If a corporate client was asked to name just one city in the Netherlands, the chances are they would pick Amsterdam. When a destination has such a high-profile centre with an international reputation for fun, it can be a challenge convincing buyers to take groups to another of its cities.
It is a hurdle that MICE marketing coordinator at the Netherlands Convention Bureau (NCB), Jeanne de Feber, is all too familiar with.
"We're always trying to get groups to look beyond Amsterdam, but it's still a really popular choice, admits de Feber. "By working with convention bureaus throughout the Netherlands we're hoping to show UK buyers there is the necessary infrastructure and plenty for groups to do in other cities."
Encouraging clients to discover the rest of the Netherlands is also an issue agencies have faced. Travel Impact director Ray Roberts describes the destination as being full of beautiful towns with strong infrastructure but agrees that promoting them to clients can be difficult. "Amsterdam just has that edge, he says. "It has easy access and people are aware the social scene is lively. Plus it's a compact city and is perfect for groups that want a weekend programme."
Paul Ratcliffe, director of Talking Point, agrees, saying clients' choices are largely driven by accessibility. "There are so many flights into Amsterdam from the UK, particularly with low-cost airlines, so for many groups it's a natural choice, he comments.
Nevertheless, Ratcliffe points out that other Netherlands cities, such as The Hague and Utrecht are close to hand and are more than worthy of consideration.
Just half an hour from Amsterdam, The Hague's positioning as the Netherlands' political centre has long appealed to international organisations, such as UN bodies and multinational companies, and many have set up base there.
Now, says The Hague Marketing's manager Charlotte Kamermans, the city is as keen to draw larger numbers from the UK. "Everyone is used to going to Amsterdam so it's our business to make The Hague more widely known," she comments.
Kamermans explains The Hague's wider appeal lies in the fact that while it is a city with substantial C&I infrastructure, it is also a coastal resort - an aspect that Talking Point's Ratcliffe believes should be promoted more vigorously. "A lot of people don't realise The Hague has beaches, and a high standard of properties on the seafront, he says.
"It's almost like a mini Brighton."
Ratcliffe has taken a group to the beachfront 254-room Kurhaus Hotel.
Rich in history, it started life as a bathing house and has been operating as a hotel since the late 19th century. The Kurhaus committed to the meetings market five years ago when it converted its casino into a conference complex.
The 15 rooms offer meeting capacities ranging between 50 and 600 theatre-style.
While it does not have a beachfront location to speak of, the 100-room Crowne Plaza Den Haag Promenade prides itself on displaying the largest contemporary Dutch art collection in the Netherlands outside of a museum, and the works are featured throughout the meeting facilities for up to 400 delegates. There are also plans afoot to extend the hotel's accommodation by another 50 rooms in 2003. One of the attractions of the four-star, 216-room Dorint Hotel is its location adjacent to the Netherlands Congress Centre, which offers more than 30 multi-functional halls, ranging in capacity from 56 theatre-style in the smallest meeting space to 2,161 in the Prince Willem Alexander Hall. Banquets for up to 5,000 can be organised in the Staten Hall.
However, Kamermans is well aware that it takes more than the right infrastructure to spark interest from a corporate buyer. "Every town and city around the world has a congress centre and good hotels, so we're keen to promote the city's stock of diverse venues, she adds. Team-building is a particular priority at sand-sculpting academy, Zandacademie, while the IMAX Dome, Omniversum, which counts Sony and Johnson & Johnson among its varied client list, is ideal for product presentations.
The medieval city of Utrecht, a 20-minute train journey from Amsterdam, is also trying to tease business away from its rival and boost its profile with the UK. "Our challenge is to encourage UK groups to believe there is more to the Netherlands than Amsterdam, says Utrecht Congress Bureau (UCB) project coordinator Evelyn West. The city's convention centre, Royal Dutch Jaarbeurs, is equally keen on upgrading Utrecht's meetings offer, as account manager Niek Krebbers explains. "The centre has future plans to add a 400-room three- or four-star hotel to its complex, as well as further convention space, a multiplex cinema, food court, casino and a large-scale theatre, he says.
With 12 multi-functional halls and 45 conference rooms with capacity for up to 10,000, Royal Dutch Jaarbeurs is already one of the Netherlands' largest convention venues, but Krebbers believes the city needs to do more if it is to keep up with the competition. "Groups of up to 700 can be easily accommodated around the centre, but we need more hotel space if we are to bring in more large international groups, he says.
West is also keen to promote properties just outside the city centre, which are well equipped to accommodate groups. The four-star Carlton President, for example, recently underwent a renovation adding two new conference rooms to its existing eight, and the Golden Tulip Figi offers four amphitheatres with 130 to 500 seats.
While the city centre has just one five-star hotel, the Grand Hotel Karel V, this property already attributes 20 per cent of its business to UK conferences. A strong selling point is its historic background - this former monastery and military hospital now houses a banqueting room for 96 guests, which dates back to the 1340s, and what was once a dormitory for monks is now a meeting room for 114. Pushing the city's history is an integral part of the UCB's marketing strategy, particularly as many of its historic venues, such as the 14th century Dom Tower, take bookings from corporate groups. Furthermore, the 17th century Castle Zeist, located five minutes out of town, can seat 170 for dinner in its largest room and seal off the surrounding public park for a private function. Museums, too, are open for groups in the evenings, including the Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement, where guests can dine among street organs and clocks.
Amsterdam's rivals are not alone in their desire to showcase their range of facilities. As Amsterdam continues to be a popular choice for UK groups, the city's industry suppliers are keen for buyers to discover its wealth of venues both large and small, budget and luxury. The city's reputation for fun is still drawing in corporate clients, says The Olive Partnership's account director Jo Green.
"Amsterdam's reputation suggests it's an enjoyable place to be and it works really well for the right group, she says. "Plus the nightlife is fantastic."
Green is happy with the venues that local DMCs are proposing. "We recently wanted to take a group out for a typically Dutch lunch, she says, "and the DMC found us a venue, literally translated as 'the Old Brown Pub', that fitted the bill, as it was somewhere locals would go rather than tourists."
Other typically Dutch venues available for group hire include a windmill, located 20 minutes outside the city, where events for 60 can be held, or Greenhouse de Arendshoeve, where up to 1,000 guests can be accommodated for a party among tropical and local plants. In the city centre, West India Haus, a traditional 17th century Dutch house with courtyard, is available for up to 600.
Alternatively, the city's long-standing maritime history can help theme an event. "Our guests like to make use of the water here, says DMC ITB Amsterdam account director Elsbeth Janssens.
The Maritime Museum is just one of those, and its replica VOC (Dutch East India Company) ship Amsterdam, can be hired out to groups in its entirety for 250 for receptions. Larger groups can be easily accommodated at the Passenger Terminal, which caters for conferences of up to 3,000 in its cruise ship reception hall or for 200 across the nine meeting rooms in its conference centre. While Janssens claims use of the Passenger Terminal suits groups with higher budgets, the city offers alternatives for groups on lower budgets.
For example, the Party Company operates several themed venues in the city. One of these, The Unicorn, is designed to resemble a 16th century ship, and, says spokesman Jeroen Kosters, it is ideal for those clients keen to get their delegates to network. The venue's group packages work on an all-inclusive basis and delegates have to get up from their tables to access the food and drink, giving them the chance to mingle.
One problem Amsterdam does have to contend with, though, is lack of availability. ITB Amsterdam's Janssens is fully aware of this. "The city is losing business due to lack of rooms pushing up prices, she acknowledges.
"The city certainly needs more hotels to make it more price competitive."
Janssens does, however, point to the meeting space offered by the five-star hotels. Okura Hotel has space for 1,200 delegates in its ballroom and the NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky can accommodate 1,500 for dinner, while a five-star Dorint is also being built.
Travel Impact's Roberts cannot see Amsterdam's popularity slipping with UK groups and, while he would like to see more agencies choosing other parts of the Netherlands, he believes this will take some time to come about.
"There is a lack of information coming in about the available C&I infrastructure, so it would helpful if both the NCB and local suppliers could market these places more thoroughly, he says.
But by working together to promote the whole destination, the Netherlands should be able to look forward to a growth in interest from UK buyers.
Company: The Breathing Club
Event: Educational conference
Agency: The Conference People
Date: 26-28 April 2002
Group size: 100
Venue: Kurhaus Hotel, The Hague
Each year the Breathing Club, a group of UK respiratory specialists, heads off to a European destination for a weekend conference. With sessions confined to the Saturday and Sunday mornings, the event needs to be held in a city that offers venues and activities for delegates during their afternoons off.
The group had previously visited Paris, Rome and Amsterdam so it fell to organisers The Conference People to come up with somewhere new.
"We have used Amsterdam in the past and this time round we found the cost of Amsterdam's hotels prohibitive, to be honest. Our main aim was to find somewhere that offered delegates greater value for money, notes the Breathing Club event organiser Dr Jay Thompson.
The Hague was chosen for its proximity to Amsterdam - it is under half an hour by train from the city's Schipol airport. The choice of the Kurhaus hotel meant the group were able to have accommodation and meetings space under the one roof.
"It's a very good conference hotel and the food and beverage operation is excellent, says The Conference People's MD Robert Enefer. The conference is usually held in February, but the timing of this year's event with its warmer weather meant that the hotel's coastal location helped to enhance the experience, believes Thompson. On arrival a dine-around was organised at six of the town's restaurants, offering a choice of cuisine.
The next day, following the conference session, the group could either take part in an organised tour of the town or make their own way around.
A gala dinner at the hotel concluded the event on the Saturday evening.
"After the event we sent a questionnaire out to the delegates asking them what they thought of the destination and the venue and everyone's response was positive, concludes Thompson.
For delegates looking further afield than Amsterdam and its close neighbours of The Hague and Utrecht, other parts of the Netherlands are equally accessible and capable of hosting large-scale conferences
Situated at the Netherlands' southernmost tip in the Limburg hills, the Roman town of Maastricht is a three-hour train journey from Amsterdam, although it does have its own airport with direct flights from Heathrow and Stansted on KLM Exel.
Its largest conference facility is the Maastricht Exhibition & Congress Centre, which houses two auditoriums, 28 conference rooms, three exhibition halls, plus a three- and four-star hotel.
Maastricht's five-star properties include the 161-room Crowne Plaza, located on the river Meuse in the old city centre. Between its 11 conference rooms, up to 400 can be accommodated for meetings or up to 1,500 for gala receptions.
Famous for its port, it is one of the Netherlands' more contemporarily designed cities. Rotterdam has direct flight access from London, Manchester and Birmingham.
Its modern skyline incorporates six convention centres in or close to the city centre, including the De Doelen Concert & Congress Centre, where up to 2,000 can be seated across a combination of facilities. Elsewhere, Ahoy Rotterdam Exhibition, Congress & Event Centre boasts a dedicated conference centre for 500 theatre-style, and can also seat 10,500 in its sports arena.
Five-star hotels in the city comprise the Westin, which is connected to the De Doelen centre, and the Hilton, while the Holiday Inn, Carlton Oasis and NH Golden Tulip make up the four-star contingent.
Direct flight routes from London Heathrow and Stansted give UK groups access to Eindhoven, in the south of the Netherlands.
The largest of the city's hotels is the Golden Tulip Conference Hotel Koningshof. Set in 32 hectares of private woodland, this 538-room dedicated conference property combines more than 100 meeting rooms for up to 700 delegates.
In the city centre, 23 conference rooms can be found at the five-star Dorint Cocagne Eindhoven and up to 1,000 guests can gather for cocktails at the Carlton de Brug Hotel & Resort.
Netherlands Convention Bureau
PO Box 30783
London WC2B 6DH
Tel: 020 7539 7950
Fax: 020 7539 7953
Contact: Jeanne de Feber
Flying time: one hour.