Service with a smile?

The conferences sector has come a long way from servicing long, boring,
boozy days cooped up in a hotel. But with limited training resources, has it got
what it takes to deliver the technology, flexibility and people today’s
organisers are demanding?

Location and value for money have always been high on a conference
organisers’ list of priorities, but today quality of service is just as likely
to be up there on the wish list.

Figures from the latest UK Conference Market Survey (2001) show
buyers still look for accessibility and location, but are concerned above all
with finding a high-quality and responsive service. At the same time, cost has
dropped from first to sixth in the survey’s list of selection criteria.

The problem for venues is that despite attempts to improve
standards by industry bodies such as the Meetings Industry Association (MIA),
their customers say they are not getting the level of service they want.
Respondents to the survey criticised conference staff for their attitude to
customers and lack of flexibility. They also found a lack of urgency, internal
communication problems and believed venues would benefit from finding more
dedicated and better-trained staff – particularly when recruiting from overseas.

Conference organisers know what they want to achieve, but
question how far venues will go to meet their needs.

Jo Lucas, commercial manager at Middle Aston Training and
Development Centre, says: "People are looking for venues that understand
their learning ethos. Where people make the softer side just as important as
the harder, commercial side."

The difficult part for organisers is finding the right service
for them. While most events are likely to need facilities such as breakout
rooms – dedicated quiet spaces – and flexible meal times, in the more
‘adventurous’ sectors demands can stretch to cowboy-style saloons and cakes
iced in corporate colours.

And regardless of which end of the spectrum organisers sit, the
success of the event relies on the flexibility and open-mindedness of
conference staff.

So what makes a venue stand out from the rest? Sally Greenhill,
director of conference consultancy The Right Solution, believes a modern
outlook is essential. "Flexibility is high on the agenda. Staff have to be
able to react quickly to change and there is a need for venues to react quickly
to clients’ needs.

"Much of the time things are decided on the day and venues
need to be able to cope with this," she says. "Expectations have
changed – people expect things to be done instantly, and if they aren’t, they
want to know why."

Alan Rogers, chief executive of marketing hospitality company
The Red Carpet says: "It is the little things that matter – they help make
the whole thing run more smoothly. Forgetting to take care of the luggage for
500 delegates can turn a simple conference into a nightmare and makes far more
difference than a bad presentation."

But possibly the biggest difference a venue can make is to
recruit staff with a passion for the industry who are trained to do the job
efficiently. Something which will remain a pipe dream while venues continue to
be staffed by casual workers on short-term contracts.

Environment is, of course, fundamental to a successful
conference.

"The room has to be proactive," says Greenhill.
"Everything has to enable people to work in comfort. Often conference
facilities are noisy because of faulty air conditioning or because the kitchen
leads off the meeting room. It has to be a comfortable space that has a nice
temperature, lack of noise, comfortable light and furniture that enables people
to work."

It is also vital that venues recognise that a conference is a
place of work and is highly dependent on and shaped by the technology that
people use.

Phil Whitehurst, event consultant at management development
company Brathey Hall Trust, says: "Conference organisers are starting to
realise that it is important to engage people.

"It’s not just what you communicate but how you do it.
It’s not about simply dumping info on people, but getting them to react to it
so they take it away with them. A lot of thought has to be put into how you put
the information across."

Thankfully, this is one aspect of conferences that venues have
spent a lot of time and money getting right. Along with their own investment in
technology, many venues have set out to make things as easy as possible for
organisers who want to use their own equipment.

Conference venues are also likely to have a cyber cafe where
organisers and delegates can download information from the internet. Modems are
also increasingly found in bedrooms, coffee bars and lounge areas for people to
learn and study outside the conference room.

Joanne Silverwood, events manager at conference and training
centre Eynsham Hall, says: "It’s a case of making sure people can run
their PowerPoint projections and are able to connect to the net without
trouble. We have ISDN lines both in the conference rooms and bedrooms so people
can download everything they want, when they want."

This has increasingly enabled conferences to become paper-free.
It has also contributed to the development of a more open and flexible form of
learning, as delegates are free to explore their thoughts at leisure. However,
the question is: would it have been better to spend all this money on people
rather than facilities?

Rogers thinks so. "Technology is no big deal any more as
the amount you want to use can simply be brought in. You can get an empty
ballroom and you can do whatever you want with it as long as you understand how
to plug the technology in."

To his mind it is far more important to get the ‘feel’ of the
conference right. And a major part of this is dependent on having people in
place who are both willing and able to help delegates and organisers. The
emphasis is on service with a smile – something the UK conference sector has
traditionally found hard to deliver.

But what is certain is the conference world is more flexible
and technologically innovative than ever before. And a recent move by the MIA
to align its training courses with the Hospitality Training Foundation suggests
a more professional approach is being taken to training in the industry as a
whole (see box above).

It is also an industry that’s moved on from its boozy
networking reputation of the past.

Tony Rodgers, executive director of the British Association of
Conference Destinations, says: "Conferences are becoming far more
work-oriented. Delegates are far more likely to be asked to start early and
finish late and in some cases do homework in their rooms. There’s not so much
time for the informal networking that used to count for so much."

For conference organisers it seems it is a case of selecting a
venue carefully to make sure they have both the facilities and staff to make
the event a success. This, says Whitehurst, is down to teamwork: "You have
to work as a team with staff at the venue. It doesn’t matter how good the
facilities are – if you don’t get the right response from the people you are
liaising with there’s no point carrying on."

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Raising the game through training

The British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD) claims that
because the industry is only 50 years old, and as such is relatively immature,
training is still being developed. It remains an industry fragmented and
heavily reliant on casual, relatively inexperienced staff.

Peter Worger, general secretary of the Events Sector Industry Training
Organisation (ESITO), says: "The events industry has gone 40 to 50 years
without any formal structure. You can’t simply wave a wand and make it better
overnight. Things are moving forward, but in a volatile industry it takes time
to establish things properly."

Tony Rodgers, executive director of BACD, says: "It is indisputable
that if we can get in place the same sort of professional and educational
training that is established in more professionally recognised industries such
as accountancy and medicine, then the industry as a whole will have a higher
status and deliver a higher quality product and service. It is a win-win
situation for all concerned."

The British Tourist Authority estimates 530,000 people in the UK rely on the
events industry for work directly or indirectly. Therefore, the effects of this
training shortfall reach beyond conference halls and banqueting suites.

It impacts on organisers as well as conference staff. Rodgers says:
"There is a need for training on both sides of the fence. Many people who
organise conferences are not full-time professionals. It is often a secretary,
PA or training manager who has been given the responsibility.

"And on the supply-side, those working at the venue may not have
specific training to handle business visitors or delegates."

But the main problem for venues is that the lack of training is combined
with poor working conditions, low pay and inconsistent work periods. Something
which Gill Smillie, honorary secretary of the MIA, thinks is at the heart of
the retention problem. "Staff can see no way of moving forward. They
simply start to look elsewhere," she says.

In an attempt to rectify this, the MIA has teamed up with the Hospitality
Training Foundation (HTF) to run three training programmes aimed at everyone
from managers to frontline staff. There has also been an increase in the number
of Modern Apprenticeships, NVQs and college courses available nationally.

"We hope this programme helps staff see a future in the industry and
try to achieve HCIMA accreditation," Smillie says. "Training makes
people feel more wanted. If people are not trained to do the job properly
they’re not going to do it properly. They will also become frustrated and look
to leave the industry."

UK Conference Market Survey 2001 key findings

– During 2000 Central England was a
more popular conference location than London. 
London remains the most popular individual town or city, although
Birmingham was mentioned by 31 per cent, Manchester by 14 per cent and
Edinburgh by 11 per cent of respondents.

– Hotels remained the most popular venue type, with out-of-town
and city centre destinations being selected by more than 70 per cent of people.

– Location, capacity and quality of facilities were seen as key
influencing factors by more than 40 per cent of respondents. However, quality
of service was seen as a key factor by 33 per cent – more than those who
selected price.

– Overall, 68 per cent of respondents rated the standard of UK
conference facilities highly. However, many facility and service issues were
mentioned as needing improvement.

– Nearly three-quarters of the survey said their business results
had been improved by holding a conference.

– The manufacturing sector holds far more conferences than
anyone else.

– The survey involved telephone interviews with 300
organisations in the UK.

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