London may be a vibrant centre for fashion, the arts, finance, history and culture, but when it comes to marketing “the coolest city on the planet” (Newsweek) as a conference and incentive destination, the efforts have been risible.
The capital has had no individual or body representing it since the disbanding of the GLC under Ken Livingstone’s leadership 12 years ago. And London has never had an independent convention bureau, the function being combined with the London Tourist Board’s brief. The capital badly needs leadership, a single voice with a sense of vision and purpose for London, and the clout to implement that vision.
As a result, a cohesive marketing plan has been absent, with many bodies of a fragmented industry doing their bit to bring in business, but without the necessary umbrella to put forward one cogent message from venues, hotels, organisers and the business community to buyers.
However, with the advent of the millennium and the appointment of a mayor, this will change. The London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau are at last looking to be proactive, introducing initiatives sadly lacking in the past, including a dedicated marketing plan for London as a conference and incentive destination, with an Incentive London guide to be published in October, backed by a Conference and Exhibition London directory.
“We are looking for ways to take the lead,” says Paul Hopper, managing director of the London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau. “Each conference and incentive organisation has been promoting itself and London in that order. We are now pushing London.”
The London Convention Bureau’s marketing strategy includes a renewed emphasis on Europe, with a dedicated full-time marketer targeting key market segments and emphasising value for money – this seems particularly important to counteract the perception of London as an expensive destination, especially with the strong pound.
Hopper adds: “These changes are long overdue and even if they are implemented now, London will not see the benefit for some ten years. Younger faces are needed at the London Convention Bureau and the British Tourist Authority.”
One problem has been the lack of research. “The incentive travel industry is almost invisible,” says Hopper. “This is partly because it is difficult to collect data accurately. A group booking for four days will look like a holiday, statistically; or, for tax reasons, an incentive trip may look like a conference.”
Budget restrictions are also a hindrance. The LCB is given 1.5m a year and has to raise the same amount again from the private sector. “To do a good job, we need 5m,” says head of business development Helen Jones.
Damian Hall, sales and marketing manager for Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, is also frustrated by the LCB’s budgetary restrictions: “The LCB is underfunded and understaffed. It should be able to fund site inspection visits to London. Scotland, Manchester and Birmingham do it,” he says.
Another disadvantage for conference and incentive buyers is the level of tax on hotel rates. In Hong Kong and Australia, hotel tax is reduced for business travellers.
Hall also feels a guaranteed corporate rate should be offered by the convention bureau so that organisers do not have to negotiate with three hotels of the same standard, all offering different rates.
Hall criticises the joint brief of the London Tourist Board and the Convention Bureau: “It is a mistake to lump them together,” he says. “They are two different products. Convention business generates three times per head the income of tourism, and this has been neglected.”
Hopper puts great emphasis on the role of mayor, whom he sees as a prominent figure, promoting London in the UK and abroad. Although ideally this person should be charismatic – as Jeffrey Archer has pointed out – it is all very well to say we do not want a political mayor, but since they will have to deal directly with the Government, they should know how Parliament works. “It is important to have someone who will blend politics with a business approach,” says Hopper.
The role of mayor and the London Development Authority, jointly forming the Greater London Authority, will have responsibility for transport, economic development and regeneration, environment, culture, media and sport – all issues making a major contribution to the capital’s marketability as an incentive destination. Although this is true, it is less clear how much independent authority, or indeed control of funds, the mayor will have.
Nonetheless, a mayor with vision can achieve great things, as Wembley’s Hall, points out: “New York is an excellent example. Ten years ago, the city was not identifiable as a conference and incentive destination, now it is one of the most popular, and that is entirely due to Mayor Giuliani.”
But Hall is concerned that the incoming mayor will not have a full understanding of the value of the business pound. He says: “Our industry is worth millions, but is underperforming against cities like New York, Barcelona and Hong Kong.”
Another contentious issue is the proposal to build a 5,000-seat international convention centre and exhibition hall. According to research by BDO Hospitality Consulting on behalf of London First, a consortium of about 300 leading London companies, there is a strong economic argument for the construction of a conference facility.
It established that London’s market share of UK and European conference demand is decreasing, as other cities capitalise on the success of their purpose-built venues.
There is talk is of government funding, but regional centres such as Glasgow, Birmingham and Cardiff had no government support to fund their centres.
Chief executive of Glasgow’s SECC Mike Closier has no doubts: “It is another case of the Government not seeing north of Barnet,” he says. “The UK is well served by its existing facilities. International convention centres are perceived as icons and therefore it is deemed London needs one.
“You would only fill 5,000 seats once every five years and according to our research, there is no need for such a thing in Western Europe,” says Closier.
Gill Price, commercial director of London’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, agrees. She adds: “The LCB says the spin-off from such a facility would be an advantage to the QEII Centre, but to be viable, it would have to host smaller conferences, then the effect on us would be adverse,” says Price. “And if concerts and similar events were held there, then Earls Court and Wembley would suffer.”
She also points out the need for a supporting infrastructure: “The hotel scene in London is busy, but much of the activity is in the outer boroughs. Delegates do not want to come to an event in central London and stay outside the centre.” And existing capacity is oversubscribed.
Investment in the fabric of the city and in its institutions are an essential part of London’s image as a vibrant centre, and there is continual investment, or at least plans for money going to the arts; sports facilities – not least the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium as the National Stadium; museums; cinema multiplexes; Greenwich Reach 2000 with London’s most central cruise liner terminal; and an exhibition centre proposed at London Docklands, with plans for three supporting hotels. And as part of the regeneration of the river, riverbus services will be introduced.
But there are still credibility gaps. Conference and incentive groups coming to London are largely transferred by coach, which contributes to already serious congestion. And plans to pedestrianise the north side of Trafalgar Square may please environmentalists, but this will almost certainly exacerbate the problem.
If the Millennium Dome is to be a success, then the Jubilee Line extension to Greenwich must open before December 1999. It has once again been delayed, now until September 1999.
Overall, it seems London’s marketers are finally getting a grip. Only one thing seems quite bizarre about these new levels of activity. London has been a commercial centre for cent uries, so why have its leaders taken so long to exploit its attractions?