Choosing the Right Channel Island

Article excerpt

Jersey and Guernsey are usually seen as two peas in the same pod -- the Channel Islands. But, in fact, they offer very different conference choices. Sue Bryant reports on the charm of St Peter Port and the go-getting diversity of St Helier

It's easy to imagine the Channel Islands as one single product but Jersey and Guernsey are actually quite different when it comes to planning a conference -- from the size of visiting group each island can accommodate, right down to appearance, attitude and amenities.

Guernsey is small, quaint and cream fudge-box pretty, priding itself on not really changing with the times -- in appearance, anyway. It's closer to the British mainland and closer to the smaller islands of Herm and Sark for day trips. "People don't expect an all-singing, all-dancing destination in Guernsey," says Guernsey Tourist Board's conference manager Tim Orton. "It's more subtle. They come for things like the good food." And they certainly come back: clients include Penguin Books, British Telecom, Faberge and Renault Trucks, as well as numerous associations.

Jersey markets itself more aggressively and can handle much bigger events. Its capital, St Helier, cannot compete with the tranquil, pastel beauty of St Peter Port but the island's other attractions like the vineyards, the orchid foundation and the Living Legend, a new audio visual spectacular, can be used to great effect for entertaining groups.

But the essential appeal is the same: the Channel Islands are abroad without being abroad. People like them because they are different -- they have their own patois, their own money and a whole host of island lore and legends. And conversely, British visitors like the familiarity -- driving on the left, no language barriers, and a currency that requires no conversion.

Surprisingly, this is what appeals to delegates even at the highest levels. IBM holds an annual telecommunications conference and has just been to Guernsey for the sixth time -- at the request of the delegates, who are all senior executives of banks and financial houses. "They go to Bournemouth and Scotland and places like that all the time, but Guernsey is different to them," says Bob Dibb, telecommunications specialist for IBM Networking Systems and organiser of the event. "We thought about changing the venue and last year we weren't going to run the event, but the customers asked for it. It's a quiet island, the St Pierre Park is a very nice hotel, and we're always made to feel very welcome."

Events on the agenda outside the conference schedule include a gala dinner with entertainment in the hotel on the first night and a trip to Herm island for an evening barbecue, complete with fresh lobster. The group is always invited by the States of Guernsey to a Vin d'Honneur civic reception in Castle Cornet, the imposing 11th-century castle overlooking the port, as both a welcome and a thank you for coming to the island.

Both Jersey and Guernsey have suffered in the recession, Guernsey possibly more so. Its conference delegates faded away to a mere 4100 last year from a high of 10,000 in the late 80s. Unfortunately, the client base of both islands is simply too closely linked to the recession-ridden British economy for comfort.

Jersey claims to have fared rather better. "We're up year on year and 1994 is looking quite good," says Sue Lovering, sales and marketing director of the Hotel de France, the island's largest property. "People are looking closer to home now they've had their budgets curbed, and Jersey is still abroad but with UK prices. It's our conference market that sustains us, though. The leisure side has taken a tumble."

However, the situation with conferences is something of a Catch 22: people want to go "abroad" but the idea of paying for the air fare is a deterrent. So the Hotel de France has introduced an offer of |pounds~315 a head for two nights, including flights from Heathrow or Gatwick, two nights' accommodation, one full-day meeting with lunch and a "dinner with a difference", which could be a themed event at any of the island's special venues -- a wine tasting and gourmet French meal at the island's La Mare vineyard; a lobster barbecue; or a gala dinner at Mont Orgueil Castle. …