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National Meetings Week In London Points To 2012 Olympics
As the £12 billion Business Tourism Industry celebrates National Meetings Week and London prepares to host the 2012 Olympic Games, John Spain visits the political heart of the country, and learns that Westminster is not all intrigue and spin.

How often do business rivals work together? In the modern, sometimes cut throat, world of commerce it must be rare that opposing companies actively promote their competitors.

It is highly unlikely that one of the big supermarket chains would listen to your requirements as a consumer and then recommend you go to one of the other organisations because they will probably suit your demands better. It must be reasonably impossible that an airline would recommend another because their arrival or departure times, or prices, would be more appropriate to the client’s wishes. How many times has a car manufacturer told a potential buyer that another make and model would be far more appropriate to their driving desires?

It is understandable that companies in any sector jealously guard their clients and do their best to make sure that money is spent with them rather than any of their rivals. After all, why would you want to encourage the opposition?

And yet, in London there is a partnership of events venues, hotels and tourist attractions that do precisely that.

The Westminster Collection was launched in 2002 and comprises 10 full and two associate members who all actively promote the services of each other.

Chairman of the group, René Dee, says that it is rapidly developing an appreciative collection of customers.

“We had a promotional event recently at one of our venues, the City Inn Westminster,” he says. “During the course of the evening we were congratulated by a large number of buyers for the initiative. They all agreed that they derive great value from what we are doing as well as a certain amount of comfort that there is a big team working on their various projects.”

At its simplest, the Westminster Collection acts as a referral agency. If, for example, a prospective client calls one of the group with a booking that for some reason that venue can’t accommodate, they are then referred to one of the others. Also, the individual venue managers are honest about what sort of service they provide. If they feel an event would be more appropriate in one of the other venues, they will make that suggestion.

“It’s a question of pooling our strengths,” adds Dee, who is also managing director of the Royal Horticultural Halls and Conference Centre. “In this area of London we have a significant number of venues that can cater for a variety of events such as exhibitions, fashion shows, product launches and conferences, to name just a few. It made sense to join forces to promote, not only ourselves, but also Westminster in general.”

In many ways it could be argued that Westminster could be, if not exactly an easy place to market, at least a destination that enjoys a far higher profile than many others around the UK. It is, after all, the centre of Britain’s government, it contains many historical buildings and attractions that are the top of many visitors’ ‘must visit’ lists, there are theatres, cinemas, night clubs and hundreds of restaurants offering cuisine from around the world.

Interestingly enough, Westminster is actually a city in its own right and is officially called ‘The City of Westminster’. Indeed, the city of London is actually that area around the Bank of England and what we now know as London has developed over the centuries to include a number of areas that were once separate entities.

Certainly Dee agrees that the area offers much and that this is something the Westminster Collection is keen to exploit.

“We hear so many stories nowadays about conference delegates or exhibition visitors who attend events in one part of a city, stay in hotels in another and who do their socialising in yet another part of town,” he says. “In Westminster we have all this within a short distance. A conference can take place in The Conference Centre at Church House, the delegates can stay in The Grange Rochester hotel and enjoy an evening event on the London Eye. All these are within strolling distance of each other, and, what a stroll. Where else in the world can you walk between your various event venues and pass the Houses of Parliament, The River Thames, Westminster Abbey and so many other iconic places in the space of a few minutes?”

As time goes on, Dee promises that more and more partners will join the collection.

“This will include establishments such as restaurants and other tourist attractions which will allow us to offer complete and comprehensive packages,” he says. “We will be marketing the whole of the destination.”

To this can be added another benefit, that of getting to the destination in the first place. Westminster is at the heart of London and is easily reached from all parts of the city as well as London’s major airports. Indeed, international delegates can easily be in their hotel rooms within an hour of landing at Heathrow or Gatwick.

For all Westminster’s international fame and its apparent opulence, there is another side to the story. What most visitors will never know is that Westminster has its share of the kind of problems encountered by any city. There is unemployment, poor housing and a range of other social issues that will be recognisable to any city councillor.

This is another, and some would say the major, reason for the collection’s existence, that of helping to bring all important business travel spend to the area. According to Principal Planning Officer, Graham Hadley, it is certainly something that Westminster City Council is keen to encourage.

“Westminster City Council is very supportive of the Westminster Collection as it represents a group of high quality facilities and attractions, aimed at the business visitor, which are seeking to mutually grow their businesses,” he says. “This in turn helps benefit Westminster’s economy. Business visitors make a particularly important economic contribution to London as they spend twice as much per visit as leisure visitors. The businesses in the Westminster Collection also provide local employment opportunities for the economically and culturally diverse population that lives in this part of Westminster.”

Mr. Hadley’s comments were supported by Cllr Danny Chalkley a cabinet member of Westminster City Council who added, “As Cabinet Member for Economic Development & Transport I have a particularly interest in this new relationship with the Westminster Collection. It is a very positive relationship, as it enables us to highlight the considerable business tourism benefits within the City of Westminster, raising the city’s profile and increasing the opportunity to attract profitable business into the area.”

Visit London’s commercial director, David Hornby, is also a keen advocate of the Westminster Collection and thinks it is emblematic of how the future marketing of London ought to be.

“The best way to sell London to the rest of the UK is by dividing it into manageable sections such as this,” he says. “Londoners know their city well but we easily forget that people outside the capital don’t really know where given parts of town are any more than a Londoner would necessarily know specific parts of Glasgow, Manchester or Cardiff.”

Hornby points out that when marketing itself to an international audience, London follows the model used by a number of other destinations.

“The way to sell London abroad is to sell the whole destination,” he says. “After that it is wise to break it down. The key is very much to get a prospective event to the capital in the first place, then we can find the part of town that would best suit it. Some clients may want to use Docklands while others will want to be in Westminster. The individual areas are best qualified and situated to market their own particular services and attractions.”

The idea of rivals working together for the overall good of the marketplace they represent seems, with this model, to be something that benefits all the stakeholders.

Unfortunately, we are probably a long way away from the days when a supermarket, airline or car manufacturer would actively recommend a competitor’s product ahead of their own.

However, organisers looking to run events in this particular part of London are fortunate in having at their disposal a large team of people who are genuinely interested in the success of the project. It seems like an excellent idea and it will be interesting to see if it catches on in other parts of the UK.

National Meetings Week takes place between 3rd – 7th October 2005

For further information on The Westminster Collection visit www.thewestminstercollection.org