UK PURPOSE-BUILT CENTRES: Built-in flexibility - While purpose-built centres are keen to host large events, flexible design enables them to hold smaller meetings as well. Mike Levy investigates

Is big always beautiful? Some of the UK's largest purpose-built convention centres seem to think so. Venues such as the ICC in Birmingham, the Harrogate International Centre (HIC) and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) like to market themselves as flexible spaces, equally welcoming to large or small-scale events. But do they succeed in being all things to all event bookers? Flexibility is a key factor to consider in terms of room sizes and configurations, but are some of the older venues just too big for a board meeting or intimate cocktail party?

Size is still certainly an issue when it comes to investment in facilities.

The East Midlands Conference Centre (EMCC), which recently opened its dramatic £2m atrium extension fully equipped with the latest presentation technology, boasts a tiered theatre with seating for 550 delegates and boasts nine additional meeting suites. The adjacent banqueting and exhibition suite can be transformed to hold up to 700 additional delegates.

Further evidence of investor confidence can be seen in Telford. In April, the town's International Centre (TIC) completed a £13m redevelopment scheme, including a new conference suite for up to 1,300 delegates or 1,100 banquet diners. These are joined to the three inter-linking exhibition halls, offering 10,300 sq m of pillar-free space. The largest room, the Ironbridge Suite, can be divided into five sections and is capable of holding 1,300 theatre-style. Altogether there are 15 purpose-built suites (the smallest holds up to 12 boardroom-style) and a "black-box environment for large set conferences.

Meanwhile, at Excel in London's Docklands, there is a refurbishment and building upgrade programme in operation. Although primarily an exhibition venue, the centre also has 11 conference suites and 33 waterfront meeting rooms that can cater for up to 209 theatre-style. The new luxury Sunborn Yacht hotel is the first of seven proposed hotels to be located on-site.

Others under development include properties from Holiday Inn, Country Inns & Suites, Novotel, Ibis and Travel Inn.

"Excel is going to install movable seating for conferences of between 2,500 and 3,000, says Tony Rogers, executive director of the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD). As for the capital's other venues, he points to Earls Court and Olympia exhibition centres as ones that can hold plenary sessions for 1,000-2,000 delegates. "Olympia has a good conference centre, he says. "It's nicely carpeted and works well for groups of 300 to 4,000 delegates."

Rogers also cites the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (QEII) as another good quality venue for up to 1,500 delegates. Venue marketing manager Helen Blake says business there is good this year despite the aftershocks from last September. "We may not be the prettiest building from the outside, but our biggest selling point is location. We have seven floors of meeting and exhibition space and wonderful views of the Houses of Parliament and the Millennium Wheel, she says. The views can be influential because Blake believes international delegates love to be in the centre of London.

Ongoing refurbishment

But it is not just about location. "We are also continuing our refurbishment programme, she says. "The third floor will be renovated this summer, and we are getting good feedback on our high-tech facilities such as webcasting, online conferences and wireless communications, which enable delegates to keep in touch with their offices."

The centre can hold up to 3,000 delegates in total, and the largest single space can accommodate up to 700 theatre-style.

A few miles west of the QEII is Wembley Conference Centre (WCC). Opened 25 years ago, it was one of the UK's first purpose-built centres. It can accommodate meetings from five to 2,600 delegates in the Grand Hall and up to 12,000 in the Wembley Arena. Director of sales and marketing Peter Tudor says business is good, but there is a catch. "Being associated with Wembley Stadium means we keep getting enquiries to see if we are still open."

This is frustrating for his team because WCC has nothing to do with the drama being played out by the FA and Government over the national stadium.

Investment in the WCC is pressing ahead with plans for wireless technology facilities and, according to Tudor, 200 new beds will be coming on stream with an Ibis hotel. Tudor and his team are also planning lots of new facilities for disabled delegates to comply with the tougher legislation coming next year.

Developments such as these are a sign of the growing strength of the market for purpose-built venues believes the BACD's Rogers. "The biggest venues such as the NEC and SECC have had record years, but they all admit to facing keen competition, he says.

Rogers suggests that part of the big venues' success is due to a collaborative approach. "UK purpose-built venues are good at sharing information. They meet regularly to talk about trends in the marketplace and areas of mutual concern such as the state of the industry overall."

He illustrates this by pointing to the recent 'mini consortium' of some of the major players such as Belfast Waterfront Hall, HIC, Brighton Conference Centre and others. A further example he cites is the CD-Rom produced by the ICC in Birmingham for organisers, offering information on both the venue and the city. "This kind of thing is really beginning to take off as a marketing tool, he claims.

Despite these innovations and the sizeable investment, many big venues are not particularly active in the international arena. "It's crucial to be near an international gateway and be able to offer special services to delegates from around the world, states Rogers. However, venues such as the Manchester ICC, NEC, Edinburgh International Conference Centre and the big London venues all have their sights set on international business.

"Belfast and Cardiff would like to be there too but are not quite ready, he adds.

Nonetheless, Rogers believes the strength of the sector is dependent on its ability to appeal to all clients regardless of size. "For example, the ICC in Birmingham has rooms for 30-40 delegates and others that accommodate more than 3,000. The key business challenge is to fill all of these spaces - indeed, the BACD recently held a board meeting there for 15-20 delegates.

"The venues know they need to maximise yield, he continues, "but, increasingly, larger convention centres know they need the smaller syndicate spaces, press rooms and so on. There has definitely been a shift in this direction over the past two or three years."

Rogers also sees the big-scale plenary review becoming a thing of the past. "Venues often don't have the available space to accommodate smaller groups and they find it hard to avoid sending delegates out to satellite break-out rooms which maybe some distance away. This is far from ideal and wastes delegates' time."

Despite this caveat, Rogers remains upbeat about prospects for the sector.

"Ours is a somewhat recession-proof business because bookers look a long way ahead. We did see a number of cancellations in the purpose-built sector last autumn, but they are now looking strong once again."

Part of this optimism is reflected in investment at one of Scotland's principal purpose-built venues, the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, which has embarked on a major one-year expansion programme scheduled for completion in 2003. The £18m redevelopment will include a new frontage and a circular entrance atrium. The two existing halls are being expanded to provide conference capacities of 2,000 and 500 respectively. There will also be two 565 sq m purpose-built suites and the number of breakout rooms will be increased to 23.

The country's biggest purpose-built venue lies further south. On the banks of the Clyde and in the centre of town, Glasgow's SECC offers two conference suites alongside 22,355 sq m of exhibition space spread over five halls. The Norman Foster-designed Conference Centre can hold up to 3,000 delegates. The smaller Loch Suite can take up to 624 seated delegates.

Its flexibility comes from the fact that both the seating and staging can be removed to offer 490 sq m of total space.

The SECC carried out a £1.5m refurbishment last year. This has helped to upgrade the concourse with new flooring, interior decor, better lighting, lifts, escalators and a new mezzanine level to help delegates get around the building. It has been a good year for the Glasgow venue. In April, it announced a record performance for 2000 - 79 conferences were held compared to 57 during the previous 12 months.

Integrated systems

In May some of the world's biggest brand names gathered at the SECC for the Sixth Official Efficient Consumer Response Europe Conference. Comments Graham Booth, conference co-chairman and director of Tesco Stores: "From our first site visit, the planning, security and technical teams handled every aspect of the event really efficiently. The technology available at the SECC allowed extremely smooth integration of conference, exhibition and registration."

Last month, the SECC announced it will host the International Congress of Midwives, beating off strong competition from Buenos Aires and Montreal.

The event will bring 5,000 delegates to Glasgow in 2008 and will inject an estimated £6m into the local economy over the five-day event.

The mood is also upbeat across the water in Northern Ireland. Though a lot of attention there is focused on Belfast's Waterfront Hall, the well-established King's Hall Exhibition and Conference Centre, two miles from the city centre, should not be overlooked. The purpose-built conference centre is linked to the older exhibition hall and can accommodate groups in its Octagon room of up to 600 theatre style and to 1,000 in total.

The venue has generated more than £200m of business over the past ten years, according to an economic impact report compiled by KPMG.

The venue has played host this year to some big name clients, including BT Northern Ireland, Guinness and The Equality Commission. The venue's marketing executive and conference coordinator, Kathy Caldwell, comments: "In June, we hosted the Royal College of Midwives conference and, in May, the International IFEX Food Conference 2002. IFEX also held a banquet lunch at our premises, she says.

Chief executive of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Centre Gerry Lennon says the mood in the province is upbeat. "The conference market is very much the rising star and represents a major growth area for Belfast and Northern Ireland. He points to the development of the City Airport and other infrastructural improvements that have contributed to an income from business tourism of £43m in 2000, the bulk coming from the UK, Republic of Ireland and the EU.

This optimism is shared by Belfast's other main purpose-built centre, the Waterfront Hall. Built as a conference and concert centre, the riverside venue has a main auditorium that seats more than 2,000, a smaller studio for up to 380 and 14 meeting rooms in the business centre. In May, the hall played host to the Cooperative Congress with more than 1,000 delegates.

Pauline Green, the Cooperative Union's chief executive was keen to support the new city venue. "The opening of the Belfast Waterfront Hall gives organisers a first-class venue and a number of new hotels, and, over the past few years, travel to Belfast has become more cost effective."

The emergence of new and exciting venues is putting pressure on those longer-established ones to keep their offer fresh. As an example, Birmingham's ICC is being refurbished. "We have just spent £100,000 on carpeting and double that upgrading our catering offer, says conference sales director Nick Waight. Like other centres, the ICC saw a slow down after last September, but bookings, Waight insists, are picking up again once more. In common with many other conference managers, he has noticed that lead booking times have come down - sometimes to as little as two months.

"The association business seems fairly reluctant to commit long term," he says. That puts a lot of pressure on venues such as the 8,000-capacity ICC with its 11 halls and ten meeting rooms. The onus, says Waight, is to push the ICC as a strong international brand. "We are currently carrying out a study to see if our brand values are perceived as we see them."

Waight denies the ICC is is seen as being too big. "We market aggressively to smaller firms and though we have hosted the G8 and NATO, we also want to tap the sub-300 regional company market as well. This is where, he claims, the ICC's smaller meeting rooms offer real benefit. "The key is to be flexible, everyone has different needs. And as for the international market, Waight has one key wish on his list: "Joining the Euro would make such a difference to our clients."

The Manchester International Conference Centre (MICC) - which opened in March 2001 - markets itself as the UK's first purpose-built international convention centre located in the heart of a major UK city and connected to an existing exhibition facility (GMEX). The centre comprises an air-conditioned 800-seat auditorium and the 1,900 sq m Great Northern Hall, with seven break-out rooms and a seminar suite.

With the onset of the Commonwealth Games and the wholesale redevelopment of its city centre, Manchester is becoming a popular destination. The MICC is boosting its standing by hosting some of the Games' events, while on the business side, it has landed the CBI's prestigious annual conference in November. This will bring 1,000 delegates to the city and an estimated spend of £800,000. According to Heather Bell, the MICC's convention centre manager, the venue's first year has gone well. "People like our city centre position and our flexible spaces. We have enquiries up to 2011."

Positive feedback

Recent events at the MICC include the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, which attracted more than 900 delegates. According to event organiser Penny MacCormack the feedback from the event has been very positive, particularly from the comfort and operational performance of the auditorium.

MICC regards the HIC, just over the Pennines, as its nearest rival.

This is not surprising as the HIC is one of the country's better-known venues. The centre's main auditorium is based within a site containing eight exhibition halls, offering a total of 16,500 sq m of space. The Edwardian Royal Hall - an old theatre seating 864 - and a 214-bedroom hotel, the Harrogate Moat House. The conference centre has 2,009 seats, 578 of which are removable to allow the staging to be extended.

"One reason for our success is the one-stop service we offer, including accommodation in the town, says head of sales and marketing Stuart Mackay.

He points to the forthcoming Institute of Housing conference which will take up 5,000 beds in Harrogate - all booked via the HIC. He also believes the in-house catering company, Crown Venue Catering, and a £500,000 investment in new kitchens has taken its banqueting and catering services up a level.

"The key to running a venue like HIC is to stay ahead of the customer. You can't be complacent with so much competition around, warns Mackay.

In response to its customers wishes, HIC has installed a new cybercafe enabling delegates to send and receive emails or go online. "Listening to customers is a science these days, not an art. We have regular focus groups with our organisers, says Mackay, "and they aren't afraid to tell us what they want."

When it comes to party conferences, the HIC faces fierce competition from the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC). Opened in 1984, the BIC offers three main halls plus 16 break-out rooms catering for groups of up to 100. The largest space, the Windsor Hall, is multi-purpose and can seat up to 3,700 delegates. Famous for hosting party conferences, the BIC's diary extends to 2014. Next year, the Labour Party returns to the venue after a four-year gap. "The BIC and the hotels are keen to work with us to offer a fair package, says Labour's head of conference unit Richard Taylor. He adds: "Delegates voted Bournemouth as their favourite conference destination."

Just along the south coast lies the Brighton Centre. Brighton attracts more than 200,000 conference delegates per year, and here too there has been investment in conference facilities.

This year's refurbishment programme has included a new deaf loop system for the Brighton Centre and the Brighton Pavilion, along with new CCTV cameras for the car park. Conference sales manager Celia Adams hints that major renovations, including a possible complete rebuild, are being discussed but so far information is being kept under wraps and no announcement has been made. Adams claims dates have not been set for any rebuilding and confirms: "We are still taking bookings for 2005."

It seems that after the scares of last autumn, the purpose-built sector is bouncing back with a vengeance with a raft of investment in refurbishments to appeal to organisers running events of all sizes. While big may well be beautiful, larger purpose-built venues are coming to realise that the flexibility to offer space for smaller events, as well as for those with high delegate numbers, is more attractive than size alone.


Concorde Services deputy managing director Janet Glover

Glover has had some very positive experiences using UK purpose-built venues

"Most of our clients are in the large-scale international association business and, like it or not, London is what they think of when they look to the UK.

"There are some very attractive medium-sized venues, such as the Manchester International Conference Centre (MICC) and the EICC in Edinburgh. These do a very good job, have superlative service and have very flexible spaces. But for my clients, London always wins out. We organised a large-scale international association event at the Barbican recently. We had to put in a lot of effort to make the venue work but the clients were insistent on a London location."

"For events of up to 1,500 both the EICC and the QEII work well although exhibition space is restricted in both venues. The EICC is addressing this problem by building new exhibition facilities which will help hugely. Both the SECC and the ICC work extremely well for larger events and the service culture in the UK is second to none.

"Last year, for example, we organised the European Association for the Study of Diabetes Meeting at the SECC which attracted well in excess of 10,000 delegates - the largest medical conference ever to be held in Scotland. It also took up 3,500 sq m of exhibition space. We have held a 7,000-delegate event at the ICC, the United European Gastroenterology Week in 1997, which also had a 2,500 sq m exhibition, and we are working there again next year on the 19th Congress of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, which is expected to attract an audience of around 5,000 with 2,000 sq m of exhibition space."

Company: Federation of Petroleum Suppliers
Event: annual conference and exhibition
Agency: CEM
Venue: Harrogate International Centre (HIC)
Date: 17-18 April 2002
Budget: £75,000

HIC hosted the 23rd conference of the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers (FPS) with 1,000 delegates from all over the UK.

"We chose a purpose-built centre because we need exhibition and conference space, says FPS marketing and events manager Vanessa Cook.

The event needs a lot of space to exhibit the latest oil tanker models and huge pieces of plant. There is also a busy conference programme with keynote speakers. "We were very pleased with the new Hall M which has the height and space to fit our large exhibits, says Cook who adds, "We also used the Royal Hall for the conference programme."

According to Cook, the FPS likes Harrogate because it is a small, intimate town with lots of good bars, restaurants and clubs. "I looked into the NEC but frankly, it's a bit remote for us. Being our only big annual event, networking is key, so it's essential to have good restaurants and bars close by, she says.

She was impressed by the standard of catering during the event. "The black tie dinner in Hall D was for 720. The catering was done in-house and we couldn't fault the service."

Cook feels Harrogate is well placed geographically but access into the centre can be difficult with big equipment.

Accommodation in the town was handled by CEM (Conference and Event Management).

Although everyone got a bed, CEM's director, Charlotte Hockey is unimpressed with Harrogate's hotels. "They let the town down, she says. "There is a poor selection and many of them are tired and overpriced." Hockey has sensed complacency among the town's hotel owners over the years. "The town desperately needs new three- and four-star hotels" Despite this shortcoming, Cook is happy her key objectives were met.

"We are going back to the HIC in 2004, she says.

Relatively few of the purpose-built venues quote a day delegate rate.
They prefer to quote a price depending on the variety of packages on

Centre                      capacity   rooms    tel                  ddr
Aberdeen, AECC                 2,000       6    01224 824824          nq
Belfast, King's Hall CC          600       5    028 9066 5225      25.00
Belfast, Waterfront Hall       2,241      18    028 9033 4400         nq
Birmingham, ICC                3,000      10    0121 200 2000         nq
Brighton Centre                4,450      20    01273 290131          nq
Bournemouth, BIC               3,700      20    01202 456550          nq
Cardiff Int'l Arena            4,994      40    029 20234500       29.95
East Midlands CC                 320      11    0115 951 5000         nq
Edinburgh ICC                  1,200      11    0131 300 3000         nq
Glasgow, SECC                  3,000      23    0141 275 6211      43.00
Harrogate Int'l Centre         2,009      14    01423 500500          nq
London Earls Court &
Olympia Exhibition and CC     22,000      44    020 7370 8009      50.00
London, Excel                  1,064      66    020 7476 0101      66.00
London, QEII CC                  990      21    020 7798 4426         nq
London, Wembley CC             2,636      20    020 8902 8833      53.00
Manchester, MICC                 800      11    0161 834 2700      58.00
Telford Int'l Centre           1,300      18    01952 281500       28.75

CC - Conference Centre capacity - largest room in theatre style nq - no
day delegate rate quoted, contact the venue for prices


Few would dispute that London lacks a good quality purpose-built conference centre. Why has it not happened so far?

"The key issue is money - where will we find the necessary £200m to build one? asks BACD executive director Tony Rogers. He points to the lack of a cohesive political direction for London over recent years, but is optimistic that the Mayor's office is broadly supportive.

"London is an excellent destination for conferences of up to 2,000 delegates, but there is a real need for a state-of-the-art venue for numbers above that, says Janet Glover of Concorde Services. "In an ideal world we need a centre that is flexible enough to host large-scale, international association events, but can also handle smaller corporate meetings as well. Glover says she has detected a subtle shift in international association business that would impact on any new centre's design. "Our clients are favouring larger and larger meetings, but with smaller satellite events going on around them." Glover believes the lack of a large-scale, purpose-built centre is making London less competitive. "We can take an empty space like Excel and create smaller break-out rooms, she notes, "but the cost is so much greater than holding the same event in another overseas city with more flexible facilities. She notes a recent international association event was costed at £100,000 in Montreal; in London the same event would cost ten times more because it lacks a proper venue.

Mady Keup, head of the London Convention Bureau (LCB), agrees London needs a purpose-built centre. "It is number one on my wish list, she says and adds that the LCB is advocating a purpose-built ICC for 3,500 to 5,000 delegates. So why hasn't it happened? "When you look at the big venues in places like Brighton and Birmingham, she comments, "it is clear you can't go ahead without local authority support and European funding. London needs an international conference centre and, at last, the debate has really got going."

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