Diversifying the business mix across three sectors has helped The Conference People weather the economic storm. Katherine Elton from M&IT Magazine reports

Mixing blue chips with public and private sector business has proved to be a recipe for longevity for The Conference People. Managing Director Robert Enefer took the decision 24 years ago not to put all the company's eggs in one basket, it's strategy which has paid dividends, helping the agency weather the recessions at the start of the 1990's as well as the current economic storm.

"We deliberately went for a mix of clients when we set up and when times are economically tough that pays off. It's the hardest possible time to make a profit, there's no hiding that, but we have maintained our staff"

Alongside work for companies such as Cooperatives UK, Universal Music and Penguin Publishing, the company runs a plethora of events for the third sector clients such as a series of seminars for the Down Syndrome Education in the UK and the United States. Event Director Matt Wilson describes the client base as: "From the National Fertility Network to the Cremation Society and everything in between."

Enefer established The Conference People in 1986 during the boom times for the events industry, viewing it as a "natural progression" from his career as a hotelier. He started the agency with partner Maggie Doyle who passed away in 2001 after contracting Motor Neurone Disease.

The Conference People was so named because Enefer believes it is people that make the industry tick. Relationships with clients and suppliers are all important but it's the staff that drive the business. Enefer wanted the agency to have a "family-run" feel - its office is a Victorian villa a stone's throw from Eastbourne's town centre with a collection of fireplaces and bright artwork on the walls. "We have low staff turnover which makes it easier to run the business," says Enefer, "I'm very proud of that."

In the run up to The Conference People's 25th birthday celebrations in 2011, the 20-strong team will be working on the management of 80 events this year. Enquiries are on the up, even for overseas events, and a new Event Manager started last month. Enefer believes the outlook, in Eastbourne at least, is finally getting sunnier.

Despite the growth in headcount and the rise in enquires, making money in the current climate remains a challenge. "We are really, really busy but the problem is making a profit on the business. We used to do a lot of sales conferences but now many three-day events have gone down to one day. Rates at venues and prices are more negotiable then ever but the profit streams and revenue streams are reduced.

"The next two years are going to be interesting, culminating in the Olympics and improvements in the economy. I'm hoping the general election will get everything started."

Though the agency professes not to specialise, social marketing and social enterprise are areas where it has developed a degree of expertise. So, in the meantime, there's the challenge of running The Conference People's first owned event, The 2nd World Non-Profit & Social Marketing Conference, which will take place at Citywest Dublin in April 2011.

"We've been spending our lives running events for other people but this is doing it for ourselves and puts a different pressure on us and the way we do things," explains Wilson.

The agency was approached to run the 1st Non-Profit & Social Marketing Conference in Brighton in 2008, which attracted 800 delegates from across the globe. Wilson says: "It was such a big event and we had so many people saying 'when's the next on?' that we were pushing the client to find out when it was."

Having gained the support of the organisers and Professor Jeff French, a leading light in the application of social marketing, The Conference People opted to run the event themselves. Wilson adds: "We've got 12 months to go until the conference, but the delegates are already booking and we're gathering sponsors. It's a big challenge having to do everything ourselves but it's nice to be involved in an event which does so much good."

The agency is also playing its part in enabling private enterprise with a programme of events aimed at the UK's small business community. SB2.0 (small business 2.0) provides education, training and networking opportunities with speakers from big names such as eBay, Google and Microsoft.

Enefer believes commitment to the triple bottom line - economic viability, social responsibility and environmental soundness - is continuing to help the agency win business, especially in the areas of social marketing and social enterprise. Add to that, a little nous for the web. Google the phrase 'green venues' and The Conference People's website comes out on top. "Robert is in the vanguard of pay per click," laughs Wilson.

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