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.
Likewise, the Guernsey Tourist Board has launched a new series of advertisements, giving a sample price of |pounds~220 for a two-night, all inclusive conference with flights. "We want people to get the idea that we're not as expensive as they think, which is why we put the price in the ads," says Tim Orton.
And while the cost of property on both islands might be high, overheads which affect conference groups, like eating out, are remarkably low. And there is, of course, no VAT.
Land is at a premium on both Jersey and Guernsey and there is little chance of any large new hotels appearing in the immediate future. But both islands have been investing heavily in their existing resources.
Guernsey's Beau Sejour leisure centre, which takes 1800 for a conference and is by far the island's biggest venue, has had extensive refurbishment to its restaurants and bars. The theatre, which seats 398 has also been totally reseated. All big events have to use the centre, as the St Pierre Park, the largest hotel, only takes up to 200 in its conference room. But despite the fact that the Beau Sejour is essentially a leisure centre, it works well for serious conferences, with a separate entrance for delegates and good on-site catering facilities. And the most attractive feature of all is that, because it's a States-owned facility, use of the centre is free of charge to conference groups.
Hotels have been investing in their facilities, too, many aiming at smallish groups between 20 and 80, the size the island is best able to deal with. The Mallard Hotel, which is owned by the same company as the Hotel de France in Jersey, has opened two new conference suites and has a 72-foot schooner moored in St Peter Port harbour, taking 25 for a buffet or eight for a formal dinner party. Also available is a 37-foot Sunseeker powerboat which can be used for day trips to other islands, skimming the waves at a cool 30 knots.
The St Pierre Park, Guernsey's biggest hotel, has spent over |pounds~1m in upgrading its rooms, reception, Cafe Renoir restaurant and health suite recently. It continues to attract the bulk of the island's conference business, although, says sales executive Michelle de Garis, lead times are getting shorter. "1993 didn't look good but we've had an excellent first few months."
Likewise, the Royal Hotel, right in the middle of St Peter Port, has spent |pounds~1.5m on creating an upmarket environment for small meetings of up to 30, with 29 rooms and 18 individually themed suites. Various other small hotels, among them La Trelade and Green Acres, offer delegate rates and conference rooms. Larger groups use the Duke of Richmond and the Old Government House in St Peter Port or the Peninsula on the North-west coast.
Guernsey may come across as rustic and quaint but leisure activities are surprisingly classy. Dinner at Sausmarez Manor, stately home of the Sausmarez seigneurs, can take the form of a masked ball, an elegant banquet in the gardens or even a Victorian picnic on the lawn. Delegates can be taken by yacht or powerboat to Herm for a lobster barbecue or even flown to Alderney for lunch.
Jersey's hotels have invested huge sums over the last few years, which is reflected in the diversity of business now attracted to the island. Pharmaceutical companies seem to arrive in flotillas, as they do in Guernsey, looking for a quality but low-key destination. Unions and associations, often bringing groups in excess of 1000, favour the island for its family appeal and reasonably modest image -- back home, at least. They may change their minds about that with the sight of Porsches buzzing around the country lanes, gleaming yachts in the harbour and delegates tucking into chilled champagne and fresh oysters.
Quite a few companies have chosen Jersey recently for their conferences and incentives. Graham's Builders' Merchants brought an incredible ten back-to-back groups of 250 each to the island in March, for an exhibition and conference. The Drifters played at each of the ten gala dinners and the groups had a free day for exploring the duty-and VAT-free shops of St Helier. The good news for Jersey is that they're coming back next year.
The UK Tea Association visited the island in May, bringing 300 delegates with partners from countries all over the world associated with tea to the Hotel de France for a conference.
And in April, hot on the heels of a science-fiction conference, direct-sell publisher World Book-Childcraft held its annual sales achievement meeting for 150 delegates at the hotel. "Some of the sci-fi people were still around when we arrived and our delegates thought they'd entered the Twilight Zone," jokes Hilary Johns, sales promotion manager. "But I couldn't fault the hotel. They were very professional and very geared up for conferences. We've stayed at the Grand before, which I like, but the conference facilities aren't big enough for us."
So why Jersey? "It's not exactly overseas but it has that little bit more excitement because you have to fly there," says Johns. "Half our delegates come from Ireland and half from the UK, so it appealed to everyone. It's very easy to get to from the UK, although we had to charter a plane for the Irish delegates -- it was cheaper than flying them via London."
The group had morning conference sessions at the hotel and tours of the island in the afternoon, visiting the Living Legend and the pottery. In the evenings there was a Jersey theme party at the hotel with karaoke to follow and award dinners on the other two nights.
The Hotel de France may be the biggest, but there are other hotels in the upper price brackets equally good for smaller events. De Vere's Grand is right on the seafront, with fresh, luxurious rooms, award-winning food and discreet service, while L'Horizon is on the other side of the island on the beautiful sandy sweep of St Brelade's Bay. For small, up-market meetings wanting a country house atmosphere, Longueville Manor, the island's only five-sun hotel, has just 32 rooms. In St Helier itself are the ever-popular Pomme d'Or and the Royal.
It is unlikely that the Channel Islands will see much in the way of new hotel development and vast convention centres -- space is just too limited and expensive. But with the new price initiatives and continuing investment in existing resources, both Jersey and Guernsey are in a strong position to pull through what's left of the recession with glowing colours.…