Business tourists are worth more to the UK economy than those who come just to marvel at our cathedrals, scenery and cooking. But they could be worth a lot more.
“Business tourism is not always recognised in the way it should be and the country punches below its weight as an events destination. It’s a sleeping giant,” says James Beresford, chief executive of the national tourist board Visit England.
The reason for wanting to attract business events is clear. Business travellers to the UK spend an average of £131 a day - more than twice the expenditure of leisure visitors - and trade transacted at exhibitions in the UK is conservatively estimated to be worth more than £100 billion, according to a report from trade body Britain for Events.
Currently almost a quarter of visitors to the UK are here to do business and that number is steadily climbing, with business visits to the UK in 2011 up 6 per cent at 7.2 million, compared with 2010. But, according to Mr Beresford, that’s not enough.
“The top business events destination in this country is London in 14th place [in global rankings compiled by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), which ranks cities by the number of international association congresses it hosts in a year]. The next best is Manchester at 86th and you’ve got to scroll down to 309th to find Leeds and Newcastle,” he says.
Vienna has held the top spot in the ICCA rankings for the last six years while Barcelona, in second place, has proved the importance of capitalising on an Olympic legacy. The city’s convention bureau reported a 129 per cent increase in business in the year following the 1992 Games.
This summer’s Olympics are an opportunity for Britain to reinvent itself as an events destination. “People still mistakenly think we are an expensive destination. In comparison to many of the European destinations, we’re not,” says Mr Beresford.
If you want to win an international symposium… you need a more cohesive approach by industry, parliament and local government
London is already witnessing a “halo effect” of the Games. Examples of events coming to the city on the back of the Olympic and Paralympic Games include the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry Congress, a meeting of the British Association of Spinal Cord Injury Specialists and US sportswear brand New Balance, which will take over Westminster venue Altitude 360 during the Games. Other prestigious congress wins include the 20th European Congress on Obesity, which will see 3,000 delegates arrive in Liverpool in 2013, and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association conference, which is expected to attract 9,000 delegates to the ICC Birmingham in April. It is thought these two events will contribute £5 million and £10 million respectively to the local economies.
The launch of the International Convention Centre at Excel London in 2010 also increased levels of conference business, attracting organisations, such as the European League Against Rheumatism, which welcomed more than 16,000 delegates, the highest number ever, to its meeting in May 2011.
Scotland, which is seeing unprecedented investment in its meeting facilities, will welcome the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup in 2014, and these will provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to showcase the country.
Meanwhile, the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP), which lobbies to raise the profile of the business tourism sector in Britain, is forging closer links with UK Trade and Investment. “We need to align international conferences and exhibitions with the government’s priority sectors for the national economy,” says Michael Hirst, chairman of the BVEP. It is also calling for the Treasury to adjust VAT on conference services and venue hire to fall in line with the 5 per cent more commonly paid throughout Europe.
The BVEP has recommended that the government introduces a national subvention package for UK destinations bidding for events, which would allow them to compete more fairly with other European countries. It would also like to see the introduction of a special event visa for meetings with more than 2,000 delegates.
“Our argument is that if you want to win an international symposium of immunologists or lawyers, where we are talking about perhaps 10,000 delegates assembling, you need a more cohesive approach by industry, parliament and local government,” says Mr Hirst. “The industry isn’t asking the government for money, just for it to recognise what a business event brings to a destination.”