'The first thing we're going to do is get Ken Livingstone to keep the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (Mice) issue at the top of his agenda,' says London Convention Bureau head Mady Keup. The London Tourist Board & Convention Bureau (LTB), inward investment agency London First and the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry, has produced a report outlining the ways in which it would like the capital's new mayor to champion the city overseas. And Keup is keen that Ken doesn't forget to plug London's exhibition centres.
He'd be wise not to forget them, given the massive contribution exhibition centres make to the capital's economy. OK so maybe not as many people come to the capital to visit Earls Court than come to see the Queen, but the amount of money exhibition visitors spend when they get here by far eclipses that of the average holiday-maker. In fact visitors to exhibitions spend about 2.5 times more a day (about pounds 192 per day compared with pounds 75, according to Keup), although the holiday-maker's average stay is generally longer. Ways in which the mayor will be used to attract more cash-rich visitors (as well as international shows and exhibitors of course) to London have not been finalised, but Keup says suggestions which have been put to him include signing letters of welcome, meetings with exhibition organisers and perhaps delivering speeches at some events. 'It's wonderful for them to know the whole town of London will welcome them,' says Keup, who points out that such ambassadorial tasks are high on the lists of city mayors on the Continent.
But the exploitation (in the best possible way) of the mayor is just one part of the LTB's PR work on behalf of London's venues. It also produces 20,000 copies of its Convention & Exhibition Directory each year which is distributed to all its main markets (UK, US, France, Germany and Nordic countries), the British Tourist Association also distributes it and the LTB takes it to all the industry's major exhibitions, such as Confex and EIBTM. On top of that an on-line venues directory and exhibition calendar are on the way - the latter is available via an email or fax-back service - and any business leads generated through its international agents are passed on to the venues.
London's eagerly awaited mega-venue Excel has already benefited from such leads, says its director of customer service and sales Carolyn Hurley. 'They have put a couple of people on to us who are prospects,' she says, 'They've been hugely supportive.' Keup returns the compliment. She says Excel's tireless PR activity at home and abroad has helped to put London on the map as a premier international exhibition destination. 'Excel is doing a huge amount to raise the awareness of London,' Keup says, 'And they're not just looking to gain market share from other venues, they're going out to create new business.'
Indeed, Excel claims it has brought at least two international shows to London which would never have considered coming to the UK until the Docklands site was built. CPHI and FIE (pharmaceutical ingredients and food ingredients shows), both organised by Miller Freeman Holland, are 'peripatetic' exhibitions, meaning they are staged on a rolling basis in various centres on the Continent. But as they require a floor space of 50,000sqm, coming to London wasn't an option before.
Saving international shows
Hurley anticipates that by working with UK-based exhibition organisers in this way Excel can bring in a lot of new business. She also claims to have saved one international show from leaving UK shores altogether.
PTI Spearhead's Oceanology show, which has an 'almost entirely international' visitor base, was considering a move to Cannes having outgrown its home at Brighton. As it has such a high number of overseas visitors, the main concern of the organisers was that it was staged in a centre with plentiful hotel accommodation, and it was convinced that the hotel development at Excel would fulfil its needs.
That's not to say that Excel is the only venue capable of pulling in large visitor numbers and shows from abroad. Earls Court and Olympia (ECO) are well established on the international scene and group chief executive Andrew Morris believes that in spite of the competition from the Docklands centre, Earls Court 'is regarded as the best known London venue'. ECO represents London as a member of the European Major Exhibition Centres Association (EMECA) and benefits from international leads and introductions. Morris cites a couple of examples of events staged at his centres with a high international content, namely UITP (an international transport conference) and the World Travel Market.
Besides he reckons that London couldn't support too many big exhibition centres as there simply aren't that many big shows to go around. 'It would not be viable to create a mega centre which will only be occupied infrequently by huge events,' Morris says. LTB's Keup agrees. While she's very impressed with the huge show venues on the Continent, such as the formidable German Messen, she's not sure if they react as well to emerging trends. 'Niche events, and offshoots of larger events, are developing very well here,' she adds.
Wembley Convention Centre seems to be picking up on this trend. The centre's director of sales and marketing, Peter Tudor, admits his venue doesn't tend to be considered for big international shows per se, but says it has done very well with its niche 'nationality shows'. The north London centre has already staged Asia Live and Arabian Expo and is working on a Nigerian show.
It's hard to imagine a mighty Messe showing such flexibility but then, why should it? With state funding it doesn't matter if the Messen lie dormant for half the year, but UK venues need to be commercially viable and this flexibility is a matter of survival rather than just a chance to demonstrate some innovative spirit. Exhibitions Venues Association (EVA) research officer Bill Richards says occupancy in German venues is 'a quarter or less than UK venues'. Additionally, because of strong state support German Messen will often have international sales offices to help bring shows and visitors to their country, a luxury not often enjoyed by many UK centres. 'I couldn't fund an office in Berlin, much as I'd like to,' says Wembley's Tudor.
More can be done
While no one expects this level of state support for UK venues, there is a general feeling that more could be done. The DTI supports a web site (administered by EVA and the Association of Exhibition Organisers) which lists all UK exhibitions, but there's little support for UK firms wishing to exhibit at UK shows. This causes a huge amount of frustration, particularly as there's a great deal of encouragement for firms to exhibit abroad. According to EVA, which hosted a seminar at the House of Commons on the subject in June, the government offers pounds 22m of support for UK firms to attend overseas shows but gives just pounds 750,000 to those wishing to exhibit here. While the desire to encourage UK firms to build up a healthy export business is generally applauded, many venue owners feel that the split in funding is disproportionate and favours foreign venues.
More preferable to UK venues would be to encourage more international visitors to attend shows here, enabling UK firms to earn their foreign currency without having to leave the country. EVA's Richards believes part of the reason behind this disproportionate funding is simply down to old-fashioned thinking. 'We cannot say 'we don't want those dreadful foreigners coming here and selling their awful products to us' any more,' he says. 'And besides, overseas visitors spend money when they get here.'
'What we need is support to exhibit at home and abroad,' says Excel's Hurley. 'For markets such as the Far East and Eastern Europe it's a lot harder to get people with budgets to come to London.'
What the outcome of the seminar will be remains to be seen, but EVA's Richards says it is vital to keep up the pressure. A report on the seminar has been drafted and the next step is to discuss it further and see what action needs to be taken. But the results won't happen over night. 'It's more of a softly, softly approach to keep the momentum going. The results could take two or three years. It's very difficult to demonstrate results as they osmose rather than just happen,' Richards explains.
Part of the reason that some overseas visitors are reluctant to come to London is that they believe it's incredibly expensive, a myth which Hurley and ECO's Morris are keen to explode. 'I've been to exhibitions in other countries and I've never come away thinking 'gosh that was cheap',' says Hurley. She believes London prices compare well with Milan, Paris and New York. 'In fact, Paris is very expensive for taxis. And although it's cheaper you wouldn't travel on the underground in New York if you could avoid it.'
ECO's Morris concurs. He believes that while London's hotels and restaurants aren't cheap they're generally good quality 'and the diversity is superb'. 'The position London now holds justifies the prices,' argues Morris. He is doubtful that tales of high prices would put too many people off, at least not many business travellers. 'Maybe a few backpackers won't come,' he says.
The latest figures from hotel booking agency Expotel bear out the view that the UK capital is not vastly overpriced, particularly when you consider that the pound is so strong which makes overseas hotels even cheaper by comparison. The average price for a Parisian hotel in 2000 is pounds 132 (FFr1,414) per night, New York is pounds 188 (dollars 283), Frankfurt is pounds 103 (DM329), and Rome is pounds 158 (IL500,500), while visitors to London can expect to pay pounds 107 for a three-star hotel, pounds 181 for four-star and pounds 296 for five-star. When you consider that the average business visitor only spends a couple of nights in London, the savings they would make by going to a different major city instead would be negligible.
Despite being 'expensive' and despite the lack of government support for its venues, most people believe that London sells itself, and now more than ever before there's a real buzz about the capital because of the amount of new attractions it has to offer.
'Think of the Tate Modern, the London Eye, the Dome, that magnificent Millennium Bridge. London's been rejuvenated in a big way,' says Excel's Hurley. And although she's bound to plug the Docklands area, which until recently has been considered the equivalent of Siberia to Londoners, it's difficult not to get carried away by her enthusiasm for it. 'Look at our design, it's nothing like the German halls and we're on a beautiful dockside,' she says, adding that she thinks the Canary Wharf development puts Paris's high-tech quarter La Defense 'in the shade'. Given that Hurley considers herself 'an honorary Parisian' that's praise indeed.
EVA's Richards is somewhat less overwhelmed by the new developments. 'It's fine unless you go to the London Eye and get killed by fumes from an ice-cream van,' he says. He's joking of course, but the point that the sprawling metropolis that is London is not every one's cup of tea is a valid one.
Fortunately, ECO's Morris is no less enthusiastic than Hurley about the capital and he too believes the new attractions, which he feels present a more modern image of the capital, will help to bring in more business travellers as well as tourists.
'London's had a buzz for five years or more but it continues to build,' Morris says. 'London needs to keep reinventing itself and it's proved that it can.'
LONDON''S BUSINESS TOURIST VS THE HOLIDAY-MAKER
Business and conference Holiday
Visits (millions) 2.73 6.21
Nights (millions) 12.7 34.3
Total spend (pounds m) 2,076.7 2,473.1