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
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
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
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
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.