Time Machines

The conference and exhibition sector is a seasonal business and as 2000 nears many event organisers are feeling anxious. Will the turn of the millennium be a help or a hindrance? asks Richenda Wilson

A year ago, stories circulated about how in early August 1999 Cornwall would become a goldmine. Hotels and restaurants would be able to treble their rates, festivals would attract thousands, perhaps millions, of music fans and new-agers, and farmers would be able to retire on the profits made from letting out fields to campers for a few days.

Then the stories changed. In early August, Cornwall was going to come to a standstill, water supplies would run dry, food would be scarce, and roads gridlocked.

The rumours conspired to ensure none of these things happened. At the time of this summer’s solar eclipse, Cornwall was rather quiet. The roads were no more busy than usual during the most popular holiday month, and food and drink were plentiful. The green fields allocated to festivals and campsites remained green as their few visitors wandered around. Losses replaced profits on the balance sheets of farmers and festival organisers.

Similar overblown stories have buzzed around planned millennial festivities. A year ago, all the talk was of astronomical prices for being at the party of a lifetime, on Concorde, in the Caribbean – even in a London taxi – at the moment the year turned. This time babysitters would be retiring on the profits of offering their services for that one special evening.

Now most conversations about the night seem to revolve around which close friends or family to stay at home with. The furthest most people are prepared to go is a venue they can walk home from. Eighteen months ago, research predicted a shortfall of up to 40,000 London hotel beds around the New Year. As it is, many venues and pubs will be closed. The party seems to be over before it has begun.

A lack of demand from customers, doubts about being able to find staff and fears about having to pay them inflated wages have all contributed to this. Some places already committed to staying open are offering bargains to attract customers. “People are walking away. Everything is so over-priced,” Wembley London managing director Janet Garner says. “Potential suppliers and contractors are saying rates will be eight to ten times normal. No event organiser will accept that. They are always looking for value for money.”

Steve Warner, director of insurance company Insurex Expo-Sure, which offers special policies to insure against millennium party dis asters, says many events are on a much smaller scale than expected.

Insurex is covering the big live party in Trafalgar Square with links to sites in Edinburgh, Frankfurt and Madrid, but a lot of the events Warner has heard about are small community celebrations taking place in village halls.

Some who work in the conferences and exhibitions industry suggest millennial panic is having an impact on bookings throughout December and January. Fears of exorbitant pricing and air travel chaos have pushed events forward to November or back to late January. Despite booming business for some on the night itself – many marquee companies, for example, are booked to capacity – some observers predict that there will be a slump in this year’s total turnover.

Events of a lifetime

But Garner believes business during the rest of the year will more than make up for this: “Wembley will be closed at the New Year. We’re giving staff three days off so they can go and celebrate separately.”

Apart from that week, she says the events industry is buoyant. “We’re busier now than at this time last year, or for the past five years. Wembley Arena is very busy. Lots of acts are touring before the millennium and there is no sign of it tailing off next year. I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with the millennium.”

QEII Conference Centre commercial director Gill Price also predicts the events industry will be back in full swing as soon as revellers recover from their hangovers sufficiently to realise their commercial and private lives haven’t been brought to a standstill by the “millennium bug”. She says: “The clients who normally come to us in early January are still coming. No one goes back to work until Tuesday January 4. If anything is going to happen as a result of the bug – it will have happened by then.”

Price believes business will continue to be buoyant throughout next year. “We have a tremendous number of international conferences booked for next year, such as the American Bar Association London sessions, the International Advertising Association and the British Medical Association’s “Festival of medicine”, which celebrates the new millennium by looking back at medical progress made in the past century.”

Price believes the Greenwich meridian makes London a more attractive destination. “People want to be in London for 2000,” she says. “What’s more, the London Eye is a fabulous structure and has changed the skyline. We’ve got the footbridge over the Thames, the first new bridge for years; there’s Vinopolis; there’s the Dome, which has opportunities for corporate hospitality. There’s so much more to offer planners. It almost makes it a different destination.”

Party venue

But Caribiner International chairman Lois Jacobs says the Dome is not as useful as it might be in attracting events to London: “It’s not a theatre venue. There is no auditorium. So it won’t be possible to hold conferences there, though it will be a party venue.”

Caribiner, like many companies in the events industry, has been hard at work on preparations for the Dome. It has had a hand in the “money zone” and the self-portrait segment, which explores what it means to be British.

Jacobs says the company is neither more nor less busy than usual: “We’re getting lots of international business, but I wouldn’t say that was connected with the millennium. In fact, I think the British care more about the millennium than almost everyone else in the world.”

Exhibition banner specialist Praxis is picking up lots of business at the moment and has found no evidence of people holding off at the tail-end of the year or beginning of next year. Managing director Andrew Nicklin thinks the industry is flourishing anyway. “If you can’t do good business, then you aren’t trying hard enough,” he says.

Nicklin attributes at least some of the present activity to the attraction of being in London at the turn of the millennium: “Having Greenwich here has got to be an advantage.”

Photo-imaging design company Scanachrome has a lot to be grateful to Greenwich for. It has been doing a lot of work for the Millennium Dome, in particular producing displays for the “money zone”. Director Ann Withington says she thought business would go flat once the Dome was finished, but it is flooding in. “Lots of projects we are starting now will continue for the rest of next year,” she says.

Nicklin says: “The New Year often makes people think about where they are and what they’re doing – a new century and millennium even more so. A lot of companies have new products coming out next year. We certainly do. People will be receptive to, and be looking for, new things.”

Upturn of the century

“It’s a psychological turning point,” says Steve Hill, sales and marketing director at Early Action Group, which designs and builds exhibition stands and events. “There will be an upturn in activity next year, in terms of product launches, rebranding, companies changing logos, and so on. They will want to tell people about these changes. There are already lots of new people who are doing events next year.”

Hill says people will be more willing to embrace new technologies, using the Internet as a communications tool, and that there will be an impact in terms of new production ideas. “The Dome will have a lot of cutting-edge interactive displays,” he says. “These will filter through ‘from the catwalk to the high street’, prompting new ideas and designs throughout the industry.”

So, even if the first few hours of next year are quieter than anyone imagined, the events business looks set to prosper for the rest of 2000.

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