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While leading lights from the ITM took to the dance floor to entertain delegates, there was some strictly serious talking going on in the debating chambers. Bob Papworth reports
The newly rechristened Institute of Travel and Meetings is looking to swell its buyer membership and boost attendance at future annual conferences to 700 delegates.
While ITM chief executive Paul Tilstone says he was "very happy" with the 488 delegates who travelled to Liverpool's BT Convention Centre for this year's event, he believes attendance could go substantially higher. "When you think that we had around 240, maybe 250, at our Manchester conference four years ago, you can see the potential," he says. "We have grown consistently at about 20 per cent each year since then."
Last year's conference in Dublin sold outwith a record 500 delegates. "I think ifwe were not in the times we are in, we would have hit 600 this year," Tilstone says. "There were a number of buyers whowere themselves subject to travel bans, which reflects the cautious mood of the industry as a whole."
Cost remains an issue, despite bigger and better sponsorship deals, but time is also a factor. "Although it's a three-day event, it's really four days out of the office," he admits. "We are looking at whether we should cut that back for future events."
Tilstone rejects suggestions that there is an imbalance in favour of suppliers in the overall attendance. "The figures can be misleading because we actually have about one-third buyer members, one-third supplier members and one-third 'others' - our industry partners, the media, non-governmental organisations, and so on. So there is roughly a 50-50 split between buyers and suppliers," he says.
"That said, I think we can always get more buyers along. When you think that we have 550 buyer members but a large travel management company may have 1,000 clients, there's plenty of scope there. I think we could double our buyer membership."
In a shake-up of its executive team last year, the ITM appointed its first general manager - Anne Deamer, who joined from Air Jamaica - whose responsibilities include boosting the institute's membership.
This year's event was the last to be held under the Institute of Travel Management guise - next year it will be staged by the Institute of Travel and Meetings. The name change, cunningly devised to retain the widely recognised ITM abbreviation, was formally adopted at the organisation's annual general meeting, with 85 per cent of delegates voting in favour.
The new name, which is accompanied by a new logo, is designed "to recognise the convergence of the business travel and meetings sectors across both purchasing and supply and to illustrate our intention to take a broader look at all things travel- and meetings-related", says the institute. ITM chairman Caroline Strachan, who is also global category leader for business travel at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, adds: "It is important for us to focus on the reasons why we travel and 'the meeting' is such an important part of our forward thinking. To refer to this in our name demonstrates how seriously we are taking it."
Speed-dating defended Tilstone has defended the "speed-dating" session that took place at the conference. Critics of the rapid-fire buyer-meets-supplier session complained that no useful business could be conducted in the time allocated and that delegates looking to cement new deals would do so outside the conference environment.
"I got incredible feedback from a lot of people," Tilstone insists. "It needs tweaking but it achieved a lot. Suppliers met far more buyers than in the past and buyers got to see a much wider range of supply-side options.
"It was only ever intended to be a way of introducing people, who could then go away and decide if they wanted to take matters further. It energised people - the speed with which they had to talk really brought their energy levels up."
The session also enhanced the value of the conference to the suppliers, he adds. "It's a bit like ladies' night at a club," Tilstone says. "The girls all turn up, but so do the men - and they're paying!"
Call for more integrated travel A large majority of UK travel buyers and managers believe successive governments' pledges on "integrated travel" have failed to materialise, leaving the UK lagging behind the rest of Europe, delegates heard.
A pre-conference poll conducted by the ITM revealed that 94 per cent of travel professionals wanted better links between airports and the cities they served. Almost two-thirds - 64 per cent - thought UK transport links were poorer than in the rest of Europe. And four out of five respondents believed investment in high-speed rail services should be given priority over spending on roads.
Tilstone says: "There is a primary call from those who represent customers in the business travel and meetings sector for rail investment and for facilities to link air with other transport options. The government should be listening to the needs of this significant travelling community - but it appears they are not."
New revenue streams The ITM is steadily lowering its dependence on the annual conference as a revenue stream and new ventures should further improve the organisation's balance sheet. The economic downturn has meant that ITM income across the board was less than budgeted, and while this year's conference fell only £4,000 short of its target, revenues were down £20,000 against last year's event.
But Tilstone says diversification into new areas of activity is already paying dividends for the organisation. "The conference used to represent 42 per cent of the ITM's income, and it now represents only 28 per cent - but conference income has doubled over the same period. We have opened up new sources of income - notably from research, and research sponsorship, and from our educational forums and their sponsorship.
"Our recruitment arm is not yetmaking us money, but it will - we havealways taken the longer view on that- andmembership is another key area. Wehave never really had anyone driving membership before, but we're confident that will change in the near future," he adds.
All set to score at Chelsea Next year the annual conference will be held at Chelsea Football Club's Stamford Bridge stadium. Provisionally booked for March 24-26, the complex incorporates the 900-seat, 1,400 sqm Great Hall, the 400-seat Centenary Hall, more than 50 smaller function and syndicate rooms, and the on-site Millennium and Copthorne Hotels.
So will delegates be able to discuss the hot travel topics of the day with the likes of Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard? "I'm not sure how far we'll go with the football theme," Tilstone says. "There's a limit to how many times you can mention 'goals' and 'teamwork', although I'm sure a few sporting references will creep in. We booked it simply because it's a great venue."
Into the dragon's den Paul Adderley, managing director of Sustainable Opportunity Solutions (SOS), collected the top prize in this year's Enter the Dragons session, sponsored by Buying Business Travel, while James Henry, owner of door-to-door baggage collection and delivery service Direct Baggage Company, won the popular vote and the ITM prize.
SOS works with corporates to help them operate sustainably, and has developed a web-based tool called FUSITRAM to evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability of business trips.
Launched three years ago, Direct Baggage Company aims to take the hassle out of travelling with baggage, offering a 24/7 service.