KEEP IN TOUCH

It could be a tricky decision to make, a key deadline to meet, or a sales target to hit. Any of these mundane but imperative business actions could well be a major disincentive to take time out from the office to attend a conference or exhibition.

In the hothouse environment of business where the old adage “time is money” really is true, what incentive is there to risk leaving the wired-up and plugged-in environment of the office for the unconnected environs of the conference centre?

According to the UK Conference Market Survey, companies are budgeting anything from 50,000 to 600,000 a year for conferences. Therefore, it is essential that delegate needs are interpreted and met effectively in an industry estimated to be worth 4bn a year – especially in terms of maintain-ing links with the outside world.

One solution to the problem of being cut off from the office is simply to take the office facilities to the conference itself. Richard Gill, client services director of Crown Business Communications, believes it is essential to be able to communicate with clients and colleagues at all times, whether the conference is in central London, Birmingham or Istanbul.

“There is increasing demand from our clients for more sophisticated communications facilities, particularly e-mail,” explains Gill. “Some people could be receiving as many as 100 e-mails a day. If you take two days out of the office, that is a considerable log jam you will have to sort out when you get back.”

Gill maintains that this communications deadlock could be partially alleviated by the availability of well-positioned e-mail facilities which delegates can log into during lunch or coffee breaks. Many of Crown’s clients are financial institutions such as Barclays Capital, which recently held a two-day brainstorming event in London. Crown produced the event and ensured that delegates were provided with instant communications with their offices and kept informed of events in the worldwide financial markets.

Gill explains: “The nature of this audience meant that the delegates could not afford to be out of touch for 48 hours. But external communications needed to be achieved without impinging on the process of the event itself.” To achieve this, Crown installed Bloomberg screens and on-line e-mail connections with special addresses in the hotel. The aim, says Gill, was to avoid the old story of “lost messages on pieces of paper in porters’ hands”.

Gill concedes that even a year ago such facilities would not have been at the top of the client’s agenda. But now, he says, there has been a sea-change in attitude: “Clients expect this type of service.” And it doesn’t stop at e-mail. Crown has provided remote satellite receiving systems to allow managers to access Reuters and CNN.

Nicole Cooper of Reed Exhibitions acknowledges that business communication facilities are a necessary part of the equation but not the whole story. Ease of access, straightforward booking facilities and relevant conference subject matter are, she suggests, every bit as important as e-mail connections and business units.

“We try to ensure that the subject matter is really right for the delegate,” says Cooper. “Once they have decided to attend, we try to make everything as simple as possible. Each show has its own Website and people can book by phone, mail, fax or online.”

However, this does not mean that business facilities are left unattended. A recent Reed Exhibitions show – Workplace 97 – featured a dedicated business communications centre where delegates could make free telephone calls, send e-mail and faxes.

Lois Jacobs, chief executive of communications agency Caribiner, believes that contented delegates are those attending the right conference, offering exactly what they really need. “You have to research your audience and then target your content or message specifically to that audience,” says Jacobs. “If you create an agenda that delegates feel to be interesting and worthwhile, then they will come along.”

But Jacobs also believes delegates will be reassured if they know that while they are away they can be in touch with base camp. So modem and telephone links are helpful – but not the main reason why they will attend in the first place.

Tony Simpson, spokesman for the Sales Promotion Consultants Association (SPCA), goes as far as saying the comfort and the location of the conference and the quality of speakers has far more bearing on the success and value of an event than any other consideration. “I don’t think the availability of technology is a big selling point,” he argues. “Anyone who can pay up to 500 for a conference will probably be the owner of at least a mobile phone and a pager anyway.”

Clearwater Communications’ managing director Andrew Hillary agrees: “You have to be clear in your message to delegates as to why they are attending that conference. You need to persuade them that what they will gain from that experience will be greater than the loss of a potential day’s trading.”

However, Clearwater also believes in providing appropriate facilities. “You will need to provide a separate business centre and not necessarily rely on the facilities provided by the venue,” says Hillary. “The delegates will need full e-mail, fax and pigeonhole facilities and back-up administrative staff. All these business facilities have been made possible by the advancement of IT, so it is good to be able to come out of the conference sessions and be able to use them.”

And should delegates find themselves in need of an overnight stay during the conference, they will find that the hotels are also keen to ensure that they can tap into the office from their bedrooms. For example, The Belfry, De Vere Hotels’ largest conference facility in Warwickshire, has recently installed faxes in all its bedrooms and has e-mail facilities and secretarial services. Anyone staying at the London Heathrow Hilton in the future, will have the choice of a room on a business floor, where each room has a workstation, personal computer line, three telephones and fax.

According to Ursuline Edwards-Sutton, director of conference and business travel for Hilton in the UK, clients are not necessarily demanding hi-tech communications facilities, but, as with leisure facilities, they need to know they are there if they need them.

Guests staying at Hilton hotels will find that at designated centres they will be wired up and in touch – with access to in-room faxes, modem sockets, Oracle, business centres, voice mail, ISDN lines (especially useful for creative agencies needing to send information backwards and forwards to studios) and workstation pods.

It seems the secret of the successful conference – whether it has a dedicated in-company focus or is a general event open to all – is two-fold: first, develop the right programme to persuade delegates it’s worth leaving the office; and second, provide the appropriate facilities for delegates to access all necessary information back at the ranch.

But what are the cost implications of access to all these communication devices? Gill of Crown Business Communications maintains that the investment is surprisingly cost effective. “What is required is a good technician to install the equipment quickly. For our clients, it is a line item in the budget – and we haven’t had a client yet who has not taken up the office communications package,” he says.

“When people meet at a conference, it is the most effective way of doing business. But organisers have to safeguard against delegates feeling cut off from the main action back at the office. If a conference does not provide the right IT services, then it won’t be servicing clients needs and that could lead to a loss of business all round.”

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