Working with a conference

Conference or convention bureaux primary role is to attract conference business to their particular destination and to ensure that conferences, exhibitions and other business ‘events’ are staged successfully, maximising the economic and public relations benefits to accrue from such event activity. Increasingly this role is being extended to encompass destination management as well as destination marketing. In other words, overseeing the development of a destination’s facilities and infrastructure, workforce skills, and local partnerships to keep the destination’s ‘offer’ in line with market requirements, not just for today but in the medium to long term as well.

Conference Bureaux Models
In structure, conference or convention bureaux, or convention and visitor bureaux (variations on the name are to be found) are usually formed and financed as partnerships between public and private sector bodies. In Britain, where there are around 80 conference bureaux, this can include local authorities, chambers of commerce, local enterprise companies/agencies, tourist boards and regional development agencies, hotels, venues, and other private sector suppliers.  The bureaux are set up as not-for-profit organisations, controlled by a management board, to fulfil a strategic marketing role and be the ‘official’ voice of the destination they represent. The USPs of bureaux are their intimate local knowledge and contacts, and their ability to provide objective advice and tailored support.

Funding is derived from public sector contributions (usually the largest single source), private sector membership fees (members including venues of all kinds, accommodation providers, professional conference organisers (PCOs) and destination management companies (DMCs), transport operators, audio-visual companies, and other kinds of suppliers), sponsorship, joint commercial activities with members, and, in some cases, commission which is charged to venue members on business placed.  

The concept of a convention and visitor bureau (CVB) is now widely adopted around the world. Bureaux in North America, for example, operate on a vastly different scale from the UK, largely because there is a longer tradition of CVBs (even relatively small towns have a CVB), with the world’s first visitor and convention bureau, Detroit (or Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitor Bureau as it is now known) being established in 1896. In the USA, bureaux are also funded differently, principally through a system of hotel transient occupancy tax (or bed tax) which means that hotel guests pay a tax which goes to the local city or town council, and can be added to the resources available to market the destination. In North America CVBs also play a prominent role at the centre of community life, being involved in a wide spectrum of community development issues which may impact on the future prosperity of the visitor industry. Interestingly, public debate in the UK, through the impetus of the Lyons enquiry into local government funding, is now focusing on whether this country should introduce some form of bed tax. The conference industry has strong lobbies both for and against such a development.

Conference Bureaux Services
Convention and visitor bureaux provide a range of services, many free of charge, to organisers of medical and health-related conferences and meetings. They aim to offer a ‘one-stop’ enquiry point for their destination, with impartial advice and assistance. Such CVB services are likely to include some or all of the following:

  • Pre-booking the event
  • Literature and website information
  • Venue location and selection advice
  • Availability checks
  • Rate negotiation
  • Provisional booking service
  • Familiarisation/inspection visits
  • Preparation of bid documents
  • Assistance with bid presentations to a selection committee/board
  • Assistance with civic hospitality requests and subvention funding application(financial assistance available from certain destinations to conferences in  the not-for profit sector)

Preparing for the event

  • Block accommodation booking service for delegates
  • Co-ordination of the full range of support services including transportation, registration, translation, office support.  In     some cases these will be provided in conjunction with a professional conference organiser (PCO) or destination management company (DMC)
  • Provision of ‘Welcome Desks’ for delegates at major points of entry, together with welcome signage and banners
  • Promotional and PR support to maximise delegate numbers and increase awareness of the event in the host destination
  • Supply of delegate information
  • Planning partner programmes, social programmes, and pre- and post-conference tours
  • Liaison with destination partners to avoid  clashes with other events being held in the city/destination
  • Communicating with local authority transport departments to minimise disruption created by roadworks in the vicinity of the conference venue
  • Working with HM Customs and Revenue to minimise any potential problems with international delegates

During the event

  • Civic welcome and recognition, such as the provision of a formal reception attended by the Mayor or other civic dignitary
  • PR support to ensure awareness of the event in the local community and also, where appropriate, among a wider audience
  • Provision of tourist information for both delegates and partners

After the event

  • Post-event evaluation and follow-up research
  • Consultancy support to the destination which will next host the conference.

Specific support
Reference was made earlier in this article to the role of a conference bureau in managing and coordinating a destination’s services for conference organisers and delegates. One practical example of such support is the pioneering initiative by Glasgow City Marketing Bureau in developing a ‘conference ticket’ to provide easy and cheap local travel for conference delegates.  Introduced in 2001 as a partnership between Strathclyde Passenger Transport, Glasgow City Marketing Bureau and around 80 public transport operators in the Strathclyde area, the scheme has been such a success that, by 2005, some 150,000 travel days had been booked by conference delegates who have been able to use local buses, trains, ferries and the subway. The ticket has proved particularly popular with international delegates attending a three or four-day conference in Glasgow, enabling them to explore the surrounding area during their stay.

Many conference bureaux can provide books of tickets giving delegates and their partners free or discounted entrance tickets to visitor attractions in the area, adding to the visitor experience and, frequently, acting as a stimulus for delegates to return as leisure visitors with their families at some future point.

Bureaux Marketing activities
A typical portfolio of marketing activities for a British conference or convention bureau will include some or all of the following, dependent upon staff and financial resources:

  • Direct marketing - particularly direct mail, but also telesales and, occasionally, with a sales person ‘on the road
  • Print, websites and audio-visual production - compiling conference destination guides and other promotional print, developing and     maintaining websites, producing videos, CD-Roms/DVDs 
  • Exhibition attendance - taking stands at trade shows such as International Confex, National Venue Show, EIBTM, IMEX
  • Overseas trade missions - participation in overseas roadshows and workshops, often organised by VisitBritain or another national tourist board familiarisation visits - organising visits for groups of buyers and press representatives
  • Receptions - co-ordinating receptions, lunches, occasionally small workshops to which key clients, existing and potential, are invited
  • Advertising - in local and national press public relations - circulating information and releases to the media and often to influential community organisations
  • Ambassador programmes - identifying, recruiting, training and     supporting key individuals in the local community (university academics, hospital professional staff, leading industrialists, members of the business community, trade unionists) as ‘ambassadors’ for the destination, assisting them to bid for and attract the annual conference of the professional institution or trade union to which they belong.  

Trade body for Conference and Convention Bureaux
There are around 80 such bureaux throughout the British Isles, stretching from Belfast and Edinburgh to Torquay and Jersey, and covering all the key conference ‘destinations’. Between them they represent approximately 3,000 conference and event venues, which include hotels, purpose-built conference centres, universities and other academic venues, multi-purpose venues (e.g. leisure centres, community facilities, town halls), and a plethora of unique or unusual venues (castles, stately homes, sporting venues, visitor attractions, etc.).

The trade body for conference and convention bureaux is the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD), established in 1969. BACD offers, in conjunction with its members, a free and impartial venue finding service which gives users options to book events at any of the 3,000 venues represented through BACD.  

Further information
Tel:  0121 212 1400

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