There is a fine balance to be struck when choosing a conference location: for incentive impact, a ‘wow’ venue is often best, but for everything else it is hard to beat local attractions. By Ed Drayton.
One of the first decisions when planning a business conference is where you’re going to hold it. Do you keep it local, and risk the boredom factor creeping in, or do you go for somewhere further afield to impress your delegates? Sadly, it’s rarely as straightforward as that, and there are a number of key factors that will influence your decision, ranging from where all your delegates are coming from, to exactly what you want to achieve with the event.
In some instances the decision will be made for you, with time restrictions on delegates or cost restrictions prohibiting large travel expenses forcing your hand. From this point of view, choosing to hold a conference at a nearby venue is naturally a cost- and time-effective option. There is also an undeniable convenience factor, and logistics are uncomplicated, which frees valuable business hours.
Close to Home
For shorter meetings with no travel or accommodation costs, local venues can be perfect. Although depending on where you are in the country you may find yourself with limited choices, spreading the net further does increase your options. Staying close to home minimises the disruption to the day-to-day running of a company, and this can be an important consideration.
“Face-to-face communication is an integral part of the success of an organisation. In many situations venue selection must be sensitive to the needs of a company in continuing a successful business operation,” explains John Birger, head of UK operations at face-to-face marketing and communications agency MJM. “This will affect different industries in different ways. For example, there are obvious sensitivities in determining how long a sales force or call-centre staff might be safely removed from their role. A smaller local venue might be selected if it enabled this type of audience to participate in waves, and thus reduce the disruption to day-to-day operations.”
There are other less obvious benefits to holding your conference at a local venue, as Markus Gardner, head of logistics at experiential communications agency PCI Fitch, explains: “Using a nearby venue means you are more likely to get a high-profile speaker from within the organisation. It makes it easier for them to say ‘yes’ if there’s a shorter travel time involved. Also, if you’ve been using a local venue for a while and on a regular basis, you may have discounted contract rates.”
Ian Taylor, commercial director at Marketing Birmingham, is keen to point out the benefits of not straying too far from the nest: “Logistically speaking, it is easier to plan, particularly as there may already be an existing relationship with the venue contact. It cuts down on transport costs and the process of transporting any equipment. In addition to this, media relations around the event or conference are made easier and more effective as the organiser will already be plugged in to the local media partners.”
One of the major downsides to staying local is familiarity. A regularly used venue lacks the sense of occasion that is sometimes a benefit in selecting something further afield. Having said that, nearby venues are often appropriate for more routine “housekeeping” events, progress announcements, updates or low-key meetings where convenience and functionality are the main requirements.
Of course, just as local venues can potentially bore people, so far-flung ones can impress and incentivise people. If an organiser has gone to the trouble and cost of arranging a more exotic trip it can make delegates feel part of something exciting and exclusive. There is a perceived benefit in using far-flung destinations in that it removes the group from their comfort zone, and allows them to be inspired by a completely different experience, without being distracted by regular trips to check e-mails or listen to voice-mails.
“The benefits of far-flung venues translate particularly well to sales meetings or incentive trips where one of the main purposes is to motivate or thank staff,” says Pamela Berners-Price, head of logistics at Jack Morton Worldwide. “Although they by no means have an exclusive on this, an exciting location can also offer more scope for the creative development of the programme, which in turn can facilitate your ability to interest and inspire staff. They are also useful if an organisation wishes to celebrate achievements or mark a special occasion.”
Julie Besbrode, a director at Fresh, agrees: “Venues abroad create an impressive ‘wow’ factor and are ideal for motivational events, especially when launching an incentive. Delegates feel valued when a business really makes the effort to organise a conference that is a little out of the ordinary. Training events and announcements relating to corporate devel-• opments are also best carried out •away from a familiar environment. By removing delegates from the ‘everyday’, it’s easier for them to approach issues in a fresh and open-minded way.”
Other situations where you might benefit from a location that is further afield are when you are dealing with a business message which is more global, or you want to give an international feel to a product launch. It this situation, an international setting will help underline your key messages. But, the increased distance does raise both logistical issues and costs.
Making an Effort
“Cost can be the main barrier to organising conferences abroad, but I would say that as long as a company can afford it, it is always a worthwhile investment,” says Besbrode. “Rather than seeing the conference as a chore – as some delegates would about a long trek to somewhere in the UK – it’s something to look forward to. There’s generally a better turnout and when we have organised conferences abroad in the past, delegates have always made the effort to say how much they’re looking forward to the next one.”
Naturally, there’s more organisation involved in planning a conference abroad. But, Besbrode believes, as long as attendees are clear about how they’re travelling to the conference and where they are staying, there should not be any problems. “We would advise that each individual should be in charge of their own travel arrangements, as it is unlikely that everyone will be setting out from the same point,” she continues.
She also advises that budgets are discussed, and everyone is clear how much they can spend on expenses and accommodation. This becomes particularly important when you consider that it is not practical to expect delegates to be receptive to a conference after more than four hours of travel. In this instance you would need to book a hotel for the night before the conference and this extra cost needs to be considered at the outset.
On top of this there are going to be technical issues, but as long as your company has appointed a production company that’s used to working worldwide, they will be able to handle the transportation of equipment, delegate packs and other material. As a general rule though, when planning a conference abroad, it is vital to research the legalities, as some countries require a carnet, or an inventory of all equipment being transported.
Birger raises other issues that are specific to taking your events further afield. “You need to take into account basic visa or health requirements at the outset to determine the location’s suitability,” he says. “We always seek to minimise client costs through utilising as much available local resource as possible, whether this is for crew, entertainment or technical equipment. Locating, selecting and working with these suppliers might require some considerable additional input. Issues caused by location, and by time-zone differences must also be successfully navigated. Site visits are a very important part of a successful event, and clearly a remote location might increase the cost implication of these sessions.”
Other specific issues you may need to address when going further afield include: exchange rates and economic stability; flight access and travel time; reliability of suppliers; good quality accommodation; translation services if necessary and, increasingly, the threat of terrorism.
Whatever, your aims, there is one big reason to consider staying local – corporate social responsibility (CSR). As we become more aware of the need to reduce our carbon footprint, travel is increasingly being seen as the least environmentally sound option. Keeping your conferences close to home can be used to underline any CSR messages you wish to communicate to your audience. However, if you are shipping in delegates from a wider area, this may not be an option.
A Tender Issue
Berners-Price suggests this is not as big a problem as you might imagine. “It is possible to be greener while organising your event,” she says. “When we produced the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in 2005, sustainability and carbon neutrality were key requirements. In order to achieve this, we first scoped environmental impacts, risk profiled and then minimised or offset everything we could. This covered the areas of transport, sourcing of goods, waste recycling, energy use and procurement, where we included sustainability clauses in all major supplier contracts and focused on this issue during tenders.”
How much you heed the green agenda boils down to a question of company ethics, but more and more people are using local destinations, using the local produce and keeping business in the community. However, there is little incentive activity involved with this, and there will always be a place for the wow factor in the business conference setting.