SBHD: Conference venues are rarely chosen for their facilities. What often counts for more is their proximity to nearby hotels and the most convenient form of transportation. In attracting delegates, time is certainly of the essence.
Time pressures on executive diaries are responsible for all sorts of restrictions and limitations when it comes to organising a conference. That’s why choosing a handy venue is always appreciated by busy delegates.
Find out who’s coming and how much time is available. It may be a basic suggestion but it’s vitally important when it comes to deciding where to hold a conference. Delegates who spend most of their working life on motorways will be familiar with many venues sited close at hand: an immediate advantage as attendees are likely to stay for at least the first hours of the event. Proximity to an airport is sometimes important, because of the selection of nearby hotels. City centres can offer some excellent venues, however not all of them are particularly convenient.
For the planner who likes to think big, the choice is wide, modern and impressive. The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, in the heart of Westminster, is in as central a London location as one could hope for, ideally situated if the majority of delegates are coming in from overseas. “Most really big conferences take place in city centres,” says Michael Selway of the Event Organisation Company. “In these situations driving convenience is not a factor. What helps is proximity to centrally-located landmarks and sights. People like to go into a city.
One of the main advantages of the QEII Centre is that it’s easy to find and easy to get to. It’s right opposite Westminster Abbey and a short walk from the Houses of Parliament. Its location explains its attraction for international conferences, whose delegates can enjoy the walk from nearby hotels, taking in some of the capital’s finest scenery,” says a QEII Conference Centre spokeswoman.
London remains firm favourite for international conferences and get-togethers: for example London Metal Exchange Week in early October fills most central London hotels for several days.
“It’s not only the main events and dinners that matter,” says Louise Periam, who has been involved in LME festivities since 1990. “Delegates and their guests arrive from all over the world, and the convenience of Central London gives them the opportunity to make sales calls through the capital as well as across the UK.”
Regent London is London’s newest five-star hotel. “The Regent London is already ideally situated for out-of-town visitors by road or rail,” says the 309 room hotel’s banqueting manager Michael Flatter. “Once the rail link from Heathrow to Paddington is open we will be the nearest five-star hotel to the airport.”
A crucial aspect of the hotel’s convenient location is parking: 90 underground spaces and more accessible street parking than most. Indeed it was the underground car park that proved a major attraction for a conference hosted by one leading car manufacturer. “The company took over the car park completely and built a mini-showroom full of new models,” says Michael Flatter.
As a national venue, Birmingham has received a new year boost from Britain’s captains of industry who have declared it to be a leading business, conference and exhibition city, ahead of its rivals. According to the Birmingham Marketing Partnership, more than 80 per cent of delegates who attended the 1994 CBI conference agreed that Birmingham is “a leading business city, in a number of aspects ahead of London, Manchester and Brighton”.
Birmingham offers much for the conference organiser: the National Exhibition Centre could legitimately claim the first prize for convenience, connected as it is to Birmingham International Railway Station (departures in most directions and soon to be served by Eurostar) and Birmingham Airport (via a fast monorail to 80 destinations worldwide).
The Centre is Britain’s largest, and one of Europe’s leading venues, staging more than 100 exhibitions a year, while the International Convention Centre is unrivalled in Europe for its facilities: boasting 11 main halls, the ICC caters for groups numbering three to 3,000. “While the NEC, ICC, Symphony Hall and National Indoor Arena are the major facilities, Birmingham and its surrounding area also offers an excellent choice of smaller or more unusual venues, such as historic houses, stately homes and castles,” says Michael Thorley, chief executive of Birmingham Marketing Partnership.
Not every airport can claim a Monorail link with an exhibition centre, but Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Four does almost as well. Convenience combines with luxury and eye-catching architecture during the five-minute journey across the walkway to the HiIton Hotel. The hotel is strikingly designed around a glass walled atrium, and gives a cheerful, airy feel. The appropriately named Concorde Suite seats up to 200 guests for a banquet or 300 for a reception. All 13 purpose-built conference and meeting rooms are on the ground floor. As part of Hilton’s “Meeting 2000” service, there’s the promise that meetings for up to 50 delegates will run to specification and on time.
“The Heathrow hotels make a lot of sense, especially when you’re talking in terms of a one-day conference,” says Selway.
“It gives delegates more time, especially if they’ve flown in from Europe just for the day. That’s when it does not pay to offer a city-centre venue,” he adds
In the vicinity of Gatwick Airport the four-star Copthorne Effingham Park boasts a conference capacity of up to 600, housed in four conference and banqueting suites, three board rooms and eight syndicate rooms. The airport is just ten minutes away, whilst the usually trouble-free M23 is only five minutes down the road.
One key aspect relating to convenience is the flexibility a hotel will offer when the number of delegates remains an unknown quantity until the first day of a conference. “We organised a two-day event for veterinary surgeons,” says Chris Cattrall of AE Morgan Publications.
“Although we had plenty of pre-registration forms returned, we wanted to leave the option open for vets who would be uncertain right up until the day of the conference whether they would be able to attend or not. Luckily for us the Novotel at Hammersmith was willing to offer the special room rate even for late-booking delegates,” he says.
The large-scale, international get-together need not concern itself with motorway convenience, but stepping down the scale one or two points, the conference planner suddenly has to deal with tight schedules and overfilled diaries of widely-scattered delegates. Once again, it boils down to location and time. The Runnymede Hotel attempts to provide the essentials of a luxury venue coupled with airport and motorway convenience. “Visitors notice our strong relationship with the history of the Runnymede area in the naming of individual conference suites,” says the Runnymede’s sales manager Louise Martin. “The Magna Carta Suite is the most popular of the function rooms, whilst on site we also have the Royal Court Suite, the Glanty, the Egham, the Longmede, the Ankerwick, the Wentworth and Sunningdale suites.”
It may seem hard to equate this modern, well-equipped hotel with the monumental events of Magna Carta a few hundred yards up-river in 1215, but it’s the task of imaginative and forward-thinking conference planning staff to help set the historical atmosphere.
Evidently it works: Deutsche Bank’s Eileen Carter organises training seminars at the Runnymede on a regular basis. “Not only is it convenient for our many delegates who fly in from abroad, it’s also best situated for our London-based personnel, all of whom live close to the southern stretch of the M25. It’s a first-class centre offering value for money and a friendly approach.”
If historical events of the early 13th century are too recent, then think of organising a meeting at a hotel first mentioned in the Domesday Book as the property of William Peveral, natural son of William the Conqueror. Hartwell House is a Grade I listed mansion of historical and architectural importance, set in 90 acres of grounds landscaped by a pupil of Capability Brown. Hundreds of years ago – or even as recently as five years ago – the hotel would not have warranted a mention in the convenient column, but thanks to the smooth-running M40 motorway, Hartwell House is now easily reached by car from London and Birmingham. Its facilities have not gone unnoticed to a wider audience too: it was selected as “favourite small hotel” by the US Convention Planning and Business Hotel Reporter. In addition, Rover recently chose Hartwell House for the launch of its 600 series.
Hartwell House is far enough away from London to be free from the traffic queues and congestion that can really deter delegates, and yet is handily placed for very simple journeys to and from London, Birmingham, Oxford and Milton Keynes.
For gatherings north of the Border, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the only purpose-built centre to open in the UK in 1995, may be worth consideration. Once again, capital city attractions, plus handy rail, road and air connections, will help to sell the location.
To sum up, the conference planner can’t go wrong if they follow a piece of basic advice from Selway. “A careful assessment of your exact needs is the first and most important step towards ensuring a venue’s convenience,” he says.