Room Service

The conference trade is a booming business for hotels, yet many are still inflexible about catering for delegates’ needs. How can they afford to be so blasé about customer service?

A significant proportion of the hotel industry’s revenue comes from conferences and related business. Venues are coming under increasing pressure to keep up with the technical and hospitality demands of the conference industry. Conference organisers are finding that, while some venues are investing in the necessary technology, others are failing their clients through a lack of facilities or an unwillingness to take a client-oriented approach.

Conference production consultancy Apex.co.uk regularly books conference venues for clients across the UK and Europe, working with companies such as Glaxo Wellcome, Barclays and IBM. Apex.co.uk managing director Paul Ashford believes that some hotels are exploiting clients and agencies.

“We were recently asked by a central London hotel to pay £4,500 extra to set up three meeting rooms the evening before we needed them. The hotel also demanded an extra £1,000 to set up one room from 3am. The hotel has no shortage of bookings, so is using the law of supply and demand in its favour.

“Some hotels are switched on, but many fail to cater for delegates’ basic needs. They work on the basis that we have only hired a space and some rooms. They don’t think about comfort and customer service: issues such as room temperature, drinks for the crew or use of basic office equipment.”

Ashford says the demands of conference organisers are changing.

“Many of our clients are looking for a different approach to conference and event production. There has been a shift from traditional conferences to more participative and interactive events. Organisers are looking for more imaginative use of their conference budgets.”

The implications for hotels will be significant, says Ashford.

“We still need good, large conference spaces. However, we also need venues that can cater for teamwork activities. For some conferences, we require up to ten extra syndicate rooms with space for 30 to 40 people in each.

“Hotel bedrooms are just not appropriate. Many old hotels in particular lack adequate break-out rooms, have poor access or have large chandeliers which obscure the view. Universities often provide much better syndicate space.”

He adds that many hotels refuse to negotiate with conference clients.

“It ends up being a battle pitching the client and the agency against the venue. It would help if more hotels explored, and responded to, feedback from conference organisers.”

De Vere Hotels & Leisure and international presentation company Gearhouse Group have formed a partnership to improve the service available for conference users. Gearhouse will provide on-site technicians and presentation technology to De Vere’s 20 hotel conference venues.

De Vere sales and marketing director Bill Gosling says: “Some conference bookers find state-of-the-art presentation technology daunting. The on-site technicians will offer clients advice from the start.”

Equipment that is used regularly will be kept on site at the hotels, while Gearhouse’s technicians will co-ordinate the supply of specialised technical services from its regional bases. Gosling says this will give clients access to all Gearhouse’s resources through one local contact.

Simon Wall, chief operating officer for Interactive New Media, which provides the conference industry with telecommunications and IT expertise, believes hotels should play to their strengths and leave the specialist aspects of conferences to dedicated professionals.

Adapting the facilities

“There are quite a few hotels that cannot cope, because the rooms or halls that the conferences are held in are not specifically designed for that purpose. Companies, including INM, have to overcome these operational and logistical difficulties.”

A recent survey conducted by INM revealed striking differences between the perspectives of conference providers and conference users.

Wall says: “We asked 100 hotel employees what they would most want at an event, and the majority selected tea, coffee and a smart environment. When asked the same question, 100 delegates answered: more toilets, more tele phones and more fax machines. Clearly, there is a breakdown in communication.”

At the moment, hotels Рparticularly in London Рcan afford to be blas̩ about conference facilities. The competition for rooms means they are in the driving seat. But this short-term outlook is unlikely to pay off. Those hotels that make the effort now are likely to see the benefits in long-term repeat business.

Director of British Exhibitions Contractors Association (BECA) Joan Turner says she was impressed by the service BECA received when it used a hotel for its annual general meeting recently.

“We use a venue for three years running and then look for a change. This time we chose the London Landmark Hotel. The venue has a superb atrium and breakout rooms that work well for our purposes. The hotel hosts a lot of functions and is busy, but it had everything in place, including audio-visual equipment, videos and microphones.

Sloppy service

“In the past, we have encountered problems at hotels where we have run smaller meetings. Sometimes hotels are not as thorough as they should be and have not been able to fulfil all our requirements.”

Hotels, on the other hand, believe they are providing the conference market with an adequate service, according to the Meetings Industry Association commercial director Charles Blowfield.

“There are about 4,000 venues across the UK which service the conference market. Over the past two years hotels have improved their facilities, equipment and service.”

Hotels now benchmark themselves against the facilities offered by universities and purpose-designed conference centres, says Blowfield.

“They also have to be aware that there are more unusual venues now in the conference market.”

Despite some negative feedback, Blowfield says hotels are more serious now about their conference trade than they were a few years ago.

“Conference business is high-yield and non-seasonal. Tourist business is less lucrative than residential conference business.”

The need for training is also higher on the agenda in many hotels, in his view.

“Our own research with end-user conference organisers has shown considerable improvement in staff training within hotels over the past two years.

“But there is still a lot of work to do. Some hotels are using the Hospitality Assured Meetings scheme, which we launched last year. Almost 30 member organisations are accredited and about a further 80 are in seeking accreditation. The scheme was put together in response to customer demand.”

Competition for hotels

With a greater choice of venues, hotels know that conference organisers can afford to disregard those that do not pass muster.

The hotel sector’s traditional hold over the conference industry is somewhat shaky, because of competition from new types of venues, coupled with the growing popularity and affordability of conferences outside the UK. Hotels which rely on conference revenue would do well to benchmark their facilities against the best of their competition, and seek feedback from their long-term users if they wish to keep them.

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