Wyboston Lakes director of business development, Brian Payton and Operations Director Barry Stoneham have just returned from a fact-finding tour of Conference Centres in Virginia, USA. The annual study tour was organised by the International Association of Conference Centres, and identified some interesting trends emerging in conference venues. Commented Brian Payton. “We noticed a number of differences from my last visit to the USA. Conference centres are definitely moving closer to hotels in terms of service and products although there are still many subtle differences. For example, their complete meetings packages are just that. The customer still gets a complete meeting package with everything included, whereas hotels still charge for everything outside their standard package.
Pricing also appears to be lower, but service and standards are noticeably higher. Competition is still very fierce and sales people have learned to be more aggressive, pursuing customer relationships vigorously.
Unlike the UK, conference centres in the USA have problems filling their centres at the weekends and have now resorted to taking wedding and party bookings. There is also a huge increase in the amount of weekend religious and education based events and this trend has begun to migrate to the UK.
The natural showmanship of the Americans was in evidence at every venue. In one centre when a group leaves, the whole staff line up as a guard of honour to wish them a safe journey. Every centre either gave or left a small gift in the room and group leaders received a special pin denoting their status to the staff. They were also allocated the best rooms with bowls of fruit and bottles of wine as extra gifts and received even better service as benefits their importance as influencers for future business.
Currently in the USA there is no official benchmark or classification table for conference centres, but they have started their own. The image is the diamond and then the different additions, ie 4 Diamonds denotes better service etc than 3 diamonds. It will be interesting to see whether all centres throughout the USA adopt this.
Once again staff empowerment was visible at every centre. Staff meetings are held weekly at which members of each department are invited to tell the group three things they were proud of during the previous week. All staff, from managers to chambermaids are briefed when potentially large clients visit, and they then go out of the way to provide even better service. The Centres shuttle bus driver was the best sales person on the trip.
At one centre, the managers are required to spend time working within each department, ie making beds with the chambermaids; this keeps them constantly in touch with the daily problems or limitations faced by their staff.
Because competition is so great, each centre looks for ways to be different and stand out. At one centre, an ice sculpture of the IAAC logo was placed on each delegate table, which certainly provided the WOW factor!
Little personal touches also made an impact on Brian Payton. “A handwritten note from my chambermaid was placed in the room saying “Dear Brian I know you are a long way from home and thinking of your loved ones, but if I can help make your stay better please contact me…. signed Maisie. ” At another centre I received a golf cap, which had my Christian name on the peak. Both very simple gestures but extremely memorable. “
Surprisingly, technology has not really moved on a great deal but data projectors are now standard equipment and all IT equipment, such as DVD’s and CD players are run through it.
Wi-Fi is very popular but there is still a great deal of confusion as to the difference between Wi-Fi (which is just the marketing brand) and wireless communications. A nice touch at the first centre was the linking into the IAAC website, so that the logo greeted the delegates when they arrived.
On average 10 - 15 showrounds are carried out each week and all staff from chambermaids to chefs are encouraged to take a full and active role. Managers receive special training to get the best from their staff. Internal communications are taken very seriously and staff newsletters (although surprisingly not customer newsletters) are regularly produced.
Added Payton ” These tours are extremely valuable because they allow us to see best practice in action in America, elements of which we can then import to Wyboston to improve our own product offering. I am confident that our products are on a par with those in the States, but they have a greater sense of ownership and involvement at every level. They go to extraordinary lengths to understand their customer’s business and use every opportunity to really sell their centre. They build a real partnership with the customer however much business they provide.
If we could apply those principles to the UK it can only benefit our clients and ultimately our own operations. My overriding memory of the tour was that each and every one of them was proud to be American, proud of their centre and proud of their service ethos - we could certainly learn from them!”