For event organisers who have never been sent to Coventry, a visit to the city - and to the surrounding region of Warwickshire - might prove a mind-opening experience. Despite the city's negative associations with coal-mining and with being ignored, it is busy regenerating and is keen to stress that its C&I offer has never been so attractive.
Improvements during the past few years include the creation of a series of squares and gardens linking Coventry Cathedral with the Museum of Road Transport, the opening of the Priory Gardens and Visitor Centre and the £50m rejuvenation of the lower shopping precinct. Coventry's Millennium Square was unveiled at the end of 2003, creating an open plaza ideal for hosting community events.
Ongoing projects range from a £15m expansion of the Herbert Art Gallery to the £100m development of the city centre and the creation of new sports facilities.
Work has also started on-site at the £160m arena project, which will provide the destination with a 32,000-capacity football stadium, a 6,000-seat concert venue and a 1,000-seater conference centre, due for completion by August 2005. The arena will prove a substantial draw for conference organisers, according to operations manager Charles Rayner, offering one of the largest column-free conference and banqueting spaces in the Midlands.
In providing a new home for Coventry City Football Club, the arena will be a purpose-built conference facility and an unusual venue in one: the main meeting space - divisible into three - will be located on level three, overlooking the length of the football pitch.
Smaller conference spaces, the largest accommodating 600, will be situated on the lower levels, while further hospitality suites will double as guestrooms.
Meanwhile, Coventry is already "renewed, refreshed and ready for business", says marketing manager of the city's convention bureau CVOne, Penny Tyler.
She stresses that the destination has evolved in almost every way, but admits that it is still important to improve buyers' perceptions. "So many people have a 'grey, dull, sent-to-Coventry' image of the city. In reality, being sent to Coventry has never been so good," she says, and expects CVOne's message to change focus as buyers catch on to the city's selling points.
"At the moment, our marketing campaign is still about urging people to try Coventry. But this will soon be about suggesting that delegates stay longer," she says. "You only need a few key players to get people to take the destination seriously. Cities such as Birmingham and Sheffield have reinvented themselves, even though they were initially held back by their product," she claims.
Product development in Coventry is made easier by CVOne's dual role, which involves responsibility for the management and development of the city centre as well as its promotion. The body is in a good position to ensure that Coventry continues to evolve, that problems are addressed and objectives are devised to bring event organisers into the area.
This includes an attention to detail, for example co-ordinating the floodlighting of the city's historic buildings and ensuring the streets remain clean.
"On the most basic level, if there is lots of litter, we are not going to get groups coming here," says Tyler.
Alongside the major developments, these minutiae go towards improving the ambience of a city that can already boast accessibility as one of its key selling points. Located in the Midlands - the second most sought-after events location in the UK, according to research from the British Association of Conference Destinations - it is an obvious meeting point for delegates from the north and south of the country. "Motorway connections are excellent and there are also fast trains from London," says director of Warwickshire-based Morris Conferencing Mike Morris. Morris regularly uses local venues for his events, including conferences for blue-chip clients. Coventry's viability as an international conference destination will be boosted by plans for a new passenger terminal at Coventry airport. A recent partnership with Thomson Fly has opened up 11 new routes from international destinations.
The city's proximity to Birmingham means that it is able to mop up the overspill from large venues such as the ICC or NEC and can do so at a lower cost, according to Morris, who views Coventry as good value for money.
Other assets include a good range of conference venues across Warwickshire that are constantly upgrading facilities. "At least ten of our members are refurbishing at the moment," says Tyler. This estimate is backed up by the region's second promotional body, South Warwickshire Tourism, which focuses on the county's market towns of Warwick, Kenilworth, Royal Leamington Spa and Stratford-upon-Avon.
Major projects include a proposed £100m scheme to move conference facilities at Stoneleigh Park in order to link them with existing exhibition space. Warwick University's conference arm, Warwick Conferences, is developing its IT product. The university is gearing up for a boost in business in response to the developments in Coventry and in readiness for the launch of the new arena.
"It's a positive development," says Simpson. "A lot of money is being spent in Coventry and people are finally taking notice."
Hotels are also showing confidence in Warwickshire's appeal, although the destination has still to acquire a five-star property. Major chains represented include Hilton - the Hilton Coventry offers 13 purpose-built meeting rooms and 172 guestrooms - plus Macdonald hotels, which is investing more than £6m in its Coventry-based property, Brandon Hall, and £3m in Alveston Manor.
The meetings market in Warwickshire is "buoyant", according to head of marketing for Corus hotels Rob Baldry, and the company has five properties in the county. "It is a location as accessible as Birmingham and with as good a product, but buyers can expect to pay considerably less," he says.
Corus recently renamed its Honiley Court Hotel the Corus Hotel Warwick, reflecting its confidence in the international appeal of the destination.
"We feel strongly that Warwick is a good location," confirms Baldry. He adds that Corus' Stratford properties are suitable for meetings with an incentive element, thanks to accessible but picturesque locations.
Warwickshire's association with the Bard makes it a strong contender in the incentives market, offering a selection of country house hotels, many of which will be exhibiting at the Shakespeare Country Showcase, taking place at 17th-century Ragley Hall on 24 March. Marketing & facilities manager for Warwickshire County Council Christian Niewerburgh organises 30 or 40 events a year, and considers the local area to be full of attractions.
"There is a host of extras you can offer delegates within close proximity," he says. "There are world-class theatres, castles and luxury boat cruises on the Avon. We try to add value by linking social and dinner packages."
Groups are increasingly opting for at least one evening "off-site", according to conference manager at South Warwickshire Tourism Suzanne Holmes. Popular options include themed evenings at Warwick Castle or gala events at Stoneleigh Abbey and the Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa.
"This is the year when many of our developments are about to come on-stream," says Peter Walters, head of image at CVOne. "Don't wait to be sent - come and try it anyway."
FACT FILE - TEN NEW OR IMPROVED WARWICKSHIRE VENUES
Ashorne Hill Conference Centre: A £1m guest room development has added 27 rooms to facilities at this Leamington Spa-based stately home. Facilities include 12 meeting and 30 syndicate rooms plus extensive grounds. The original 95 rooms will be refurbished during the next three years.
Billesley Manor: A leisure centre and spa opened at Billesley Manor in January, complementing 11 acres of private parkland. The property's self-contained conference suite accommodates 100 in the largest room.
Britannia Royal Court: Accommodating up to 600 in nine meeting rooms, this 211-room property located outside Coventry refurbished its main function space in January. Other facilities include a swimming pool and gymnasium.
Chesford Grange: Refurbishments to Chesford's ballroom, accommodating 800, plus restaurant and bar, will be completed by the end of the summer.
Dunchurch Park Hotel & Conference Centre: Dunchurch Park, near Rugby, has refurbished all 87 guestrooms and its Garden Rooms conference suite, which seats 200 theatre-style.
Macdonald Brandon Hall: Macdonald Hotels is investing £6m in Brandon Hall Hotel this year, creating a function suite for up to 300 to complement its existing eight rooms. It will also add a leisure club, spa and 64 guestrooms.
Mallory Court: New function suites accommodating 120 open at Relais & Chateau's Leamington Spa property this spring, complementing two smaller existing facilities. Eleven more guestrooms have been added.
Peacock Hotel: A dedicated meetings suite for up to 70 delegates was created at Kenilworth's three-star Peacock hotel last autumn, including the latest technology.
Warwick Conferences: A video-conferencing service, Face2Face, was launched last month at Warwick University's Scarman Training and Conference Centre. The conference park, open for 17 weeks of the year, has introduced internet access in all the guestrooms.
Wroxall Mansion: This grand house has added 70 guestrooms. Five meeting rooms are available, the largest holding 100. A marquee for 300 can be put up in the garden.
COVENTRY & WARWICKSHIRE DIRECTORY
Contact: Penny Tyler
Tel: 024 7660 7005
South Warwickshire Conference Desk
Contact: Suzanne Holmes
Tel: 01926 621789