The Conference Agenda

By Spalding, Rob | Management Today, September 1988 | Go to article overview

The Conference Agenda


Spalding, Rob, Management Today


The burgeoning corporate meetings industry is finding new ways to enliven conferences and other business events. Functionality has been replaced by slick productions, enticing venues and everyone more elaborate facilities.

It's no revolution, but people who organise meetings and book venues have begun to realise that the choice of environment does make a difference to the event's success. Slick conference production companies understood this long ago, of course, and went out and researched potential venues. When they found them wanting, they simply built their own. Naturally, though, that option is not available to all, and most meeting planners have had to take what they can get.

But now the variety of meetings environments is beginning to make conference organisers of all kinds look more closely at the options available. Location still plays a part in deciding where to meet, but the inexorable shift is towards better equipped and experienced venues, no matter where they happen to be. These days venues are likely to be chosen to fit the specific nature of the meeting in question.

Changes in demand have led to several developments in the meetings industry. For example, straight teaching seminars have in many cases forsaken country hotels as such and opted for management training centers. These can be found all over the country, often with residential accommodation attached. Rarely are they designed and built from scratch. More often, they are actually the result of total gutting and renovation of old country houses, stables or schools. All have one thing in common: function supersedes luxury. Instead of flock wallpaper and mirrors, there will be pinboards and teaching wall systems. Attendees are left in no doubt that they are there to learn. It is often forgotten, and perhaps never understood by those who criticise conferences as excuses for drunken sprees, that training courses are just as much a part of the meetings industry as a product launch at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

The meetings industry has expanded and profited from the changed attitudes in company gift giving, too. Now that the crate of wine at Christmas is no more than a fond memory, corporations are turning to other forms of hospitality to keep clients and win popularity. It is more likely their money will be spent on a marquee at Henley, the centre court at Wimblendon or the dress circle at Cats than on the business lunch or endless rounds of golf. Today there are specialist companies and consultants who do nothing but plan corporate hospitality for their clients. This has led to a vast increase in temporary venues -- expanding trailers, traditional and super-modern marquees and double-decker caravans. Such creations have the advantage of getting to just the right location at just the right time.

The third area of change in venue selection is in sales presentations. Where before top salesmen relied on the penthouse suite of the Westbury Hotel, now they don't even have to step outside their own offices. Company conference and boardrooms are being equipped to resemble the Starship Enterprise, with every conceivable aid to help convince shareholders and clients alike. Again, specialist firms have sprung up, combining interior decor skills with group communication techniques. The result is that many lunch meetings are spurning the Ritz and staying indoors.

In the past, venues dogmatically refused to bow to functionality. They are now learning their lesson the hard way. Even major convention centres have had no put commercial demand above architectural or aesthetic considerations. This has effectively moved Britain's meetings capital from London to Birmingham. The National Exhibition Centre (NEC) and -- coming shortly -- the International Convention Centre (ICC) in the middle of the city, are prime examples of functional, market-led designs which will draw events like iron filings to a magnet -- despite location. …

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