Busy days for Europe's conference towns

Geoffrey Smith

European Federation of Conference Towns

Thirty-two years ago a group of European mayors and tourist officials met in Brussels and founded the European Federation of Conference Towns; today it's a thriving organisation, with members, mostly convention bureaux and centres, in 30 countries.

They come from every sort of community, small and large, city or countryside, public or private sector. There's hardly a town that doesn't nowadays strive to be a popular meeting place. Conferences, once regarded by hoteliers as useful in the slack season, are now major profit centres; City Halls are realising that bringing a convention into town can channel profit widely. And most beneficiaries are voters... An American mayor once remarked that when a conference comes into town it's as if an airplane flew overhead dropping dollar bills on the whole community; today many European and Asian mayors agree.

Destination management

Travel agents around the world see this as a highly interesting market sector, with characteristics all its own. Some have set up a DMC (Destination Management Company) offshoot to provide the special experience it demands, working hand in hand with hotels, convention bureaux, congress centres, airlines and others.

Nobody knows what the conference business is really worth, but in the US it's estimated at around $80 billion yearly; the rest of the world could be even more. Not all meetings go into hotels. There's a remarkable growth of purpose-built congress centres across Europe. Most come from public funds, and are regarded as loss leaders, because there are few that can truly record a profit. The investment continues, because the delegates they bring are perhaps the last of the big spenders. They have extra value too, because a major international meeting can turn the spotlight on the host city as, for instance, in Maastricht and Geneva. And visiting professional people provide the opportunity for local counterparts to meet and increase the learning process on both sides.

Two types of conference

There are two main sorts of meetings, corporate and association, each breaking down into many sub sections - local, national, international, etc - all are fought over by rival destinations and suppliers in one of the most competitive sectors of the travel business.

EFCT's member towns are in the thick of this, and their Federation is active in promoting new opportunities. Its services include promotion, publicity, marketing, education, networking, publications, lobbying and exhibitions. EFCT has been, for instance, a prominent exhibitor at the two big European trade shows, Confex every February in London, and EIBTM (the European Incentive and Business Travel and Meetings Show) in Geneva each May.

The Federation runs small shows itself; the other day an ECM, European Conference Mart, took place in the Brussels SAS Radisson Hotel, attended by 100 Brussels-based congress organisers and buyers, joined by 20 EFCT member towns in an exchange of information that brought several immediate bookings. There have been some bad years, although the conference sector is to come extent screened from the worst of recession. But 1995 and the first half of this year continued the recovery process; according to EFCT's annual Report on Europe, the industry is steadily moving towards normalcy - though there's room for argument as to what that now means.

Many new centres

Europe, where the congress business all started (in Vienna in 1815, the Austrians insist) reports a general upturn. New EFCT destinations such as Bratislava (Slovakia), Leeuwarden (Netherlands), Istanbul and Anatalya (Turkey) and Riga (Latvia) are developing facilities and expanding their specialised knowhow to invite meeting planners and organisers.

Facilities continue to emerge. In July, HM The Queen opened the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, a state-of-the-art facility which the Scottish capital, long a popular convention city lacking only a centre, might well have built 20 years ago.

Dublin, also lacking an essential hall, is at last to build one. London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, government-built and opened in 1986, quickly became the capital city's flagship. In June, Istanbul's International Conference Centre opened with the 25,000 attendee, UN-sponsored, Habitat II Congress.

All over Europe, the story is similar. Lille's Eurocentre is bringing new life into the city. Berlin's vast ICC, opposed for years as uneconomic, is now one of the city's biggest assets. In Rotterdam, the de Doelen Centre is doubling in size. In Turin, the old Fiat plant has become one of Europe's finest centres.

It's the same elsewhere. Hong Kong's Conference and Exhibition Centre is working round the clock to complete a huge extension right into Victoria Harbour, in time for the Chinese take-over, and an anticipated great leap forward in conventions.

In Australia, Melbourne and Sydney have spent millions on new facilities, and so has Brisbane; another centre opened in Cairns during July. Down south in Natal, Durban's International Centre opens in 1998, South Africa's first, but by no means its last. Some staff are graduates of EFCT's popular Summer Schools; this year's is in Nice, at the end of August.

Watching the Community

Back in the Old World, EFCT has pioneered a Liaison Office in Brussels to scrutinise European Union legislation which might affect congress development.

For instance, a Bill to control pharmaceutical promotion nearly torpedoed Europe's medical meetings programme, a highly important sector of the conference industry, by obstructing drug company funding - without which they'd hardly happen.

Ardent lobbying averted the threat; but more problems came in the still unresolved Distance Selling Bill, which could have affected pre-payment for travel, hotels, meeting room rental, professional organiser hire, etc; fortunately, industry lobbyists forced a rethink. Latest drafts have problem areas, but the main threat seems averted.

EFCT's EU lobby has been joined by several other congress bodies, to become EMILG, the European Meetings Industry Liaison Group, dedicated to a watchdog role towards Brussels legislation, and a pressure group to achieve, inter alia, acceptance by the European Community of tourism (of which conferences are a part) as an EU competency.

It's long overdue. Tourism was never in the Treaty of Rome, nor the Maastricht Treaty; so Europe's biggest single industry, with the greatest job potential and GDP, is something on which the EU cannot have a serious policy, or provide appropriate support.

The hope is to rectify this during the current EU Intergovernmental Conference, currently in Dublin.

However, several member states, including the UK and Germany, oppose any Brussels interest in tourism; so while the European Parliament has voted in favour, it seems unlikely that the change will be accomplished just yet.

A lot is happening in the meetings market, and travel agents are increasingly active. EFCT welcomes enquiries and offers some useful publications on request to BP 182, 1050 Brussels. Fax: 322 735 48 40. E-mail, EFCT@pophost.eunet.be

Geoffrey Smith writes extensively on business travel