Meetings and conferences are all about communication - not an easy exercise at the best of times. That is why buying or hiring equipment that will deliver the message effectively is often a tricky business.
For a start, it is a buyer's market: despite the fact that conferences account for around 30% of all hotel business, capacity far exceeds demand, making the pricing of conferences very competitive. This in turn puts the squeeze on budgets allocated to equipment.
Unlike the food and beverage sector where the caterer controls the menu, clients set the shape and scope of conferences. These can range from the relative simplicity of a one-to-one meeting to a large and highly complex show. The equipment can therefore involve anything from a flipchart and overhead projector (OHP) to the latest audio-visual systems.
In these fluid circumstances it is reassuring to know that, in general, hoteliers are getting it right. According to Mark Harris, marketing director of Expotel Hotel Reservations: "Hotels have to be applauded for recognising the potential of the conference market. Five or six years ago, conferences were seen as an extension of banqueting and run by the food and beverage manager. Today, hoteliers are upgrading their facilities."
Neil Mullett, central services manager for British Aerospace, takes a similar view: "In the main, the chains are very good. We use Stakis, Hilton, Forte and Holiday Inn. Generally, we specify what equipment we require and if they haven't got it they will hire the necessary items."
Although largely in agreement, John Weale, manager of training and development at the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourist Board, complains that small details are often overlooked, adding up to much frustration.
"On training courses one finds that there is no place to hang the delegates' work, so you have to use Blu Tak to stick sheets of paper onto pictures; a lot of hotels are unaware you can get flipcharts with adhesive sheets. More important, most hotels hire specialist equipment such as camcorders and VCRs and, although a technician from the hire company will set it up and provide instructions for the equipment, he or she never seems to be available when things go wrong."
The abiding question for hoteliers is whether to buy or rent the equipment, taking into account the many variables in size and scope. Two years ago, the 90-bedroom Fairfield Manor Hotel in York underwent a £6.5m refurbishment and bought all its conference equipment from one specialist: Saville of York.
General manager Graham McCrorie says the hotel commissioned independent research into the conference market before making this investment. "Research showed a growing demand for high-tech audio-visual equipment and after considering the pros and cons of hiring we made a financial judgement based on the knowledge that most equipment will be written off in five to seven years."
Fairfield Manor's Kyle suite, with a capacity for 200 delegates, is equipped with Saville's One-touch multi-media system that merges television, satellite television, U-matic tape and VHS video tapes on one screen. Using an IBM PS2 computer, delegates can also design their own slides on screen in seconds.
Forte, on the other hand, buys most of its equipment but hires when it has to top up to cope with peak demand. According to David Willis, Forte purchasing's senior buyer: "We consider standard equipment to comprise an OHP, screen, 35mm projector, TV monitor, video, flipchart and whiteboard. These we tend to buy outright but we hire items like liquid crystal display (LCD) panels, video projectors and public-address systems. We find that some clients bring their own LCD panels."
An LCD panel is a device that is placed on an OHP's platen to project computer images onto the OHP's screen. Some types of LCD panels can also show video tape. Currently, Forte hires its equipment locally but is considering the feasibility of national hire.