Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: Hotels parcel up tempting package deals: Tailor-made meeting facilities are replacing drab banqueting rooms, says Lynne Curry

THE EXACT dimensions of the Yerba Buena ballroom in the San Francisco Marriott Hotel are, to the nearest inch, 281ft by 147ft 6in. Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Potrero Hill and Telegraph Hill, the small rooms along one side, measure 22ft by 32ft.

This esoteric information is unlikely to bring forth a welter of advance bookings from those who prefer to avail themselves of the 'dreamville beauty, thrilling entertainment and night life' of the city. But it may tip the balance in the highly competitive field of conference business.

Large hotels all over the world see the business as a lucrative way forward. Monied leisure travellers may be less relied upon to descend on the lobby, Orient Express-style, with an arm-breaking collection of leather luggage, but people are still meeting other people to talk business with comforting regularity.

Hilton International, with 160 hotels in almost 50 countries, has just launched Hilton Meeting 2000, which it calls 'the first-ever global, customer designed meetings product'. Hilton spoke to 2,000 conference planners and visited 700 different venues to come up with a package tailored to the 69 per cent of guests who stay in its hotels on business. Unsurprisingly, they wanted rooms which were not required later that day for a 21st birthday disco, staff that did not clatter in and out with megaphonic crockery, and a chair that did not numb the nether regions after two hours.

A small but significant arrival is the Hilton 'eight-hour chair'. This month the Duke of Edinburgh sat in a Hilton chair as he opened the Glasgow Hilton and told the chairman and chief executive, Michael Hirst, that he could see no difficulty in staying there for 12 hours. The hotel chain had it ergonomically designed to help it profit from a market growing by about 30 per cent a year and it now forms almost a third of Hilton International's business.

'This is a vital growth market for the future of the hotel business,' said Mr Hirst. 'Hotel companies which have set out to understand what the conference and meeting organiser wants and have responded with the provision of tailor-made facilities are doing well. Where the hotel is still offering drab banquet rooms, it's perhaps not doing so well.'

Business guests wanted professional and specially trained staff, dedicated and purpose-built meeting rooms with modern equipment, interesting and varied food served when they wanted it, and support services such as fax, photocopying, typing, translation and courier services. They did not want to wait behind tourists querying the mini-bar charges, so are now provided with express check- ins in business and meeting service centres.

Marathon lunches could still be served, but a special menu was devised to provide sustenance guaranteed not to consign the afternoon to post-prandial torpor. Major hotel chains provide their own packages for the conference trade. Marriott hotels will let rooms for eight hours from pounds 26 for the Aberdeen Marriott to pounds 48 for its sister hotel in London. Prices include the hire of a meeting room, conference stationery and sweets, morning coffee, afternoon tea and lunch. As an incentive to bring along spouses, single rooms cost considerably more per person than doubles for the 24- hour package, which adds breakfast, dinner and accommodation. The Marble Arch Marriott charges pounds 160 for a single and pounds 130 per person for a double.

Annie Brooks, Marriott's London-based director of sales and marketing for Western Europe, said hotels in exotic locations made a stronger bid for the spouse vote. Shopping expeditions in New York and fashion shows in Barbados were clearly designed to attract those who did not have to concentrate on the business in hand.

In 10 years with Marriott she has seen the trade change and develop. Hilton's research has found that 70 per cent of all conferences are for fewer than 50 people - Ms Brooks's observations are that more gatherings are not only small but secret, and prefer not to hold their discussions in a ballroom.

Business is done quickly and without distraction and hotels have to adapt to working breakfasts or lunches. 'Whereas lunches were long, now they tend to be the opposite,' said Ms Brooks. 'Companies are being more selective about how often they meet and how much they spend; they also utilise the time by having a shorter meeting and, say, breakfast on a particular subject matter.'

Organisers of larger conferences tend to choose the venue first and the hotels second. Alan Greening, executive secretary of the British Technical Council of the Motor and Petroleum Industries, suspected that some of the 500 delegates at the fourth international symposium on the performance evaluation of automotive fuels and lubricants might have preferred to go to the seaside. But he considered requirements - two large halls, a galaxy of smaller rooms for the presentation of 70 papers, hotels - and concluded that Birmingham's International Conference Centre was the best venue. Its package includes in-house catering and close links with the Birmingham Visitor and Conference Bureau, which is willing to shoulder - free - many of the organisational chores. 'There is a basic mechanism there already. It's still a nightmare to organise, but this makes it not quite as bad.'

(Photograph omitted)

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