08 The Year Ahead – Conferences

The conferencing market faces increasing competition from new media, so organisers need to embrace creativity and convergence, while emphasising the benefits of experiential marketing. By Anna Golden, EC & O

Events organisers reap the benefits of experience

The conferencing market faces increasing competition from new media, so organisers need to embrace creativity and convergence, while emphasising the benefits of experiential marketing. By Anna Golden, EC & O

This was a good year for the conference market, according to the UK Conference Market Survey 2007, carried out on behalf of the Meetings Industry Association and launched in October. The report trumpeted a 27% increase in corporate events over the previous year, the most significant increase in the industry since 1999, and driven (in part) by high levels of confidence in the City.

This is good news, especially since the British Conference Venues Survey 2007 (commissioned by the British Association of Conference Destinations, and referencing data from 2006) stated that there had been a shift away from the corporate sector and a general decline in the conference market over 2005.

But confidence in the City is a fickle thing, and we’ve already seen it being dented this year. Could this have a negative impact on the conference market in 2008, and reverse the growth trend? The answer is no, but all those involved in the event business, including venues, bookers, agents, organisers and corporates, should still understand how the market is changing, what is driving it and how to take advantage.

Consider convergence. The word “event” is becoming a universal descriptor for exhibitions, conferences and entertainment. In press coverage of the MIA Conference Survey, the term “conference market” was juxtaposed with “corporate event” to describe the industry’s growth sector. Events are growing across the board. The term “event” implies that something is going to happen. Across the wider industry – led by the Events Industry Alliance – there is a high level of consciousness of how the event market competes with other marketing disciplines, and the different ways of communicating with chosen audiences. The conference sector is no different. Traditional conferences and meetings face ever stiffer competition from new media and digital marketing tools, which can deliver content and talking heads more cheaply, quickly and efficiently.

Why would your audience make the effort to travel to a venue and pay for the privilege, in order to sit on a chair and listen to a day or two’s worth of presentations when they can get it from the internet? An event, on the other hand, pushes the experiential buttons, delivering something that cannot be found elsewhere.

Contrary to popular opinion, experiential (live) marketing is not the province of fashion brands, record labels, mobile phone and computer companies. Anyone can create an “event” and should strive to do so. There are no limits.

If those who book and organise events are recognising this, then venues are going to have to adapt to meet the demand. Research carried out for EC&O Venues earlier this year showed that what organisers want from a venue was understanding and flexibility.

Added value
Going back to convergence, at EC&O, we’re used to exhibitions which run seminars, debates, networking sessions and lectures, adding different layers to the event and extra value for visitors. Call them “exhibiferences”. We’re also used to conferences that take up exhibition space for the experiential part of their event. You could call these “confexhibitions”.

We’re also seeing a developing trend for large corporates to abandon the traditional conference format altogether in favour of bespoke exhibitions, samplings, tastings and activityled events. This type of event will require venues to get more creative in the way they selland use space.

In addition, the onus will be on the venue to embrace and demonstrate sustainability credentials, which are becoming increasingly important to clients.The launch of an event industry sustainability standard (BS8901) in November 2007 now means that there are clear guidelines for the industry to follow and every venue should be aware of the role they play in helping their clients achieve and communicate their desired level of sustainability.

In summary, 2008 could be another storming year for the conference sector and corporate events especially, as long as everyone involved is prepared to accept, explore and embrace creativity and convergence. An event is an event and it shouldn’t be difficult to achieve the layers of content that delegates, visitors and guests (call them what you will) require.

Anna Golden, Events Sales Director, EC&O

Wedded to engagement

More interactivity and  imaginative venues – including the virtual world – will help the conference sector remain buoyant. By Ian Whiteling

With 2008 already being heralded as the year of recession, in no small part due to the global credit crunch, two years of rising numbers of meetings and conferences – including a predicted 24% for 2007 – could come to an abrupt halt, particularly in the face of procurement’s growing influence. However, as executive director of P&MM Nigel Cooper points out: “Recession will, of course, also create opportunity because as companies find it harder to sell products, so they invest in more face-to-face persuasive communication rather than ‘faceless’ paper and electronic marketing. 

Many businesses look forward to recessions, because historically they emerge much stronger than before.”

Recession also results in price-cutting. “Venues, hotels and event managers have selfliquidating inventory, meaning that if the space or time isn’t used on the day then it can’t be put back into stock and used again,” continues Cooper. “If corporates are spending less as a result of recession, then event manager and venue prices tend to come down as we go into ‘overhead recovery’ mode. So keener tactical pricing will become a growing trend in 2008.”

Of course, the last time a recession was predicted in the UK, it never actually happened, and there are other key trends to look forward to whether it happens or not.

The influence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) will deepen and go far beyond environmental concerns. “According to UKCMS 2007, 77% of corporate organisers marked CSR as being either ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ influential in planning their events,” says Duncan Reid, International Confex event director. “Venues and suppliers in 2008 need to take this on board as organisers will be looking for good green credentials.

“PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, has a list of preferred venues which all meet its strict CSR policies.” Certainly the launch of BS 8901 has provided structure for the industry on this topic, so it has only itself to blame if it fails to rise to the challenge.

Reid also sees a great push for creativity and originality. “Next year will also see a rise in the number of organisers looking to stage events in unique and unusual venues that align with their client’s brand values,” he says. “There is definitely incr-eased competition among organisers to plan events in the most unusual and exclusive venues.”

Meanwhile, Kathryn Mais, sales manager of Lane End Conference Centre, says the market is responding. “There has been an ever increasing choice of venues for organisers to choose from,” she says. “This, coupled with the amalgamation of chains and the takeover of conference centres has made it hard for organisers to keep up with the options available to them.”

From a technological perspective, 2008 promises greater levels of interactivity, as delegates demand more engagement, while the rise of the virtual business conference should also continue.

“If our past year is to be a barometer, there has been a real shift in the level of interactivity at events,” says Chris Elmitt, director at Crystal Interactive. “Four or five years ago we were educating the market about interactivity, so 80% of our enquiries were from people we had proactively approached, with just 20% unsolicited. Today the figures are reversed.”

Discussion formats
Rob Allen, chairman of Eventia and chief executive of marketing communications agency TRO, certainly views this as a positive step. “The smart conference organisers are investing in interactive technology to increase audience engagement,” he says. 

“One-way communication to passive audiences will gradually become a thing of the past, and discussion formats enabling a genuine sharing of information will take over. In 2007, the events industry’s own annual conference, The Summer Eventia, used a free-form discussion format combined with interactive technology to identify and explore core issues affecting the industry. The outcomes provided a set of goals for the industry to reach.”

On conferences in the virtual space, Peter Dunkley, director at Depo Consulting, says: “We are expecting to see a significant increase in companies using virtual environments, such as Second Life, for meetings and small conferences. We have already seen companies such as City law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse beginning to use their virtual offices for both internal and external meetings, and there is significant potential to reduce travel, save costs and increase productivity as a result.

Although few in the conference industry probably take this trend seriously, it would seem wise, nonetheless, for providers of conference and meetings facilities to look at how the potential to use virtual social spaces such as Second Life might impact on their business, particularly as the need to reduce carbon footprints (as well as cost) drives an increasing number of companies to examine the alternatives. Providing managed facilities might be an opportunity rather than a threat.

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