Battle for best events in business

Competition among major cities to host economy-boosting business events is strong, so how can UK destinations climb the conference rankings? Yasmin Arrigo finds out

Cities across the world are battling to host lucrative business events, from trade show behemoths to crowd-swelling consumer gatherings and large-scale conferences for professionals.

One city that knows exactly how to maximise its appeal by engaging all suppliers is London, whose events credentials were boosted by last year’s 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Tracy Halliwell, director of business, tourism and major events, at London & Partners, the not-for-profit organisation that promotes the capital, says: “London’s reputation has benefitted from last summer’s Games which were hugely successful, but rather than basking in the glory of what many have described as ‘the greatest Games ever’, we are already striding towards further improvements. We hope to ensure that the next accolade we receive is ‘the city which truly made [Olympic] legacy a reality’.”

The destination focuses on the city’s business credentials when working on a bid, says Ms Halliwell. “As we don’t have government funding or subvention, unlike many other destinations, we work with the client on why [an event] would work well in London – how we can deliver a spectacular programme for their event – and contact the relevant local bodies as a base for delegate recruitment.”

As we don’t have government funding or subvention, unlike many other destinations, we work with the client and contact the relevant local bodies as a base for delegate recruitment

London isn’t the only European city to embrace the meetings market, valuable not only for the direct revenue from an event itself, but also for the increase in visitor numbers. Vienna tops the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) rankings, closely followed by Paris. The French capital’s star continues to rise as more than 30 new events chose Paris for their debut.

Other ways to attract business events include an ambassador programme, so successfully followed by Edinburgh’s Convention Bureau that 27 leaders from destinations, including Belfast and Calgary, attended a Conference Ambassador Networking Group in Edinburgh to learn how to implement such a scheme.

The approach involves working with local specialists and professional people, (so-called ambassadors), who have a major influence over their association’s choice of conference destination; it is an approach that has attracted more than 210 major conferences, generating more than £100 million in revenue for the city, since 1996. One recent win was the European Association of Plastic Surgeons, which has booked its 2015 conference in Edinburgh at the newly-revamped Assembly Rooms.

The economic impact of events is gaining recognition at government level, with the sector being identified as a key part of the Scottish government’s economic strategy. This has led to the launch of the Scottish Events & Festivals Association (SEFA), formed to represent all involved in the £5.6-billion events and tourism industry in Scotland. SEFA’s remit is to facilitate the successful delivery of events and provide a sustainable platform for businesses.

Sustainable approaches are something that the city of Copenhagen knows only too well. When the destination was chosen to host COP15 (the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), conference organiser MCI Copenhagen offered incentives to hotels to become greener and reduce their carbon impact, and arranged free public transport for all delegates. It was a tangible offering to the client as well as enabling Copenhagen’s infrastructure to demonstrate its capability of hosting similar events in the future.

In Berlin, revenue through hosting meetings and conventions has doubled over the past decade, and amounted to £1.7 billion in 2012. The city set a new record for congress participants last year with 10.5 million attending events, including the 18,000-strong annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

And with attendance figures collectively in the millions, cities understand the important role events can play in economic prosperity. NYC & Company European meetings and events sales and marketing director Paul Black concurs: “We have a visitor target of 55 million by 2015. Each successful bid that results in an event taking place in New York is a crucial step towards achieving our goal.”