relations are an important factor, Due to the recession, the travel side of his business is 20% down on last year. People now concentrate on what you can get there, rather than the attraction of the venue,' he says, citing one highly profitable client changing its sales conference from Berlin in 1990 to Britain this year. 'It will save a bit, but cash isn't the motive,' he say. 'Conspicuous consumption isn't appropriate when you've just made 300 redundancies.'
Though in general the recession has not helped conference venues and holders, there have been some surprise beneficiaries. The QEII's Bodkin says he's spotted a trend of troubled companies based in London booking meetings more frequently in the Centre's smaller rooms: 'Instead of meeting in the company boardroom, managers can slip out quietly for a couple of hours without gossip flying round the office,' he says.
One drawback of many city conference venues was exposed in a recent survey by accountants Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte. This found that while hotels rely on conference for, on average, 36% of their revenue and 31% of their profits, many conference organisers are unhappy with the service they provide: 'All too often hotels see conferences as part of their banqueting division,' says Peter Berners-Price, executive chairman of Spectrum. Bodkin, agrees that food is often pressed on unwilling organisers. The QEII subcontracts its catering: 'Of course we like it when clients want catering organised, but its definitely subsidiary to the technical services we off,' he says.
But if catering is over-emphasised by some city conference centres, placing stress on the good life is a vital attraction of many rural centres. Gina Hickson of South Sea Lodge, near Gatwick says the award of 'County Restaurant of the Year 1992' by the Good Food Guide is as important as its comparative seclusion.
Freedom from interruption is important to many companies. Blenheim, for example, is currently organising a conference for its own staff in the seclusion of a former stately home, Hanbury Manor, near Ware in Hertfordshire. At a cost of £130,000 for 60 people for four days and three nights, this is not motivated by penny-pinching. Soar says this is much more suitable for the company than an impersonal city venue: 'Blenheim is spread over many countries and we need to stimulate links between staff as much as possible,' he says. 'Time over dinner, in the bar and playing tennis are often much more important than a seminar or conference.'
An alternative form of seclusion comes from the exclusive functions run by EMAP Events on the Canberra. Invited delegates from the top 500 companies in a sector pay nothing for two days on the luxury liner, but in return are choreographed through a tight schedule of talks and networking. To concentrate minds, there is no ship-to-shore telephone contact - something that you might think would deter top executives, but which, according to Mark Rayner, managing director of EMAP Events, is one of the cruise's main attractions.
In spite of the huge range of venues, competition is surprisingly limited. Certainly, within London, the QEII Centre and hotels such as the Royal Lancaster are battling for the same clients. Equally, country mansions around the country may fight to attract the same breed of customer, but in general the market is already sub-divided. Birmingham is ideal for British conferences, London is attractive to foreign delegates and rural tranquillity is ideal for brain-storming or intrigue. It would have been impossible to hold the G7 meeting in Scotland, just as Sky and BSB might both have come to sticky ends had they been spotted in the bar of a top London Hotel.