Scotland thrives on business visitors

Destination incentive: Natural Retreats expects Lews Castle on the Isle of Lewis to be popular with corporate clients. Picture: Contributed
Destination incentive: Natural Retreats expects Lews Castle on the Isle of Lewis to be popular with corporate clients. Picture: Contributed
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Competition in the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) industry is tough with around 200 destinations worldwide bidding for big business.

Up against glamorous locations like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Scotland has its work cut out for it but with the business tourism industry worth £1.9 billion to the Scottish economy and cities reporting record bid wins, we must be doing something right.

Venues are investing in upgrades to facilities and the North-east is turning to the incentive travel market to counter the effects of the low oil price.

In 2013, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) opened the Lennox Suite, part of the venue’s £35 million expansion project, which has moving floor technology and an auditorium to seat 2,000 delegates. In June this year it won the Best Conference Venue for Over 900 Delegates category at the seventh annual Conference Awards in London.

In Aberdeen the spotlight is on the new £330m AECC at Bucksburn, due to open in 2019, which recently confirmed its first conference booking. The Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference will be held at the venue in 2020 when it comes to the UK for the first time.

“We could be up against Dubai, Barcelona, Singapore, bidding against them for an event or conference, but we benefit in this country because the compact size of Scotland means the key people in the MICE industry know each other,” says Lindsay Brown, marketing manager at ConventionScotland, VisitScotland’s business tourism arm.

“That collaboration helps to show a very joined-up industry that works well together to put on world-class events.

“The key thing with Scotland is not only can we put on a good event, but it’s the traditions, the scenery and the cultural elements which make it a special destination and leave a lasting memory for delegates.”

Brown says that improved infrastructure is making Scotland more attractive to international events organisers and points to Etihad Airways’ new route from Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi which is a step towards increasing accessibility.

“Delegates need a good infrastructure to get here in the first place, they need a place to stay and great venues,” she says. “Scotland is the whole package.”

The average business tourist spends one and a half to two times more than a leisure tourist so it should come as no surprise that the MICE industry is one worth promoting.

Brown adds: “What’s quite lucrative for us as well is incentive trips where a company will send its top 50 or 100 performers on a corporate holiday which has to be somewhere special.”

With incentive trips it’s not just city breaks that appeal and more rural destinations are spending money on improvements to cater to business travellers’ high standards.

Trump Turnberry in Ayrshire recently unveiled new meeting rooms for corporate clients while Gleneagles Hotel has revealed an extensive refurbishment under new owner Ennismore which bought the five-star Perthshire hotel from drinks giant Diageo in 2015.

Natural Retreats, which runs corporate breaks at John o’Groats, CairnGorm Mountain near Aviemore and Lews Castle on Lewis, specialises in planning trips and meetings for groups looking to escape a busy city routine.

“It’s often people who are looking to come out of the city and into a more relaxed environment where they can blow away the cobwebs,” says Emma Beagrie, EU head of marketing at Natural Retreats.

“It’s great for companies to get out of their natural environment and into the outdoors. It offers less distractions but we do have things like wi-fi. We appreciate how important it is for people to have that sort of technology.”

Cities with universities, tech hubs and financial districts attract larger events with venues having to keep up with demand and ensure they have a unique selling point which makes them stand out.

Convention Edinburgh reported its most successful year to date in June, having secured new conference and event bid wins worth £94.3m to the local economy and a 10,000 boost in delegate numbers.

The Hilton Edinburgh Carlton reopened in August following a £17m refurbishment and has seven meeting spaces available for up to 200 delegates.

The National Gallery of Scotland is the venue for The Scotsman Conferences which address the big questions facing the nation during half-day events throughout the year.

The artistic buzz makes the gallery a refreshing alternative to the usual conference space and on Tuesday 20 September it will host Food and Drink: a skilled, innovative future.

In May the Institute of Directors Scotland opened its new flagship premises on Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square where members and their guests can make use of meeting rooms suitable for two to 50 people.

“All the cities have their own different strengths and particularly for association conferences they are very strongly linked to the universities within a particular city and to the academic expertise within those areas,” says Brown.

“Glasgow, for example, attracts a lot of life sciences conferences. You then become well known for being an expert in that field which can lead to more inward investment. It’s about showcasing our strength in a particular field.”

Glasgow City Marketing Bureau also reported its best year yet with new conference business worth £141m.

The Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel in Clydebank, formerly known as the Beardmore Hotel, adjoins the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, making it a first-choice venue for medical conferences and events.

Its specialist facilities include live links from the auditorium into operating theatres and a clinical skills space.

“The business tourism sector is remaining strong,” says Bronagh Bell, director at the Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel.

“It’s building over a number of years and the VisitScotland business tourism unit do a really good job at presenting Scotland as a destination for conferences and events on an international stage.

“We are a big venue and we have a lot of versatile conference space. Fifty per cent of our business already comes from the public sector in Scotland.

“We also do a lot of events where delegates come from around the world.”

In Dundee, all eyes are on the waterfront development with the construction of the V&A Museum of Design under way.

When completed it is expected to boost the city’s economy by £11m per year.

Aberdeen has taken a hit since the oil price fell in late 2014 but Brown says the fact that the new Aberdeen Exhibition & Conference Centre (AECC) is going ahead shows there is still an appetite for hosting corporate events in the region.

“When there are big developments happening it shows the confidence in an area,” she explains.

“Aberdeen can’t hide the fact that it has been really tough with the change in the oil and gas industry but the fact that the AECC project is still going ahead shows that there is still a requirement for a world-class conference centre there.

“Now they are diversifying and investigating strengths in other places such as the incentive market.

“It’s very exciting going forward and a lot of event organisers want to be the first to use a new venue.”

£1.9bn market

Business events are worth £1.9 billion to the Scottish economy, according to 2013 research commissioned by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation.

Business events represent 20 per cent of all tourism expenditure.

On average business tourists spend one and a half to two times more than leisure tourists while visiting Scotland.

Edinburgh secured conference and event bid wins worth £94.3 million in 2015-2016.

206 conferences, set to attract 74,400 delegates, were won by Convention Edinburgh and its members in the 12 months to June 2016.

Glasgow City Marketing Bureau’s Convention Bureau secured average conference revenue of over £2.7 million per week between 1 April, 2015 and 31 March, 2016.

In the last financial year, Glasgow confirmed 513 new international and UK meetings through to 2022, equating to 420,000 delegate days.

Promoted content: Take a bite of the social side of meetings

IT MIGHT not be the primary reason a delegate travels to a conference but food and drink is nonetheless a key player at any corporate event.

Meetings and conferences tend to come hand in hand with a social aspect allowing delegates to take time over lunch and enjoy networking drinks.

“We hold most of our events at the National Gallery on the Mound, where there is a great technician, tiered seating with excellent sight-lines and a lovely environment for delegates to drink coffee and network before, during and after the event,” says David Lee, founder of The Scotsman Conferences.

“We first used the gallery for a food and drink conference in 2012, with the mid-morning brunch worked into the programme. The bite-sized snacks, composed of the finest Scottish ingredients, went down a treat.

“Conference organising is stressful. I never really relax until it’s over and until I’ve bitten into all the different sandwiches,” adds Lee who is preparing The Scotsman’s food and drink conference on 20 September.

Some people will be looking for healthy options while others are happy to indulge in treats between presentations – either way, the food should be memorable.

“We can provide whatever catering anybody requires and we try to stay local with things like Scottish salmon,” says Emma Beagrie, EU head of marketing at Natural Retreats, which runs three Scottish destinations – John o’Groats, Lews Castle on Lewis and CairnGorm Mountain near Aviemore – which lend themselves to corporate breaks in areas of natural beauty.

“At Lews Castle we have our own kitchen with a head chef. We can also provide whisky tastings if that’s what people want.”

The Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel in Glasgow has taken food and drink one step further, catering for global cuisines.

“We have had several groups in this year from China,” says Bronagh Bell, director at the Golden Jubilee.

“They are generally associated with our partner, the Golden Jubilee Hospital. We have our chef learn about their cuisine and go to the Chinese market to get ingredients for them.

“It’s really important to cater for what your delegates want.”

For Rizvi Khaleque, owner of Edinburgh-based Indian street food restaurant Tuk Tuk, catering for the corporate market is an area of his business he’s looking to grow.

Tuk Tuk’s location in Edinburgh’s financial district makes it an ideal spot for business lunches and even product launches – Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn recently booked the space for the launch of a new ale.

“We have just introduced tiffin lunch,” Khaleque explains. “It comes in a lunchbox which is used in India and has four levels. That’s good for quick lunches.

“It’s street food and it’s small portions. We try to promote the culture of eating together like we do in India.”

Tuk Tuk is set to open a second restaurant on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street in October and the location was no coincidence with Khaleque choosing it for its proximity to shops and offices.

Promoted content: Different shapes and sizes add to MICE mosaic

What makes a good conference venue very much depends on who’s organising the event but whatever the requirements, Scotland has facilities to fit.

The three major cities – Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen – have vast dedicated conference centres catering for thousands of delegates, although all have rooms to suit smaller groups.

The Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel in Clydebank sells itself on its unique medical event facilities – it has live links from the auditorium to the operating theatre in the neighbouring Golden Jubilee National Hospital – but it’s also ahead of the game when it comes to meeting formats.

While the traditional cabaret set up is still the most popular with organisers, director Bronagh Bell is an advocate of walking meetings, which take delegates outdoors.

“We encourage delegates to have ‘walk and talk’ meetings,” she explains. “Instead of sitting in a room they can walk round the grounds or along the canal.

“I have participated in a few walk and talk meetings and it was great. We would just walk a couple of kilometres and discuss a topic and then at the end someone would jot down the key points.

“It’s a great universal leveller and it’s better than sitting in a chair all day long.”

Any good conference venue must provide the basics with free, high-speed wi-fi a top priority.

“Many people make their decision about coming based on the strength of the wi-fi,” says Bell.

“With health and wellbeing so important, having somewhere that they can work out whether it’s access to a swimming pool, a gym or running and cycling routes is hugely important.

“I think health and wellbeing is going to be one of the big trends in the next few years for delegates.”

McDiarmid Park in Perth can seat up to 10,740 fans on a match day but year round St Johnstone Football Club functions as a fully-equipped conference and events venue.

The facilities are versatile and you don’t have to be a Saints supporter to book the unique venue.

Its Centenary and Muirton suites have banqueting and dancing capacities of 80 while smaller meetings can be accommodated in the 12-person boardroom.

Corporate away days and trips to more remote venues are a great way of getting out of the office to throw around ideas and discuss innovative solutions.

Some clients travel to Scotland on incentive breaks, which are where the spectacular scenery has its star turn in promoting what the country has to offer.

Natural Retreats has three unique Scottish destinations; an inn and lodges at John o’Groats, the Ptarmigan Building at CairnGorm Mountain near Aviemore and its latest addition, Lews Castle which overlooks Stornoway Bay on the isle of Lewis.

“I think people get quite used to the same experience everywhere they go and we understand that they are looking for something that’s perhaps a little bit different,” explains Emma Beagrie, EU head of marketing at Natural Retreats.

“What we offer is a bespoke, tailor-made service with an events co-ordinator.

“Lews Castle is going to be a fantastic conference and events venue for us. There are a lot of different rooms including the ballroom and the library and we have already had some functions there since we started running it in July.”

• This article appears in the Autumn 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.