Scotland is globally recognised as the home of ground-breaking innovations such as television, tarmac, penicillin and Dolly the sheep. It is this proud tradition of pioneering spirit that VisitScotland is championing in order to tailor the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology (HHA) 2017 to the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) market.
For conference organisers and business travellers generally, the home of fresh thinking and new discoveries is emerging as a fitting destination for conventions, congresses and meetings, whether the topic under discussion is big data, life sciences, oil and gas or fintech.
Scotland has invested in developing world-class conference venues such as the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow, the EICC in Edinburgh and the AECC in Aberdeen, which is undergoing a complete transformation at Bucksburn, but it is our smaller, more unique offerings which are helping to tempt business tourists during the Year of HHA.
“There are very few places in the world where you can have dinner in a great hall where kings once ate or where you can do curling on an ice lake in the Highlands,” says Rory Archibald, business development manager, associations and sectors, at VisitScotland.
“Because we are very historic, it does mean that we can hold a conference somewhere like the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and offer totally unique locations.
“A corporate client can hire a castle in the Highlands to do business during the day and then have the wilderness of Scotland to experience afterwards. We are covering the work aspect but also the cultural and social aspect all in one place.”
The themed years, which started in 2011 with the Year of Active Scotland, have taken the country’s passions, knowledge and expertise and used those areas to target tourists, but the role of VisitScotland’s business events team has been to take those themes and translate them into something that can be used to boost the MICE industry specifically.
“There is a massive history of innovation, pioneering spirit and invention so this year we are focusing on that aspect of Scotland’s history,” explains Archibald, who has recently returned from promoting just that at IMEX (the international exhibition for incentive travel, meetings and events) in Frankfurt, which sees 3,500 exhibitors come together each year to showcase opportunities for meetings, events and incentive travel programmes.
The next stop is IMEX America, which takes place in Las Vegas in October. “The shows provide some of the biggest platforms to tell people about the MICE industry in Scotland and this year we are very much theming it around history, heritage and archaeology and turning that into how Scotland is continuing to innovate today and in the future.
“We use the tag line ‘Scotland invented everything’ which may not be entirely true but it’s very close to it.”
Archibald points to the work of Peter Higgs and his contribution to physics, as well as the example of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal to be created from an adult cell.
“It’s a really great year to tell people how Scotland is continuing to innovate. We can demonstrate our expertise to international corporations and associations.
“There is an ability to tap into our local expertise and knowledge, to create new networks, new collaborations, and to promote Scotland’s universities on a world stage.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been keeping abreast of the latest developments coming out of Scotland’s lively entrepreneurial ecosystem that technology is one area where Archibald and his colleagues have been able to highlight our innovative business ideas.
“The Scottish Government has set growth sectors and we very much align with them,” he explains.
“Technology is a very hot topic at the moment, so we have been focusing on that on a local and international level. Life sciences is one of our biggest markets, particularly for association events.”
Then there’s the creative industries which are worming their way out of the woodwork as another of Scotland’s emerging talents. Most of the chatter is around Dundee with its computer games industry and the V&A Museum of Design which is set to boost the city’s cultural offering when it opens next year.
So has Scotland been able to reap any material rewards from tailoring the themed years for the MICE market?
The simple answer is yes, although there are no specific statistics available yet to show the extent to which the country has benefited so far. The proof is in the conference bookings.
“Last year was the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design and there are so many events that take place around the world that cover that topic,” says Archibald.
“Scotland has a really good mix of historical and contemporary architecture and that allowed us to tap into the market. The Society of Architectural Historians is coming to Glasgow this month and last year’s themed year was important in terms of speaking to that association and bringing them to Scotland in 2017.”
The Year of Young People 2018 will bring fresh opportunities to boost business events in Scotland.
“With every themed year that we do there is always some way of tapping into what’s going on,” says Archibald.
“Once the themed years for the future are announced, we will start working on events to tie in with those areas.
“The themed years tell people what we are strong at and say ‘this is our passion’ and that will be used to bring events to Scotland for years to come.”
Following multi-million pound investment from industry in recent years, many of Scotland’s historic venues have undergone extensive renovations, which enables them to compete with more modern facilities.
Borthwick Castle, which dates from the 15th century, won the Hotel Interior Design Award at the Northern Design Awards in 2016, following an extensive renovation project.
The 600-year old castle near Edinburgh can host a range of corporate events from board summits to large-scale conferences and parties.
In April, 19th-century Lews Castle in Stornoway on the isle of Lewis welcomed its first guests after years of hard work bringing the building back to life as a weddings and corporate events venue from leisure firm Natural Retreats.
Stirling Castle – a favoured residence of the Stewart kings and queens and one of the most historically significant sites in Scotland – offers flexible event spaces which can be booked for banquets, receptions, seminars and meetings.
The 16th-century Great Hall is the largest medieval banqueting hall in Scotland with a reception capacity of 400.