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September 19, 2006

Conferences on the increase, but companies tighten belts

The number of conferences held in the UK last year rose 8%, according to the British Conference Venues Survey published yesterday by the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD). However, the research reports a 12% decline in the overall estimated value of the sector from £11.7 billion in 2004 to £10.3 billion in 2005.

The report puts the reason for this anomaly down to a drop not only in the number of residential conferences that took place in the UK last year, but also a slight decrease in their length, as well as an overall fall in the size of these events.
Following several years of uninterrupted growth in value, the reported downturn has given the BACD cause for concern, claiming that this could be the beginning of a decline across the conference industry. However, surely this is more a sign of increased organisational efficiency and prudence on the part of the companies that are holding the events.

Residential conferences certainly have their value, but perhaps more companies are realising that in certain circumstances they may not be necessary, and that by holding day-long events they can save money and their employees’ time spent away from the workplace.

Rather than companies using conferences more wisely, BACD chief executive Tony Rogers put the statistics down to cultural changes in society. “Ongoing advances in technology and the resulting behavioural changes have created a generation of young people who are more comfortable with remote communication than their parents,” he said. “The rise of faceless communication (email, text messaging, etc) could lead to the demise of the conference industry as we know it.”

If this is the case, then there is little the conference industry can do about it, except continue to sell the benefits of residential events, while offering more one-day, smaller scale facilities to satisfy demand. However, it’s more likely to be an economic response and a sign that companies are becoming increasingly skilled at more efficiently tailoring events to their needs.

Following his initial hysteria, Rogers did come down to earth citing time and money as a factor in the drop in conference spend.

“The fact that most of society is now ‘time poor’ is influencing delegate behaviour, while the influence of corporate procurement departments is driving down organiser spend,” he said, adding: “These two factors could equate to the traditional conference facing a radical and irrevocable change.”

Despite Rogers’ pessimism, the report states that venues themselves continue to be optimistic about their future prospects – the majority anticipated 2006 business levels to be higher than in 2005.
Another interesting finding of the survey was that hotels, universities and other academic venues, and conference/training venues typically hosted more conferences than other kinds of venues. Also the average conference duration was 1.7 days, although 58% of events lasted a day or less. Meanwhile, peak periods were reported to be during the autumn months of September, October and November, with spring following closely behind. This would seem to indicate that companies could cut back on their conference spend even further if they held their corporate events during the winter and summer months.

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