Much more than just talking shops

Party conferences: big events to organise - and big business is there
It is not just addicts of daytime television who are relieved that the party political conference season is over. The small teams of permanent workers employed by the parties can now relax for another year, knowing their job has been done.

Each of the major political parties - even the Green Party - has established a separate organisation to run the party conference. CCO Conferences Ltd, standing for Conservative Central Office, runs not only the annual conference, held this year in Blackpool, but other party events as well.

It is a formidable task to organise a political conference. CCO has to sell space on 100 exhibition stands, accredit 11,000 delegates and other visitors, arrange accommodation for 600 senior party officials, and cater for international media visitors, not just by hosting a press centre but also by organising broadcast centres and editing suites. It also produces a handbook for the conference containing details of the main conference speeches and the plethora of fringe events.

But the most difficult challenge, and the biggest difference from most other conferences, especially since the bombing of Brighton's Grand Hotel in 1984, is security. "The security is massive, it is like an island site around the conference," says Sarah Pilch, in charge of marketing for CCO Conferences. "Everything from florist deliveries to every courier who arrives has to be checked."

CCO has a permanent staff of six but employs hundreds more in conference week. It has already sold much of next year's exhibition space to this year's exhibitors. The commercial stands make the party's conferences, like Labour's, self-financing.

Many of the top 100 firms attend each conference. Eurostar had exhibitions at the Labour and Conservative events. "We are getting our name up," says a spokesman. "Our parent company is raising a large amount of money, and getting political support for that is very important. We can answer questions about our service, and the new high speed line."

The events are equally useful for pressure groups. Shelter, the housing charity, had stands at all three this year. Standing out from the other exhibitors can help an organisation get the most benefit. "We have an interactive exhibition that looks like a spaceship, with a control panel with lights," says Olly Grender of Shelter. "You are asked to say how much the cost of housing benefit has increased by, and it lights up when you get the answer right, which means that lots of people visit to play the game, and then learn about the issue.

"Dinners are also an important way of meeting people, as are fringe meetings, which we have had at all the party conferences. And we are approached by companies that want to give Shelter money."

The benefits of attending conferences are so great that exhibitors need to book early. Tesco, for instance, had a stand at the Conservative conference, but found all the space at Labour's had been fully booked months beforehand.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg