Conferences - Companies cannot afford to waste time or resources. Conferences have to have clear objectives and high quality standards. For organisers value for money is the name of the game.
When American Express recently took some 686 of its senior European sales staff to Lisbon for a three-day conference it not only wanted to be sure that it got its message across but also that this was being heard and digested in the most cost-effective way.
"The Lisbon event was planned before the recession and we needed to find out if we were getting a good return on such a major investment," explains John Stuart, Amex's senior vice-president of service establishments. "We needed to know if we had reassured our sales staff that we understood what they were up against, that we were reacting to market conditions and would support them as much as possible."
So Amex polled delegates before and after the event about how well the conference worked. On a scoring system which gave the highest rating of 4, the average of 3.42 confirmed the organisers' belief that the conference had achieved its task of imparting the key messages.
Such sophistication is unusual in the world of corporate conferences, where travelling away from home and office for a get-together of work colleagues or like-minded executives from the same industry or profession has long been deemed one of the more desirable perks of business. The international convention in Hong Kong or the select "think-tank" of top management at such luxury country house hotels as Lucknam Park, near Bath, where BBC executives, for example, met last year (1992) to review the Corporation's future - are still happening. But when they do, the name of the game in recession-hit Britain of the 1990s is value-for-money.
"Companies are giving more emphasis to setting clear objectives for conferences as well as looking for higher quality standards", says Paul Swann, managing director of the conference organising and production company, Spectrum Communications. He points out that IBM, which for many years has rigorously and formally vetted the quality standards of its suppliers, has for the past two years applied this to its conference organisers. "Both in 1991 and 1992 we have won category A status as an IBM supplier", he adds.
Business equipment supplier Canon also looks for effectiveness rather than razzmatazz from its twice-yearly conferences for 550 direct sales staff. It now holds its meetings, for example, in British rather than more glamorous overseas venues - last year it chose the Queen Elizabeth II centre in central London - and does not believe in excessive corporate hospitality such as "theme parties or other evening extravaganzas.
"A company with 550 sore heads on the payroll the day after a midweek conference with evening function suffers a major loss of manpower at a time when few companies can afford to waste the time and resources," says Canon's marketing services manager Martin Orton.
But why should companies hold conferences at all during the recession? "Of course there is a tendency to 'keep you head down' when times are difficult," says John Fisher, managing director of the conference arm of travel company Page and Moy (a subsidiary of Barclays Bank). "But companies rarely see the hidden cost of not using meetings or conferences as part of their communications programme - such as falling morale, lower productivity, reluctance to accept necessary change and suspicion about management initiatives." Yet he acknowledges that most companies are looking to cut costs wherever possible - a trend echoed by conference organisers surveyed by management consultants Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte. The 150 organisers polled found that "cost-consciousness of delegates' was only matched by companies' demand for better audio-visual and other technical facilities.
This had led to a number of discernible trends during the recession. Companies and organisers, for example, are cutting back on the length of conferences: some nine out of every 10 corporate meetings are for three days or less with over half just lasting for one day. Moreover, many companies are shortening the length of events so that delegates require just one night's hotel accommodation for conferences which normally would have meant two nights' stay.
Instead of arriving the night before for an early start, some companies are allowing executives to travel in the morning of the first day and starting the conference at lunch-time and then finishing it at lunch on the second day," points out Janice Eagleson, marketing manager for De Vere Hotels whose portfolio of hotel venues aimed at the meetings market includes the refurbished Grand Hotel in Brighton.
"But they are also trying to pack more in: typically going for 45-minutes buffets rather than sit-down lunches and going on until late - such as to 7.30pm or later - in the evening," she adds.
The people eligible or invited to attend conferences is also being limited in some cases to those most directly likely to benefit. This reduces some - but not all - direct costs: meeting rooms, for example, are often hired at the same fee irrespective of the number of delegates. But the key saving is on travel costs and catering.
Gill Price, commercial director of the QEII conference centre, also points to a trend to get more activity packed into a typical conference. "Break-out rooms are being used more for workshop, syndicate and specialised subject sessions," she reports. In the conference business this trend has been noted as being part of the flavour-of-the-month management buzz-word: empowerment, as executives find their own solutions in small groups rather than simply listening to a main speaker.
Demand for audio-visual (AV) equipment as part of the established facilities is also increasing, especially in hotels which form the bulk of the meetings market. "Companies want us to provide AV rather than hire it in from the outside would would be more costly," says De Vere's Eagleson.
The recession has also seen the emergence of the "off-the-shelf" conference packages. Conference organiser The Presentation Partnership, for example, has just launched a fixed price Annual General Meeting package. For between £2,500 and £4,000 - depending on the size of the audience - the AGM package includes backdrop, lectern and top table, along with all the necessary lighting and sound equipment.
"This meets the needs of companies which, in the present economic climate, don't want to give shareholders the impression that profits are being wasted on over-elaborate and unnecessary production," claims Presentation Partnership's managing director, Chris Matthews.
But even in a recession, there are still some companies looking for that something "extra" when holding a corporate meeting. After a slow start, conference organisers report surging interest in corporate meetings at the new EuroDisney theme park and resort outside Paris. Disney, moreover, is so keen to win its share of the European meetings market that it is willing to open up the theme park for exclusive use for special conference groups - and even to relax, for conference delegates, its ban on alcohol when mingling with the likes of Mickey and Minnie.
Neil Thomas, managing director of Hawksmere which runs some 250 conferences a year ranging from The Power of the Brand through to Developing the High Performance Manager, believes that all is not gloom. "There are a number of companies out there who believe that improving the quality and ability of their managers is even more important in a recession. For every company that is cutting back, there is one that is prepared to spend on management training."
But what is becoming clear is that companies are looking for more practical conferences than they did pre-recession. "They don't want a general, academic-type of conference but something that they can translate into their own businesses," adds Thomas.
Wendy Farr, who runs AIMMS Conferences which organises management conferences of all types (her latest, last November, was on the future of European monetary union), says that "more and more business conferences now want "break-out" sessions where delegates can discuss what they have heard speakers say.
She adds: "Managers want to know what they are going to get out of a conference before they come. They want to know they are going to get something different from what they can read in the newspapers."
But while valued-added is increasingly the name of the game for management conferences, most are still sold on the quality of their speakers. Farr, for example, knew she was on to a winner when she managed to secure Bank of England Governor Sir Robin Leigh-Pemberton and a senior official from the German Bundesbank to speak on the same platform at her conference.
Mike Selway, managing director of the Event Organisation which organised the recent London conference, Strategic Renaissance: The Transformation of Economic Enterprise, pulled in such top speaking attractions as British Airways' Sir Colin Marshall, GrandMet's Sir Allen Sheppard, and Unilever's chairman Floris Maljers. "It is vital to get the right speakers who have really achieved something and who people therefore want to hear," says Selway.
Most top business speakers do not get a fee for speaking. They regard it as part of their corporate responsibilities. Business conference organisers, moreover, claim that the margins for such conferences remain so tight that large fees are out of the question. But management "superstars", such as the American guru, Tom Peters, would command a hefty price for appearing - it is rumoured to be up to £15,000 - and the cost of the seminar or conference rises accordingly.
Market researchers Mintel estimates there are some 15,000 meetings, conventions and conferences involving UK companies held annually. These range from small executive meetings held within companies through to sales and training conferences and international conventions held at a UK venue like the new International Convention Centre in Birmingham, or overseas.
A 1991 survey of 200 of the Times Top 1,000 companies found that these had organised 1,820 external conferences and related events during 1991. The most common type was the management meeting, representing 37%. Training courses came second (27%), followed by sales conferences (12%). Press conferences and product launches accounted form 9% and 8% respectively. AGMs were responsible for only 5% of the events held, with the balance miscellaneous meetings.
When electronics giants Philips, Sony and Matshshita wanted to increase awareness among both hardware manufacturers and software developers about their new interactive compact disc system, they decided collectively to sponsor a conference for the trade to tell them about this new product.
Yet, ironically, interactive compact disc systems are one of the emerging new technologies which are set to revolutionise the conference business. What interactive compact discs - which have taken existing CD technology a stage further by enabling users to take advantage of the amount of data stored to interrogate the system and produce several options for replay - potentially bring will be a marked increase in the flexibility and quality of graphics.
"Live" demonstrations interspersed with text, graphics and full motion video will eventually become the norm through the use of interactive CD technology, although their use so far has been limited by the lack of software available. But the good news is that the new technology has been developed to the same standard worldwide, thus enabling speakers to use the same equipment wherever they are.
Interactive CD is only one aspect of the way conferences are taking advantage of technology.
Many conference productions involving speakers cues, special lighting, and audio visuals are controlled by four-track computer tape where every instruction is keyed in. But technology also poses a threat to traditional conferences where delegates meet face-to-face in reality as opposed to on a video screen.
Video conferencing enables some - but not all - meetings to be held between executives based in different parts of the country (or the world). Many, though, are likely to see its scope as limited: genuine face-to-face contact (or a drink in the bar after the meeting) usually yields far more than a video meeting ever will.