Foreign Affairs

If it comes to a choice between the Bahamas or Birmingham, most companies would prefer the more glamorous overseas option as a conference venue.

However, the reasons why companies choose to hold conferences outside the UK are far more complex than the exotic and expensive tastes of senior management. Event organisers are discovering that companies are plumping for foreign venues only after careful consideration of the benefits they are aiming to achieve from a trip overseas.

Gone are the days when companies threw money into foreign travel willy-nilly and, while a decade ago the attitude may have been one of “let’s all go on a jolly to Bangkok”, today’s decision is more likely to be based on strategic factors.

Companies are, in general, thinking more seriously about what they can get out of a foreign event for staff – looking into exactly what’s on offer at the location. Conference organisers point out that it’s a mistake when a destination is chosen purely on the whims of senior staff.

Robert White, executive chairman at conference organiser Business Travel Team, says: “Some clients don’t think enough about the other people in the company. I was speaking to someone recently who wanted to go to Cancun purely because her neighbour had just returned from there with a great suntan.”

Another factor which is tempting companies abroad is the lack of opportunity to find good conference sites in the UK. Mike Hosking, director at Jenny Hilliard & Associates, which acts primarily as a venue finder, says it is the lack of availability of venues in London and other prime UK locations that has forced some of his clients to look overseas.

“Availability in London for the tail end of this year is horrendous. Recently I investigated about 30 venues, with a choice of ten dates. Yet I only got eight or nine options,” says Hosking.

Richard Foulkes, head of live events at Crown Business Communications, is also finding London very difficult to book as a conference location. “If you try to get a venue in London for 6,000 delegates, you will struggle,” he says.

This, plus the strength of the pound, is enabling companies to venture abroad, often for the first time. And while the price of an overseas event is still likely to cost more than one held in the UK, it is possible for organisers to find some good value deals.

Hosking says: “If you can get a good deal on transport and you choose a quiet period, you can end up paying a price that’s comparable to a UK-based event.”

However, White warns those looking for value for money. “People are fooling themselves if they think it is cheaper going overseas. Everyone is looking for a bargain, but you get what you pay for. An overseas conference should never be done on the cheap.”

The Business Travel Team says it tries to get clients to upgrade their choice of conference destinations over a period of years. In the first few years, they choose European locations, then the US and the Caribbean, culminating, possibly, in a trip to the Far East. “We have some companies on a three-to-five-year plan, but it’s not unknown to now have a 15-year plan in place,” says White.

Gaining the trust of the client is essential if such schemes are to work. Exploring the whole gamut of overseas options requires a degree of flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of the client.

Linda Davies, group managing director at conference and incentive organiser Forest View Group, says: “It took us three years to persuade one company that we could be trusted. Only last month it went to Istanbul for the first time. It’s choice was based on our suggestion.”

Organisers say it does not help when clients are too rigid about where they want to go. It is far better to be flexible with the planning, so giving the organiser the opportunity to research a variety of destinations which it can then present to the client.

Not surprisingly, many organisers report that good weather is a high priority for companies aiming to go abroad. The problem now, however, is that due to the vagaries of the global climate, it’s a lot harder for organisers to guarantee sunshine in places where, in the past, it was a certainty.

“Twenty years ago I could tell exactly what the weather would be like in certain foreign locations. Now, with El Niño, particularly in the US, you cannot be sure what the weather will be like. It could be a heatwave or a monsoon,” says White.

Top hotel and conference facilities are also as desirable in foreign parts as they are here. Foulkes says: “Companies are still looking for hotels that have a seafront location and a purpose-built conference centre. Good hotel facilities and an outstanding conference centre are a prerequisite for any overseas trip.”

A major consideration, too, is the accessibility of the location: the flight connections to the country, for example, and also the location of the hotel in relation to the airport. The Forest View Group’s Davies says: “Ninety-nine per cent of the time a client’s decision is based on ease of travel.”

When a conference is being held for the purpose of staff motivation and team building, a foreign location is now a very popular option – the south of France is going to appeal far more to staff than a wet weekend in Eastbourne.

Aside from motivational factors, the choice of a European venue is often strategic. It may simply come down to the fact that a company with a network of offices, or a big multinational, requires a central European location.

One organiser also cites the example of a company which chose to go abroad because it was launching a new product and it wanted to avoid the prying eyes of some of its UK rivals.

The Forest View Group will also look at a location from a historical and cultural perspective, to see what a city offers clients in the way of sightseeing and excursions. And while many companies still demand to stay at top hotel chains, it makes an effort to find smaller, independently owned hotels, which can help add to the ambience.

Davies comments: “We have a client which likes the Inter-Continental in Cairo, but we also suggested the Nina Palace, which is close to the Pyramids. It has beautiful gardens, a wonderful history attached to it, less traffic noise and excellent rates.”

She rates Dubai as one of the best destinations currently on offer if companies want to be a bit more adventurous in their overseas requirements. She recounts the story of a recent trip where it had been arranged to take people out to the desert to have dinner in tents, but it poured with rain.

At short notice, the Dubai-based company which helped organise the conference recreated the scene in the hotel’s conference room complete with camels.

A conference or exhibition might be held abroad for a myriad reasons, but what is clear from the organisers is that companies need to trust them to pick the place that best suits their needs.

Lack of availability in the UK and the strength of the pound have combined to open clients’ eyes to the value of going overseas. Al-though it is likely to cost more, companies have become more aware of the value of foreign events, especially motivational ones, for staff.

High on the list of overseas needs are better weather, top conference and hotel facilities and good accessibility. And all for the right price. Finding the right mix and ensuring there are no hitches remains a thankless task, and the clients’ flexibility remains an essential ingredient if the relationship with its venue organiser is to flourish.

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