Hotels are moving into the conference sector in a bid to increase revenue. They offer attractive leisure facilities and a flexible 24-hour service. But critics argue the facilities distract delegates and that hotels often can’t provide the nec

Whether you see the hot-house environment of a purpose-built management centre as tantamount to being under house arrest for the duration of a conference, or you believe the leisure provisions at a centre are a harmful host of potential distractions, hotels are increasingly trying to persuade conference organisers that they offer the best available venues.

Hotels are rushing to advertise themselves as conference venues as a way of making extra money on top of the revenue from standard room bookings, but are they really up to the job? They claim to offer all sorts of benefits: full experience in the service arena; a ready-made ambience totally different from the relatively dour atmosphere of a bespoke conference centre; 24-hour support; flexible dining hours; an ability to handle short-term changes of plan; on-site accommodation; and the full range of leisure facilities, such as pools, gyms and saunas, to relax delegates and leave them in a perfect state for the hard work ahead.

Declan Lott, general manager of the Radisson Edwardian Hotel at Heathrow, emphasises the flexibility to take in last-minute changes of plan as one of the factors that make hotels ideal venues.

“If an organiser suddenly requests a cocktail party for 30 people tomorrow night, it’s not a problem,” he says. “And hotels have more personnel support for items not related to the conference. The reception desk will be staffed 24-hours-a-day and there will be a concierge who can book restaurants or theatre tickets. If you need secretarial support at 8pm, that can be provided.”

Sheila Fenton, conference manager at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa), agrees that this is the benefit of hotels. “Conference centres tend not to be so good for adding something ad hoc at the last minute. Everything has to be arranged in advance,” she says. “Plus, residential courses are often more convenient. Otherwise you have to lay on transport or the delegates have to walk from their hotels.”

Lott points out that much of the business during a conference actually happens out of hours: “There is a greater ability to keep people together if they are staying in a hotel. They don’t disappear at 6pm, so they can have informal meetings during drinks or over breakfast. If you use a purpose-built centre, you may not see the other delegates until the next day.”

Titus Granville, who handles sales and marketing for Dolphin Square, an all-suite hotel in London with sports and health facilities, says it is these, along with the high-quality restaurant, that are key factors for people booking 24-hour delegates into the complex.

But other organisers may be less bothered about the delegates’ corporeal fitness and more bothered about the fitness of the venue in terms of atmosphere and technical facilities.

Gill Smillie, marketing co-ordinator for Conference Centres of Excellence (CCE), which runs dedicated meetings centres across the UK, says: “We offer a quieter, more rarefied atmosphere for pure working programmes. People don’t go for a jolly, but for a specific reason: hard work. The rooms themselves are genuinely dedicated to meetings in a way that hotels are not, in terms of the quality of the furniture and audio-visual equipment. Chairs, for example, will be designed for 18-hour use.”

Fenton echoes Smillie’s view: “Dedicated conference centres tend to be more modern and to be built in consultation with the conference industry.”

The Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which opened a year ago, undertook extensive research into the needs of the conference market before it was built. Marketing manager Deborah Lidgett explains: “One of the things that came out of the research was that the large auditorium, which seats 1,200, could be switched very quickly into three smaller rooms so that parallel sessions can take place.”

Graham Hills, director of Eurosis, a company that supplies interpretation services and equipment for multilingual meetings, defends the technical merits of hotels. “Conference work is so important to hotels they do their refurbishment with the meetings market in mind. However, you sometimes find that purpose-built centres have easier access in terms of getting vehicles close to where the equipment needs to be delivered.”

Lidgett adds: “Another advantage with a purpose-built centre is that you can plan where you put it, as well as what you put in it. The Edinburgh centre is in the heart of the city, five minutes from the castle and the shopping centre of Princes Street, and there are three five-star hotels within a ten-minute walk as well as a full range of two- and three-star hotels. Delegates on a tight budget can stay in university accommodation if they choose.”

There is an increasing demand for exhibition space alongside conferences, as this is a way for conference organisers to make extra money. This, too, has been provided in the Edinburgh centre.

Caroline Moore, group communications manager at Earls Court Olympia, says hotels tend not to have the space needed for exhibitions. There may be banqueting rooms that are large enough, but they are likely to have chandeliers dangling in the air space that the exhibitors wanted for their stands.

Not only do dedicated centres claim to have a better understanding of the technical needs of conference organisers, they also claim to have a simpler approach to pricing. Smillie says: “A hotel may charge extra for syndicate rooms, whereas a dedicated centre wouldn’t do this. A hotel will bill you for any extra equipment it has to hire in. It may even start charging extra for items like flip charts. Hotels that do this just don’t understand the needs of the conference industry.”

Martin Dempster, conference placements manager at the Peter Rand Group, says: “Yes, there is always a danger that hotels will charge for every teaspoon, whereas the price at purpose-built centres will include the equipment.”

However, he maintains that hotels are better than they used to be. “They have had to pull their socks up,” he says. “They have had a good look at the needs of the industry and they now pay more attention to things like seating and natural daylight, and most of them are comparable with bespoke centres.”

The Radisson Edwardian Heathrow, for example, is opening its 700-delegate conference facility this month. The Commonwealth Suite offers sound-proofing (essential in a centre that is less than five minutes from the airport), video-conferencing, audio-visual control rooms, close-circuit TV, high ceilings, good power supply, natural daylight as well as the capacity for full black-out and access to a variety of break-out rooms.

The Ramada Heathrow even goes so far as to call itself a “purpose-built conference hotel” and offers comparable facilities, including the very well-equipped York Conference Theatre. It also has a business centre that can be opened at any time by prior arrangement.

While hotels are making an effort to ensure they provide all the equipment needed for the conference market, purpose-built centres, for their part, are starting to recognise that delegates may want a bit of rest and play mixed in with their work.

Sue Wakely, marketing manager of venue management company Style Conferences, says: “Management training centres used to have a scholastic image, but that’s changing. Our newest centres have the facilities of a four-star hotel, along with pools, saunas, gyms and a golf course. We can offer the service, but you won’t have the distractions you might find in a hotel, such as a children’s party going on.”

However, one major criticism is still directed at hotels – that they are trying to cater for too many different demands from guests and will spread themselves too thinly to be able to dedicate themselves to the needs of conference visitors.

“A conference delegate will not take kindly to little Joey running around, screaming and getting underfoot, and the tourists staying in the hotel will be complaining that they can’t get a cab, because the delegates have just nicked them all,” says Moore at Earls Court Olympia.

Lott concedes that hotels have other concerns: “A hotel’s main revenue will be from selling accommodation. Once that’s in order, the conferences and banqueting come in.”

This frequent merging of responsibility for conferences and banqueting business means that not only may the conference delegates be playing second fiddle to the overnight guests, they may even be playing third fiddle to the raucous wedding reception in the next room.

But in defence of hotels’ dedication to the market, Lott points out that only a relatively small percentage of hotel guests will eat in the hotel while conference delegates are more likely to eat there, thus generating vital revenue.

As added value becomes the key in all areas of business, hotels are trying harder to consider the needs of conference users and realising they have to do much more than provide an overhead projector and a couple of flip charts if they want to pull in the business.

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