"London is a big beast, says London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau (LTB) head Mady Keup. Not only that, it has myriad issues related to it. For this reason, CIT invited five key industry figures to try and get under London's skin, analyse its C&I offer and discuss how it can be improved.
Keup kicks off with the first question that immediately springs to organisers' minds when considering the capital - is it too expensive? "The advent of the euro has made pricing transparent across the Continent and there is no escaping the strength of the pound, she begins. "But, given the current market conditions, hotels and venues have been reassessing their pricing structures to be more flexible in off-peak periods, creating some bargains. And the influx of budget properties is also a reaction to the threat of London pricing itself out of the market."
Sunny Crouch, managing director of the World Trade Centre London and board director of promotional body London First, argues there is not much of a difference in price between London and other major international cities such as New York and Hong Kong. She believes the perceived expense lies not in getting to London or staging an event here but in the add-ons that are part of any trip. "You just can't get away from the high price of eating out, buying a drink or travelling on public transport, she says. "And the price of taxis is ludicrous."
The panel all agree London should be packaged up to make it more affordable for delegates. Business Tourism Partnership (BTP) chairman Michael Hirst says: "When there is a convention happening, delegates should be able to buy a complete package whereby they can travel anywhere on public transport, enjoy various sight-seeing opportunities and eat out in selected restaurants, so the cost is kept to a minimum. This is where event organisers fall down."
Excel's marketing manager Anna Sandin believes this is already happening.
She points to Reed Travel Exhibitions' World Travel Market, to be staged at Excel this November. "The organiser has made huge inroads in teaming up with various partners to offer packages to delegates. London City Airport is a major partner, offering discounted flights and a World Travel Market check-in desk on site. Also, the Docklands Light Railway is working with the event to put on more trains in the busy periods so access doesn't become a problem. They have negotiated a three-day travel pass, discount on accommodation and railway links, she explains. "Canary Wharf will extend its shopping hours and a discount book will be available for its shops and restaurants. Even the London Eye is free to all visitors."
Not all the panel agrees this is a trend for the capital's event organisers to follow though. The Concerto Group's group sales director Mike Kershaw points out: "It might be saying something about the state of the market that the organiser has to work that hard to bring in delegates to the exhibition."
Hirst, too, sees this as an area for improvement. The BTP is set to publish a report soon about convention and delegate spend. It found delegates to London layed out just 15 per cent of their overall expenditure on restaurants, bars and add-ons, whereas in international markets such as Australia and the US, that figure is around 25 per cent. "London can pull in substantial revenue from delegates, he says. "But, at the moment, we are not taking advantage of this because we don't make special deals for delegates.
They won't spend money on these add-ons if things carry on in the same way. We need to package things up better to make it more of an attractive offer."
Using London's history
Making London more attractive also involves giving delegates a unique experience. Crouch believes event organisers should incorporate activities such as a drinks reception on the terrace of the House of Lords, or a visit to the Guildhall. "We take all of these historical and beautiful buildings and monuments for granted because we live here and see them all the time but incoming visitors would be absolutely bowled over by such an experience, she enthuses.
This argument brings the discussion back to the original point of price.
Kershaw believes incorporating unusual venues for dinners or receptions is often just too expensive for most groups. "Unusual venues often have an unrealistic expectation of what their revenue streams from the corporate sector can be, so prices are phenomenal, he says. "Also, the caterer for that venue will have bid an unrealistic amount of money to have that contract so will also charge a lot. That means for a nice dinner in a nice setting you can end up spending up to £180 a head."
However, Keup stresses groups do not have to dine at a unique venue every night - there are also low-cost options such as pub crawls. Where the city does fail though, she admits, is in its lack of civic hospitality.
Crouch agrees. "There are around 300 World Trade Centres and we all bid to host the annual convention. In that bid, we all have to outline what the city will offer the convention delegates. I can get access to civic venues but the dinner or drinks or anything extra has to be sponsored by the corporate sector. In all the other bidding cities, there is a civic budget for receiving delegations. There is also a sense of the guests' importance to the city - the mayor would always turn out to greet them and very often a couple of government ministers would come along too."
This problem, the panel maintains, comes down to the fact that the LTB does not get a fair share of the tax revenue raised by the local authorities.
Figures from the Central Office of Information confirm this. It reveals the LTB receives £1.85m public sector funding from central government, via the Mayor and the London Development Agency (LDA), and £241,000 from London's local authorities. This pales in comparison, however, to other international cities. The City of New York contributed 42 per cent to NYC & Company's budget of $12m (£8.6m), and the Ville de Paris accounts for 55 per cent of the Paris Tourist Office's EUR12.7m (£8.4m) budget. The newly created lobbying body,Tourism Alliance, set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, also produced a recent document entitled Tourism Spending Priorities. Chaired by CBI director general Digby Jones, the body describes London as the "pre-eminent jewel in the UK's crown", as a national asset and a "flagship product of the UK. It points out that London accounts for 50 per cent of the UK's total overseas tourism expenditure, yet it receives just £1.85m for marketing, brand development and strategic development. It strongly recommends the government increases this amount.
Hirst cites the opening of International Confex in February this year as an example of why this point needs to be drawn to the government's attention. "I walked around the show with the LDA's Tony Winterbottom and he hadn't appreciated there was a sector called conferences and exhibitions for a start. He was amazed at the investment that had been made in the exhibition stands by some of the overseas destinations.
"Then he came to the LTB stand, and while it was obviously efficiently manned, it had no eye-catching decoration, flowers or canapes. It shook him rigid that other destinations were prepared to put a great amount of money into this sector and here was the LTB minimising its presentation."
Along with more budget for the LTB, Hirst says that to improve the product there needs to be more of a concerted effort from all those involved in providing a service to delegates. "London doesn't see itself as a tourist city, he exclaims. "We in the business do, obviously, but the great mass of Londoners do not see themselves as providing services to tourists.
Some of our competitor cities, such as New York and Sydney, seem to have inspired their population to have a sense of pride in their city but London just hasn't got this."
Crouch believes this pride can be seen in some cities in the UK. "In other UK cities there is an overwhelming sense of civic pride, she explains.
"For example, in Birmingham, all the street sweepers are given white overalls as uniforms and they all have three days of training beforehand so if someone stops them and asks for directions, or where a good place to eat is, then they can tell them. The sense of pride shines out of some of the UK's regenerated areas like it does out of every place in the US.
"What all these UK cities have though, continues Crouch, "is a single local authority while London has 33 warring boroughs. And, of course, in the middle of this mish-mash, we're not getting a sense of civic pride.
We can only hope this is something the mayor's office will try to instill."
Hirst believes Ken Livingstone is capable of inspiring such pride. "He says tourism is one of his top three priorities and if we can get him to champion this then we stand a chance. He will be the one to galvanise the action - getting everyone, from bus drivers to shop assistants, to believe tourists with guide books and maps are important."
As with all politicians, it is votes that count, and Hirst claims there are no votes in tourism, while there are lots of votes in issues such as transport and low-cost housing. Crouch sees a way around this though.
She says it all depends on how you present tourism. "If you say ten per cent of Londoners have got a job because of tourism then that equates to votes. This is such an important time for tourism in London. We need to bombard the Mayor with case studies about how much business the C&I industry brings in and show what other cities do with more budget, she continues.
Figures for the number of people employed in the financial sector in London stand at around ten per cent and there is a similar figure for those employed in tourism.
"The government has accepted the finance sector is the most important industry for London because those in finance have made a good job of making them believe it, Crouch continues. "But in the current economic climate, the finance sector is dropping staff every day while tourism is still forecast for continued growth.
"Also, you can't be a high-flying city banker without heaps of education, but you can work as support staff in the hospitality industry, start at the bottom and move up very fast. Hotels are one of the best employers for giving opportunity if you've got aptitude, and this all ties into the mayor getting more votes, she adds.
Keup maintains the LTB is highlighting these case studies by drip feed whenever it can. Its latest figures show tourism contributing around £9bn to London's economy as well as employing 275,000 people city-wide.
At the moment, however, the panel believes the Mayor is devoted to the whole issue of transport. "He sees tourists as creating more congestion when ironically, as most don't come in cars, they are the green travellers, says Crouch.
The state of London transport is another point mooted almost daily in the local press. Sandin believes it is just another thing that Londoners complain about. "All the international events we have run since our opening have witnessed an increase in overseas visitors and the question of accessibility is one they always rate. It is a perception problem really and one that overseas visitors don't see. There are so many express trains into central London and tube links everywhere - if anything, our public transport is seen as easy and accessible. Hirst agrees that for visitors public transport is not an issue. He says the difficulty lies in the road traffic. "Congestion charges may cut the problem, but it is difficult to move a coachload of people around the city."
Another point on the Mayor's agenda is that of a purpose-built international convention centre. Do we need one? Keup is adamant we do. "There are a number of large associations that avoid London because there isn't a purpose-built convention centre, she insists. Hirst agrees. "We need government and private sector funding for an international convention centre, capable of holding in excess of 5,000 delegates. It would generate 3,000 jobs and bring in more than £100m worth of revenue to the city."
Crouch is not so sure. "Around 80 per cent of conferences have less than 1,000 delegates - the amount that have more than 5,000 is miniscule. While it's fashionable to build conference centres out of civic pride, we already have quite a few centres around the UK to cater for big conventions. The answer has to lie in research, otherwise we will end up competing pointlessly with all the other places that have such a big white elephant."
Sandin also stresses the lack of research is a problem. "We see a definite growth in the conference market and lots of opportunity but all our evidence is anecdotal and it is very difficult to put together a sound business case on this."
Dome's missed opportunity
Kershaw believes the major missed opportunity was that of the Millennium Dome. "The Dome should have been given a new lease of life as an international convention centre. We don't have the space like cities in the US to build two or three centres and the Dome was the perfect opportunity. Now it's in danger of going the same way as the national stadium, with the government just not being able to stack it up."
Keup is keeping her fingers crossed. "There is a campaign gathering storm to champion the point and it will be an exciting prospect for the C&I industry, she says, but refuses to go into more detail.
The panel all readily agrees that London has never offered a more competitive product and that despite difficult times, it has always advocated quality over quantity. Perhaps in the past it picked up business too easily, but it is now regenerating with a greater sense of determination. As Crouch concludes, it is up to everyone in the C&I business to promote London.
"It isn't all down to the LTB, she remarks. "Like all centralised organisations, you get out what you put in. Companies should be asking themselves if they have done enough to bring business in. They should be actively picking up the phone to the LTB to check they are on the right database or to see how they can get involved, rather than always waiting for something to happen, she comments.
Maybe this philosophy will go some way towards starting to tame the beast.
Taking part in the discussion were:
managing director, World Trade Centre London, and board director of
chairman, Business Tourism Partnership
group sales director, The Concerto Group
head of convention bureau, London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau
marketing manager, Excel