Inside Business: Expotel: now booking ahead

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Conferences have long been regarded as a bell-wether of the economy, writes Roger Trapp. When business is upbeat companies are happy to gather with competitors and customers and sell their wares, and when it is less buoyant they are inclined to cut spending on this and other areas of marketing.

So with business in confident mood, the conference market is optimistic, too. Not only are hotels of all sorts - from small country houses to the grander city-centre affairs - enjoying a recovery from the dark days of the early 1990s but new products are also appearing. For example, Philips Projects, an arm of the Dutch electronics group, is claiming some success in selling digital systems that can include simultaneous translation to local authorities and other venues.

But if anybody needs to see how the market has improved in recent years they could do worse than examine the record of Expotel, a hotel reservations company that will also find appropriate venues for conferences at home and abroad. Placed 23rd in the latest Independent 100 listing of Britain's fastest-growing private companies, it has seen sales grow at an annual rate of nearly 60 per cent over the past five years, and, thanks in part to a new contract with the Ministry of Defence, this year total turnover is expected to top pounds 100m.

According to Maurice Segal, the chairman, such a performance is down to people. "You have to have a good team and make sure they work well," he said. The business has been going for 25 years but in its present form it dates back to September 1991, when Mr Segal and his colleagues at Room Centre/Hotel Booking International bought Expotel from the receivers to the Keith Prowse company. With just over 200 people spread among offices around Britain it makes about 40,000 bookings a month. Most of these are at UK hotels but 15 per cent of the total are overseas.

It has long run the hotel booking desks at Heathrow Airport and operates a similar service at the travel centre in London's Regent Street. But it is not afraid to embrace new technology. For example, its guide to corporate venues is available on CD-Rom, while it also runs a computerised hotels database.

Mr Segal says the business is "doing terrifically" and is looking forward to it "continuing to flow very nicely" in the years ahead. But he is also looking for further opportunities.

Having already acquired a wholesale meat business that supplies many hotels in the London area he is sufficiently encouraged by the strength of the conference sector to be planning a move into conference organisation to run alongside Expotel's venue finding service.