London and other major UK cities face a tough challenge from events destinations worldwide where investment in infrastructure and venues has pushed ahead
Since the 2012 London Olympics, the UK has moved up the global conference ladder and has now broken into the top six city destinations in the world for major association congresses, according to the latest annual statistics released by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA).
In the ICCA country rankings, the UK is up to fourth, pushing past France to approach leaders the United States, Germany and Spain.
Infrastructure is the key to running a successful event, and the Gulf States and China have hit the headlines for investment in tourism infrastructure as new global meetings destinations sprang up in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and on the Chinese mainland.
Now the UK has the Crossrail, HS2 and HS3 rail links all set to offer an improved transport experience for delegates.
For the UK to remain a leader in hosting events, investment needs to continue, something that can only be achieved if those in power truly understand our economic impact
Des McLaughlin, divisional director at Grass Roots Meetings and Events, says: “Infrastructure programmes must dovetail with event planning and logistics. For the UK to remain a leader in hosting events, investment needs to continue, something that can only be achieved if those in power truly understand our economic impact. As an industry we have the data and figures, we just need to be better at presenting it to policymakers.”
It is an industry that is estimated to be worth some £40 billion to the UK economy, according the Business Visits & Events Partnership, and even the most conservative estimates put a conference delegate’s spend at three times that of a leisure tourist.
It is an uneven pattern in the UK, where those dowdy destination dowagers – conference towns that had their heyday in the 1970s when unions, professional associations and political parties swarmed to the seafront to meet, not bothering much about return on their investment – are now scrambling to find the funds to freshen up their venues.
Cambridge has worked smartly to align its scientific and pharmaceuticals research and development cluster with a campaign to win international conferences. It is an effort that has seen it rise to fifth in the UK city rankings, according to ICCA, and in Europe from 95th to 58th.
It clearly pays to put the accent on what you do best rather than go into battle on price. Hong Kong and Singapore have held their ground as specialist technological hubs in Asia, and continue to innovate in conferencing rather than attempt to compete on price with neighbours Thailand where there is a good events business in the incentives travel niche.
UK destinations seem reticent to harness the power of so-called subvention funding to attract the big convention fish. The very word “subvention” may sail too close to the reach of the Bribery Act for some and even those who use it – or “bid funding” as conference bureaus prefer it to be called – do not shout about it. Small investments in putting on a welcome party from the mayor or offering a travelcard for delegates on a city’s transport system can make a big difference to event organisers.
Such packages are not commonplace in the UK, yet they form the core of marketing strategy for many international business tourism boards, including the Thai Convention and Exhibition Bureau, which offers hard cash – up to one million baht (£19,000) – if conference organisers meet certain conditions, including delegate numbers.
If you can’t splash the cash, reduce the risk. Glasgow has developed a trail-blazing policy of risk-sharing with the city bureau and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre offering to take a hit on venue rental fees if delegate numbers go down. This policy gives more incentive for increased joint efforts in boosting delegate numbers and, no doubt, boosts organisers’ confidence in the process.
Other variables that can be controlled include taxes and visa restrictions. Mr McLaughlin comments: “True, our VAT is fairly high, but many international businesses can reclaim this. But I do think the government needs urgently to review visa agreements with China – as the world’s most populous country and an economic powerhouse, everything we do to make their travel harder to the UK reduces business opportunities.”
There is always another convention city waiting to offer a smoother welcome. Higher Chinese and Russian visitor numbers to France and other Schengen nations, compared to the UK, bear out the fact that applying for a UK visa can be a laborious and often expensive experience.
The UK still falls some way off the pace set by the United States and Australia where buy-in by academia is second nature.
The prizes are big for destinations getting their infrastructure investment, subvention funding, technology and ambassador programmes in line.
The International Liver Congress saw more than 10,000 delegates come to London in 2014 – the congress’s highest ever attendance – while the European Society of Pathology Congress in London last year enjoyed a 23 per cent increase in attendance compared with 2013 in Lisbon.
Such meetings only began to come to the UK following the construction of an International Convention Centre at Excel London in 2010. Tellingly, the investment came from Abu Dhabi.
The self-proclaimed events capital of the UK, Birmingham, has lacked investment at its flagship venue, the National Exhibition Centre or NEC. A new era is opening following confirmation last month of the council’s sale of the venue complex to an investment arm of Lloyds Bank for £307 million.