Executives who hope their ship will come in

Marketing: 500 people are boarding the Canberra to make contacts and win orders
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THIS Wednesday, 500 of Britain's top marketers will be sailing round the Channel Islands for three days aboard the cruise liner Canberra, locked in up to 40 business meetings and conference workshops for the 1995 Marketing Forum.

Well that is the theory, and the organiser, Richmond Events, is keen to stress that this is an opportunity to make contacts rather than an extended business "jolly".

This is the Marketing Forum's third event, and 250 exhibitors (service companies such as advertising agencies, media owners and design companies) have paid around pounds 11,500 each to get on board.

In return, they can request half-hour meetings with senior marketing staff from companies such as Heinz, BA and British Gas to whom they can make presentations in the hope of winning new business. These "delegate" places are by invitation only, and attendance is free of charge.

Deborah Parkes, the project and conference manager for the Marketing Forum, says that the format "provides a structured and conducive environment in which the two sides can come together". She adds: "It isn't pressurised selling and allows people to discuss marketing problems with people who may be able to help. It is a sort of business dating agency."

The concept was launched in 1990 with a cruise for the personal investment industry. It now extends not only to the marketing industry but to the IT, logistics, packaging and catering sectors. Central to the idea is the boat: "It means that people are away from the day-to-day business grind. There are no phones or faxes or interruptions, and it concentrates the mind," says Ms Parkes.

Critics insist that it is just one long "jolly", but while Ms Parkes concedes that there is a lot of drinking in the evenings, the pace is relentless. The 30-minute meetings are not just restricted to business hours, and exhibitors can also ask to meet particular individals at the three formal meals during the day.

As one delegate from last year says: "It was exhausting and in the end it all got a bit much. It's fine talking about your marketing strategy in scheduled meetings but - to be honest - it would have been nice just to get away from people for a couple of hours rather than have to have breakfast with them."

When delegates are not attending meetings there is a hectic schedule of conference speeches, workshops and seminars to attend.

But many of those who attended last year's Forum thought it was worth while. David White, group business development director for Argos, says: "It provides a shop window of talent where you can browse without pressure, hassle or inconvenience. It's a very clever idea that all participants can benefit from." Mr White attended as a delegate.

Mark Cross, European marketing director for Kimberley-Clark, a company that produces soft tissue products, adds that the opportunities to make contacts on board the floating Marketing Forum are very important.

He says: "I came to broaden my exposure to the marketing world. Sometimes we can be very insular and focused on our own organisations."

Michael Finn, the managing director of the advertising agency Duckworth Finn Grabb Waters, says: "It lets clients talk to people in the ad business in the open. It is all above-board, and there is none of that sneaking into ad agencies to discuss your strategy that goes on so much back in London." His company exhibited at the Forum.

But it is costly and expectations are not always fulfilled. Although exhibitors may think they are going to meet the head of marketing for a big company, some may drop out and be replaced by someone lower down the pecking order with no decision-making responsibilities.

One exhibitor explains: "I'm pretty disappointed in the list of people I am meeting this year. Some of the more senior people seem to have been replaced by minions."

The other complaint, voiced vehemently last year, concerns the Canberra itself, which has been described by one delegate as "little more than a car ferry and a shrine to Dralon".

Mr Finn says: "The one big drawback is the accommodation - it is disgusting."

Ms Parkes comments: "The Canberra comes in for a lot of stick. Some people who may not have been on a cruise ship before may have higher expectations than the actual reality. But we still get 85 per cent rebookings, and the next Marketing Forum will be on the QE2."