London is on the crest of a wave. In January, the capital's official bid for the 2012 Olympic Games was well received and the city looks certain to win a place on the shortlist to be announced in May. Then, in mid-February, came the appointment of a chair of the mayoral commission into the case for building a purpose-built convention centre.
Both are crucial initiatives in the drive to make London a truly world-class MICE market destination. The Olympics would be a powerful catalyst in bringing in new business by keeping the destination front of buyers' minds as well as creating venues that could later be used for events. Meanwhile, the construction of a purpose-built site would undoubtedly help to attract larger association-type conferences that the city is currently unable to accommodate.
Yet London has its share of concerns that need to be addressed, such as improving its infrastructure, providing value-for-money solutions in the face of its reputation for being expensive, and overcoming the "been there, done that" attitude that some groups have. CIT asked four London-savvy industry figures to comment on these and other issues facing the capital. Airing their views are Excel's head of sales, conferences & special events James Rees; ILLICO Events account director Sarah Wright, jointly with IBR account manager Ian Jones; Starwood director of sales & marketing for central London Hotels Sofia Vandaele; and Visit London commercial director David Hornby.
Q: With low-cost carriers making overseas conferences an attractive proposition for many buyers, has London priced itself out of the meetings market?
A: James Rees: "London still attracts more international companies than any other European destination and has come top of the European Cities Monitor for the last 14 years. The low-cost carriers have made overseas conferences more accessible, but it works both ways - meaning that even more European companies are looking to hold conferences and meetings in London."
Sarah Wright & Ian Jones: "For international business, London is the best airport hub in Europe and it will always be one of the most popular conference destinations, despite the lower rates charged by other places such as Prague, Brussels and emerging competitive destinations like Warsaw. A separate factor to consider is that corporate travel policies often do not allow groups of employees to travel together, which makes overseas internal meetings unfeasible."
Sofia Vandaele: "From a hotel perspective, we have brought in some pretty competitive packages as a response to the low-cost airlines. What we focus on in London is adding value. Essentially, when groups choose to come to London, they pick it for its traditions, richness of experience and diversity of culture and the fact that it is a hotspot not only for business but leisure too. There are activities for every type of delegate, across all age groups and no matter what their walk of life."
David Hornby: "We mustn't forget that London is also now more accessible for European conferences. The city's events industry manages some of the world's greatest events, including the Olympics. There are meeting venues at every price level for every budget. London is a world city and a leading brand; we welcome the competition and are confident that we can't be beaten for unique venues and professional services."
Q: The feasibility study into a new purpose-built convention centre for London is underway. But with so many conference venues in London competing for business, is there really a need for another large-scale site of this kind?
A: JR: "We welcome the Mayoral Commission into the feasibility of the proposed convention centre. Clearly, in an ideal world, London would have such a venue, but the big question will be how the project can be financed - the reality is that facilities such as this can rarely be run without significant public subsidies. For the project to go ahead, it would certainly make sense to build the facility alongside an existing venue and transport infrastructure to maximise operational synergies."
SW & IJ: "The simple answer is 'yes', as availability is always scarce. Conference centres in London are multiple but do not always have the capacity required for larger events - and demand is always high. The lack of choice of really big venues in London would make a new convention centre very welcome - even better would be a new residential conference centre for large groups. The addition of a new centre would also engender competition, which can only be beneficial for clients.
SV: "We are missing out a lot on association business and other larger events, especially in central London. Clearly we have some large conference centres, but even Excel and Earls Court are pretty specific in terms of their location and the business they generate. One of the objectives of people coming into London, especially for conference delegates who have so little time, is being able to get around and see a lot of the city while they are here. Proximity to the West End is key to this, that's why I believe we need a major convention centre in or around central London."
DH: "London does have some very large venues, but we do not currently have a purpose-built, fully flexible convention centre to host events on the kind of scale that we want to attract to London. The business visitor market to London is worth around £3bn, but the international market for hosting large conventions and events is worth more than £100bn a year and growing. A number of key venues have closed and are closing this year in the C&I market. London needs to be leading in this sector and to do that we need this investment."
Q: London's attractions are already familiar to most UK groups. What are the unusual, quirky or lesser-known selling points of the city that may persuade buyers to give it another look?
A: JR "As London expands eastwards and starts preparations for its Olympics bid, more and more people are discovering the treasures it has to offer. There is the city within a city: Canary Wharf, with more than 200 shops and restaurants; Canary Riverside, which has fantastic restaurants such as Ubon by Nobu; Brick Lane for the trendy and clubbing type, some of the best curries in the country and a whole host of markets such as Spitalfields and Petticoat Lane. There is also a fantastic river cruise service, which takes you from the heart of London's famous landmarks down to the Cutty Sark and the hidden hotspots of East London."
SW & IJ: "The ever-increasing desire to be doing something different will never go away, regardless of the destination. But London continues to meet this demand for the new and unusual. The opening of more previously unavailable spaces for events is keeping the London market fresh and novel. Newly available venues include the main hall at The Royal Courts of Justice and Kent House, a Georgian house in Knightsbridge also used as a synagogue. The sheer volume of fascinating history available at grass roots level in London will always be attractive and it is part of what makes the city so famous and interesting a destination."
SV: "The beauty of the city is that it contains so many facets that each visit reveals something new and unexpected. On any street in London you might find a designer boutique, gay bar, place of worship and a Michelin-starred restaurant next door to each other. While it is easy to focus on the obvious historical tourist attractions, there are a host of unusual features you may not expect to find in a city like London, such as flower markets, farms, historical walks, antiques, jewellery stalls, sculpture, street art and so on. All of these reveal the unexpected elements of London and the diverse communities that make the city so vibrant."
DH: "London never stays still; it's an evolving, vibrant city and there is always something new and different for visitors to do. Nine restaurants have opened up in the last month that we know about, and whole areas like Bankside and Docklands have been regenerated, while attractions such as the Fashion and Textile Museum or the Museum of the Docklands opened up last year, both great new conference and meeting venues. The same is also true of The London Wetland Centre, where meetings can be held in a bird hide. And don't forget that, while places like the V&A, Saatchi and the Royal Academy may now be familiar to UK groups, these venues have new, cutting-edge exhibitions from one month to the next and events held at these venues mostly include private viewings."
FACTS & FIGURES - BUSINESS TOURISM IN LONDON
- Every year seven million delegates come to London specifically to attend conferences, exhibitions or other business meetings
- Having been to the capital on business, almost half of these come back on a leisure visit
- The business tourism market is currently worth around £3bn to London
- Business visitors account for nearly a quarter of all visitors to London and almost 35% of all tourism spending in the capital
- The number of business visitors to London has risen by around 10% since 1997
- The average overseas business visitor will spend around £154 a day while in London, double the average daily spend of overseas leisure visitors
- The average UK business visitor to the capital will spend £135 a day, while UK leisure visitors spend only an average of £70 a day
- Despite the worldwide drop in international travel over the past two years, business travel to London has remained stable
- London has been named Europe's best city for business by the European Cities Monitor 2003 for the 14th consecutive year.