CONFERENCES & SEMINARS Chain Reactions – How competition is driving change

These days it’s not enough to offer comfortable seats, stylish food and pretty view outside the window. Venue managers aim to provide not just list of individual attributes but holistic experience to clients. They know that repeat business comes from offering total package, with superb business facilities, accommodation and an enticing environment, summer or winter.
According to Alan Trotter, CEO Conventions & Incentives New Zealand, the conventions and incentives business contributes about $1 billion to our economy. Of this figure, 75 percent is domestic business, so it’s no surprise there’s vested interest in keeping customers happy within New Zealand.
The key drivers for change in today’s market revolve around competition – both among destinations and venues. Franz Mascarenhas, marketing director at Hyatt Regency Auckland, says he responds by marketing collectively as city at trade shows and uses individual sales presentations that begin with destinational sell prior to one on the hotel’s facilities.
Clearly there is growing expectation of high standards of product and service at very competitive pricing. “There is an increasing need for the sales team to be price/value driven in client negotiations,” says Mascarenhas. “Ultimately, clients are willing to pay, provided the perception of accompanying value is clearly understood. We need to be clear about where we see ourselves positioned in the market place and target clientele that are discerning yet profitable. In today’s context, customers are looking for more than just conference venue – they are looking for the complete experience.”
No doubt Hyatt’s recently completed $65 million upgrade including new residence suites and banquet spaces, 25-metre lap pool, spa and gym help to lure clients.
Managers also need to balance the need for staff retention with people’s desire to gain diverse range of experiences at different venues. Being part of an international hotel company can have particular advantage here as staff can move around different hotels within the same company. “One of the advantages of being part of an international hotel company is the ability to provide good succession planning for our staff, as well as mentoring so that we are able to retain within the company all our high performers,” says Mascarenhas.
Maintaining quality of service to customers while running cost-effective operations means that managers at leading conference centres and seminar venues must provide ongoing staff training. The key aspect for staff is to be flexible with guest requests and to display ‘can do’ attitude. “Part of our professionalism on display includes our ability to be able to assist conference organiser with the overall planning of the function. Ensuring profitability through cost-efficient operations is also critical control of wastages and sharp rostering all add up to the overall efficiency of the operation,” says Mascarenhas.
Continuing to fund the right areas is another crucial aspect to maintain quality of service to customers while keeping operations cost-effective. Dean Newell, general manager at Wairakei Resort, says: “It never ceases to amaze me that when seeking to reduce costs the first two areas that many managers will look to are sales and marketing, and human resources. In an effort to improve profitability they chop away at the obvious. It’s as if they think: ‘Let’s get fewer people here and have staff that can’t provide adequate levels of customer care to those guests that remain.’
“In allocating greater resources to the development of staff, and thereby improving the levels of customer care provided, improvements in profitability will become evident,” says Newell, adding “but only if the allocation of these resources is focused on specific outcome.”
Newell also stresses the need for senior managers to have working knowledge of the venue’s operations over which they are responsible although “they do not need to be technical experts in every aspect of the operation, hence the title general manager. An ability to identify areas that need development, and where necessary source opportunities to provide education and appropriate training is essential.”
Keeping pace with customer demands is also important with today’s ever-changing technology. Conference managers need to keep up to date with clients’ requirements and be able to identify what new developments are likely to move from the category of gadgetry to everyday usage. If there is need for these, managers should focus on how to provide it and what is the most economical process to do so.
Ensuring technology is continually monitored has become part of the package at the SkyCity Convention Centre and has helped attract clients from offshore as well as within New Zealand. Grant Webster, general manager attractions, says, “We recognise the need to invest in the convention business and allocate resources on an annual basis to increase the capabilities of the team with the opportunity to utilise the latest technologies. Innovation in event creation is critical to the success of the business and allows our team to utilise their creative skills and vast experience to deliver consistent standard that creates new norm.”
Size of venue is no excuse and even small boutique venue like Huka Village Conference Centre has earned strong reputation for keeping up with technology. Conference sales and marketing manager Tanya Hong Liu has solid IT background and says that 95 percent of the venue’s business is from domestic corporates “so although we only cater for up to 200 dele-gates we make sure they are getting the latest wireless access”. new cyber café has also opened recently to keep guests informed.
Technology aside, Huka Village also boasts new taste experience on its doorstep. Wishart Estate Wines from Hawke’s Bay has planted 2.5 acres of pinot noir vines within the grounds of the Village with the aim of developing wine style for Taupo to complement Huka’s already extensive wine list. City conference venues can’t match this for adding dash of organic New Zealand flavour to its business facilities. With views over the vineyard and out to Mount Tauhara this has to be one of the most picturesque conference venues – occasionally that’s reason enough to choose venue.
Post event follow up is another way to ensure that managers are keeping pace with customer demands and the entire event transaction with the customer. It is just as important to provide way for guests to have the opportunity to thank conference venue managers in areas they have excelled, as well as provide feedback on areas that need improving. Regular internal meetings that analyse this data help managers to change policy and increase training input as appropriate.
How are managers handling customer acquisition and retention? Retention is the key and the focus here is on providing the best customer care possible. Retaining clients requires that conference managers are able to offer something different the next time around, be it through menu development, new facilities or recommendations for alternative themes or off-site venues to utilise.
Winning awards helps too in the battle for client retention and gives venue centres something to shout about. Christchurch Convention Centre has just won its fifth Accolade Award for Excellence, and was voted the best venue in Canterbury by readers of industry journal CIM (Conventions Incentives Meetings).
Cathy Hemsworth, sales and marketing director for venue manager NCC (NZ), said the Accolades were especially satisfying as they were verdict from venue users.
“We’ve come long way in seven years and it’s rewarding to get industry acknowledgment of our achievements, particularly as we are small team. We can cater for up to 2500 conference delegates so we’re boutique destination with purpose-built international facilities supported by excellent infrastructure, international air services and offering wealth of pre- and post-

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