What with the current strength of sterling, better flight access into Europe, greater price transparency thanks to the euro and a volatile global economy, it would come as little surprise to find the UK's conference market experiencing something of a setback. But, despite the strong competition from overseas destinations, the UK's conference business has proven to be relatively strong and healthy over the past year, a view confirmed by the BACD's recent Conference Market Trends Survey 2001.
The report paints a positive picture. The combined value of non-residential and residential conferences was worth £7.3bn to the UK economy last year, a rise of ten per cent, with 59 per cent of these meetings classified as corporate.
The inaugural BACD membership survey points to an industry of proactive conference bureaus, dedicated to offering corporate buyers a wealth of useful services, despite facing the challenges outlined above. Introducing a survey of this depth has given the BACD a clearer handle on how each of its members operates and how they are funded, and the body is looking to clarify this kind of information over the coming years.
The BACD received a 59 per cent response rate from the bureaus, prompting executive director Tony Rogers to call for it to become an annual event and to ensure the completion of results is mandatory. "This way we can represent the bureaus more effectively in political circles and bring to the foreground any issues or challenges they might face," says Rogers.
"Business tourism is higher yielding than leisure tourism and that is the message we need to convey."
However, the survey shows that only a quarter of bureaus (24 per cent) are responsible solely for business tourism, whereas the majority (45 per cent) are responsible for both leisure and business tourism. While this might raise concerns that it detracts from the level of commitment business tourism receives, bureaus are quick to point out how the two services complement each other.
"Business and leisure tourism depend on each other and we often run joint marketing campaigns, says Marketing Manchester head of conference and membership Mary-Jane Wiedemann. "Potential delegates want to know about the city itself, so promoting all aspects of tourism is important."
Currently, Manchester has nine permanent members of staff employed to deal with business tourism, yet the survey reveals there are only five member destinations with more than five staff dedicated to conferences.
Greater Glasgow & Clyde Valley has 12, Birmingham nine, Derbyshire six and London seven - although London Convention Bureau (LCB) head Mady Keup adds that come next year, the bureau will have an additional permanent staff member.
Meanwhile, eight destinations have less than the equivalent of one full-time worker, while four members - Bath, Kingdoms of Down, Kirklees and Norwich - reported they have no-one employed exclusively on the business tourism side.
This is an issue that is of concern to Rogers, who believes to increase the UK's competitiveness as a conference destination all BACD members must be properly resourced. While the majority of respondents (84 per cent) are funded by their local authority, Rogers says the survey does not present a clear picture as to whether bureaus' marketing budgets have risen or fallen. Yet he does cite some recent casualties due to decreasing marketing budgets.
"We have lost two or three members, he concedes. "South Lakeland had to cut £1m from their budget, and Conference Devon left at the end of August because of the lack of funding - as did Grantham & Stamford, although they are now being represented by Conference Lincolnshire." Having adequate funding to keep a destination high profile in the eyes of corporate buyers is an issue for all tourist offices, even for the capital's convention bureau. "We have stated publicly that the whole of London's tourism infrastructure does not receive enough in the way of resources, says LCB's Keup. "However, we have put a strong case forward for more and the issue is currently under review with the mayor."
There are further challenges facing conference bureaus in their bid to grow their meetings business. The UK's lack of necessary infrastructure and poor accessibility brought on by either the shortage or prohibitive cost of transport was highlighted by 20 per cent of those surveyed. A further 14 per cent mentioned a lack of suitably large conference hotels at their destinations.
Over a third (34 per cent) saw competition and investment from other destinations as a challenge, a point with which Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) head of conference and exhibitions Clive Tyers agrees. "Although I would describe our conference business as generally positive - forward bookings are looking good up to 2015 - I think the biggest challenge we face on the domestic front is the increase in competition from destinations that are investing heavily in new facilities, he says.
Despite these issues, the survey also demonstrates bureaus are determined to remain an effective resource for corporate buyers. Encouragingly, all respondents cited venue finding and social programme advice as integral parts of their services, and a high proportion also provide accommodation booking, site inspections and fam trips, as well as delegate destination information.
Some bureaus have undergone a restructure in a bid to improve and streamline their offer. Chester and Cheshire Conference Desk relaunched as a limited company in June in order to be more independent, and is currently on the look out for sponsorship to leverage marketing opportunities.
Furthermore, July saw Birmingham Marketing Partnership restructure as Marketing Birmingham, which incorporates Birmingham Convention Bureau. Its strategy includes bringing in more international events and offering services such as promoting hotel offers and venue finding.
The BIC's Tyers says offering a fully fledged conference bureau is the next step for Bournemouth. "We offer the same services as a bureau, although we aren't one, and this position is currently under review, he explains.
"We've taken on board what the trade wants and it's all in the political arena at the moment."
Enquiry handling is a major aspect of any bureau's remit and reassuringly, half the respondents answer enquiries within one to two days. Speed of response is an essential service, insists Conference Bristol manager Joanna Aspin. "If a client rings us in the morning with an enquiry and needs the answer by the end of the day, then we can do it, she says.
Marketing Manchester's Wiedemann agrees. "Anyone can ring up with an outline for a programme and we'll come up with the solution within 24 hours. We have to make sure we're easy for clients to approach, she adds.
As well as telephone services, the importance of the internet as a booking facility is growing. The survey results reveal that nearly two-thirds of respondents (62 per cent) offer a separate business tourism website.
LCB's Keup is aware of the need to keep corporate buyers updated by providing the relevant information online.
"We're poised to introduce our new website this month so we can provide a one-stop-shop service on the internet, she says. "We know UK buyers will at some point use London as an event destination so we want to be able to say to them that when they visit the site they will find everything they need - from information on accessibility to sample itineraries."
An additional way of showcasing what a destination offers the meeting planner is through trade shows. Director of Well-Placed Events Paul Welling finds them a particularly useful medium for finding out what is available on the market. "While I tend to go directly through venues for specific information, I will visit conference bureaus at trade shows to find out if there have been any developments at the destination, he says. "The material they offer tends to be very good, and they are probably very useful for those corporate buyers who book events for themselves rather than going through an agency."
Destination fam trips are also offered by 86 per cent of bureaus and there is now a keen sense that roadshows and sales missions are as equally beneficial for capturing new business. "We ran a roadshow for the first time in conjunction with Bath Conference Bureau in London, and 30 of our venues attended, says Conference Bristol's Aspin. "The feedback we received was impressive and we're looking to roll out more in the future, she adds, pointing to the 70-plus key buyers who attended the roadshow.
Meanwhile, Marketing Manchester held its third sales mission in London in May, with representatives from 33 conference venues, pulling in more than 300 buyers. BACD's Rogers also cites how several Scottish members came together collectively for a roadshow in Glasgow earlier this year.
While he describes the UK's conference industry as 'middling' rather than healthy, Rogers remains quietly optimistic the industry is on an upward trend. "Although, overall, business is quieter than last year, and despite the fact we're facing global industry issues with the state of the stock markets and the strength of the sterling, the UK meetings business is still pretty strong and healthy, he says. "What we need to do now is get our act together as a country and overcome any potential challenges."
UK DESTINATIONS CONTACT DETAILS
Destination Contact name Contact details
Aberdeen Jacky Selway 01224 288815
Arran Victoria Evans 01292 673754
Bath Edwina d'Arcy 01225 477228
Belfast Kate Tunney 028 90 239026
Birmingham Carol O'Reilly 0121 603 2000
Country Pauline Jones 0121 569 2368
Blackpool Margaret Roffey 01253 478227
Bournemouth Clive Tyers 01202 456550
Bradford Gina Glot 01274 752179
Hove Celia Adams 01273 292629
Bristol Joanna Aspin 0117 946 2200
Buxton Rachel Hoodith 01298 23114
Calderdale Ed Westbrook 01422 842830
Cambridge Frankie McGhee 01223 457577
Cardiff Tricia McFarlane 029 2034 7800
Coast Don Wilmont 028 7032 7720
Cheltenham Alison Walker 01242 226033
& Cheshire Catherine Evans 01244 405939
Coventry & Nicola Leake 024 7660 7000
Derbyshire Rebecca Jones 01332 548002
Derry Catherine 028 71 377577
Devon Keri Denton 01392 265104
Doncaster Karen Hogarty 01302 737927
Durham Martin Boulton 0191 301 8247
Eastbourne Diana Lumsdaine 01323 415437
Edinburgh Sue Stuart 0131 473 3666
Fermanagh Tanya Cathcart 028 6632 3110
Gloucester Vicki Rowan 01452 500706
Glasgow & Scott Taylor 0141 566 4030
Guernsey Julie Watterston 0118 934 5542
Guildford Julie Lovett 01483 444338
Harrogate Stuart Mackay 01423 500500
Herefordshire Jackie Deacon 01432 260621
Highlands of Moira Unwin 01997 423033
Hull Sue Lee 01482 615725
Isle of Man Michael Doherty 01624 686841
Jersey Hamish Reid 020 7630 5757
of Down Mark Mohan 028 9182 2881
Kirklees Cathy 01484 221675
South Helena Gardberg 01539 733333
Lancashire Ruth Robinson 01706 829356
Leeds Nicky Lockwood 0113 246 8120
shire Debbie Robbins 0116 299 6666
Lincoln Rachel Jones 0845 757 4000
London Mady Keup 020 7932 2008
Luton Laura Church 01582 546550
Medway Laura Dickson 01622 602485
Manchester Mary-Jane 0161 238 4513
Merseyside Nathan Alemany 0151 237 3922
Keynes Jacqui Pattison 01908 233922
Newcastle Ian Taylor 0191 243 8801
Newport Lynne Richards 01633 233327
North Wales George Brookes 01492 574009
tonshire Jules Kirkwood 01604 671200
Norwich Geoffrey Skipper 01603 662551
Nottingham Julie Whittington 0115 915 1383
Pembrokeshire Karen Williams 01437 775515
Perthshire Catriona Anderson 01738 449292
Peterborough Linda Wills 01733 452404
Plymouth Gemma Thompson 01752 261125
Portsmouth Drusilla Moody 02392 834091
Mid-Wales Carolyn Flynn 01597 823421
Thames Valley Gini Brown 0118 939 9848
Rotherham Anne Grayson 01709 372099
Scarborough Sandra Stevenson 01723 232575
Borders Sarah Macdonald 01750 20555
Sheffield Inga Uhrenbacher 0114 281 4663
Warwickshire Suzanne Holmes 01926 404821
Southampton Kim Scott 02380 771457
Southport Maxine McCarthy 0151 934 2402
St Andrews & Lisa Gillespie 01592 750066
on-Trent Sam Riley 01782 232076
Suffolk Valerie Donovan 01394 444451
Surrey Alan Good 020 8541 9081
Swansea Tonia Thomas 01792 636631
Swindon Claire Yeates 01793 466419
Tees Valley Sue Crawley 01642 862011
Shropshire Anne Long 01952 237745
Warrington Rosemary Lavender 01925 715102
Super Mare Peter Undery 01934 417117
Weymouth Jacqui Gisborne 01305 206237
Wiltshire Nicky Peters 01722 341910
shire Kirsty Jenkins 01905 766895
York Kate McMullen 01904 554453