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The demand for high-service conference venues takes delegates as far afield as Kenya and Shanghai. Catherine Chetwynd takes a look at the venues vying for business in the booming conference market

When the lights go down, the adrenaline levels should go up: this is the recipe for a successful conference. If you lose your audience in the first five minutes, you have lost the cause. And a vital ingredient in achieving that effect is the venue. The quality of service, technology and infrastructure has to be first class; communications – air, rail and road – have to be good too; and value for money is vital.

“There are two evident trends,” says Clearwater Communications managing director Andrew Hillary. “First, conferences are becoming emotional to inspire involvement in the company culture. It has been proven that people remember things better when they are aroused, even though they may have taken in less.” Second, global organisations need a convenient hub with high service levels, and Europe is supplying this.

According to EuroCity Survey by hotel leisure and tourism consultancy Pannell Kerr Forster (PKF), residential conference and incentive custom accounted for one-eighth of 28 million hotel room nights in 1997. This percentage varied according to location. So in Birmingham, Rome and Barcelona, for example, where the meetings industry is important, the proportion exceeded one-fifth.

Barcelona is a favourite of many organisers, and the Hotel Arts wins consistent praise, but users say it is also expensive – charges are even levied for using the service lift.

Caribiner International has used the Hotel Arts, and also the Palau San Jordi for a car launch. Head of logistics Jeremy Taylor says: “A convention centre like this is ideal if you need a 2,000-seat auditorium.” Another convention centre, the World Trade Centre, is opening in the Spanish city in February.

Project manager at conference organiser Marketing Works Katy Parkinson says one of the delights of the Hotel Arts is that she knows everything will go smoothly and she will not have to chase every little request. Parkinson organises a Biopharmaceuticals event where delegates pay for their accommodation. “The Hotel Arts attends to little details, which makes guests feel valued,” she says. “There is nothing worse than feeling you are a faceless part of a group.”

Clearwater organised the launch of the Rover 75 at the Montecastillo Hotel & Golf Resort in Jerez.

“We set up a ride and drive programme for 7,000 international dealers, running a two day programme lasting three months,” says Hillary. “The hotel was well appointed and, being in the middle of the country, it gave drivers experience of a variety of road surfaces.

“We built a theatre on the side of the building to house the unveiling of the car, complete with tiered seats and carpets.”

Clearwater also arranged to have 100 chauffeur-driven Rover 75s lined up on the tarmac to greet delegates as they disembarked from the aircraft.

A favourite of Parkinson’s is Portugal. But, she says “you have to be on their case all the time because everything is done in their own time”.

Parkinson has held events in Faro. “I use local suppliers for everything, but take UK technicians to manage the local crews. Equipment is good, and modern; and for clients who do not have a vast budget, it is excellent value for money, although the catering is not up to much.”

Malta has hit the meetings scene with some style after a rash of hotel building. “It has pulled itself up by its bootstraps,” says Global Conference Solutions divisional manager Juliet Rowe. “The government has invested serious money and major hotel companies are represented such as Westin, Radisson and Corinthia, and a Hilton is under construction. They also have good conference venues.”

Rowe singles out the Westin Dragonara as having good conference facilities. “Malta is tremendous value for money, the weather is good, they like the Brits, and Air Malta has a good network, so there is no problem for a pan-European event,” she says.

Boston is a non-European destination within seven hours’ flying distance and is very popular. “It is cheap to fly there, relative to the rest of the US, because you can get good deals with Virgin and British Airways,” says Peter Rand Group chairman and chief executive Peter Rand. “There is a good choice of international hotels, the harbour, sporting facilities, museums and other activities are interesting, and it is easy to walk around. There is also a strong pro-British feeling and the large Irish contingent gives the city considerable appeal.”

Rand believes the Boston Convention & Visitors’ Bureau is well geared to providing strong support. “The city is hungry for business,” he states.

Taylor at Caribiner also points out that hotel staff are better paid in the US, and tips are accepted as part of the culture, so: “service in the US is far better than anywhere in the world”, he says.

Rand also recommends Jersey, which he feels is “getting its act together” with an increasing number of quality properties on the island, including the Hotel de France and The Grand, with promises of another to be built by an international hotel company in St Helier.

“The island is good at handling large numbers and there are interesting options for dine arounds, and good food,” he says. “The optimum size for groups is 550. After that there are challenges with airline access.”

Arpana Hathi, head of logistics for LineUp Communications, recommends Kenya, where she took a group of 30 sales delegates. They stayed in the Mount Kenya Safari Club.

“The service is fantastic and the conference facilities are excellent,” she says. “Although it is essential to know the right ground agents.”

Although the Far East is known as a good incentive destination, it is not as well respected for conferences. Hillary says organisers can negotiate excellent rates in quality properties at the moment, “but there is little infrastructure or quality support for anything complicated”.

Nonetheless, P&O Events director James Brooks-Ward organises a trade show for the theatre, disco and outdoor concerts industries in the Chinese market and goes to Shanghai every time. “Intex, where we hold Light & Sound Shanghai, is only six years’ old, and well run,” says Brooks-Ward. “And the Chinese are hard working, intelligent and commercially minded.”

Intex undertakes local visitor promotion, and protocol – a vital element in China. Brooks-Ward says: “They are eight to ten years behind Europe in some ways, but they are keen to try new ideas such as computer registration.” He adds: “Shanghai has Hong Kong’s buzz. The speed of change there makes you feel nothing will hold them back.”

And finally, a voice for Britain. Birmingham gets the most votes for domestic and international events because it is well placed in the middle of the country with good road, rail and air links. The NEC is ideal for those who want a box in which to let their creativity run wild, and Taylor used this for Lloyds TSB’s first major event following the banks’ merger.

Delegates were high-street banks – 5,000 of them – with Carol Vorderman as the link woman. Two restaurants were sited each side of the exhibition space, to feed the group in two sittings. Taylor says the catering was “superb”, with the NEC working to create a menu and style of service that would allow delegates to get back into the plenary session.

For more structured facilities, the ICC in Birmingham fits the bill, although according to Global Conference Solutions’ Rowe: “Getting availability is like panning for gold.”

But then, gold is what is required to get the adrenaline flowing and keep delegates on their toes.


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