Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, May 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
Catherine Chetwynd explores the world of meetings
As has been well documented, it has been a challenging year for the meetings industry. The spin-off from companies' castrated budgets has seen venues balancing the need to get business with fighting the temptation to slash rates; and agencies' coping with wholesale cancellation of events at worst, to downgrading of accommodation at best.
But if it cannot get worse, it can only get better. The question, however, is when? The short lead times that typify any recession are showing signs of enduring, and January and February are never a lively time for the meetings industry. But things are looking up, according to director of Westminster's One Great George Street, Gary Payne. "We are pegging prices for 2010 and are seeing small green shoots from March onwards. Year on year, excluding January and February, we are up on 2009," he says. Payne offered reduced rates for events booked with longer lead times and did not reduce standards, which was reflected in bookings in 2009, which were up 12 per cent from March to December against 2008.
In addition, 'perception' has become the buzzword of the meeting industry. Organisers have been worried that they should not be seen to be staging events - often perceived by shareholders and some staff to be lavish and unnecessary - when there may have been redundancies. Some companies have gone to the extent of holding 'unbranded' events.
Terms and conditions have also been scrutinised and because hotels felt the effects of cancellations early in 2009, they became more flexible. "Sometimes a hotel will trade on the rate for a guarantee or deposit," says Fay Sharpe, Zibrant's managing director of sales and marketing. The exigencies of the battered economy have given procurement a lever (if it needed one) and event bookers have been persuaded to choose and stick to preferred suppliers, ranging from agents to venues. "The success of that has been really obvious, bringing reduced rates by giving higher volumes. We are getting really good market deals," she says.
It has not been all bad and some sectors have continued their meetings schedule, particularly pharmaceuticals and banking, where training is a legal requirement. "We feel a degree of optimism," says Sharpe. "Recruitment is starting again in some companies and we are beginning to see less pessimism."
That said, many Eventia members - the official trade body of the events industry - have found the year tough, with business down by 30 per cent in some cases, and agencies have been expected to deliver the same levels of quality on a lower budget. In addition, overseas travel has suffered, not only as a result of economic conditions but also environmental issues.
The downgrading of accommodation buying has benefited some suppliers, according to UK director of sales for Choice Hotels International, Brian Garvan. "We are seeing enquiries and bookings from corporations which previously would not have considered one of our properties, but now want the value a 3-star hotel can deliver," he says.
Portfolio director of Confex Group, Duncan Reid, does not anticipate any increase in rates and also expects greater transparency. "Rates will be broken down much more clearly," he forecasts.
Choice's Garvan says this transparency already plays an important role. "There is a move towards bundled pricing," he says. "Many hotels are now offering fully inclusive packages, including food and beverage. Whereas before, meeting planners may have wanted to hold dinners off site, more are considering using the hotel's restaurant, which can be negotiated as part of the bundled deal."
And politics will also have an effect. "If the Conservatives get in, they will be happy to spend money if they can see a return on investment. Some of the tourist boards are likely to come under scrutiny, with those delivering really good value perhaps benefiting," says Confex's Reid.
Savings will continue to direct changes in the industry, according to executive director of the Hotel Booking Agents' Association Peter Ducker, who sees small meetings being booked online in the same way as hotel rooms, with standard terms and conditions, removing a lot of unnecessary cost. Venues have traditionally resisted this because a meeting booked on a Wednesday eliminates the possibility of taking an event from Tuesday through to Thursday. "It is a compromise they will have to make, the cost-efficiencies outweighing the sacrifice," he says.
That will drive changes in contracts. "Hotels and venues are being flexible about contracts and that suggests they are of a mind to do that to expedite conversion; and there is a move towards online meetings - they have gained credibility. This won't go away when business picks up," says Ducker.
Financial efficiencies are now propelling so much in the meetings industry that Grass Roots Group (GRG) has employed a supply chain manager. "We are doing a rigorous procurement exercise of our own and clients are responding well to that," says GRG global development director Debbie Donaldson. "We are looking at layers in our supply chain. Do we continue to use destination management companies? We see them as making a valuable contribution but procurement sees that as a potential cost layer."
GRG also sees a pipeline for 2011 that is much stronger than anticipated six months ago. But the industry may not be out of the woods yet. "I don't think we have seen the end of companies' restructuring," says Zibrant's Fay Sharpe.
Whichever way the election goes, government cuts are inevitable. Peter Ducker points out: "They are big users of meeting facilities and that has to have an impact on hotels and meetings spend," he says. However, it is difficult to tell whether the mood is one of cautious optimism or cautious pessimism.
ONE HOTEL that has done an excellent job of listening to its customers in order to keep and gain business is the Runnymede-on-Thames, which polled focus groups comprising conference agents, direct bookers, delegates, leisure guests and lapsed users on how to develop service and facilities, what to keep, marketing/brand position and design considerations. "The research was done by external contractors, to ensure it was fair and impartial," says general manager Sue Wolton.
The results are noticeable. "We used to charge for equipment and now all technology is included, as is a fridge with soft drinks in a day package," she says. "A response to a request should be within a working day and we try to be proactive and go back to a client if space becomes available."
The meeting facilities have had a thorough makeover and the guest relations team, which got a strong vote of confidence from those polled, has been re-positioned close to the dedicated entrance, ensuring immediate contact with clients. Delegates walk into a large lounge and adjacent is the mooring café, a networking space (requested), which is open until 23.00 and has tea and coffee on tap. There is free wifi throughout.
In addition, existing rooms have been renovated and there are two new spaces - a boardroom seating 16 and a neighbouring smaller room. Daylight is an outstanding feature of the entire facility.
The £16m project has also opened up the reception area to the river, with floor to ceiling windows, plenty of seating and a large table, which is proving so popular that guests rush to reserve a place with their laptops (shades of towels and sunbeds). Next in line for attention is Charley Bell's restaurant, which will emerge as a brasserie called The Lock.
The re-opening of Rockliffe Hall near Darlington in November after a multi-million pound refurbishment upped the ante in the north east. The 19th century building has 61 rooms, 12 meeting rooms (maximum 150 theatre-style), plus a 7,879-yard, 18-hole golf course, the longest in the UK, within a 375-acre estate. The official opening in February brings a 50,000ft2 spa and a restaurant run by Kenny Atkinson. The launch rate of £190 per room holds until January 31.
Taking organic menus one step farther is One Great George Street, the Institution of Civil Engineers' dedicated function complex in Westminster, with its biodynamic wines. This style of viticulture results in a wine that tastes notably pure.
Two Radisson Blus have hit the meetings scene. In Hamburg, the Radisson Blu has emerged from a renovation with an expanded function floor of 2,122m2, a conference area with 12 meeting rooms, ballroom and four smart new board rooms. And in Bristol, the Radisson Blu has opened with a dedicated second-floor meetings area. A large room seats 100 (theatre-style) and there are four breakout rooms. Given the excellent Italian food provided during an imaginatively named 'rubble and bubble' hard-hat launch tour, catering and creativity should be well up to scratch.
A CINQ MONDES spa, which Brussels' Dolce la Hulpe hotel added last year, is available to event organisers on an exclusive use basis. Treatments range from 30 minutes to two hours. The hotel has 37 meeting rooms, wifi throughout and, a signature, an all-day breakout room with a bank of computers, hot towels and a running buffet with fruit and home-made pastries.
The Royal Society is developing Chicheley Hall, near Milton Keynes, into a meetings and events venue. it opens in the summer with 47 bedrooms, four meeting rooms, two lecture halls and 75 acres of grounds for activities.
Lufthansa Meetings and Events, catering specifically for smaller events, has been launched by the German flag carrier. combines the freedom of individual travel with the benefits of group savings on fares, and can be booked through an agency or direct with lufthansa.com. complements the established Lufthansa Congress, aimed at larger association meetings and fairs, and which is fulfilled through Lufthansa call centres.
THE TURNBERRY HOTEL, in Ayrshire, has launched a Chef's Table at its new 1906 restaurant, with seating for 10 people in a private room adjoining the kitchen.
A PASTA PROMOTION, with a menu that comes with specially chosen wines, is available for corporate dining and events at Marriott Hotels from this month. Chefs have undergone a nationwide training programme to teach them how to prepare fresh pasta and risotto.
WARWICK CONFERENCES has re-opened its 1,200-seat music and conference venue, Butterworth Hall, after a £6.9m investment. Improvements include more comfortable seating with better sight lines and versatile lighting .
UNTIL APRIL 30, Italian hotel group Royal Demeure is offering up to 65 per cent discounts on half- and full-day meeting packages at three properties in Rome, Florence and Siena. In the UK, every fifth delegate goes free for companies booking a day or residential event before March 31 at any of Elite Hotels' country house properties. The offer applies to events throughout the year.
PARK PLAZA WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, which is scheduled to open early in 2010, has won the five-day SportAccord 2011 international conference, which brings the event's 1,500 decision-makers to the UK for the first time. The hotel has a 1200m2, pillar-free ballroom, holding 1,400 theatre-style, and 31 meeting rooms.
LONDON'S TOPHAMS HOTEL in Ebury Street has re-opened after a £6 million refurbishment with 56 rooms, a restaurant that can be used for meetings during the day and wifi throughout, with additional broadband in rooms. BBT readers are being offered a special rate of £165 (including VAT) until March 31. Quote ' Buying Business Travel' when making a reservation direct with a hotel. Park Plaza