Seaside rendezvous

Paul Colston asks whether the tide has turned for meeting by the sea?

With the development of large conference centres in our major cities, seaside destinations have been under increasing pressure. Many councils have woken up to the urgent need to invest as big political conferences moved to big city new-build venues. With regeneration plans in Blackpool, belated investment in Brighton and Scarborough, and Bournemouth, maybe the tide is turning for big meetings by the sea. Trust in Bournemouth
Bournemouth’s International Centre has kept investing and reports 10 big events secured up to 2017 worth £8m to the town. They include the Labour Party’s Annual Conference 2013 and the BIC’s head of Conferences, Exhibitions and Events, Clive Tyers, says: “We are also working towards our new status as a Charitable Trust, alongside Bournemouth’s five leisure centre venues and the Pavilion.” The trust launches next month as BH LIVE (BH is the local postcode).

Rollercoaster ride
When the ‘political’ tide receded, Blackpool turned to the not-for-profit sector, showcasing its events packages at London’s Charities and Associations Exhibition.
Director of marketing at Lancashire and Blackpool Tourist Board, Tony Openshaw, says: “the UK’s Number One beach resort” still has big appeal, albeit the route to secure investment has been like a trip on the Pleasure Beach rollercoaster. Big hotel stock means there is plenty of value to be found for organisers, whom he asks, “to take a fresh look at a regenerated resort”.
Council bosses are bidding to buy Blackpool Tower and the Winter Gardens venue from owners Leisure Parks. Council leader Peter Callow tells CN his officials are “going full tilt” to tie up a £40m deal. 
Bringing the landmark venues into the public sector would mean heritage funding could also be accessed. And heritage there is: The Winter Gardens was opened in 1878, to offer a “pleasant lounge, especially desirous during inclement weather”. Openshaw believes the failed bid to bring a major casino complex to Blackpool acted as a call to arms.
Blackpool has invested in shopping centres and an event space on the promenade. More than £100m is being spent on the seafront tramway. The £220m Talbot Gateway project, if realised, would create a new civic and cultural quarter. 
Tourism chiefs are targeting two million extra visitors this year to the Golden Mile, including 38,000 conference delegates. 
_Sunny times
Eastbourne Conference Bureau reported the busiest ever year in 2009 for the country’s official sunniest place. “Beautiful shoreline, South Downs landscape and miles of award-winning beaches provide a breath of fresh air for any event,” says the council’s cabinet member for tourism Susan Morris.
Investment is more modest than in Blackpool, although the Devonshire Park Centre, has installed Wi-Fi and refurbished the Gold Room. The opening of the Towner Art Gallery for event hire last year has added to the venue offer.
Last year saw the highest number of delegates ever in town, including the Royal British Legion Women’s Section conference with 1,600 delegates.

Alternative proposition
Scarborough may have fallen off some organisers’ radar for the biggest conferences, but a decade of investment has given the once dowdy seaside dowager a makeover. The town has the largest capacity for events in the region: up to 1,900 delegates for conferences.
Council tourism manager, Janet Deacon, says the current strategy is to encourage organisers attracted to the big cities “to alternate between city and coast”.
Scarborough’s conference bureau disappeared a couple of years ago, but a new marketing link up ‘York and Scarborough Conferences’ is to take up the baton this month.
“Venues tell us that organisers are putting on events less frequently and we, therefore, have to ensure we’re generating new business to replace any business lost,” says Deacon.
York and Scarborough Conference’s Kate McMullen says the new target is organisations that have previously looked at overseas European venues.
“There has been a perception that seaside destinations are tired and in need of regeneration,” says Deacon. “Scarborough has won four accolades in the last 18 months due to £24m of public sector investment and £250m from the private sector. This has led not only to investment in hotel stock and the retail offer in the town but also in the delivery of service.”
The Spa Theatre alone is having £6m spent on it and a new 6,500-seater open air theatre opens in July.
Existing venues include the Stephen Joseph Theatre with four event spaces; the Opera House Casino; Scarborough Castle and Whitby Abbey, which provides a gothic backdrop for events.

Southport tees off
Head of Tourism Sefton Council (Southport Conferences) Tony Corfield says: “Resorts are always going to be able to offer an advantage over cities with regards to traffic, parking and less pollution. They are generally a more pleasant place to be.”
As Eastbourne and Brighton play up their London links, so Southport looks to complement its nearest city, the growing conference destination that is Liverpool. 
_“For those that prefer the city, we provide a popular alternative, often in the form of golf and other leisure activities that you cannot do in the city,” says Corfield.
Southport’s £40m Theatre and Convention Centre and new four-star hotels indicate serious intent. A £12m development of the Southport Arts Centre is also planned.
With several championship courses including Royal Birkdale, the town is styling itself as the capital of England’s Golf Coast.

Brighton’s Business Eyes
VisitBrighton recently announced four major conference wins expected to bring £4.6m to the city and 3,000 delegates. They include national accounting and rheumatology associations. The Royal College of Psychiatrists are also signed up for conference this year.
Venue hosts include the Holiday Inn Brighton Seafront, De Vere Grand and Hilton Brighton Metropole.
“These are significant wins, as it shows that our business product matches and reflects the needs of this kind of business,” says VisitBrighton convention bureau manager, Darren Johnson.
“We have the rooms, support services and an outstanding social agenda; delegates want to come to Brighton.”
Seeing Brighton Through Business Eyes is a new campaign to change perception and Johnson does not like the coastal destination label. “We are very much a ‘city by the sea’,” he says. “Brighton does not close down in the winter, it has vibrancy and energy year round.”
Brighton cannot yet boast big new investment, but it seems the council has been shocked into remedial action, finally allocated £1m for a spruce up of The Brighton Centre. Architects have plans for a new centre, as part of a shopping centre and entertainment complex, but that remains dependent on funding.
Johnson acknowledges there have been tough economic times, but sees shoots of recovery based on a strong relationship with the association market. “This is stable business and returning to Brighton.” 
Johnson says the events that work best in Brighton are the ones which have an affinity to the city. “We’re seeing more and more CSR-based events because of our own environmental proposition, and also events that are looking for a more contemporary backdrop.” Myhotel, Jurys Inn, Radisson Blu and Park Inn have all arrived in the past five years.
Johnson says: “The idea of dusty old government meetings in quaint seaside resorts is something we constantly challenge.” He points out that both the Labour and Green Party Conferences in 2009 came to town and the Conservative Spring Forum this year. 
Nevertheless, he understands the need to diversify. “We have achieved a more even split between corporate, association and government bookings, thus reducing the reliance on one sector.”
A wise political move, combined with the rise of the Staycation that could see Britain’s seaside destinations surf a new tide in coming years. 

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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