Venue finding agency The Conference People has been celebrating its 30th birthday this year.
Since 1986 the Eastbourne-based firm has been through 96 staff, 43 desks, four locations, 11 weddings, six babies, one typewriter, three websites and five logos.
To make sense of all these numbers, we asked founder and MD Robert Enefer to take us through some of his most memorable moments with the agency that he founded with Maggie Doyle all those years ago.
He says: “Our very first piece of business was a roadshow around the UK for Matchbox cars. It would be challenging now even with 30 years’ experience as it was a detailed brief with extremely complicated requirements. But it sealed our fate – we were both hooked.”
1990 saw Enefer heavily involved in the formation of the Meetings Industry Association as a founding member. But it was six years later, when football came home, that The Conference People really started to take off.
“Euro’96 was a real turning point for The Conference People,” says Enefer. “We managed all of the accommodation and the hospitality for the Football Association at the Royal Garden Hotel. It became home for the duration of the competition.”
The success of the project was such that the firm was able to expand, taking on more staff and moving to larger offices. And in 2000 the firm launched its online delegate management service – Ubook.
“Until that point, most of our delegate management had been paper based,” says Enefer. “Ask Mel about our hotel booking allocations for the Social Services conferences, which dealt with rooms for over 1,200 delegates during the week long events! We didn’t like the constraints that the off the shelf packages seemed to offer – so we designed our own.”
In 2001 the firm experienced its first real low with the loss of founding partner Doyle to motor neurone disease. And the same year, another tragedy presented the agency with one of its biggest challenges to date.
Enefer says, “In September 2001 the annual sales conference for 300 delegates for a major pharmaceutical company was scheduled to be held for a week in Cyprus, with delegates arriving on Sunday 21 September. Then 9/11 happened and the company implemented an immediate ban on all international travel.
“We were managing the event; a complicated programme involving extensive production, team building, delegates packs and gifts – all of which were already on the island. In just two days an alternative venue had been booked - the Grand Hotel, Brighton - and the entire programme, packs, badges and so on had all been replicated in the new location. Something of a miracle – but we can do that sometimes.
In 2008, again in Brighton, the firm managed the first ever social marketing conference on behalf of the National Social Marketing Centre.
“Not being a company to ever stand still, following a lack of funding from the NSMC to run another social marketing conference, and seeing a real niche in the market we launched our own programme of events,” says Enefer. “2012 was the first UK event, closely followed later that same year with the first European event in Lisbon – and the first ever world social marketing event the following year in Toronto in 2013.
“There have since been events in London, Rotterdam, Finland and Sydney. Future events are planned in Washington and Berlin. Such has been the success of the world events that next year will see them become an annual event.”
While Enefer is happy to look back over 30 years of events, his eyes are firmly fixed on the future.
“The meetings industry has always been unpredictable but never more so than now. One version is of a gloomy future with the referendum result, tighter budgets, greater demand on ROI and international terrorism. But we have found in the last 30 years that there are always opportunities; it might be harder to find them sometimes, but they are still there. We have developed a brilliant array of clients across all areas – blue chip, association and third sector and there are always events of some sort being planned.”