Once, conferences were low on a hotel’s priority list, with badly-lit rooms and a flipchart plus indelible marker described as “comprehensive facilities”. Today many offer a proficient one-stop-shop to conference organisers.
Aware that clients expect increasingly professional service for meetings and conferences, hotels have installed sophisticated technology and staff are trained to provide a dedicated service. One point of contact, a money-back guarantee if clients are not satisfied with either service or catering, and all-inclusive quotes ensuring a bill with no surprises, are all commonplace.
According to John Fisher, managing director of Page & Moy Marketing, the bill is a major factor in his support of hotels as conference venues. “If your client is able to be flexible, you can choose off-peak months and negotiate a good rate at a hotel.
“I wish conference centres would stop pretending to be cheap,” he says. “A rate of 55 a day looks good until you get the bill and have been charged for water, electricity and audio-visual crew, whether or not you used them, just because they are part of the package. It still happens.”
Fisher says staff in hotels are now better trained in hospitality, and everyone has a vested interest in keeping the client happy, with a uniform standard of service. By contrast, many conference centres are owned and run by local councils, with services franchised out.
The average size for a one-day conference is 100 to 250 people, which many hotels can handle, with the advantage that if an overnight stay is involved, the delegates are in one place. However, with a group of 500, and a number of rotations – dealers, sales teams, press – a conference centre makes more sense.
One area where hotels easily beat conference centres is at airports. For organisers bringing in delegates from around Europe, or the world, the advantage of keeping them near to the airport are enormous savings of both time and temper – no sitting in traffic jams trying to reach the city centre.
Fisher singles out the Sheraton Skyline at London Heathrow as doing a particularly good job. Now 12 hotels have grouped together to form Destination Heathrow and market themselves as a serious contender to the capital’s downtown properties.
Flexibility plays a large part in whether organisers choose a hotel or purpose-built centre. This is something conference centres excel at, designed to cope simultaneously with different-sized groups, offering many rooms. Hotels are often reluctant to have several rooms taken up for one session. Equally, competing properties are less willing to work together in the UK than in the rest of Europe, according to Shaun Casey, director of travel operations for The Marketing Organisation.
“They may be happy to host a standard conference, classroom-style with a lectern but many do not understand what a big convention is about,” he says. “If I want to use a conference room for a breakout session and a ballroom for a plenary session, for an event that may take one or two days to set up – something complicated – even big properties do not want to take it.”
Forte’s Conference Privilege package claims to offer space for anything from six delegates to 2,000, the “undivided attention” of a meeting professional on the day, and all-inclusive rates. The programme was created as a result of research with focus groups, agents and conference buyers.
The research revealed conference organisers’ primary requirement was ease of buying and, according to brand manager Caroline Beecher, that is what Conference Privilege aims to provide: “It is vital to have a consistent meeting package across our wide variety of hotels, from the modern Posthouses to properties like The Bear at Woodstock. And with Conference Privilege we can do this,” she says.
Research is also the driving force behind an announcement, expected in September, of an initiative from Inter-Continental Hotels. “We are not just talking about launching a new rates brochure. We are looking at the whole concept of planning a meeting and how we can make our product different from the rest,” says Adrian Simpson, vice-president marketing for the group.
Holiday Hospitality’s Conference Network groups its properties according to facilities and capacities, making it easier for organisers to pick out what meets their requirements. They are divided into Meetings Place, Meetings Plus and Meetings Select Hotels – roughly, small, medium and large.
The group also offers one point of contact and a number in Amsterdam for information on facilities worldwide. The Conference Network guarantees a single point of contact with a meetings professional throughout the event, a clear cost estimate and itemised billing.
This year Hilton launched a streamlined conference booking service, providing information on 400 hotels in 50 countries, from room sizes and possible add-on programmes, on one telephone number. This will run alongside Hilton’s Meeting 2000 service, which provides a meetings manager to oversee all arrangements, business centre back-up to all events; rooms to suit a number of purposes, including Spectra Suites with large TV/video screen monitor and 35mm back projector.
Hilton has twice consecutively won the Mystery Shopper Award section of BDRC’s Hotel Meetings Market Survey. Says BDRC research executive Paul Savage: “Overall, Hilton strives to achieve higher service levels than its competitors. It prepares the best package and because it backs this up with training, its delivery is closest to the brochure’s promise.”
Most groups promise one contact on the day of the event, and have made contact with that person easier by a variety of means.
Hyatt Hotels does not offer a standardised conference package but promises that a conference booker will deal with only one contact at their chosen venue. And Thistle’s Conference plan includes a venue-finding service on one phone number; standard equipment; lunch guaranteed to be over within one hour; and inclusive rates.
Research undertaken by Jarvis Hotels highlights the need for greater emphasis on service. It covered 19 market sectors over four months, including 3,000 conference delegates, organisers and decision makers. As a result, Jarvis has relaunched its Summit Conferences programme to deal with the main complaints of those surveyed.
Personal service is the key to this new programme, with services such as a button in reception linked direct to the summit manager, bypassing check-out queues; First Call, allowing direct pager communication with the manager; and more exciting menus – boring food cropped up as a regular complaint during the research.
Marriott’s Meeting Edge initiative also puts the emphasis on communication and hands out walkie-talkies to customers as they arrive, so that they can keep in touch with support staff. Also slightly different, the group offers themed refreshment breaks to clear delegates’ minds, so they can go from a lecture on astro-physics to a mock-up building site, being served bacon sarnies by staff wearing hard hats.
These efforts reinforce the opinions of Penny Thomas, sales director of conference specialist Banks Sadler: “Clients are becoming more demanding and hotels are meeting those demands in services and technology.
“Branding is becoming more competitive,” she adds, “and more and more hotels undertake to meet certain standards, with money-back guarantees. But facilities are dreadful,” she says, pointing out that the UK is lacking in big residential venues. “The choice in Europe is much better,” she says, “with Tenerife, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris, including Disneyland Paris, becoming increasingly popular.”
Fiona Brown, who heads up the biotech division of Focus Communications, organises Investing in Biotechnology, the leading biotech conference for the finance community in the UK. She uses hotels for the event, even though there have been glitches “because biotech is a US industry, and the Americans seem to prefer hotels to dedicated conference facilities. They offer a more personal service and atmosphere,” she says.
“We used the Dorchester two years ago and, although the technical side left something to be desired, service was excellent.”
The next biotech conference is to be held in the Royal Lancaster, which has just undergone a major refurbishment. “It has spent a lot of money and has all the right gear,” says Brown. “And it is offering wall-to-wall cosseting. You no longer have to choose between technology and service.”