Town and out

Choosing the right conference venue is the key to a successful event. The location must be easily accessible, provide appropriate entertainment during leisure periods and be equipped to handle the numbers involved. So, given the options available, how do organisers choose between a city or country venue?

Meetings Industry Association research suggests that 49 per cent of events involving less than 50 people are held at out-of-town hotels. By taking people out of their environment, you leave them free to concentrate on the matter in hand. A hotel that regularly handles conferences will know what to provide, right down to replacement light bulbs for the projector.

Fay Sharpe, sales and marketing director at venue finder In Business Reservations, agrees: “One advantage of using a country house hotel is that it takes people out of familiar territory and makes them a captive audience. If a company holds an event close to its offices, they are too close to their working environment and not totally focused on the conference.”

She says country house hotels and training centres are particularly well suited to motivation exercises as they have facilities for outdoor activities and benefit from their surroundings.

Those organisations which choose country house hotels often become regular customers. Angela Morris of Price Waterhouse Coopers runs 20 lifestyle courses a year for the company’s partners at Lucknam Park, near Bath. The Partner Survival Clinic, as it is known, involves a series of lectures by experts on exercise, diet, physiology and psychology. The idea is to encourage employees to be healthier, and therefore more productive.

“The partners are extremely bright,” says Morris. “So we have to present hard facts, but then put them into a soft environment. The event starts on Thursday and ends on Friday lunchtime – and partners often stay on to enjoy the facilities.”

The obvious drawback to country properties is accessibility. If delegates have to drive for any length of time, or be transferred by coach to a conference venue, the time and effort have to be justified by the duration of the event. For a half-day or one-day meeting, the journey time should be minimal.

You must define your audience. If, for example, they are shareholders, communication lines are important.

BT looks for a central location with rail, motorway and airport links. The telecoms giant then moves its annual general meeting around the country to please as many people as possible. It has used the NEC, Royal Theatre in Nottingham, Harrogate Conference Centre and Wembley, among others.

The average age of the delegates is also relevant. “A city is more exciting for post-conference activities than the country, and is more suitable for younger people,” says Richard Gill, client services director at Crown Business Communications. “Conference audiences work hard, and it is easier to relax in a city during unstructured spare time. In the country, this has to be managed and an organiser has to find a third party to arrange sports activities in the hotel grounds, which is a bit Eighties.”

Gill believes catering is often better at city locations, which are set up to provide meals around the clock.

There is also a feeling that city locations are more flexible when it comes to providing audio-visual facilities.

London’s Millennium Conference Centre, which joins Baileys and The Gloucester hotels at the hip, has an inherent advantage in the form of an in-house audio-visual production company. “Because the competition is so hot in London, expectations are high,” says Penny Sykes, director of conference organiser The Conference Shop. “The centre is the most advanced facility available and it is ideally placed between a traditional and more modern hotel, which together provide a variety of restaurants as well.”

Facilities have become more sophisticated over the years, with technology playing an increasingly important role. Hotel groups offer specialist services, such as Hilton 2000, with many providing a dedicated member of staff to look after a project from the initial phone call right through to the debriefing. And because few properties are able to hold more than 800 delegates, large events tend to be held in conference centres or theatres, which are inevitably located in towns or city centres.

Graham Frazer, divisional managing director at Maritz Travel, is critical of conference facilities in country properties in particular and UK hotels generally. He says they are often designed as banqueting rooms and are therefore near the kitchens, which means they can be noisy. However, he is a regular user of Stapleford Park in Leicestershire, preferring to take the venue over for exclusive use. “That way, you do not have distractions such as people outside playing tennis or croquet, and you can time things to your own requirements,” he says.

“Stapleford has an unusual amount of space for a country house hotel. The big hall is ideal and the recreational facilities are great. It has style without being staid. It is one of the best of its type,” he adds.

There are properties which combine city centre accessibility and convenience with attractive surrounding countryside. They include: Runnymede Hotel in Egham, The Belfry in Warwickshire, which is 15 minutes’ drive from Birmingham International Airport, and Marriott Dalmahoy and Country Club near Edinburgh.

Christine Milburn of the British Soft Drinks Association arranged the association’s AGM this year at the Dalmahoy, seven miles outside Edinburgh. She says: “Historical interest was important; there had to be something interesting not more than 30 minutes away in order to fit in with a partners’ programme; plus it needed facilities for a golf tournament. Because the hotel is between Edinburgh and the airport, it is easy to reach by road, rail and air.”

Unilever has been using Runnymede for the past 16 years, holding strategy meetings for groups of up to 25, with delegates from both the UK and further afield.

Unilever conference and corporate hospitality manager Wendy Ffitch comments: “Runnymede is close to London and Heathrow airport, but is also outside the city. People have less and less time to spare and this way delegates can take the last flight into the UK at the end of the day, gather for dinner, attend the meeting the next day, and fly back in the afternoon. The hotel is off-airport, but only 15 minutes from the terminals.”

Ffitch says the Heathrow properties do not have the atmosphere of Runnymede.

But for those who want to be within arm’s reach of the airport, there is a good choice of hotels within the airport perimeter, 12 of which market themselves as Destination Heathrow and have good conference facilities. Joachim Volz, general manager of Sheraton Heathrow, says: “By staying at Heathrow, groups cut out unpredictable journey times into the city centre and also save money as prices in central London tend to be higher.”

The other reason for choosing a city venue is the need for exhibition space. Running a large conference is an expensive business and many organisers hold an exhibition alongside it to defray the costs by renting the space to providers of related goods and services.

This is where venues such as the QEII Conference Centre in London and Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) come into their own. Deborah Lidgett, marketing manager at EICC, says: “As budgets for conferences have decreased, holding an exhibition alongside a function has become more popular.

“At the British Association of Urological Surgeons event in 1996, 71 per cent of the total bill was funded by profits from the exhibition.”

Venues with exhibition space are in or close to cities, with the advantage of having leisure facilities on their doorstep.

These days, time is of the essence. It can no longer be said that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive – organised travel a vital factor when choosing a conference venue.

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