In the depth of the recession, the only figure rising in MICE industry offices was the number of cancellations. But Steve Ockerby, chairman of the Hotel Booking Agents’ Association, tells ABTN the worst is now over
It was about this time last year that the telephones stopped ringing for meetings organisers and venue finders. Ironically this was just after the majority of delegates at the Hotel Bookings Agents’ Association (HBAA) 2008 conference had said they expected the coming year to be as good or even better than the old year.
“We asked them what business was going to be like in the next year and people were still feeling positive. But no banks had collapsed at that stage. We had been reading about the sub-prime crisis which started it all and how it would affect us.
“But no one had really felt the impact until banks began disappearing. I think that really identified the impact the credit crunch would have on us.”
Mr Ockerby, chairman of the The Hotel Booking Agents Association: The trade association that represents the collective interest of those involved in the procurement and management of conference, meetings and accommodation in the... and joint owner of Logical Venues Solutions, a venue finding company, said it was then that the number of inquiries declined and more cancellations came in. “From our own point of view, that was the only growth section, the late cancellations. We were particularly hit by the Christmas parties market.
“Clients were prepared to pay 100% of the cancellation fee as they felt they could not be seen to be enjoying themselves when they were contemplating redundancies,” he said.
For most of 2009, his members and many others in the meetings industry have been suffering. There have been some casualties in the venue finding business and some franchised groups working within larger companies had gone into administration, Mr Ockerby said.
For booking agents, it has been a time of reduced occupancy in hotels and therefore reduced revenue but he thought none had so far gone under. It seems to be the conference industry which has been hardest hit with fewer taking place and those which went ahead attracting fewer delegates.
“A lot of the larger corporates were moving things in house which impacts on venue finders,” he said.
But Mr Ockerby, like a growing number of people in the industry, is now becoming firmly optimistic. “I think we have seen the worst of it. The feeling generally around the membership is that things have started to pick up. We are getting more inquiries and people are making decisions,” he said.
This last bit is quite crucial as inquiries often represent just a toe in the water, to see what things are like. If they are followed by a booking, then things do seem to be on the up. “We have been sitting on a huge bit of business but we could not get anyone to make the decision. But the decisions are now being made.
“They are still very much shorter lead in times which is good because that means that they are moving ahead and that they are more likely to go ahead with the event. And the sooner that happens, the sooner we get our money,” Mr Ockerby said.
H e said people at this year’s The Hotel Booking Agents Association: The trade association that represents the collective interest of those involved in the procurement and management of conference, meetings and accommodation in the... conference had been “much more positive” since the beginning of the summer. “It has been difficult to get a decision on events in the summer although this is always difficult in those months. But September has seen a change in that. In the last couple of weeks I think generally there has been a mood of optimism.”
It is not over yet. Mr Ockerby said that conference organiser were still avoiding overnights stays if they could. But there was an unexpected side affect. Far from downgrading, many conferences were finding that hotels were offering them facilities which they would not have been able to afford a year ago. “We are getting better rates than 12 months ago,” he said.
Fine for the bookers but a sign that it is also not yet over for the hotels.
Mr Ockerby’s own feeling is that Q1 and Q2 will see a continued increase in business and he believes his members and the industry as a whole is ready for it. “I have seen three recessions, probably four plus 9/11, SARS and avian flu. There has been a lot of things that have impacted on the business but this is probably the one that has had the deepest impact.
“We never saw banks going bust before. That was a real reality check but there is now optimism about. Anyone who has made it this far is thinking that things are getting rosier. We are going to have to fight consistently to win business but we are in a good physical shape to deal with the upturn.
“We also have the right mentality to do it.”