With overseas meetings costing no more than in the UK, many firms now take staff and contacts to more exotic climes. By Jane Lewis
Overseas conferencing has never been more popular, fed by the combination of cheap facilities in exotic locations with the increasingly global nature of commerce. Multinationals in traditional industries, long used to holding their annual get-together in different countries, are joined by fast-growing companies in media and IT, while more and more businesses of all sizes and sectors rely on “jollies” to motivate their staff.
“A lot of overseas meetings cost no more than UK-based events – we have proved this time and again,” says John Hooker, director of conference organiser The Marketing Organisation. “In off-peak periods a room in Lisbon might cost £50 compared with £100 in Birmingham, and it also offers better value for catering. Air fares will balance that out to some extent but, nevertheless, by the time you have packaged it together you may have made a substantial saving.”
IT leads the way
Hooker says that over the past five years there has been a steady increase in the number of companies staging events abroad. Ironically that is led by the IT sector, which for all its hyping of virtual communications needs to physically bring together delegates from around the world to explain the nuances of new systems.
Companies tend to take for granted the organisers’ ability to handle the complex logistics of flying out delegates, accommodating them and meeting their individual needs, as well as mounting the conference itself. What they are more concerned about, Hooker says, is ensuring they get value for money and that the conference achieves the long-term aim of getting across a series of important messages.
That can be aided by foreign cultures as a basis for theming, says Andrew Hillary, managing director of Clearwater Communications, which specialises in the creative aspects of conference production.
A conference in Thailand could feature local images such as Buddhist temples as a stage backdrop but there might also be a deeper motif that underscores the purpose of the conference. For example, a Middle Eastern event could focus on the qualities of self-reliance found in nomadic cultures, while the origins of the human race in Africa serves as a metaphor for the origins of a company.
Meetings with a serious agenda can be cunningly disguised as incentive trips ostensibly aimed at rewarding staff. Smeg, the Italian producer of upmarket kitchen appliances, recently took a group of sales staff and dealers on an action-packed trip to Zimbabwe, where a busy itinerary of rafting, game spotting and bungee-jumping achieved some serious bonding.
“The first objective was to stimulate sales, but we also wanted to establish personal contacts with our wholesalers in an informal setting,” says Smeg’s managing director Eric Ireland. “It worked well on both counts and these dealers’ sales are going from strength to strength.”
Getting out of London is a key attraction, says Judy Weatherstone, international events manager at Hawksmere, which besides organising training events in the capital, handles up to 100 legal seminars in Europe a year. “We get endless complaints from customers about the way people are treated in London hotels, for instance arriving to find their booked room has been given to someone else and getting little or no help from the staff,” she says.
One main drawback to going overseas, however, is the complexity of communications. Dubai, a major conference destination, is not only in a different time zone, but takes its weekend on Thursday and Friday, leaving only a part of three days of shared office hours with the UK.
Reward or obligation?
Another disincentive could be tax, says Hooker at The Marketing Organisation. Under the new self-assessment system, high-earning sales staff are expected to treat a foreign trip as taxable reward, while the same event held at the NEC in Birmingham would be more obviously classed as a business obligation.
The steady expansion of overseas conferencing is seemingly not denting the business of UK venues. At Eynsham Hall, business development manager Nikki Carrol says the concern is with increasing local competition rather than overseas rivals, which she feels are mainly attractive to big corporations.
And Hayley Conference Centres, which is to open a fifth venue in May, expects to thrive as the demand for outsourced training and development gathers pace. Sales and operations director Jane Littlewood says, “We did recently lose an incentives conference to Euro Disney, which obviously is going to be a more interesting trip than Nottingham, but it doesn’t happen that often.”