RISING STARS: Hotels' and unusual venues’ assault on the meetings and conference industry

Meetings and conferences are bigger business than ever for hotels and unusual venues. According to Conference Cambridge, 2007 saw the number of enquiries received by the venue management company increase by 14% to 2,459, resulting in the total value of business rising by 37% to £3.3m during the year.

And it’s a similar story elsewhere. Laurence Wiltshire, Silverstone sales development manager, adds: “Our conferencing is growing at about 20% per year. We are finding that Silverstone is a particular draw to clients, as the venue is ‘something different’ and brings glamour to events that might otherwise be a little uninspiring.”

Andrew Coupe, managing director of the Portland Spa Conference & Banqueting Centre, agrees that people are looking for something out of the ordinary. “Although we’re a new venue, all the research we carried out during the development and launch phase of The Portland Spa indicates that event organisers are looking for something unique and new. We have generated a great deal of business on this basis and it has given us huge confidence in our ability to succeed.”

Esther Conn, head of sales at Macdonald Hotels, believes there are also wider economic and social drivers behind the growth in the sector: “More people are looking for venues in the UK rather than Europe for a number of reasons, from carbon footprint to the current economic climate, and this is something I anticipate continuing to develop throughout 2008 and 2009.

“In past 12 months,” she continues, “we’ve seen rising property costs, which means businesses are using their full office capacity and need to outsource meetings. There has also been an increased demand for conference space from a wider range of businesses, including the public sector.”

To capitalise on this business, it’s important these venues can offer the latest technology to their clients. “Grange Hotels recognises that the conference and events industry is continually evolving and growing,” says group’s sales director Barry Wishart. “Accordingly we have invested in the very latest meeting and conference facilities to ensure we can accommodate a broad spectrum of events, ranging from small meetings to large complex high-profile conferences.”

Grange Hotels provides most facilities in-house and has an experienced technical team on hand to assist with the latest technology in the events industry.

It’s a similar story in Portland. “Everything is in house,” says Coupe. “Our philosophy is to build a loyal and focused team of staff who are highly trained and motivated to ensure our customers receive the highest levels of service. The Portland Spa Conference & Banqueting Centre has been purpose-designed to incorporate high-spec technical audio-visual equipment and staging, and we have technical support on hand should companies need it.”

So are these venues planning to further develop their presence in this market? “Grange Hotels will be opening the Grange St Paul’s Hotel towards the end of 2008, which will provide the very latest in meetings and conference facilities in a key commercial part of London,” says Wishart.

The message is echoed by Wiltshire. “There are currently plans in place to redevelop Silverstone over the next three years, and these plans include a state-of-the-art conference and exhibition centre that will be able us to cater for 4,000-plus delegates, along with an onsite hotel,” he reveals.

Coupe also highlights his expansion plans: “We are adding an 80-bedroom, four-star hotel to the venue in 2008. Building work is underway and we will be unveiling show bedrooms for potential customers to view prior to the hotel opening later in the year.”

Conn’s view is also one of capitalising on the growth in the sector: “We are always looking to develop and grow both our brand and our facilities and will be looking to invest around £200 million over the next four to five years to consolidate our position at the upper end of the four and five-star market,” he explains. “We have recently relaunched our meetings@ product, which includes wi-fi and broadband capacity.”

So for whatever reason, the conference and meetings market is buoyant, but the needs of that market and the call for more technology to support our increasingly hi-tech tastes are far from going unheeded. If your chosen ‘unique’ venue doesn’t have the facility to cope with the latest conference and meetings technology, then there’s probably one just around the corner that does.

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