CONFERENCES AND EXHIBITIONS: NEW SURVEY REVEALS BULLISH UK CONFERENCE MARKET - It’s a minefield out there, and very expensive at that, as hotels cash in on the convention boom. But do organisers get value for money? Robert Gray reports

In December 1996, ISO Research Centre was commissioned by the charge card company, American Express, to carry out one of the most comprehensive surveys ever undertaken of the UK conference industry. A total of 840 UK-based corporate meeting planners took part in the American Express UK Meetings Market Survey, which was published by Meetings and Incentive Travel magazine.

In December 1996, ISO Research Centre was commissioned by the

charge card company, American Express, to carry out one of the most

comprehensive surveys ever undertaken of the UK conference industry. A

total of 840 UK-based corporate meeting planners took part in the

American Express UK Meetings Market Survey, which was published by

Meetings and Incentive Travel magazine.



American Express commissioned the survey for market intelligence and

promotional purposes. It is promoting its Corporate Card as a way of

saving time and money when booking meetings, and has lined up 14 hotel

chain partners to offer a range of benefits to conference buyers paying

with the card.



However, as well as serving American Express’s needs, the survey offers

an invaluable snapshot of what is once again a bullish market. Only 5

per cent of respondents expected a decrease in the number of meetings

they intend to hold in 1997, while 38 per cent forecast growth.



Top hotels, particularly those in London, are being swamped by

enquiries.



The result is pressure on prices and a squeeze on supply, which means

that those who leave their conference planning to the last minute may

either have to compromise on their ideal or pay over the odds to get

it.



Meetings, of course, sometimes have to be arranged at short notice and

24 per cent of those surveyed said they booked conferences less than 60

days ahead.



One of the survey’s most interesting findings was that 61 per cent of

organisers did not use an intermediary agency - a higher proportion than

Meetings and Incentive Travel’s editor, Martin Lewis, recalls seeing in

any other research.



Clearly many corporate buyers are fighting shy of using placement

agencies for fear that it will add to the cost of the event.

Nevertheless, the agencies appear to be thriving and claim (in the same

way that media buyers do) that their buying power and expertise saves

clients time and money.



Peter Rand, chairman and chief executive of the conference agency, Peter

Rand Group, felt that a few of the corporates surveyed might have been

less than honest when they claimed not to use intermediaries. ’There is

a proportion of them who will not admit to using intermediaries

themselves because it’s more than their job’s worth, as they’re employed

to do it themselves,’ Rand says.



’I think it’s a very large task unless you have an intermediary agency

to help,’ adds Peter Horwood, sales operations manager at SmithKline

Beecham Nutritional Healthcare, who is responsible for organising about

six events a year.



Reputable agents can help prevent inexperienced clients from being

fleeced by unscrupulous venues. Sharp practice abounds; 32 per cent of

the sample said they had discovered hidden extras in their invoices -

most commonly for equipment hire and drinks.



Among the more outlandish items to appear as charges on invoices were

fire extinguishers, night porterage for a day conference, piper and

haggis, hookers, a skull, chapel hire, elephants, hoisting a company

flag, lawn-mowing and electricity. Complaints about highly exorbitant

costs included pounds 125 for a birthday cake for five people, pounds 25

for a sandwich and pounds 150 for coffee for 50. The only sure-fire way

to avoid such liberties being taken is to agree, as far as is

practicable, on all costs in advance.



’Sometimes problems occur not because the venue is being sneaky but

because the buyer doesn’t ask the right questions,’ Paul Hussey, general

manager of agent, Banks Sadler, points out.



Another intriguing statistic was that 35 per cent of respondents

admitted to not using any evaluation methods, and only 48 per cent said

they tracked adherence to their initial budgets.



’Not measuring the value of investment in meetings is one of the

shortfalls of our industry,’ Rand says.



Forty-four per cent said their meetings usually lasted no more than a

day, and 27 per cent said they mostly used their own facilities. These,

together with hotels, were the most popular venues. Only 9 and 12 per

cent respectively said they used purpose-built non-residential or

residential conference centres. And a surprising 66 per cent said they

never used academic venues, which can often offer lower costs without

necessarily entailing much of a sacrifice in quality.



Meanwhile, 63 per cent of respondents said they never used a convention

bureau to help find a venue (and only 1 per cent claimed they always use

one).



The most popular types of conference were sales/marketing related (46

per cent), followed by training (40 per cent). The majority of the

sample said their meetings were for fewer than 100 delegates, while 13

per cent organised more than 50 events a year. Thirty-three per cent

spent less than pounds 50,000 on meetings while at the other end of the

scale 6 per cent spent more than pounds 500,000.



Overall, the survey points to an increasing number of conferences during

1997, which will add to the cost - although prices at many venues remain

negotiable. Hussey confirms: ’We’ve found (at some facilities) 30 per

cent increases in day delegate rates.



Quite a lot of venues, of course, have pegged back prices over the past

few years and they’re making up lost ground.’



But buyers are still being prudent and any significant price hikes will

have to be matched by comparable improvements in venue quality.

Otherwise, many companies will consider alternatives such as their own

facilities or perhaps even video conferencing.



Topics