Emily King asks how seaside destinations plan to float the conference boat in 2016
Seaside destinations, for many years, used to be not only the go-to for UK family holidays but also the number one favoured conference destination by organisers and delegates alike.
However, in recent years, meeting beside the sea became less appealing to many organisers and booking agents, due to the perception of such destinations as being too leisure oriented and ‘fun’ for delegates who were there to work and for organisers keen to produce ROI metrics.
We look here at some seaside events powerhouse destinations that have been working hard to keep up appearances. No ‘kiss me quick’ solutions but rather investment in a reinvention of the seaside meetings genre.
In 2015, Bournemouth was voted the UK’s best coastal resort in the British Travel Awards, and the town is claiming to be the fastest growing digital economy in the UK.
The town is currently the subject of serious public and private infrastructure investment. More than £220m is being spent on transport improvements, commercial and residential development, shopping and entertainment, including a new Hilton and Hampton by Hilton Hotel.
The Bournemouth International Centre (pictured overleaf), part of the BH Live trust, has reported that its main challenge when it came to attracting organisers through 2015 was the fact that “it is well known that delegates will often comment on the food and service as it is an important feature of their overall conference experience”.
Therefore BIC has been working to produce grab-and-go food boxes for delegates to take to workshops. The venue managers say: “The food is just as good, but the organisers need less space to provide it and the delegates are able to use their time more productively.”
When it comes to 2016, the BIC is working closely with the wider agency Business Events Bournemouth to develop packages and give organisers added value.
There has been investment in new venue furniture, IT development, in-house technology and stage production, digital marketing, photography, online virtual tours, collateral, and partnerships.
John Bryant, from the Royal College of Nursing, says: “After our congress in June, I now understand why people like us have events here. It’s a lovely place with a great atmosphere. Our delegates pick that up right away. They feel good and positive, and that brings positive conference outcomes to take forward.
Jonny Edser, MD at Wildgoose, sounds a general warning, however, for those considering a meeting by the sea: “The downside is that some seaside locations can be hard to get to as they are not always near major cities or transport links, so travelling to the location can sometimes be challenging.”
Southport, on the North West ‘golf coast’, has a proud resort tradition and now boasts a fully refurbished conference centre, the Southport Theatre & Convention Centre (STCC). It boasts a 1,600-seat theatre, the Floral Hall which can seat up to 700 for a banquet, offers 750sqm of exhibition space and other breakout rooms and suites.
Additionally, there are several hotels within walking distance of the STCC, including the Ramada Plaza that adjoins it.
One of the biggest challenges Southport has had is that buyers are often reluctant to commit to familiarisation trips, meaning that they make a decision on where to hold their conference without a site visit.
Steve Christian, destination development manager for Southport Town Hall, says: “A lack of site visits is a disSouthport has had £40m invested into it over the last few years and 2016 will see two more hotels undergoing refurbishment.
The Business Improvement District (BID) has also invested substantially to improve the town centre experience for delegates. This includes welcome banners, hanging baskets and floral displays, as well as enhancements to the street scene in general.
The picturesque Lord Street, after all, has always been a jewel in the town’s crown, including for royalty.
Recent research commissioned by Southport indicated that coastal destinations were the most likely for prompting business extensions, beating cities and countryside destinations.
Jacqui Kavanagh, managing director of Trinity Event Solutions, commented: “Out of the leisure season, the value for money of coastal destinations can be excellent. We like to propose something that the client hasn’t thought of, so we might include a coastal property alongside city venues as a wildcard”.
Blackpool, once the UK’s biggest tourist resort draw, has venues that can cater from 2,000 to 5,000 delegates.
The Blackpool Tower Circus can host up to 1,300 people and is good now for larger events or product launches. The Blackpool Tower Ballroom can seat up to 750 people for smaller events such as awards ceremonies.
VisitBlackpool is keen to play the resort’s strong card of entertainment back up and infrastructure: “Whatever your preference Blackpool has a wide range of excellent eating and drinking establishments so expect to be spoilt for choice.”
Blackpool recently launched a Blackpool Ambassador Programme that aims to ‘Bring Business Back to Blackpool’. The team of Ambassadors is lined up to support bids to being events to the resort by giving advice on how events could work best in Blackpool, as well as helping promote the bids themselves.
VisitBlackpool’s team adds: “Blackpool’s traditional conference offer has changed and we need to show you how Blackpool is now ready for the traveller of the 21st century, with a host of unique venues unlike anywhere else in the country. We can be sure you’ll find something to fit the bill.”
More of Blackpool’s unique venues include The Winter Gardens, Stanley Park, and Royal Lytham and St Anne’s Golf Club.
With a wealth of conference facilities on offer Brighton can host up to 5,000 conference delegates in town. Larger conference facilities include the Brighton Centre, the Hilton Brighton Metropole, The Grand, and the Brighton Dome.
Julia Gallagher, head of sales for VisitBrighton, says of the challenges Brighton faced in 2015: “The industry as a whole has seen lead times diminish over the past few years. So one of our primary challenges has been finding venue space in the city for new short lead enquiries, as business is so buoyant and venue diaries are jam-packed!”
Brighton has put in place substantial changes for 2016. Opening this June, is The British Airways i360, which VisitBrighton claim will be the world’s first vertical cable car and the world’s tallest moving observation tower, designed by the London Eye architects.
The Waterfront Hotel has been taken over by hotel investment group Amaris Hospitality and will undergo a £5.6m refurbishment in coming months.
InterContinental Hotels Group has also signed its first Hotel Indigo in Brighton. The new hotel will be located close to the railway station.
Like the other destinations mentioned, Brighton sees being beside the sea as a “huge asset when it comes to securing conferences” and the bureau claims that organisers report a 15% increase in delegate numbers when they come to Brighton.
The ongoing challenge, as often reported, is the council’s ability to fully invest the kind of sums needed to take the conference facilitiies to the next level.
Of course, many other seaside destinations are playing the conference game and a reinvigorated effort in Scarborough, is once again promoting the old North Yorkshire duchess for events. The North Wales coast also remains popular. But many old seaside venues still require millions more spent to bring them into the top tier for meetings.