You really should get out more

Training is increasingly held in the workplace, so if you are taking the
decision to spend your budget on an away-day it had better be good. In this
two-page special we look at how conference centres and hotels are sharpening up
their acts to hang on to their share of the training pound

Andrew Rogers looks at how specialist venues are fighting back by
providing added value

How serious are you about getting your message across? Serious enough to
have it woven into the carpet?

That’s one option being offered to users of Wyboston Lakes Business Centre
in Bedfordshire. It’s all part of the war being waged by training venues to
attract trainers and delegates away from the workplace and hotels into
specialised learning environments.

According to Sally Greenhill, president of Meetings Industry Association,
there is an overall downward trend in the corporate market.

"The wave of mergers and acquisitions is having an impact on the number
of events being run," she notes. "Corporates are also being very
careful about how much they spend. They negotiate keenly on price, although
they still expect high standards."

Although learning has never been higher on the corporate agenda, conference
centres are having to compete in an environment in which the trend is towards
delivering learning as close to the point of need as possible – often at the
desktop.

Although there is much excitement in the training world about the ability of
e-learning to deliver knowledge and skills in this way, there are also
convincing counter-arguments – notably that e-learning is too prone to
interruption for it to be effective.

Distractions

The same argument can be applied to classroom-based courses. Although the
training room in your organisation may be cheap and convenient, there is a
strong case for saying that if you want to get your training message across,
you need to insulate your delegates from the distractions of day-to-day work.

Not surprisingly, many in the meetings industry claim that saving money by
holding events in-house is a false economy.

"The benefits of using an external venue are that your delegates are
away from the office, they are not disturbed, and they are able to focus on the
messages you are putting across. You are creating a very focused
environment," says Jane Littlewood, sales and operations director at
Hayley Conference Centres, which owns five venues in England.

One bugbear for trainers has been that many hotels – traditional venues for
courses – are simply not up to the job. In their bid to cater for multiple
markets – business, leisure, and weddings – they fail to provide reliable,
simple services such as fresh stocks of flipchart paper. Breakout rooms are
often no more than hastily converted hotel bedrooms.

But today there are far more purpose-designed residential conference centres
around. Greenhill says this trend has emerged only over the past few years.

"It has taken a time for them to be recognised as a product, but they
are becoming better known," she says. "The key advantage is that they
are run for that purpose. People are not mixing with other guests as they would
in a hotel."

Jon White agrees. As a training officer for Nationwide Trust, the personal
loans subsidiary of the Nationwide Building Society, he has run courses for
half of the 400-strong workforce over the past year, most of them at Sedgebrook
Hall in Northampton, one of the Hayley Conference Centres.

"We prefer to use dedicated conference facilities to hotels. You
generally get better service, more facilities and a better atmosphere. Everyone
is there for a similar reason, unlike the rather haphazard environment of a
hotel."

White says conference centres are more attuned to their needs.

Focused

Because such venues are more focused, they are better able to address the
problems posed by another trend in the market.

According to Peter Darnell, chairman of the Conference Centres of Excellence
consortium, the last three years has seen a shortening in the average duration
of events. "There are more events taking place, but the overall delegate
days per company have reduced. Courses have become more compressed and more
intense.

"We are addressing the issue by offering higher levels of focused service
– identifying what the customer wants from the early stages and managing it
through so that the foreshortened time is more productive."

Sally Greenhill, of the Meetings Industry Association, agrees. "Shorter
lead times put considerable pressure on the organisation of an event and
companies need much more support from the venues as a result," she says.

In spite of the squeeze, conference centres are investing big money to
create the ideal learning environment. The Conference Centre at Church House in
London’s Westminster, for example, has recently undergone a £2m investment to
improve its facilities. This year it became the first London venue to receive
the Hospitality Assured Meetings Award.

Much of this kind of investment is geared towards keeping up with
technology. At Robinson College, Cambridge, for example, trainers have access
to closed circuit television and an ISDN line for video-conferencing.

But equally important in creating a conducive learning environment is a
focus on the needs of the delegates. As Littlewood says, "Trainers have
one set of values – they want to make sure it is easy to get to, has the right
space and syndicate rooms, lighting, temperature and so on.

Feelgood factor

"The delegates have a different set of values. They want the feelgood
factor – a leisure club, bar fantastic food, friendly reception and so on. They
want to be able to plug in their laptops in their bedrooms." Most
conference centres provide a wide range of leisure facilities to help delegates
unwind at the end of a hard day’s learning.

Removing employees from the workplace helps remove distractions by making it
impossible for them to pop back to the office in their lunch break.

"But despite the best efforts of conference centres and trainers,
today’s intrusive communications technologies mean you can never really get
people away from their desks," admits Rachel Grundy, operations manager at
Church House. "Fax, telephones, mobiles and e-mails still mean that the
outside world can impinge on training sessions.

"But out of the office it’s still much easier to keep people’s
attention for the time between the breaks."

No more Basil Fawlty? See what hotels have to offer

The challenge from conference centres has alerted hotels to the meetings
business. Many are working harder to offer what trainers want and need to make
a day run smoothly. Hotel expert Sara Guild checks in to see the latest
inclusive packages

After an intensive day’s training, think of the effect on your team if they
could take a swim and a sauna. Or how about if a complementary therapy
treatment was on offer during the coffee break?

Holding training in a hotel means these suggestions aren’t just idealistic
daydreams. Whether you opt for a country house hotel and the scenery it
affords, or a large chain hotel with leisure and spa facilities, hotels can add
value to your training day.

More and more hotels are aware of the requirements of the modern training
organiser and offer the facilities to match. While many trainers choose a venue
on the basis of location, good service and food play an important role.

Dwight Lawrence, employee development advisor at BSkyB has been using the
Hilton on Edgware Road in London on average three days a month for the past
nine months to run a course on team leadership. "With employees all over
London, we needed somewhere central. In addition the training rooms are quite a
good size and they are serviced well by the general conference staff and
technical people," says Lawrence.

The relationship has developed as Lawrence has seen delegates happy with the
food, and the staff have proved efficient at delivering phone and fax messages
during the day. Delegates want good food, natural lighting and comfortable
seating, he says.

Contender

Hilton is a strong contender in the meetings market. With the merger of
Hilton and Stakis in the last decade, two strong meetings products have
combined and Hilton Meetings is the result. The company has invested more than
£5m upgrading its 580 meeting rooms in more than 80 hotels around the UK.

Standard in every room is the air-conditioning, specially designed chairs to
keep delegates comfy all day, a fridge with soft drinks, flipchart, overhead
projector, projection screen, sliding whiteboard, railing system and e-mail
connection. Rooms are bright, with real plants and wooden tables – no baize
here. A VCR and TV are available too.

Price depends on location with a day package at Hilton Aberdeen Treetops
costing £32 while the Hilton London Heathrow Airport will cost £74 per
delegate. The package includes the room, tea and coffee in the morning and
afternoon, lunch and a dedicated meetings specialist. The specialist assists
with the planning of the day, meets the organiser on arrival to run through the
details and sticks around to deal with any issues arising during the day. The
24-hour rate includes accommodation, breakfast and dinner and varies from hotel
to hotel.

Hilton is currently investigating the possibility of offering massages from
its line of health spas, LivingWell. The massages would be available during
breaks as part of the meetings package.

Booking a room is straightforward with one telephone number to a central
office and a guaranteed response time of an hour for UK customers and written
proposals or event agreements out in 24 hours.

Other hotel chains have been watching and in July Thistle Hotels began its
three-year roll out of Meeting Plan. Currently on offer at 18 hotels, Meeting
Plan offers a similar combination of comfy chairs and natural daylight in
rooms, and phones, faxes and access to the Internet. It too offers a single
point of contact, and assigns an individual to assist the organisers.

Thistle guarantees to respond to inquiries within three hours and promises a
written quotation in 24 hours. It also offers the services of MotivAction for
teambuilding activities, which can focus on developing communication skills and
entertaining and rewarding staff.

Rates vary depending on location with a day rate at Thistle Cheltenham
costing £50 including VAT and £72 at the Thistle Charing Cross, for example.

Financial benefits

It is not just the big names who are getting in on the act. For smaller
groups, the country house hotel can offer benefits, especially financial. At a
time when training is in full swing, the country house hotel is usually at its
quietest and keen to have business. So negotiating a decent 24-hour rate is
likely.

Ballathie House Hotel in Perthshire is a prime example of the new wave of
hotels catering for the small meetings market. The hotel has recently built an
annex with 16 bedrooms and two meeting rooms that can hold up to 50 people. The
rooms have standard overhead projectors, flipcharts, VCR and TV monitor, as
well as direct dial phone and an ISDN line facility.

In addition to the peaceful setting of the Scottish countryside, no parking
problems and an easily accessible location, the hotel can arrange outdoor
activities for teambuilding activities. For entertainment the hotel can book a
falconry display.

Ballathie’s day rate, including lunch and tea and coffee breaks, is £30 per
delegate. The 24-hour rate ranges from £130-£150 or higher, depending on the
time of year. October to Easter is the time to get the best deals, says general
manager Chris Longden.

Good food is one of the advantages Longden feels he can offer clients.
"How many conference facilities have an AA two rosette kitchen at their
disposal?" he asks.

Top tips on getting the best from your hotel deal


Let the hotel have a copy of the programme in advance
– Tell the hotel when you want breakfast – often small hotels can be flexible
– State clearly what time you would like coffee – mid-morning is vague, 10.15
am is better
– Be precise in what type of seating arrangement you would like set-up, eg
informal – is that no chairs at all?
– For the best deals at country house hotels, aim for weekdays from October to
April
– Check for special dietary requirements with delegates (eg kosher, vegetarian
or low calorie) and tell the hotel in advance
– Presenters may want to visit the hotel in advance to familiarise themselves
with equipment – ask if this is possible
– Ask what leisure facilities are available if you are booking overnight – some
delegates may want to book spa treatments prior to arrival.

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