Scotland’s strengths in innovation and research attract business tourism

The new V&A museum in Dundee is generating interest in the city as a conference venue.
The new V&A museum in Dundee is generating interest in the city as a conference venue.

Scotland’s bio-revolution is attracting unprecedented international interest – and nowhere is it more firmly on the radar than in the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) sector.

Rory Archibald, business development manager at VisitScotland, says: “Scotland has one of the largest clusters of scientists working in life sciences – bigger than anywhere in Europe – so it is a massive draw.

“There have been several events throughout the years that VisitScotland has supported through the national conference bid and around 55 per cent of those have been life science conferences.”

Competing for MICE business with the likes of Vienna, Barcelona and Sydney, Scottish cities attract 410,000 international business tourists every year.

With 20 per cent of the country’s life science companies based in Dundee, it has become a magnet for biotechnology and life science conferences.

Diane Taylor, a member of the committee organising the annual BioDundee International Conference, which takes place on 22 and 23 May, says: “Dundee’s reputation is so strong that it is an obvious place to hold a bio-related conference.”

The 18th BioDundee conference is expected to attract more than 150 delegates from across Europe and illustrates how reputation and academic quality are key to the city’s success as a conference destination.

“BioDundee is very much a community for benefiting from each other’s expertise and identifying growth areas and networks for companies and businesses,” says Taylor.

“If I go out to the States, it’s an open door. People want to meet in Dundee because of the reputation which comes from publications and the output from the university and that just seems to be getting stronger.”

That international prominence is set to rise in September with the opening of the V&A Museum of Design Dundee, Scotland’s only design museum.

Academic institutions play an important role in both attracting business tourists and then hosting the visitors.

More than 400 delegates visited Glasgow to participate in the fourth Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre’s (IBioIC) annual conference in January.

IBioIC aims to reduce the use of fossil fuels and because of large amounts of biowaste such as forestry and food waste as well as a unique marine environment – for example, having the ability to extract chemicals from seaweed – Scotland’s industrial biotechnology sector is growing apace and attracting international interest.

Hosted at the Technology and Innovation Centre at Strathclyde University, it is estimated that IBioIC’s conference will have generated more than £400,000 for the local economy.

Scotland’s work to find drug cures for cancers was a factor in the choice of Edinburgh for the 23rd International Conference on Cancer and Pharmacology next week.

Ethan Conner, programme director of the conference, which will feature speakers from India, Israel, Japan and Spain, says: “Researchers from Edinburgh University and other well known research institutions have been trying hard to find drugs with 
anti-cancer effects.

“Cancer Research UK considers Scotland to be a potential candidate for research under this category and it is known that it spent £34 million in Scotland alone in 2014.

“It now plans to spend 50 per cent more in the coming years and this promises some groundbreaking cancer research in Scotland.”

The benefits of an industry that adds £1.9 billion to the Scottish economy every year can have a far-reaching impact.

As well as direct spend, the inward investment opportunities offered by business tourism and events provide the potential for offices to be set up and jobs created.

Archibald says: “If you have influencers from all over the world coming to Scotland to discuss the next cure of a disease or a major issue affecting humanity, it puts Scotland right in the limelight as a social and economic change destination.”

To retain those influencers, the destination must offer a range of attractions for delegates.“From our past experience, we can tell that attendees look for a conference destination that has earned some recognition in that particular subject category, has good tourist attractions and that possesses good infrastructure,” says Connor.

“As a venue, delegates expect it to be well organised and with proper connections to the basic transport facilities.”

Scotland’s two biggest cities fare well on transport. Last year Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility Index placed Edinburgh as the second best city in the UK for transport infrastructure, pipped only by London.

Glasgow is this year looking forward to offering new air routes to Las Vegas, Cancun, Bergen and Frankfurt and with its airport just a 20-minute journey by bus or taxi to the Scottish Events Campus (SEC), it is the gateway for numerous conferences and business events all year round.

However, one of the challenges facing the MICE sector according to Marshall Dallas, chief executive of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, is a lack of four- and five-star hotels.

“[The MICE industry] fills Edinburgh’s hotels during the off-season and it’s well known that the value of a business tourist is three times more than any other tourist because they tend to extend their trips and they usually spend an extra two or three nights around that trip and often bring family or friends.”

A number of projects are addressing that issue. At the luxury end of the market, there is the Royal Yacht Britannia’s £3.5m 23-room floating hotel in Leith, which is due to open this year.

It has also been announced that the first Virgin Hotel outside America will be built in Edinburgh and in April Scotland’s first Radisson Red – a 174-studio fully serviced hotel – will open next to the SEC in Glasgow.

Business tourism in the North-east has felt the impact of the downturn in the oil industry but with two large North Sea oil discoveries and the opening of the £330m Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre at Bucksburn next year, are things set to change?

“We are seeing a huge trend that Scotland is attracting more technology conferences as we are one of the leaders in renewable energy within Europe,” says Archibald, pointing out that this is different from oil and gas for the North-east.

He believes that what makes Scotland so attractive is its accessibility, 
world-class conference centres and an incredible knowledge economy.

Dallas believes that business tourism is something of an “unsung hero in Scotland” but owes its success in attracting conferences and events to the country’s culture, innovation and education. “People generally like coming to Scotland as it’s good for business, it’s got beautiful cities that have lovely surroundings with small towns, villages and lochs. Scotland has a unique history and culture, so people really like doing business here and Scots are known for having drive and enthusiasm.”

Among the major conferences and events in Scotland this year are:

– APM Scottish Conference, 22 March, EICC

– Scottish Renewables’ Annual Conference, 26-27 March, Sheraton Hotel, Edinburgh

– 23rd International Conference on Cancer Research and Pharmacology, 26-27 March, Holiday Inn, Edinburgh

– National Union of Students Conference, 27-29 March, SEC, Glasgow

– 18th BioDundee International Conference, 22-23 May, West Park Conference Centre, Dundee

– International Conference on Big Data in Cyber Security, 31 May, Edinburgh Napier University

– TEDxYouth@Glasgow, 31 May, SEC, Glasgow

– Social Media 2018, 11-12 June, Principal Grand Central Hotel, Glasgow

– UX Scotland 2018, 13-15 June, Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh

– Scottish Home Awards, 14 June, Edinburgh Corn Exchange

– Edinburgh Anaesthesia Festival, 13-15 August, EICC

– 2018 Social Enterprise World Forum, 12-14 September, EICC

– IoD Scotland Annual Conference, 1-2 November, Gleneagles Hotel

– The Scotsman Life Sciences Conference, 12 November, Strathclyde University

– National Children’s Conference, 4 December, EICC

This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. Further information about Vision Scotland here.