Comment: Positioning the capital on the international stage

In conversation with a national newspaper editor last month, I was put on the spot about Brexit and how it is impacting our venue.

Marshall Dallas, chief executive, Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC). Picture: Jane Barlow

In the spirit of transparency, I was happy to admit that we experienced some aftershocks in the wake of the Brexit vote. Specifically, several international associations decided to take their business elsewhere and that translated to something in region of £800,000 in lost revenues. While the upside is that we haven’t seen such a significant dip since then, which is important as Europe remains key for the EICC, we’ve also redoubled our efforts in targeting markets beyond the European Union. As I said at the time of the interview, we’re a global business and we’re confident we can mitigate any shortfall caused by Brexit.

International association business makes up more than half of our revenues, so we’ve been strengthening links and building networks outside of Europe for a number of years now. In 2016, we established a partnership deal aimed at growing revenue streams from North America and that is now paying dividends. Market research showed us that Scotland has a strong appeal in business tourism terms and we’re on the verge of making an announcement about one of the highest profile conferences to ever come to the EICC from across the pond that will highlight this.

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The US is a continuing theme for the EICC in 2018 and after hosting Barack Obama last May in one of the former President’s first keynote speeches since leaving the White House, we’re excited that Michelle Obama is to be the guest of honour at The Hunter Foundation’s annual gala dinner at the venue this July. The Obama Foundation and its collective work played a big part in our new vision statement for the EICC, to create an environment which inspires ideas that change the world.

Last month, I was part of a UK trade delegation to Xi’an in China, a city twinned with Edinburgh but on a different scale in terms of both its population – which totals around 12 million – and its conference centre which is one of the largest in the world. We already have quite strong links with China and will again be hosting the Chinese Arts & Culture Festival at the venue this August, although the Red Dragon will be a harder nut to crack in terms of attracting association business to Edinburgh because the vast majority of China-based associations stay in-country for their big events rather than venturing to other territories.

Corporate business from China is much more feasible for the EICC, particularly with increasing numbers of Chinese companies buying UK businesses, with Ctrip’s acquisition of Skyscanner in 2016 being a prime example close to home. At the same time, it’s important for our team to be strengthening relationships with prospective clients whenever possible and particularly when you consider that it can take years to secure one piece of association business.

I’m fairly certain the UK collective made a strong impression on the trip to China’s so-called Eternal City. Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, Frank Ross, was on fantastic form, as was the city’s Chambers of Commerce chief executive Liz McAreavey and we shared an emotional moment when a small band of pipers from Edinburgh Castle burst into tune atop the ancient wall which surrounds Xi’an.

On leaving China, the next stop on my whistle-stop tour was Germany for IMEX Frankfurt and one of the biggest exhibition and conference industry events of the year where I met some of our EICC team along with City of Edinburgh Council chief executive Andrew Kerr. One of our main takeaways was around the importance of a city working collaboratively to secure the best possible outcomes, something at which both Frankfurt and Xi’an excel. As we talked about how Edinburgh is on an upward trend ahead of our flight home, some good news came through that we had won a couple of industry awards for best UK conference venue. Onwards and upwards.

- Marshall Dallas, chief executive, Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC)