Making the Grade

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the range of conference venues on offer, help is now at hand. The Meetings Industry Association (MIA) has introduced a rating system for conference centres across the UK, which promises to take the guesswork out of choosing a venue.

Labelled Hospitality Assured/ Meetings, the system is more ambitious than the current hotel grading schemes in operation, and is aimed exclusively at the conference industry.

According to MIA president Philip Catlow, the scheme was set up in response to buyers’ requests.

“Four years ago, the MIA conducted research among buyers, and 90 per cent said they wanted a classification and grading scheme to help them select a conference or meeting venue.

“Other research into the UK conference market showed that disappointment with a venue was usually related to the quality of the service delivery and staff training, confirming the need for a quality assurance scheme.”

The MIA then entered discussions with the Hotel & Catering International Management Association, which had similar concerns over the quality of service in the industry. A decision was taken to pool resources and to implement a single standard across the whole of the hospitality sector.

It is a detailed process. “In a conference there are two customers: the delegate and the organiser. We have to get feedback from both those groups of people,” explains Catlow.

“Also, the Hospitality Assured/ Meetings system measures 12 areas of professional service, including customer research, the design of the service concept, the business goals, and how service standards meet customer demand. It also examines the quality of the service delivery and resources.”

Since the launch of Hospitality Assured/Meetings last November, more than 30 companies have signed up. One of the first to apply for HAM certification, and the only hotel group to have achieved it at the time of going to press, was DeVere Hotels.

According to Greenalls Hotels and Leisure (a division of DeVere) marketing and sales director Bill Gosling, 60 per cent of DeVere’s business comes from the corporate sector and most of that is from corporate events. Because of this, DeVere is acutely aware of the importance of purpose-built conference centres, with designs specified by a conference production company, says Gosling. The decision to apply for certification was made because the company recognised that future success would depend on self-monitoring.

“If you only self-monitor internally, there’s always a risk that you will miss things or become complacent. We believe that quality assessment should be done externally,” he says.

The MIA scheme will fill an important gap in quality assess-ment, says marketing manager for Conference Centres of Excellence (CCE) Gill Smillie.

“For years, organisations like the AA and the RAC have been grading the hard issues: the quality of the bedrooms, the cleanliness of the bathrooms and the comfort of the chairs in the lounge. Hospitality Assured/Meetings deals with the softer issues: anything to do with a human being providing a service.

“What is also special about HAM is that part of the assessment process involves the judges (who are independent consultants) writing to the clients of the venues concerned, asking for customer feedback. If you ask clients who’ve been using the conference centre for the past 18 months, you’re going to get a consistent track record. The results are put in a percentage grid and the venue has to get a very high percentage to be certified.”

CCE, which manages 26 dedicated conference centres, welcomes close inspection, says Smillie.

“In CCE we have our own criteria for membership. It has always been by invitation only and there are certain key criteria that need to be met.”

However, any venue which seeks CCE membership and already has Hospitality Assured/Meetings certification will have a head start, says Smillie.

“If a venue is displaying the HAM plaque, we would assume that about 70 per cent of our own criteria were already being met.”

On the production and logistical side of the industry, however, there are those who are less confident about the effectiveness of the new scheme.

Clearwater Communications managing director Andrew Hillary welcomes the initiative, but fears that it might not help production companies make realistic assessments of venues.

“In this industry, we’re not sure about a venue until we send our producer and technical director to have a look. When I read about other people’s high-level events, it’s much easier for me to make an evaluation of the venue based on what the event was. For example, if somebody says they held an imaginative three-day event involving experiential games and a major launch of a new product, a guest presenter, back-projection and AV with various lighting effects, immediately I get a feel for the capabilities of that venue.

“It doesn’t matter that the production company has brought that technology in. It means that I know the extent to which I can extend my concepts in that venue.”

The scheme could also run into difficulties with classification, warns Veena Lidbetter, general manager of Expotel International Travel & Events, which provides a venue finding and event managing service.

“I think it’s very difficult to give ratings to venues. Venues linked to hotels are already graded by the RAC, so if you use the Hilton ballroom, it’s automatically identified as a five-star venue. Alexandra Palace is very difficult to get to, so do you knock one point off for inaccessibility, or give it four points because it’s the only place in and around London that can host a particular number of people?”

Some venues are in demand for reasons that have little to do with service, adds Lidbetter.

“London, for example, lacks venues that can accommodate large events. Very few establishments can even do a sit-down dinner for a thousand. You may end up with only two choices, and then face problems with availability. Location is important for proximity to the airport and rail stations, availability of hotels if it is an external venue to a hotel, and also for accessibility to equipment.”

However, Eric Rymer, director of The Right Solution, which is involved with health and safety controls in the conference industry, expects the HAM certification scheme to have positive implications for safety standards.

“When an organiser is considering a venue, safety and security of the delegates is a high priority. There are some simple things that will help with this issue, beginning with the training of the venue staff, and some forward-thinking: conference packs, for example, should include details of fire exits.”

QEII Conference Centre commercial director Gill Price predicts that increased emphasis on standards verification will lead to higher costs.

“Many organisations are getting involved in quality accreditation programmes. All of these cost organisations money and if we keep coming up with new schemes, the cost is going to be passed on to the end user.

“I recognise that the MIA is trying to project an idea of quality ratings to its clients through this scheme. That’s laudable, but we are in a different environment from hotels.

“There is an assumption that if a hotel has been graded as five star, then the business facilities are going to be five star, but we are dealing with different types of clients. We have to be careful that we aren’t charging a client for something they aren’t going to use.

“I’m interested in how the ratings work. Whether, for example, it is wanting specific equipment provided in each conference room.”

Price also believes that there are enough industry bodies already considering quality issues.

“We are members of our local tourist board and convention bureau and of the International Congress & Convention Association. Some of our individuals are members of Meeting Professionals International. We encounter quality initiatives from them, but in my experience, companies are shying away from an actual programme because of the cost of the annual inspection and of setting up a complaints procedure.”

But there is a world of difference between tracking customer response and the outcomes of Hospitality Assured/Meetings, says the MIA’s Catlow.

“Centres do have customer response systems and offer guest comment forms, but in most cases they don’t do anything with them. Quality assurance says to the customer: this is the service I’m going to deliver to you and I can prove it because it’s independently verified. Hospitality Assured/Meetings brings together most of the principles of Investors in People and ISO 9000, so you’re talking about real quality assurance.”

Most conference industry professionals have highly developed contacts books and already know the quality they can expect from the UK’s established conference venues. While these people will find a quality certification helpful in confirming their own judgments, Hospitality Assured/Meetings seems likely to become a valuable tool to those companies which have only an occasional need to source premises, and also to users and providers of new and less high profile venues.

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