Sunday, 26 February 2012

The evolution of dedicated venues

The ongoing economic crisis of the past 4 years has driven the most rapid business evolution ever seen. Never before has it been so critical for organisations to embrace change. The challenge is to understand what to change and why.

Speaking as a past Global President of The International Association of Conference Centres (IACC) I have been especially interested to see how our particular niche of the conference centre concept would evolve. IACC members operate in the small to medium sized meetings market (outside the UK larger conference centres are called convention centres). Their bread and butter events are about strategy and communication, management training and in-house conferences, product launches, and motivational get togethers.

It is a long-held belief of the niche providers to this sector (and many of their clients) that a dedicated and focused environment is a better fit for these activities than a hotel or other location that regard meetings business as ancillary.

So how do you test this difference? Hotels focus on selling bedrooms, they regard meetings as a great way to sell a block of bedrooms and have developed meetings facilities and services to enhance their ability to sell bedrooms. The core business of Conference Centres, however, is selling meetings. Their management approach is driven by the needs of the meeting planner. Facilities, operations, staffing and training respond to their understanding of how to add value to meetings.

An interesting industry debate developed exactly along these lines as the availability of broadband connectivity and WiFi became key requirements for meeting attendees. The traditional hotel approach was to identify this need as a revenue opportunity whilst conference centres had no hesitation to install the necessary infrastructure and provide the resource at no charge. In the current highly competitive, over supplied marketplace Hoteliers have had to back down, but I don’t believe this has changed their underlying attitude.

On the other hand, a consequence of more choice for customers has also resulted in conference centre management having to sit up and take notice of the generally superior individual guest facilities encountered at good hotels.

At a superficial level it may seem that the once clear blue water that existed between conference centres and hotels has narrowed or even disappeared. Yes conference centres have upped their game with investment in accommodation and amenities and hotels have listened to their meetings clients’ bug-bears about charging extra for key ingredients.

It has indeed become much more difficult to tell at first glance if a venue is a hotel or a conference centre, even the name over the door might be misleading. Hotels have sectioned off some of their space and labelled it Conference Centre, whilst some traditional conference centres have earned themselves the chance to rebrand as conference hotels, where they are offering dedicated meeting space with high quality accommodation.

To add to this confusion some operators who traditionally ran dedicated meeting venues have lost sight of their priorities and re-organised with a drive to sell bedrooms (even offering loss-leading single overnight specials to the detriment to their focussed environment) whilst hotel brands have taken their meeting planners more seriously and changed their priorities for operations, facilities, staffing and training in response.

However I would argue that ultimately, under the surface of any venue my definition of the dedicated meeting environment differentiator still remains. Does your chosen venue sell meetings or bedrooms?

Fortunately other recent developments make it easier to ask that question and get a truthful answer. Our increasingly connected and transparent world is giving rise of the ‘Thank You Economy’ and is re-establishing the power of recommendation, washing away the principle of blind brand loyalty.

I believe that it is only a matter of time before hotel booking agents and corporate procurement controllers tap into the knowledge that is out there and join the experienced meeting planners who have always been more influenced by the environment and outcomes than the venue / hotel marketing spiel.

At a time when buyers have the upper hand in the supply / demand relationship the dedicated venues have a distinct advantage. They work at understanding how they add value and seek to control the overall environment they provide so that the focus is on the needs of the organisation hosting the meeting.

If you have read the recent Steve Jobs biography you may, like me, see an analogy here with Apple Corporations’ desire to take responsibility for the overall, end to end customer experience. You might even find dedicated venues with Apples’ drive to make that experience the best it can be – if you ask the right questions.

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