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It’s time for conference venues to raise their game

The conference business is big business. Humans working in organizations have an unending need to meet in their numbers away from their workplaces: for seminars, workshops, roundtables, town halls, celebrations, parties, retreats, jamborees, junkets – or even just regular meetings. Demand is strong, buyers are willing. Sellers should be smiling.

I must have commissioned or attended hundreds of such events over the past couple of decades. Sadly, I have to report that those providing the conference services are more often a let-down than not.

You, too, must have had so many experiences that are simply sub-par. Poorly designed, Ill-equipped conference rooms with malfunctioning equipment. Lacklustre buffets, devoid of personality or flavour. Uninterested staff who show little desire to make your event a success.

Most of these conferences and events are hosted at hotels. And this underachievement is not confined to budget properties; five-star, luxury venues are often just as bad, even though they charge an arm and a leg for their services.

Why does this happen? After years of observation and painful experience, I have concluded the following: poor venues sell conferences as a product; good ones sell them as a set of experiences.

To the average hotel, conferences are just another commodity on offer. You buy a package that contains parking, a seminar room, a meal and some snacks. The room is set up for you; you proceed to hold your gathering; your guests eat; they leave. Period. There is nothing special going on; it’s just another way for the establishment to make revenue. Sell a space and some food and beverages, and it’s done.

An excellent hotel, on the other hand, treats the whole thing as an opportunity to ‘wow’ some influential customers and to turn them into repeat guests. That’s a whole different ball game, requiring deep attention be paid to a number of touchpoints. And every touchpoint counts.

The room that is being provided can be just another space with four walls and a ceiling – or it can be custom-designed for gatherings, with distinctive furnishings, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and flexible lighting. The event decor can consist of throwing some covered tables and chairs together; or it can convey class and personality. The snacks offered can be the usual oily samosas and unimaginative sandwiches – or they can be creative and memorable.

The guards manning the parking areas can be brusque and officious – or they can be warm and welcoming. The event waiters can be overworked and uncaring – or they can be friendly and attentive and ready to serve large numbers with enthusiasm.

It’s a choice you make, in other words. Either you offer a bog-standard product; or you sell memorable experiences that lead to lifetime customers. The former is what everyone does; the latter is what only a precious few can pull off. I am fortunate to have found some long-term partners who take events seriously and pull out all the stops when hosting an event, big or small. But I can probably count those partners on one hand.

Some advice for those doing the conference thing badly. First thing: what are you selling? Not a room. You are helping your clients to succeed. Your job is to sell a gathering that is fruitful and useful to the participants.

And so: pay attention to details. Train and gear up your people to be percipient and vigilant, and to smile with all the guests. Invest in proper equipment and test it often – not on the day of an important event. Design rooms to be fit for purpose, not as all-purpose spaces. Offer unusual outdoor locations, not just stuffy enclosed rooms. Inject some verve and panache.

I don’t know why you would not want to do this right. It’s a continuous income stream that will see you through many a downturn when the tourists dry up and bedroom occupancies fall. But you need to put some effort into it. Where does that effort start? At the top. Those leading the establishment must set standards of hospitality and cultures of service that cannot be breached.

The best conferences I have run or attended are the ones where staff are flexible and willing to bend over backwards to make things work; where the equipment works every time; where the chef delivers some pleasant surprises in the food offerings; where the guests go home having enjoyed themselves and look forward to coming again.

None of that is easy to pull off. It requires continuous training and monitoring. But if you can’t pull it off, why are you in the hospitality business in the first place?

(Sunday Nation, 11 March 2018)

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