CONFERENCES & SEMINARS Conference Talk – What does the future hold for our conference industry?

While local opinion differs as to the benefits or otherwise of multi-purpose venues, those involved in the conference industry here agree on the benefits it brings to the New Zealand economy, particularly during the low tourist season, and on the need for constantly fine-tuning operations to deliver – and exceed – client expectations.
Alan Trotter, chief executive of Conventions and Incentives New Zealand (CINZ), says the key driver for change in today’s conference market is that, on an international basis, many new venues are coming on stream that are custom designed for conventions, exhibitions and meetings.
“The customer, therefore, has more choice and has become increasingly more discerning. Traditionally, many venues have been combination of performing arts as well as convention and exhibition facilities, and increasingly this option will be less acceptable, particularly to the international market.”
However at Manukau City’s TelstraClear Pacific Centre, multi-purpose venue catering for sporting and cultural events, performing arts, functions and meetings, deliberate design has been the key to developing highly successful operation, according to chief executive Richard Jeffery.
“We designed the venue around the business plan and not the other way around. The reason many multi-purpose venues come about is that after their initial plan fails they build add-ons that don’t work, for example they will build function rooms onto sports stadium, then find the kitchen is too far away.
“As with the Cairns Convention Centre – one of the first multi-purpose centres achieved for both sport and conferencing – we have specifically designed seating configurations so we can create different ambience and setting, with quick turn-arounds and therefore economies in labour savings for clients.”
Deliberate design or not, there are benefits when attracting the corporate meetings market to multi-purpose venue, as explained by Kate Fleming, sales and marketing manager, Westpac Stadium Hospitality.
“Being multi-purpose venue works in our favour as often it’s the people who come to sporting or cultural event at the Stadium who become aware of our function facilities and make subsequent bookings.
“Also the whole atmosphere works well for those looking to add another dimension to their event – perhaps promoting sporting theme or taking advantage of the outside accessibility for team-building activities which may be difficult in conference-only venue. The sheer size and nature of the Stadium allows us to offer unique opportunities such as using the replay screen and outdoor PA system, or hold expos on the concourse. It’s all about making the most of our point of difference and working with clients to help them achieve memorable and successful events.”
Similarly, Alan Trotter acknowledges that key advantage when convention centre is also performing arts centre is the ability to utilise lighting, music, theming and other theatrical experiences for guests.
The reality in New Zealand is that most current meeting venues, multi-purpose or otherwise, do not have the luxury of being custom designed and, in fiercely competitive industry, must strive to keep ahead of trends and deliver in an innovative manner what the client wants. No longer can the tried and true venues continue to trade on their name or reputation, as organisers now often equate newness with quality, says Kathy Guy, general manager of Wairakei Resort and Chateau Tongariro.
“Venue managers must involve themselves in the industry to become aware of what is changing and, as with any business, adapt to those changes.”
Nikki Goodwin, national sales executive for VBase Management Group, agrees it is vital to keep abreast of new technology and trends in the national and international markets. Vbase manages the four venues incorporated in the Christchurch Convention Centre. “It is extremely important that we are continually offering new suggestions and putting ideas to clients, so we may overcome and understand the challenges they see.”
Global research has confirmed for Richard Jeffery that theming is of major importance. “People want theme, more than the commodity type experience. They want something that creates retention and interest, and they want iconic architecture but only if it’s relevant to the area.
“What we do here is the Pacific theme, because we are the largest Polynesian city in the world. The Polynesian people are telling their story here, we offer contemporary Pacific food and entertainment, at high-end level, and that intangible is accruing huge business for us.
We have incentive dinners and we get business from conferences at SkyCity and The Edge when their clients want break from the venue they have been at for few days.”
The increasing frequency of larger multi-day conferences spreading across several venues for variation is also noted at Westpac Stadium, along with the demand for more interactive events and team building. “As venue managers we are responding by identifying these patterns and tailoring packages to suit. flexible, nothing-is-impossible approach works well in this changing environment,” says Kate Fleming.
At Wellington’s James Cook Hotel Grand Chancellor, general manager John Primmer says communication is the key to any successful meeting or function. “We ensure that from the initial enquiry stage we react in timely manner, and that flexibility is shown throughout the process through to completion.”
Scenic Circle Hotels has made major commitment to client communication, and the conference market as whole, by establishing “one stop shop” national conference coordinator, complete with 0800 number. Group sales and marketing manager Steve Shearer says the system is working well.
“This provides us with central reservation service where dedicated person provides consistent approach throughout the country. It means the client doesn’t have to shop around all Scenic Circle hotels. Our coordinator can find what their needs are and match them to the right venue. The coordinator can go into our system and bring up the availability of meeting rooms in all our hotels at any one time. She will streamline the process and pass files over to the hotel only when the client is comfortable all the plans are in place.”
Shearer says the system also gives the ability to respond quickly to conference managers who are tending to book at much shorter notice. “We aim to follow up all conference enquiries within one working day.”

Outsourcing
While the Scenic Circle is constantly developing new technology systems, Shearer says the hotel group also works with third party partners. “For technology in venues we offer basic equipment. We don’t purchase lot as it will change from one year to the next so we offer the full range through third party rentals.”
Richard Jeffery also stresses the importance of partnership agreements with other providers. “It’s not just about service contracts, all our partners must be flexible to our clients’ requirements. For example, we use Multi-Media Systems, and for food and beverage we work with Austin’s Food and Design Events. When it comes to food and beverage we find the market is buying up,” he adds.
“In the old days they would settle for $25, ‘eat as much as you can’ type buffet, now they want restaurant experience. People are positioning themselves in the market place and that’s reflected in what they require from their conference.”
Kathy Guy also believes in outsourcing the more technical and leisure-based activities by using reputable companies within the region. “The client is still maintaining high level of professionalism and often seeing the same company used throughout different venues which gives them confidence in the product.”

Evaluation
In such competitive environment, evaluation is critical to maintaining quality of service and keeping pace with customer demands, says Guy. “By evaluating our customer needs and gaining information on what

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