“The appointment of Mady Keup as the head of the London Convention Bureau is the most exciting thing to have happened on the conference scene in London for years,” says Gill Price, of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. “London needs a high profile, key personality. It’s very good news.”
Price adds: “We look to the bureau to raise the profile of London, particularly in the eyes of the international community. The role of the bureau is to target new business. But nothing has been done for so long that we must prioritise our objectives.”
Keup joined the LCB in May from Berlin, where she was manager, Central Europe for the British Tourist Authority. She was previously business travel manager for Europe at the BTA and chief executive of the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce.
“I am amazed at the changes that have taken place in London in the past nine years,” says Keup. “We are now deciding how we can bring in more business. I see Europe as a great opportunity that has not been addressed for a while now. Talking to incentive agencies in Germany, for instance, it is obvious that there is renewed interest in London largely because of the Dome and other millennium activities planned for the city. They had felt that they’d done London and knew all it had to offer, but they are now thinking again about the city.
“Our role should be to facilitate and assist. We want to focus on large-scale, high-yield incentives. This is where we feel we can make a difference.”
Sandra Elliott joined the London Tourist Board in December. She says: “I will be working closely with the ambassadors for London and the UK associations to help increase the huge potential London has for hosting international events. I also want to work with the representative bodies already operating in the sector.”
And yet without this heavyweight support, business in the capital is already booming. Conference venues, hotels, incentive agencies and associated services are all reporting that enquiries are up and business is booked well in to 2003.
“We were all worried that business would peak during 2000 and then die down but that hasn’t happened,” says Price. “We have very good business booked at the QEII for 2001 and 2002.”
This isn’t to say that the perennial criticisms of the city have been removed – high prices, low availability and a shortage of flexible meeting facilities are still causing headaches for meeting planners.
Penny Thomas, of London conference reservations and services agency Banks Sadler, says: “There is an enormous lack of large facilities in London. We could do with at least three Birmingham Metropole venues in central London. They would also have to be competitively priced with provincial venues such as the Birmingham and Manchester areas.
“London is still expensive compared with most major destinations in the UK, which is why organisers still seem to go for the Midlands when they deal with big groups.”
Another problem with hotel conference facilities in London is the lack of flexibility with syndicate rooms, which is now a major requirement for all large conferences.
Thomas adds: “An international conference centre is being built at Docklands and the Millennium Dome will be used for events after the celebrations. But this simply makes London stand out like a sore thumb for not having a large international convention centre. Facilities that we do have, such as Earls Court Olympia and the QEII, are all acceptable in their own way, but none can compete with some of the excellent facilities that are available in other major cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, or indeed in other European cities.”
All of which are common complaints from organisers. Shaun Casey, director of travel operations at The Travel Organisation, agrees. “London is deficient when it comes to decent conference space coupled with bedroom space. The problem is that hotels tend to have one available meeting space – usually a wonderful ballroom – and that’s it. The exceptions are the Royal Lancaster and Royal Garden – two hotels that really work.
“The new Stakis development on Edgeware Road is the best thing that’s happened in London for a long time. While there’s no doubt that London has regained its flair and it is an exciting city, for corporate conferences and product launches it is very expensive. The number one destination for this market is with- out doubt Birmingham. It offers flexibility, beds and exhibition space. Glasgow is also very pro-active, which is something we’ve yet to see from London. We also do a tremendous amount of business in Paris because it offers large numbers of beds combined with huge function space.”
Costs will continue to be a problem for buyers in London. With business looking so good, it seems inconceivable that venues will consider lowering their prices. New venues coming on stream, however, will increase availability and competition, particularly at the lower end. If delegates are prepared to stay out of the centre of the city, there are deals to be had.
LTB’s Elliot says: “There is a tremendous amount of hotel development under way, which may go some way to helping with availability in the city. A new convention centre is the big chunk that’s missing. I will be working to form an advocacy body to persuade the relevant bodies that London needs a new convention centre – and one that is hi-tech and purpose-built. This is a real need, but it is going to be difficult to realise.
“This will be a long-term project that will require commitment from the city authorities and the private sector.”
London’s preparations for the millennium are believed to be the most extensive in the world. More than &£6bn is being pumped into the city’s tourism and leisure facilities and infrastructure. More than 55 new hotels have already opened providing over 5,000 new rooms.
Among the thousands of hotel beds still to come on stream in the next two years is the development at the Stakis London Metropole Hotel & Conference Centre, which will then be the largest convention hotel in Europe when it opens in September 2000. Following a &£90m investment, the Stakis will offer facilities for more than 1,000 delegates to eat, sleep, meet and exhibit in the same venue. It will include 1,073 bedrooms, 40 meeting rooms – two of which will hold 1,000 delegates – and 44,000 square feet of pillar-free conference floor space.
Another development under construction is Excel, an international exhibition centre on a 100-acre waterside site at the Royal Victoria Dock in Docklands. Although primarily of interest to exhibition organisers, Excel will offer two conference suites for up to 750 delegates and break-out facilities for 20 to 150 delegates. It is due to open in autumn 2000.
Islington’s Business Design Centre is building an additional 1,000-square-metre hall, the Royal Horticultural Halls is redeveloping its smaller hall and several new hotels are already open. The London Marriott Hotel, County Hall, opened last summer in the former GLC building. It has 200 bedrooms and eight meeting rooms, the largest holding 72 in a theatre-style setting. Another, One Aldwych opened at the same time.
Other projects in the capital for organisers include Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the &£758m Millennium Dome with corporate hospitality and banqueting facilities for up to 1,500 split between six suites (although its future after December 31 2000 is uncertain), the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Sadler’s Wells Theatre and Vinopolis, a new audio-visual tour of the world of wine. It is due to open in July at Bankside opposite the City and will include a seating capacity of 1,000. The 10,000-square-metre site will have three main conference and banqueting areas, as well as space for tastings and receptions.
For the first time, the LTB has published an incentive guide to London, called Incentive London. Packed with information on the city’s quirkier and more unusual venues, it is a useful aid for any organiser looking to book an incentive in the city. It includes information on historic venues, museums and galleries, theatres and nightclubs. This will complement the existing annual guide to facilities, London Convention & Exhibition 1999, aimed at conference and exhibition organisers.