Association business delegates spend an average of £210 per day and make extensive use of a venue's meeting, exhibition and banqueting facilities.
In the last financial year, association events accounted for almost 18% of the volume of trade generated by Visit London with its partners. But significantly, that 18% made up a third of the revenue. "A lot of association events are longer in duration and larger in scale than the average conference," explains Visit London client services manager, associations, Helen Horsfield - adding that the city has 13 pending bids for international business that could bring in more than £40m.
Reasons to pursue this sector of the market certainly stack up. Besides holding longer and bigger events, trade bodies tend to book a venue well in advance, committing themselves as much as six years ahead. Moreover, international delegates frequently convert to leisure tourists after an event, to the financial benefit of many.
To really get to the bottom of the association market, in the past year Visit London has built up a team responsible for chasing association leads, researching the market and processing bids.
"We are becoming more active within this market. It is a key sector for the city, particularly since the advent of Excel," says Horsfield. Indeed, Vanessa Cotton, managing director of the conferences and events division at the exhibition centre, says that currently about 10% of the venue's revenue is association related, and it is working to build that up.
"Last autumn we set up a specialist sales team to pursue the association market both nationally and internationally and we are starting to see that pay off," says Cotton.
Confirmed events at the Docklands venue include the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons Congress 2006 for 4,000 delegates, which has an allocated 8,000sqm exhibition space and 4,000sqm for plenary sessions. Another 2,500 delegates using 18,000sqm exhibition space, the Platinum Suite and all waterfront rooms will attend The World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in 2006.
The largest association meeting to be held at Excel since its inauguration will be the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Congress 2005.
It anticipates 3,000 delegates and will use 13,000sqm of exhibition space, 6,000sqm of plenary space, the 1,600sqm Platinum Suite and all 30 waterfront rooms.
Within the NEC's overall portfolio of around 160 trade and public shows each year, the number owned by organising companies still outnumber those of associations. However, many of the events feature association involvement as an integral part of the set-up.
Examples of association shows include the MACH/Metalworking show, owned by the Manufacturing Technologies Association, and IPEX, one of the biggest international trade exhibitions. Organised by IIR Exhibitions on behalf of the show owner, Picon, it targets UK manufacturers and suppliers to the printing, publishing, papermaking and paper converting industries.
In April 2006 it will take over halls 1-10 of the NEC and be supported by more than 1,200 suppliers.
ITMA, the international textile machinery show staged every four years, stands as the largest single sector trade show in the world. It came to the NEC in October 2003 and took over the whole venue with a six-week tenancy, including eight open days. It attracted 125,000 visits and featured 1,300 stands.
Although large and lucrative business is certainly coming to the UK, there is no single sure-fire approach to winning over international trade bodies. Visit London employs a number of tactics. Concentrating on potential events for 300-plus delegates, it finds out associations' rotation pattern and whether they are due to visit Europe.
It targets the secretariat of the organisation, in the UK or overseas, and seeks out specialists such as professors or doctors who have a link, if not a key presence, in that organisation. It then works closely with the whole board or the conference committee to try to secure the event for London. Horsfield says: "We get to know the key decision-makers and find out which organisation has the propensity and the fit for our city."
Besides partnering Visit London and Visit Britain, Excel also targets associations directly, primarily through the International Congress and Convention Association database. In addition it works with key intermediaries - professional conference organisers and association managing companies - to attract business to London.
Meanwhile, trade shows such as The Exhibiting Show, IMEX, EIBTM and M&IT provide fruitful networking opportunities. Figures from International Confex confirm their value. The event earlier this year welcomed 7,198 visitors. Of those, 1,561 were from associations, representing 21.7% of the total.
Similarly the National Venue Show, held at the NEC in September, attracted around 125 association buyers to the 2004 event. It targets them through specific personalised mailings in conjunction with the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD). It also works closely with the marketing consortium, Marketing Birmingham.
A National Venue Show spokeswoman says: "This is where our partnerships with BACD and other industry associations are particularly valuable, as they have the most up-to-date data on all the UK's trade associations buyers. The show finds it valuable to encourage the attendance of trade bodies as they tend to move their events around the country in a more democratic way than corporate conference organisers, who are more likely to be held to ransom by fashionable considerations."
Word of mouth can be just as effective, according to Stoneleigh Park sales manager Judith Day. She believes that 90% of big corporate events are organised and sourced by agencies and venue finding companies. "It is a proper selection process so we can advertise proactively and find tenders, but association business tends to come through on a personal level," she says. "We have done a certain amount of tracking and found it is mostly word of mouth. These type of people frequently move around and cross over to different associations; there is a lot of networking and reliance on personal recommendation."
Competition is fierce, as associations look not only at the venue and its flexibility but at access, cost, the diversity of social options and the opportunity for partner programmes - the whole destination package, in fact. "We are aware that association business more than any other is very much a destination sell - many trade bodies choose a destination above a venue for either political or emotive reasons," says Horsfield.
Day says that the British Veterinary Nurses Association (BVNA) returns to Stoneleigh Park year after year for its annual congress because of the venue's centrality and the flexibility of the facilities, which can accommodate an AGM, a conference and a growing exhibition. "In the past four years the exhibition side has grown. There is a definite move to go commercial and make it pay for itself," she says.
The three-day event - with approximately 1,400 delegates, mostly from the UK - comprises a four-tier lecture programme, interactive workshops, plus a commercial exhibition of 100 companies. BVNA office manager Angie Mariconda says it has remained at the same venue for almost two decades because it works: "It is a central Midlands location with Birmingham Airport within reach and there is still room for growth. We now use Hall 1 for the exhibition, which takes up 3,000sqm. Four years ago it used to be in the Warwick hall but outgrew it. We still use the whole Warwick complex, 1,000sqm, for the rest of the event and the Royal Pavilion for workshops."
Stoneleigh Park will also be hosting the annual trade show for NABAS, the association for the balloon and party industry, for the first time this November. It will feature hands-on workshops and an exhibition with the Warwick Hall. The Avon Suite and its adjoining seminar rooms will open up for 34 exhibitors and an anticipated 500-plus visitors.
"We've been at Loughborough University for the past five years but we have outgrown that venue and we want to make the event more high-profile," says NABAS administrator Kate Walker.
Like many venues, Harrogate International Centre secures business by concentrating on the whole package. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) holds one of the largest and most comprehensive conferences in Europe at the Harrogate International Centre for more than 7,000 people management professionals. The flagship event takes place every October and uses the venue's main auditorium, seven hotels for accommodation, along with a 5,000sqm space for the exhibition featuring more than 300 key suppliers - half in one hall with shell scheme stands, the other predominantly self build.
CIPD general manager Lois Whittaker, in charge of all commercial activities, says: "There are very few venues that can take that format. We are quite limited. There are a lot that can accommodate exhibitions, others that can take conferences, but very few can cater for both. We need breakouts, some for as many as 500 people, and we can have seven sessions running at the same time. We need exhibition space with no pillars and an auditorium for 2,000-plus delegates with backstage projection. We also need to put on a full social programme. Harrogate meets what we are looking for."
One of the most salient points about association events is that many are organised by internal parties extra-curricular to their usual duties.
Therefore the venues need to make the event as easy for the client as possible. Choosing one that can cope with integral catering, exhibitions and working sessions means it has a good chance of running smoothly - and that delegates can then concentrate on the content.