Convention and Visitor Bureaux - Tapping the Potential of Business Tourism
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Convention and visitor bureaux, usually partnerships of public and private
sector organisations, play an increasingly vital role in the management and
promotion of conference and business tourism in destinations throughout the
world. Their operational remit, funding structures and effectiveness differ from
one country to another but their potential contribution to a destination, as
American examples demonstrate, can be very significant. In the UK, they are
often hampered by inadequate resources, therefore, new funding solutions,
such as a bed tax, are of prime concern to CVBs.
This article looks at the role of, and key issues facing, the UK's convention and
visitor bureaux (also known as 'conference bureaux' or simply 'convention
bureaux'), set against the background of the business tourism industry and, in
particular, the conference sector. It also analyses in some depth the structures
and activities of CVBs, making comparisons with overseas models. The article
concludes with a summary of major issues and challenges facing CVBs.
Conferences are a segment of the wider business tourism sector, which has a combined
value to the UK economy of some £15 billion a year. An estimated value of its
component parts is as follows:
- conferences and meetings - £6.6 billion
- exhibitions - £1.7 billion
- incentive travel - inbound incentive travel market of £165 million upwards
- corporate hospitality - £700 million
- business (or individual corporate) travel. No reliable estimates of this
segment exist, although Business Tourism Leads the Way suggested that
it was worth over £6 billion per annum in 1998.
According to the International Passenger Survey 2000 (Office for National Statistics), an
estimated 851,000 conference visitors from abroad brought £591 million to the UK.
Revenues from international business tourists are, on a spend-per-day basis, almost
three times as much (£177) as the average for all visitors (£62). The British Tourist
Authority's growth projections to 2010 show that the inbound conference market will
have the strongest growth out of all the business tourism segments.
These figures do not take into account the impact of the events of 11th September
2001. At the time of writing, it is too early to predict exactly what effect these events
will have on business and conference tourism. Initial forecasts by the BTA predict a
reduction of between 10-20% in total tourism earnings (leisure and business tourism)
for the UK in 2001.
Some cancellations and postponements of conferences and
meetings have already been recorded and the hotels and venues dependent on the
long-haul overseas visitor have been particularly affected by the downturn in business.
At the same time, however, some UK venues have picked up business that, in other
circumstances, would have gone overseas.
The broad picture of the conference market emerges from the findings of the British
Conference Market Trends Survey 2000 (published June 2001):
- An estimated 1.3 million conferences and meetings took place in the UK in 2000.
- A quarter of all conferences were residential.
- The average duration of non-residential conferences was 1.4 days, and residential
events 2.6 days.
- Urban/airport hotels staged the highest proportion (63%) of non-residential
conferences, followed by rural hotels (12%) and then educational establishments
- The majority of conferences in 2000 were corporate events (48%), followed by
government/public sector conferences (32%) and association conferences (20%).
- The busiest months for conferences were (in order): September, October and
- Average delegate rates were publicised as £36 for day rates and £143 for 24-
The key issues of major importance to this sector are highlighted by the manifesto,
published in November 2001, of the Business Tourism Partnership (an umbrella body
representing the leading trade associations and UK government agencies committed to
supporting the business tourism sector in the UK):
- The need for the Department of Trade and Industry and Trade Partners UK to
give greater prominence to the benefits of trade development and export
earnings offered by business tourism, and to develop a strategic approach to
- The requirement for greater support by government departments and agencies,
in the UK and overseas, in the bidding process for major international events.
This should include pro-active support by senior ministers, ambassadors, Trade
Consuls and Commercial Attachés.
- Increased funding for the English Tourism Council to enable it to include
business tourism in its full strategic and research agenda, and also to have a
domestic marketing function, which would include the promotion of business
- The need for government and private sector support for London to build a
world-class International Convention Centre, capable of holding in excess of
5,000 delegates, to secure its share of prestigious international association
Many cities and destinations in the UK and around the world have now established a
dedicated marketing organisation for promotion of the conference/business tourism
and leisure tourism sectors. Such organisations typically trade as convention and visitor
bureaux (CVBs), and they serve as the 'official' contact point for their destination.
prime role of a CVB is, to quote Richard Gartrell (Destination Marketing for Convention
and Visitor Bureaux, 1994), to "solicit and service conventions and other related group
business and to engage in visitor promotions which generate overnight stays for a
destination, thereby enhancing and developing the economic fabric of the
The International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaux (IACVB) has 500
bureaux in membership in 30 countries, although these are predominantly located in
North America. The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) has a
category of membership specifically for CVBs: its 2000 survey of CVB members covered
146 members, 40% operating at a local city level, 12% at a regional level and 48% at
a national level.
In the UK, the British Association of Conference Destinations currently
has 88 convention bureau or 'conference desk' members, covering all of the major
CVBs are usually formed and financed as partnerships between public and private
sector bodies. In Britain, this can include public sector organisations, such as local
authorities, regional development agencies and regional/area tourist boards, with the
private sector being represented by hotels, venues, retailers, attractions, chambers of
commerce and others.
CVBs are set up as not-for-profit organisations, controlled by a
management board, and market a specific destination, frequently a city. In most cases,
the bureau is established at arms' length from the local authority or authorities which
it represents, but in others the bureau remains an integral part of the local authority
Funding is derived from the following sources:
- public sector contributions (usually the largest single source),
- private sector membership fees (members including venues of all kinds,
accommodation providers, professional conference organisers, destination
management companies, transport operators, audio-visual companies, and other
kinds of suppliers),
- joint commercial activities with members,
- in some cases, also from commission which is charged to venue members on
Some bureaux prefer to have a high membership fee which covers a full package of
benefits and services to their members (with no or few hidden or extra charges). Other
bureaux opt for a much lower membership fee which provides a core of benefits but
they then invite their members to buy into additional activities and services on a
Both models have their strengths and weaknesses. Each destination and the suppliers
within it must agree what is appropriate for themselves and then develop and fine-tune
the model in the light of experience. CVBs are dynamic entities which evolve in the light
of local circumstances, market trends, the demands of clients, and a multitude of other
At a national level, CVBs usually depend on substantial funding from the government
and, indeed, may be structured as a government agency.
The German Convention
Bureau (GCB) is the marketing, not-for-profit organisation for the solicitation of
international meetings for Germany's congress and convention industry. Founded in
1973, the GCB was established to provide impartial advice and suggestions to meeting
planners concerning facilities, sites, accommodation, and programmes in Germany.
GCB, based in Frankfurt and with an overseas office in New York, is a single umbrella
organisation representing the leading companies in the German meetings industry.
200-plus members include the principal congress cities, convention centres and hotels,
professional conference/congress organisers (PCOs) and other convention service
providers, Lufthansa German Airlines, German Rail and the German National Tourist
In the UK, Scotland has a dedicated Scottish Convention Bureau (a division of the
national tourist board, VisitScotland), Wales has a Business Travel Unit within the Wales
Tourist Board and is currently in discussion about the establishment of a national
convention bureau, and Northern Ireland has the Northern Ireland Conference Bureau
as a unit of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
The Business Tourism Department of the
British Tourist Authority fulfils some of the overseas marketing activities of a national
convention bureau on behalf of the four countries of the UK
British CVBs have an average of two or three staff (typically a general manager, a sales
executive, and an administrative assistant with computing skills), but the CVB team can
be as large as 15. Budgets also vary enormously, from a marketing budget of a few
thousand pounds up to several hundred thousand pounds. Research carried out in
2000 found an average marketing budget of just £31,500.
Bureaux in North America operate on a different scale, largely because there is a longer
tradition of CVBs, going back to 1896, with even relatively small towns having a CVB.
In the USA, bureaux are also funded differently, principally through a system of local
state or city visitor taxation which means that funds, in many cases, are ring fenced for
tourism destination marketing and product development.
For British convention and visitor bureaux to achieve a similar status within their
communities to that enjoyed by their US and Canadian counterparts, they have to
secure a higher level of funding and resources than is currently available to them.
|TABLE 1: FUNDING SOURCES OF CVBS* (%) |
| ||Membership||Local/Central Government||Others|
|*These figures refer to CVBs which were the members
of the International Congress & Convention
Association in 2000 |
Source: ICCA 2000
|TABLE 2: ANNUAL MARKETING BUDGETS OF CVBS* ($) |
| ||European City Bureaux||Non-European City Bureaux||European National Bureaux||Non-European National Bureaux|
|*These figures refer to CVBs which were the members of the
International Congress & Convention Association in 2000 |
Source: ICCA 2000
|TABLE 3: AVERAGE STAFFING LEVELS OF CVBS*|
| ||Average||European City Bureaux||Non-European City Bureaux||European National Bureaux||Non-European National Bureaux|
|*These figures refer to CVBs which were the members of the
International Congress & Convention Association in 2000 |
Source: ICCA 2000
CVBs provide a range of services, many free of charge, to conference organisers and
meeting planners. They aim to offer a 'one-stop' enquiry point for their destination,
with impartial advice and assistance. Such services are likely to include some or all of
the following, often working in tandem with a professional conference organiser:
- Literature and information provision,
- Venue location and selection advice,
- Availability checks,
- Rate negotiation,
- Provisional booking service,
- Familiarisation/inspection visits,
- Preparation of bid documents,
- Assistance with presentations to a selection committee/board,
- Negotiation of subventions and sponsorship.
- Block accommodation booking service for delegates,
- Co-ordination of the full range of support services including transportation,
registration, translation, office support,
- Provision of 'Welcome Desks' for delegates at major points of entry,
- Promotional and PR support to maximise delegate numbers and increase
awareness of the event in the host destination,
- Supply of delegate information packs and undertaking delegate mailings and
- Planning partner programmes, social programmes, and pre- and post-conference
- Welcome hosts,
- PR support,
- Helpline support,
- Guided tours and contributions to social and partner programmes,
- Co-ordination of destination resources, including transportation and
- Civic welcome and recognition,
- Provision of tourist information,
- Handling travel enquiries and ticket sales,
- Post-event evaluation and follow-up research,
- Collective billing, budget finalisation and reconciliation,
- Consultancy support to the destination hosting the conference.
Many of a bureau's marketing activities are implicit or explicit in the list of services it
offers to conference organisers. A typical portfolio of activities for a British convention
bureau will include some or all of the following, dependent upon staff and financial
- direct marketing – particularly direct mail, but also telesales and, occasionally,
a sales person 'on the road',
- website development – marketing the destination through the web,
- print and audio-visual production – compiling conference destination and
other promotional print, as well as videos and CD-ROMS,
- exhibition attendance – taking stands at trade shows such as 'International
Confex', 'Meetings & Incentive Travel Show', 'National Venue Show', 'EIBTM',
- overseas trade missions – participation in overseas roadshows and
workshops, often organised by the British Tourist Authority,
- familiarisation visits – organising visits for groups of buyers and press
- receptions – co-ordinating receptions, lunches and occasionally small
workshops to which key clients, existing and potential, are invited,
- advertising – in local and national press,
- public relations – circulating information and releases to the media and,
often, to influential community organisations,
- ambassador programmes – identifying, recruiting, training and supporting
key individuals in the local community (often university academics, hospital
staff, leading industrialists, members of the business community, trade
unionists) as 'ambassadors' for the destination, assisting them to bid for and
attract the annual conference of the professional institution or trade union to
which they belong.
The two case studies presented below illustrate well the role and contribution to the
local economy of two of the largest CVBs in Britain.
London Convention Bureau
London Convention Bureau (LCB) promotes London as the destination for
meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) in Europe. LCB is an
integral part of London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau, the official tourist
organisation for Greater London. LCB represents a broad membership with
extensive knowledge and expertise across the industry (such as conference and
exhibition venues, convention hotels, visitor attractions and specialist services).
LCB targets MICE segments in UK, North America and Europe through research,
direct marketing, production of publications, participation at trade fairs,
organisation of familiarisation visits, a free venue enquiry service for clients,
networking and training seminars for members.
LCB evaluates all activities. With regards to the venue enquiry service, for example,
in the financial year 2000-2001, LCB dealt with 402 sales enquiries for residential
conferences of 50 and over delegates, and helped to confirm events worth over
£7m in economic benefit. (NB: Estimated values are calculated with the help of
multipliers proposed in The Conference Delegate Expenditure Research Report,
1998 and the British Conference Market Trends Survey 2000, both compiled by
Edinburgh Convention Bureau
The Edinburgh Convention Bureau is the business tourism division of Edinburgh &
Lothians Tourist Board and is responsible for marketing and managing Edinburgh
and the Lothians as an international conference, incentive and event destination.
The Convention Bureau is a membership organisation and represents over 190
members in the meetings and incentives industry in Edinburgh and the Lothians.
The Convention Bureau provides conference organisers with information on
conference venues, accommodation, transport, social programmes, conference
support services and pre- and post-conference tours.
In 2000, the Edinburgh Convention Bureau (ECB) generated £38 million for the
local economy. Association conferences (international and national) contributed
£28m to this total. Overall, the ECB assisted with bringing 500 conferences to
Edinburgh in 2000.
The Edinburgh Ambassadors Programme, funded by Edinburgh & Lothians Tourist
Board and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian, currently includes over 800
'ambassadors' – senior professionals in positions of influence representing
academic and commercial fields in which Edinburgh has an international
reputation. Since 1996, the Edinburgh Ambassador Programme has attracted over
170 major conferences to Edinburgh, which have brought over £36 million in
revenue to the area.
Funding, as already mentioned, remains a major challenge for CVBs. In the UK, this is
especially the case because of the non-statutory nature of tourism function in local
authorities. Bureaux have to spend a considerable proportion of their time justifying the
case for budgetary resources and finding ever more creative means to lever additional
funds. This inevitably detracts from their ability to carry out effectively their destination
The Internet continues to have an impact on marketing and booking, changing the
ways in which such activities have traditionally been undertaken. Disintermediation (the
process of cutting out the intermediary agency and booking direct via the web with the
venue, airline, attraction, etc) will also affect the levels of business handled directly by
bureaux, reducing for some the income generated through commissions on events
The ways in which CVBs collaborate with professional conference organisers (PCOs) are
currently under debate in the UK, with members of both the British Association of
Conference Destinations (BACD) and the Association of British Professional Conference
Organisers (ABPCO) jointly exploring ways of reducing duplication and unnecessary
competition in order to exploit fully the natural synergies that exist.
CVBs represent the classic model of public-private partnership. Properly resourced, they
can make a major contribution to the local (and national) economy, with a return-oninvestment
of 30 or 40:1 being typical. There are some excellent examples around the
UK of CVBs whose achievements and dynamic approach to destination marketing rank
alongside the best in the world. Regrettably, there are others which lack human and
financial resources and struggle to offer anything more than a rudimentary level of
service to conference organisers.
Possible solutions which would help to create a proper foundation for CVBs could
include the introduction of a bed tax and/or a statutory tourism function for local
authorities, which would help CVBs to realise their full potential and maximise business
and leisure tourism revenues for the destinations they represent.
Tony Rogers has been Executive Director of the British Association of Conference Destinations since 1989. For the past 18
months he has also held the same position with ABPCO, the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers. His
book on the conference industry, Conferences: A Twenty-First Century Industry, was published by Longman in 1998. He can
be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.