Despite the uncertainty around Brexit, the UK conference industry is showing positive signs of growth.
Lead times are lengthening and delegate numbers are increasing, but according to those in the know, attendees are also becoming more demanding.
We asked seven event professionals (agency, independent and in-house venue planners) about the conference trends impacting their events right now and what they expect in 2017…
- Paul Girdler, Project Director, Ignition DG
“Using technology to enhance delegate engagement and therefore the value of the event is a trend we expect to see continue into 2017.
“Our clients, many of whom are from the pharmaceutical sector, are increasingly looking to make events more interactive and offer attendees the opportunity to actively partake in, as well as listen to a presentation. Providing an interactive experience engages delegates more and therefore aids memory and learning: information is absorbed better if you have to do something with it.
“As an example, we recently created a specific platform for a session that enabled delegates to log-in on their phones, joining a forum situation that everyone could see and respond to. They could ask open questions, generate a topic discussion, and get real-time answers from the expert panel. We see people engage more when they feel they can provide input.
“Moving forwards, we’re also seeing congress organisers creating sophisticated, user-friendly apps that represent the event and enable sponsors to get involved by promoting sessions. This also taps into the desire to move away from literature and printing to an electronic and ultimately paperless event – easier said than done in the world of conferences!
“2017 will be about embracing interactivity, something that brings delegates in and makes the conference format more of a two-way process, and which will also see a lot more apps and electronic formats accessed through phones.”
- Catherine Godsland, Managing Director, Out There Events
“Over the past year, we have focused on diversifying our conferences by providing imaginative breakout sessions, creative exhibitor zones and even chill out areas with a masseuse!
“Personalisation through catering was a big trend for us in 2016, by enhancing the client brand with the delegate’s preferences in mind, it helped to transform the event and create a lasting impression. We have an upcoming event where we’re supplying branded fortune cookies with personalised messages inside for a Chinese New Year themed launch event.
“2017 is the year for heightened technology breakthrough. Live streaming is the buzzword in the industry this year. It’s all about content creation, we think the growing popularity of Facebook and Instagram Live will allow event organisers to create content for conferences in a more accessible and immersive way.
“We are currently working with one of our clients to create a bespoke app for their annual event, this platform is a fun and effective way of engaging delegates before, during or after the event, ensuring that they can make the most of the content available.”
- Rebecca Hurley, Events Marketing Manager, BMA House
“At BMA House, we have seen a continual rise in attendee numbers at conferences, with event planners requesting our larger spaces along with additional breakout rooms. This demonstrates a confidence in the industry; despite any economic uncertainty, events are still taking place and will continue to grow in 2017.
“Healthy eating is still very much on trend. Delegates seek healthier and lighter lunches as well as more creative options; they are no longer satisfied with a simple sandwich but crave delicious, varied food. We have introduced a ‘carb free’ lunch which is very popular.
“When it comes to coffee, we discovered that delegates have different morning and afternoon coffee preferences; they crave a strong coffee kick in the morning but a more mellow flavour in the afternoon. Our taste tests have helped us perfect the blends we now offer for conferences.”
“Along with the use of social media during events, video and teleconferencing is on the rise, with many seeing the benefits of saving on travel costs and time. We have met this demand by updating the video and teleconference facilities in our rooms. Millennial conferencing people crave convenience and fluidity in all aspects of their life. Venues must continue to listen and be one step ahead to help meet their demands.”
- Kate Fairlie, Head of Events, BIG Partnership
“There are a number of trends I have noticed recently, the first being a change in the way delegates interact with speakers. The introduction and adoption of technology allows for event organisers to start the conversation before the event takes place, and continue it long after the conference has concluded.
“Developments like in-event digital voting technologies, exclusive event apps or dedicated handles and hashtags on social media all help prolong the discussion and are making a difference to the overall experience for attendees.
“Another notable trend is the use of unique venues and themes. While conferences have traditionally taken place in a more professional environment, organisers are looking for options out of the ordinary. We’ve run events in railway stations, on building sites and in themed museums and have organised whisky exhibition trails, astronaut speakers and video invitations for clients. With delegates typically attending lots of events throughout the year, ensuring your conference stands out is key.
“Finally, tracking return on investment will continue to be an important factor. Reporting on the event and its success is crucial to justifying a client’s marketing spend and something that will be fundamental as budgets become further stretched and scrutinised.”
- Mark Spivey, Director of International Sales, Maritim Hotels
“Planners increasingly expect something unique and innovative to help their event stand out. Likewise, delegates now expect the event to be tailored to them in some way – a one-size-fits-all approach does not cut it.
“From the communication, the content, through to accommodation and F&B, attendees are keen to create their own experience of an event to ensure it meets their requirements. A personal note or gift from the venue to welcome the delegate for example, or additional services so they can plan their downtime in a way that’s unique to them – restaurant recommendations and reservations for example.
“A commitment to encouraging attendees to reuse and recycle helps to tap into the rising passion for conserving natural resources and protecting the environment. Whether using recycled produce, working with local producers, donating unused products to local charities, it’s now increasingly rare for a large meeting or event to take place without environmental considerations and affiliation to a good cause.
“It’s the next generation of delegates (under 35s) spearheading this, meaning that green meetings are on the rise. Event planners are more likely than ever to rethink, reduce, reuse and recycle – and venues need to ensure there are green meeting options to allow them to do this.”
- Janet Murray, Founder, Soulful PR
“I organised 16 events last year and have a similar number planned this year. In fact, my latest blog post is about how much it costs to put on my events.
“One trend I’m noticing is how much before and aftercare event delegates seem to need. People don’t just want to turn up and do a day’s training anymore – they want to build a relationship – one that starts way before the day of the event.
“Increasingly, they want to build that relationship via video. We send video ‘thank-yous’ to conference delegates when they book onto an event and afterwards. We’ve also introduced live pre-event briefings (using video conferencing) so delegates can get to know each other before an event and ask any questions they might have – from how to find the venue to what they’re going to learn on the day – which have proved really popular.
“For some events, we’ve introduced live follow-up calls which are popular too. It does mean putting in more work, but it leads to far more repeat business. Around 10% of our conference delegates book onto another event on the day.”
- Lizzie Gaskin, Director, Right Angle Events
“2016 saw the progression of conference delegates streaming live events using software such as Facebook Live. Drone livestreaming is an area that is set to be big in 2017 and was first introduced by Mark Zuckerberg in May last year when he demonstrated a drone flying and live streaming the video in real time on Facebook live.
“Although the implications of Brexit within the events industry will be uncertain for the next two years, as the pounds weakens it is expected that there will be more interest from overseas with the UK becoming a more affordable destination for international conferences. This will be a great opportunity for many event professionals to expand into a wider international market.
“Finally, for many years, hotels have been the popular choice for conferences, but new trends in corporate planning are seeing people searching for more unique and unusual venues.”
- Judith Sloane, Deputy Manager, Meet Cambridge
“There’s been a huge rise in AV equipment requests, with people using tools such as voting keypads, WebEx streaming, photo booths and videos, apps, touchable tech and gamification.
“Corporates increasingly expect more in terms of added value. As the pound weakens, we expect to see even more interest from overseas with the UK becoming a more affordable destination but as inflation rises and the economy takes a downturn, budgets for events domestically will be tighter.
“Our venues are concerned that inflation may cause significant increases in food prices which will start to impact on profit margins. Creative catering options will be needed, whether it’s street food, healthy eating and even detox juices – and food miles and provenance will continue to feature too.
“The Airbnb trend is impacting conferences, with group reservations being replaced by delegates booking and paying for their own accommodation.”
- Zoe Stubbings, Conference Manager, Jesus College Cambridge
“During 2016 we noticed an increase in two or three day conferences, rather than one-day events and more formal dinners, a welcome sign of larger budgets and people keen to impress delegates with conference dinners in attractive traditional dining rooms.
“We have seen a continuing trend for sustainable dining and sourcing of food. This year we changed our breakfast menus – moving away from a traditional cooked breakfast in favour of pastries, muesli, granola, fresh fruits, yoghurts and porridge with a freshly cooked hot item of the day – which has gone down really well with our conference and B&B guests!
“Looking ahead, we have taken bookings for two or three-week events in our new West Court development which is a great indication that the events industry is growing stronger.
“We are continuing to review our refreshments to stay ahead of trends and even considering self-service stations so people can graze throughout the day rather than having set break-times.
“In terms of technology, our new state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities in West Court will provide opportunities for international engagement and will completely change how events are attended and communicated. The world is getting smaller by the day!”
Business looks buoyant for conference organisers (and venues) in 2017, but to keep delegates happy they’ll need to deliver a more personalised, engaging experience than ever before.
Meanwhile, top quality food and drink, the latest tech and inspiring locations will become more important to stand out from the crowd.
Have you noticed any other trends affecting the conferences you organise or attend? Share your insight!