Special Report on Conferences and Exhibitions: Meeting the needs of a marketing strategy: These days, companies require tangible results to justify the outlay on conferences. Martin Whitfield examines their reasoning

A THREE-DAY conference can easily cost a foreign delegate pounds 2,000, plus air fares. A basic stand at a trade exhibition will be more than pounds 10,000. Meeting and talking is an expensive pastime but one whose popularity never seems in doubt.

More attention might be paid to getting value for money but the need to discuss with colleagues, to exchange ideas and information and to make new contacts is seen as essential in the business and professional world.

Cost control and competitive forces have combined to make the typical conference smaller, shorter, less flamboyant and more businesslike. Less likely is a week-long trip, with partner, to the 3,000-delegate extravaganza in an exotic location where in the past the work content was low and there was a considerable risk of long-term liver damage.

Conferences now also tend to take less time to be arranged: typically six months rather than a year for a 500-delegate meeting. The attendance fee of up to pounds 350 a day and the accommodation bill have to be justified. Corporate meetings or a company exhibition stand have become part of a well-worked marketing strategy, not an ill-thought- out executive performance bonus scheme. People have to have a reason to leave their offices, or their country, to attend these events. They want to know they can use their time effectively.

'Conferences are being used by more and more as a marketing tool,' said Vanessa Cotton, partner in the Event Organisation Company. The Exhibition Industry Federation stresses the cost effectiveness of exhibitions compared with other marketing mediums. Spending in Britain has reached pounds 1.3bn.

The trend towards smaller, more frequent meetings has meant many have become mobile and can switch happily from one country to another. Huge congresses of up to 20,000 people can be accommodated in relatively few purpose-built conference venues. The British Association of Conference Towns will help with advice on suitable places in Britain. But small gatherings of 100 to 200 can be held in any large hotel in any reasonable sized city in the world. Close attention to reducing money spent on air fares and the desire for smaller groups has meant more regional meetings in Europe, North America and Asia.

Competition to win conference business is intense, as delegates are high- spending business travellers. The British Tourist Authority estimates that the average spend of the 300,000 overseas conference delegates is pounds 600, compared with pounds 428 for a tourist visitor and pounds 488 for a business visitor.

Although Britain's share of the conference market has been virtually static, the growth of the worldwide industry has meant that delegates and exhibition visitors are making up an increasing proportion of all foreign visitors. The numbers have doubled since 1980 while tourism in general has only increased by 20 per cent. A narrow definition of their spending shows a minimum contribution of pounds 180m.

Britain is not alone in seeking to woo the international conference trade. Promosalons, the French specialist marketing agency, and the Belgium Convention and Incentive Bureau, for example, actively promote meetings in their own countries.

Singapore, where a 12,000-delegate conference centre is due to open next year, is spending dollars 13m on an international awareness campaign. Until last year, Singapore was the only non-European city among the top 10 destinations compiled by the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO). Kevin Leong, conventions director of the Singapore Tourist Promotions Board, keeps an eye on his rivals: 'Competition worldwide and within the region is intensifying.'

Ease of communications, normally by air, is seen by conference organisers as the first condition for any meeting whose location is not fixed by other means, such as a related exhibition or a company's marketing plans. The result, as judged by IAPCO's league table of leading cities, is that capital cities with good air connections and a number of large quality hotels are easy favourites.

London attracts two-thirds of Britain's conference business. A capital city is also likely to be popular as it increases scope for other business meetings away from the conference hall.

A final attraction of big cities is their tourist pull. Although fewer partners are accompanying delegates - only about five per cent of the 500 delegates to the World Coal Institute's conference in London brought their spouse - capitals retain their popularity for international travellers. The move towards smaller meetings and a desire for 'breakout' groups to talk away from plenary sessions has been matched by a growing interest by hotels in a potentially lucrative business.

All large modern hotels will be designed with one eye on the conference market, while refurbishment will try to take care of those chandeliers in the ballroom which could restrict modern visual presentations. They will make sure they supply the facilities that conference organisers demand, but delegates infrequently use, such as swimming pools, gyms and saunas.

Room rates are made very attractive even in some hotels which used to shy snobbishly away from conference business. Universities and other institutions have made successful attempts to attract trade by being able to offer purpose-built lecture facilities and cheap accommodation during vacations.

Conference organisers are more likely to turn to professional companies for at least part of the business of setting up and running a conference. The whole event may be contracted out or specialist segments given to a variety of experts. Good audio visual presentations, for example, can cost six figure sums for a major launch and tatty ones look just that in these days of sophisticated marketing videos.

'Associations in particular have raised their standards. Most professional bodies now realise that a series of talking heads using outdated audio-visual back-up will not attract fee-paying delegates, nor does it reflect well on associations themselves,' Ms Cotton says.

Although the emphasis of business meetings is clearly on business, some companies still believe in a mix of work and pleasure. Getting away from it all can concentrate the mind and refresh the soul, say proponents. Conferences and marketing sessions are available on sailing ships, golf course hotels and the odd safari lodge in Kenya.

----------------------------------------------------------------- INTERNATIONAL CONGRESSES: TOP 10 CITIES AND COUNTRIES IN 1991 ----------------------------------------------------------------- City Events Country Events 1 Paris 349 US 880 2 London 244 France 761 3 Vienna 230 UK 660 4 Brussels 184 Germany 546 5 Geneva 178 N'lands 385 6 Berlin 166 Switz 313 7 Singapore 110 Italy 304 8 Strasbourg 107 Austria 294 9 Amst'dam 106 Belgium 289 10 H Kong 102 Spain 264 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: International Association of Professional Congress Organisers -----------------------------------------------------------------

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