Ahead of the CURVE
Scotland is punching above its weight in attracting major international conferences, writes AnthonyHarrington
For some years now, powered both by the sales efforts of i ndividual conference venues and by the combined activities of VisitScotland and the two Glasgow and Edinburgh Marketing Bureaus, Scotland has been winning a disproportionate share of the international conferencing business.
In fact, as Caroline Packman, Head of Business Tourism at VisitScotland observes, over the last year Scotland has played host to 29% of all the international association conferences that have come to the UK. “Our strength in the universities, along with the tremendous value for money that Scotland offers, is a large part of our appeal,” Packman says.
The universities come into play thanks to a carefully developed arrangement that has senior academics with worldwide reputations in their field fronting bids for major association events on behalf of the marketing bureaus. The sciences and life sciences sectors have a large number of associations who move their annual international conferences from city to city each year and Scotland’s universities are particularly strong in these areas, which does us no harm at all, Packman says.
“ Winning these events takes years. Each event is competed for by the world’s leading cities and it takes a concerted and sustained effort to win business for events that are still years and years away. We already have one event committed for 2021!” she says.
Within the last few months Glasgow has won four major scientific conferences, which will see a total of some 5,000 or more delegates coming to the city. The four conferences are the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, the European Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; the Infection Prevention Society and lastly, the Royal College of General Practitioners Annual Primary Care Conference.
Keeping at or near the top of conference organisers’ “desirable cities” wish list means requires continual investment in Scotland’s hotel and conference industry as
well as in its transport infrastructure. Packman points out that major projects such as the expansion of the SECC with the new Arena, which will be able to accommodate an additional 12,500 delegates when it opens somewhere around 2014, are absolutely vital. “ The great thing about the Arena is that it is a multi-purpose venue that can deal with concerts and sporting events as well as conferences,” she says. Once it opens, the Arena will free up a tremendous amount of room in the SECC which currently has to host both conferences and popular events such as music concerts. The fact that it can also double as an additional conference centre for 12,500 delegates will also be highly welcome. “It will be by far Scotland’s largest venue and it will be excellent for plenary sessions of large assocations,” Packman said.
In addition, a development partnership involving the City of Edinburgh Council, Scottish Enterprise and the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) has begun work on the site of a £85m expansion of the EICC and an 186,000 square feet of adjoining office facilities. This is the final piece of the masterplan for Edinburgh’s Exchange Financial District.
A competition for the design of the site held by the local authority attracted a shortlist of five consortia and the winning scheme involved a sale and lease-back model which will f inance the project, but that has since been moved to a publicly backed model. The 21,500 square foot extension is expected to be completed by 2013.
The hotel sector in Glasgow is currently able to offer about 17,000 beds per night. That sounds like a large number, but the largest conference hosted so far by Scotland was the annual European Respiratory Conference which was held at the SECC a few years back. That attracted 24,000 delegates and they were found accommodation across the central belt.
With this in mind VisitScotland and the two marketing bureaus are very pleased with every new hotel opening in the central belt. The most recent luxury hotel opening was the Blythswood, which added some 186 beds at the top end of the market. Another major hotel opening is the Grand Central Hotel, just beside Glasgow’s Central Station. That was taken over and extensively modernised by Principal Hayley. Its inaugural conference following its £20m refurbishment will be the Scottish Event Awards on October 9 this year and it brings a further 186 beds to the city.
“In addition to our city centre venues we have tremendous outof-town venues which make the most of the wonderful Scottish countryside,” Packman says. Key examples here are Cameron House, which underwent a major refurbishment two years ago, which included the addition of the Carrick golf course and a major new spa facility; and Mar Hall, another five star property that is also very accessible from Glasgow.
In addition to the mainstream conference venues, some of Scotland’s city councils have long had a practice of making historic town halls and properties available for hire by conference organisers. A spokesperson for South Lanarkshire Council (SLC) pointed out that the council has a variety of different halls and venues within its locale, including three main venues, The Almada Suite, Hamilton Town House and Rutherglen Town Hall, all of which are suitable for hosting a variety of different conferences.
According to the spokesperson, between them, the three venues host some 800 conferences and business events each year. A full range of support facilities, including state of the art conference support equipment and full catering services are available from the council.
Glasgow has succeeded in winning four big scientific conferences in recent months