Is London falling down?

London venues have countered the threat from rural locations by cutting costs. But growing security fears in the capital and cheap travel means other destinations are beckoning, says Pete Roythorne

It used to be a certainty that using an out-of-town venue would save you cash, but this is no longer the case. London’s tourist and entertainment industries took a hammering post-9/11 as tourism dropped off and the events industry faced a tightening of budgets. But now the capital’s venues are wising up to the threat from outside and are working harder for business, with many prepared to cut deals.

The view that London is expensive may well be justified, but this has to be balanced against other factors. For instance, despite huge infrastructure investment in cities such as Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester, the national and international transport links into London can’t be matched by any other UK city, and this can save visiting delegates time and money. Build these costs into the equation and the overall difference for those going out of town can be negligible.

In spite of these selling points, London has been having a tough time in the conference market for the past few years. Indeed, UK Conference Market Survey (UKCMS) figures show that 49 per cent of its respondents from the corporate sector held conferences in London in 2002 compared to 54 per cent in 2000. In isolation these statistics paint a bleak picture for the capital, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Capital gain or loss?

“Although the capital’s share of the market has declined, the same is true of other cities. Conferences are held in a much wider range of locations,” says Tony Rogers, executive director of the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD). “Birmingham saw its percentage fall from 29 per cent in 2001 to 16 per cent in 2002. Price may be one determinant of change, but a more important factor is the emergence of new destinations and venues actively targeting the market.”

Despite falling costs, only 48 per cent of respondents rated price as one of the most important factors in choosing a venue – 82 per cent rated the location itself. It is increasingly apparent that the most important thing is to decide what is right for delegates, and what you want to achieve at your event.

As a rule, out-of-town conferences are relaxed, team-building days where delegates are allowed to “get away from it all”. Whereas City conferences are more work and activity focused, with productivity and learning the goal.

Carole Lundie, campaigns and events manager at event organiser Anix Group, goes a stage further: “It’s not just about choosing between urban or rural; it’s about choosing a venue that excites delegates enough for them to make a special journey to attend the event – as more demands are made of people’s time they are selective about what they go to. You could hold the same conference in a perfectly good London hotel or at an unusual venue and by doing so, double, if not treble attendance.”

Having said that, there are benefits to holding your event outside London. For a start, travel times by car into London can be long and, once you’re there, access times to venues and internal transport can be inflexible and expensive. “Travel time is a big issue. Companies can’t expect people to leave home at four in the morning to get to an event for 9am,” says Nick Terry, managing director of video and event production company Top Banana.

Furthermore, out-of-town venues can allow for greater creativity as Sarah Roberts, group events manager at FAST Corporate Services (FCS), explains: “Many regional venues offer more opportunities to creatively brand a site. And they tend to have more space, which means easier access and also means you can create activities that enhance the day and make it an event to remember.”

Access to technology is also a key factor in choosing a venue. “Event organisers and companies expect first-class communication technologies and venues must expect to deliver to remain competitive – whether in London or not,” says Emma Whyman, managing director of event and conferencing specialist Whyman Group.

However, Becky Graveney, sales and marketing director of Initial Style Conferences, raises a cautionary note: “Availability of technology is a major influence, as is having people on site who understand the technological needs.

“It’s all very well offering different services, but with all technology there is risk attached. Whether it be concern over security, Web access being available at the right speed, or the ability to create a network between rooms, a venue must have expertise in offering the client an appropriate solution that will deliver on the day.”

Safety first

Of course, security isn’t just a topic for network managers at an event. One of the current worries for London is whether it is perceived as a safe place. “We have seen a fall in the number of delegates wanting to go London,” says FCS’s Roberts. “Many of our members outside the capital prefer not to take what they perceive as a risk by going into town.”

Security is a major issue and the same tight restrictions used by many City institutions are now being used for events. “Many companies bring in-house security to the venues to identify any safety or security threats,” says Jo Wales of Launchpad. “For this reason, companies can be drawn to using rural venues.”

Emma Bainbridge, head of event management at BI, takes security very seriously, “We constantly evaluate the volatility of a particular destination and then make recommendations to our clients. For their own peace of mind, we advise that they take out event risk insurance and opt for a terrorism threat add-on.”

But, before you rush out and book your high-security, technology-rich event in a converted pig farm in Dorset, consider this: if large numbers of your delegates face a three-hour, or more, drive to an event, why not look to Europe?

As Top Banana’s Terry explains: “Companies are moving out of town and out of country. Hotels are facing increased competition as airlines are providing cheap flights and hotels overseas are extremely flexible.”

So, London is finding itself under threat from not only its own country but also from event favourites Amsterdam, Barcelona and Prague, and large chunks of Italy. If you’re looking for something different, that’s going to excite your delegates, organising a conference abroad is suddenly not that expensive.

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