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CONFERENCES AND MEETINGS: WHERE ARE WE NOW?

INTRODUCTION

The conference and meetings market is recognised as the leading segment in


the UK’s business visits and events (or business tourism) sector. Like most areas
of the national and global economies, it has suffered its share of difficulties over
the past year or so. However, this is not simply attributable to world recession.
The sector has also been influenced by a range of other factors: from
environmental and sustainability pressures to changes in company procurement
policies, from the continual developments in communications technology to the
popularity of social media, from security threats to swine flu, and many more.

This article reviews the current state of the UK conference and meetings market
by looking at the latest industry research. It also highlights the importance of
these types of events for both businesses and nations and indicates the concerns
of organisers.

RECOGNISING THE IMPORTANCE OF FACE-TO-FACE COMMUNICATIONS

The media are often keen to portray live conferences and event attendance as a
‘jolly’. However, the value of face-to-face communications and live events
continues to be underscored by research and by the evaluations provided by ROI
methodologies.

The ‘British Meetings and Events Industry Survey’ (published in October 2009)
illustrates that delegates believe work-orientated factors contribute to a
successful and worthwhile event. Delegates value:

• Content relevant to delegates’ work and daily life


• Inspiring and original sessions/presentations
• Networking with peers/colleagues
With specific regard to meetings, in a global survey of 2,300 Harvard Business
Review subscribers conducted by Harvard Business Review Analysis Services in
2009, virtually all survey participants (95%) said that face-to-face meetings are a
key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term relationships. This
reflects what many executives call the “high impact” of in-person
communications.

Whilst the survey suggests that business leaders are expanding the use of virtual
meeting technologies:

• 60% report very frequent use of teleconference calls, and


• 44% predicted that they would use the technology more in the next 12
months
more than half (55%) of participants rarely or never use video conferences. They
also emphasise that face-to-face meetings are the most effective way to conduct
business with key stakeholders.

VALUE AND VOLUME OF THE UK CONFERENCE MARKET

There are several annual studies providing volume and value, trends and
projections data on the domestic conference market.

This includes the ‘UK Events Market Trends Survey’ (UKEMTS), compiled and
published by the trade body Eventia with research analysis provided by TEAM
associate Richard Smith. It provides a vital insight into the current state of the
industry from a supply-side or venue perspective. The 2009 Survey, published in
July 2009, is based on data supplied by a record number of 512 reporting venues
from across the UK (compared with 446 in 2008) representing almost 15% of the
UK’s conference venue universe.

The UKEMTS 2009 shows that the UK events market experienced a slight
downturn in the period 2006-8 (in terms of direct revenue to venues) with an
estimated value of £7.2 billion, compared with £8 billion in the 3-year period
2005-7. This is due mainly to a fall in the average number of events per venue
(375 in 2006-8 compared with 396 in 2005-7) and to fewer residential events.
This latter fact has had a significant economic impact as residential events and
conferences account for almost 60% of overall venue income from events.

Other key findings include the following:

• There were an estimated 1.3 million events with an average


attendance of 51 people, amounting to 67 million attendances at
events in 2008.

• A more price-sensitive market manifested in greater negotiation on


rates; shopping around by event organisers seeking better value for
money; reduced spend on catering and even, in some cases, timing
events to exclude meals.

• Further shortening of lead times for events, a longer wait for


confirmations and increased cancellations

• A sizeable proportion of venues (44%) postponed product investments


and refurbishments originally planned for 2009, but a third were still
planning to invest in excess of £100k and 9% will spend over £1 million.
University and academic venues, in particular, anticipated
substantial product investment

• The dominance of city venues. The huge investments in infrastructure


and facilities enjoyed by many city destinations over the past couple of
decades are reaping benefits in the business events market. City venues
hosted on average 447 events a year, well above the overall average. By
comparison, venues located in rural areas staged on average 250 events a
year.

Complementary to the UKEMTS is demand-side research undertaken amongst


conference and event organisers (the ‘buyers’). This includes the previously
mentioned ‘British Meetings and Events Industry Survey’. Published in October
2009 (copyright CAT Publications), it is based on interviews with 600 organisers
(300 representing corporations, 300 from associations, not-for-profit
organisations and the public sector). It traces their event activity between the
twelve-month period July 2008 – June 2009, perhaps the peak of the recession.

The research illustrates the resilience of the ‘association’ conference market (a


fact also confirmed by other recent surveys), with just 16% of associations
reporting a reduction in the number of events in the period, compared with 33%
among companies or the corporate sector. However, there was some decline in
the numbers of delegates attending associations’ main annual conferences,
which averaged an attendance of 289 compared with 357 in a 2007 survey.
IMPACT OF THE CREDIT CRUNCH

The Meetings Industry Association (MIA) has commissioned quarterly research


surveys to monitor the impact of the credit crunch on the conference and
meetings market. The latest survey, published in December 2009, is based on a
sample of 352 organisations (79% venues, 15% buyers, 6% agents). Key findings
are as follows:

• The periodical reduction in day conference and events business has begun
to slow and may be in the infant stages of recovery (reported by just over
50% of respondents).
• Some optimism can be drawn from the fact that, while decreases in
residential conference rates did not improve, they did remain consistent
with Summer and Spring 2009 figures, which perhaps indicates that they
will not decline further.
• Venues are reducing prices and achieving rates below the traditional
average, although 75% of corporate buyers state that prices have
remained the same or even increased.
• The rate of decline in delegate numbers is slowing.
• 87% of respondents confirmed that lead times were still shortening and
now average between 2-8 weeks.
When considering the approach to recovery and what the greatest challenges
will be, respondents overwhelmingly felt that increasing yield, achieving value
for money for clients and controlling cash flow were the biggest challenges to
overcome.

LOCATION AND VENUE PREFERENCES

The ‘UK Events Market Trends Survey’ shows that, for most venues, the majority
(over two-thirds) of business comes from the region in which they are located,
with just over a quarter coming from other parts of the UK, and 3% from
overseas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Destinations or locations for conferences, in preferred order, are shown by the


BMEIS research to be:

1. London
2. Birmingham
3. Manchester
4. Edinburgh
5. Leeds
6. Glasgow
7. Cardiff
8. NewcastleGateshead
9. Nottingham
10.Coventry
City-centre hotels remain the most popular type of venue for organisers taking
part in the ‘BMEIS’, followed by (in order) ‘luxury’ venues, purpose-built
convention centres, multi-purpose venues, and out-of-town hotels.
Factors influencing venue selection remain relatively constant, with location
being paramount, followed by price/value for money, access (road, rail links),
quality of service, and quality of conference facilities.

Similar research among event organisers, published in September 2009 as the


BDRC ‘UK Meetings Market Survey 2009’, underlines the dominance of the city
destinations but does also show the south coast of England accounting for a
reasonable share of the market. The area encompasses the major resort
destinations of Bournemouth, Brighton and Torquay, which are particularly
strong in the association conference market. All feature in the top 20
destinations in the BMEIS research, and when taken as a composite by BDRC,
they move up to fourth position (see Table 1).

The BDRC findings show who has booked the event or meeting: agents,
corporates or associations. Agents comprise a variety of intermediary
organisations, such as venue finding agencies, event management companies
and professional conference organisers.

Table 1: Share of UK Event Volume by Location

Destination Agents Corporates Associations


% % %
London 43 38 27

Birmingham 10 8 4

Manchester 5 6 4

South Coast of 5 5 3
England

Leeds 4 5 2

NewcastleGateshe 2 3 5
ad

Edinburgh 2 2 4

Cardiff 4 2 2

Glasgow 2 1 3

Liverpool 2 1 3

Elsewhere in the 20 29 44
UK

Source: ‘BDRC UK Meetings Market Survey 2009’

ISSUES OF CONCERN FOR CONFERENCE ORGANISERS

The BMEIS research identifies a number of issues of concern to conference


organisers over the next twelve months. These are detailed in Table 2.

Table 2 – Factors of Major Concern to Organisers in 2010


Factors of Major Concern to Organisers for Next Corporates Associations
12 Months % %

1 Reduced budgets/pressure to reduce costs 60.2 54.0

2 Venues’ cancellation policies 53.1 39.3

3 Producing interesting events with relevant 37.4 48.8


content to the audience

4 The economic climate affecting their 43.1 38.6


organisation or market sector

5 Terms and conditions for venues and 42.2 38.9


suppliers

6 Green/environmental issues 22.3 37.9

7 Corporate social responsibility (CSR) 26.5 15.4

8 Demonstrating return on investment (ROI) 21.8 10.2


for their events

9 Video conferencing replacing live meetings 12.3 7.0

10 Virtual meetings and webinars replacing 12.3 6.0


live meetings

Source: ‘British Meetings and Events Industry Survey 2009’

It can be reasonably argued that such issues and concerns for the buyer can, in
many cases, offer marketing opportunities to suppliers, be they destinations,
venues or other suppliers. Venues that price competitively and also offer added
value have a chance to attract new business.

Destination marketing organisations which can form creative partnerships with


client organisations to offer new social programme ideas, or link the conference’s
educational content to innovative features of the destination’s economy, can
enhance appeal. Venues such as Liverpool’s new Arena and BT Convention
Centre, with high-level green credentials, can help organisers to meet
sustainability objectives, while destinations such as Brighton proactively assist
organisers with social legacy aspects of their events. These collaborations bring
benefits to event attendees and the local community in equal measure.

CONCLUSION

While there is no doubt about the challenges facing the conference, meetings
and live events industry, there is also confidence in the sector’s resilience and in
its ability to reinvent itself.

It is able to demonstrate unequivocally the benefits it brings to businesses, to


governments, and to society at large. However, the value of business tourism
needs to be constantly quantified and reiterated.

If Britain’s events strategies could be aligned to the country’s economic


strategies this would aid regeneration, inward investment, employment and the
visitor economy. The events sector should, therefore, unite to work closely with
government to develop a national strategy.
In a broader context, conferences and conventions can do much good. They have
the potential to create peace in the world, providing the framework for
discussion rather than conflict, for uniting rather than dividing communities and
nations, and for encouraging the sharing of ideas and information for the benefit
of all. Whether ‘conference’ will remain the most appropriate word to describe
what the industry will become in this millennium is another matter, and perhaps
a keynote topic for a 21st century congress!

REFERENCE SOURCES

1. ‘UK Events Market Trends Survey 2009’, priced at £175, may be ordered
from Eventia (email: sarah.malkin@eventia.org.uk or visit:
www.eventia.org.uk).
2. ‘British Meetings and Events Industry Survey 2009’, priced at £175 (or
£150 for PDF version), CAT Publications (visit www.meetpie.com/bmeis)
3. ‘BDRC UK Meetings Market Survey 2009’ – visit www.bdrc.co.uk or call
(tel) 020 7400 1000
4. Meetings Industry Association credit crunch conference and events market
research – free to members, £99 + VAT to non-members. Visit www.mia-
org.uk or call (tel) 0845 230 5508
5. For Harvard Business Review visit: www.hbr.org or call: 001 212 872 9283
TONY ROGERS

Tony Rogers is a consultant specialising in conferences, business visits and


events, and venue/destination marketing and management. He established his
own consultancy, Tony Rogers Conference & Event Services Ltd, on 1st
September 2009. For more details visit www.tony-rogers.com or email:
tony@tony-rogers.com