Executive service

Pressing business matters are a distraction to visiting executives, so many exhibition venues are now offering office services in an attempt to convince them to stay for the duration. By Steve Hemsley

Convincing key decision makers to attend an exhibition is only half the battle for event organisers, who then face the struggle of keeping them in the venue.

The main reason why executives do not attend an event or leave after a few hours is that they cannot justify long periods away from the office. The emergence of the mobile phone and the laptop computer has helped, but for overseas visitors, or anyone attending an exhibition or conference for more than one day, having access to office facilities could be the difference between them making the trip or staying at home.

Research by International Confex following an international event held earlier this year, revealed that more than 50 per cent of people who pre-registered failed to turn up because of last-minute work commitments. The organisers of the show are convinced that allowing visitors to keep in touch with their office while at a show would reduce the number of pre-registered non-attendees. Competition for organisers’ business has been fuelled by the rise in suitable venues. This has persuaded more venue owners to invest in business centres that provide clients with everything from telephone, fax and photocopying services to e-mail and Internet access.

Birmingham’s NEC hosts more than 180 exhibitions each year and was one of the first venues to provide an office away from the office. This has helped it to attract events aimed at an international audience away from London. London-based venues have been forced to respond or risk seeing more shows move to the UK’s second city.

Technology provider eForce installed and sponsors the business facilities, which opened last summer at Earls Court and Olympia. General manager Mike Lang says: “Office facilities have not been offered before because many venues had become complacent, but the industry is so competitive nowadays that it could soon become the norm to offer these services. Now eForce is talking about making the experience for the visitor and the exhibitor as productive and valuable as possible.”

Earls Court finance director Tim Pilcher says the board has a &£60m, five-year plan to turn the sites into e-venues. About &£22m has been spent so far on business centres that include standard office equipment, access to corporate e-mail networks, as well as video and audio streaming services. Executive lounges, based on the comfort enjoyed by airline club class passengers, have also been created.

Pilcher says: “We have three types of people who use the venues and we need to accommodate all of them; the event organiser, the exhibitor and the show visitor. Business life is stressful and exhibitions can be tiring, so everybody needs some time away from the halls or their stands – but we don’t want them to leave the venue because they might not come back.”

One event to take advantage of the business centre was International Confex in February, which was attended by more than 9,000 representatives from the meetings and corporate hospitality industry. Event marketing executive Helen Simms says the business facility enhanced the show, boosted attendance and increased the length of time visitors stayed at the event.

Other venues in the capital have also been upgrading their facilities. The London Arena now provides IT services in its Waterside conference room and ExCel, one of the capital’s newest venues, launched its Mobile Business Centre earlier this year. This is part of an on-going partnership between e-business and IT technology companies EDS, NTL, Cisco and Hewlett Packard, called ExCel-InTouch, which is offered as a standard option to all organisers. Facilities include technology-enabled work spaces, Internet access and VIP meeting rooms.

Weighing up the costs

ExCel director of marketing and sales Carolyn Hurley says: “Organisers were telling us that they wanted these services, and they can hire them in the same way they choose the catering. They just need to decide if this is a facility that their visitors will find useful and, if it is, they can usually find a sponsor.”

Event organisers want to create the best environment for companies to conduct business, but whether they hire a venue’s business facilities will depend on the visitor and exhibitor profile. For an IT or travel event, with a large number of international visitors, access to computers and e-mail is useful. However, for an exhibition or conference that targets a sector in which these services are not heavily used on a day-to-day basis, such as nursing, organisers might be better off investing in other areas of the event.

Association of Exhibition Organisers deputy director Austen Hawkins says: “Organisers must always weigh up the costs involved. Providing office services is just another factor to consider alongside whether to carpet the hall aisles or install a bigger coffee and meeting area. I don’t think we have reached the stage where people would not attend an exhibition if office facilities weren’t available because the strength of the show is what is important.”

Paying through the nose

Will Broadfoot, marketing manager of exhibition organisers Brintex, which runs 18 shows a year in the UK and overseas, says he does not expect venues to provide a business centre when he makes a booking, but there are times when basic facilities, such as a fax and a photocopier, can be of use to exhibitors and visitors.

He says: “For most people their mobile phones or laptops are adequate, but even for one-day events, people like to have a basic business service, but they don’t want to pay through the nose for the privilege. The exception is a large show like this year’s London International Wine and Spirits Fair, held at Olympia, where many people attend the event for two to three days. In this case, we use office facilities as part of a package of benefits offered to VIP visitors. The ability to collect and send e-mails, or to make private telephone calls, may well influence a major buyer’s decision to attend.”

Out-of-town venues

For venues based outside the UK’s major cities, being able to provide an added-value facility such as a business services area will always be an important factor when trying to attract visitors.

The Brighton Centre is the venue for BBC Showcase, where BBC Worldwide attempts to sell its programmes to about 500 delegates from international broadcasters.

This year’s showcase was the world’s largest television programme market held by a single broadcaster, and the facilities were provided by IT rental specialist Hamilton Rentals. It supplied 38 PCs so visitors could keep in touch with their companies, while a fast communications link from Brighton to London connected the 60 BBC staff to the BBC London local area network and from there to its global network. This meant BBC staff could access their business e-mail and the corporation’s intranet, as well as connecting to BBC systems around the world. The Brighton Centre also had 670 viewing booths installed, erected sales and presentation offices and a cyber café.

Hamilton Rentals project manager Roedi Staal says: “We talk to exhibition organisers about their requirements and we can set up networks of PCs, printers and faxes. It is important that we come on board early, because if the venue does not provide an IT solution we need to work with the event organiser to ensure they achieve what they want to. The cost depends on the facility they require and whether they would like one of our engineers to be on hand during the show.”

For conference organisers holding an event away from a large city, a resort hotel in a picturesque part of the country can boost delegate numbers, because people look forward to time away from their office. Yet being unable to deal with any problems that might occur while they are away can deter them.

One hotel that has addressed the problem is the privately owned St Andrews Bay hotel in Scotland, which opened this summer and has office facilities in each of its 209 rooms. Guests access the service via a TV and keyboard in their room and can use the TV for word processing, sending and receiving e-mails via UKand US-compatible modem links and even create Powerpoint presentations and spreadsheets. Cameras can also be hired so delegates can take part in video conferences from their room.

The hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Dan Schurr, says: “This hotel has been purpose-built to be a resort as well as offering some of the best conference facilities in Scotland and possibly the UK. We are aiming at the international conference market, so we need to encourage organisers to come to Scotland.”

Not every venue can justify the expense involved in providing seamless office facilities and the evidence is not yet strong enough to suggest they will lose business unless they do so. However, as the pressure on organisers to attract top-level managers and directors to their events intensifies and more venues target the potentially lucrative conference and exhibition market, this could become one added-value service that every busy executive will come to expect.

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