in Scotland's future
Scottish Tourist Board
Scotland is enjoying a boom in investment by cities and private companies excited by the country's growing popularity with associations and businesses attracted by its value, quality and variety as a conference and incentive destination. In excess of £200 million is being poured into improving the drawing power of an already impressive collection of hotels, purpose-built conference centres, country houses and castles throughout the country.
Glasgow's Exhibition and Conference Centre is being extended to the tune of £30 million. Adding on a futuristic shell like structure, affectionately nicknamed 'the armadillo' by staff, will transform the SECC exhibition and conference complex into one of the largest in the UK. The new auditorium will accommodate over 3,000 delegates.
Already, £38 million has been spent on the state of the art Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC), and an extension to the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre is being mooted by the Granite City's leaders. Well over £100 million is being invested in new and improved hotels and facilities throughout Scotland, including a new £50 million Edinburgh project for Thistle hotels. Investors know a good thing when they see it. Conferences and exhibitions are already worth £350 million a year to Scotland and revenue is growing by six per cent a year.
"We powered ahead in 1996 because the product investment has dovetailed with market trends and better travel connections to Scotland," explains Frank Mullen, Director of the Scottish Convention Bureau (SCB), which helped to win £20 million worth of conference business for Scotland in 1996. The proof of the bigger pudding being cooked by the SCB is the enthusiastic response of customers.
"We've experienced strong growth for conferences and incentives over the past year," says Sheena Kitchin, Managing Director of Destination Scotland, one of the country's largest destination management companies north of the border. "It's a result of the greater marketing activity of the SCB."
Scotland's delighted customers have included: the Society for Hypertension, which brought 6,000 to Glasgow in June 1996; IBM, which spurned bids by art lovers' paradise Florence and chic Cannes to bring 1,700 delegates to the computer giant's pan-European conference in Edinburgh; and style sultans Vidal Sassoon who chose affluent Aberdeen for prestige hair and fashion shows in a cafe-theatre venue. These and other successes prove that Scotland can deliver what the market wants across the whole range from small meetings to huge conferences.
The big end of the business is looking for new centres and new destinations. The smaller end, a key market for Scotland, loves the mix of venues, outdoor activities and quality accommodation, food and drink, all of which are Scotland's hallmarks. The flagship centres, the SECC and the EICC, have enormous drawing power, and major events confirmed for 1997 have and will demonstrate just how far up the league table Scotland has moved.
Hosting 27,000 delegates for the Rotary International Conference in Glasgow in June this year has shown the world how Scotland can plan a major international event. Smaller in number, but no less important to future prospects, the 1997 conference of the American Society of Travel Agents will bring up to 6,000 potential customers and ambassadors to Glasgow in September, the first customers for the expanded SECC. The EICC will be the main venue in October 1997, when the prestigious Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will bring in 2,000 delegates and media from 53 countries. The centre is already outstripping its targets. By July 1996 it had hit 80 per cent of its target for 1996 and 1997 and has confirmed bookings through till 2003.
More and more business visitors are discovering that there are delights beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow. Once focused heavily on the oil industry, Aberdeen has widened its net, and the Aberdeen and Grampian Highlands Convention Bureau can boast some big conference wins: Scottish political parties; the International Whaling Commission; British Chambers of Commerce and the British Orthopaedic Association. A new hotel, the 92 room Patio Hotel, opened in Aberdeen last year, and others are refurbishing and enlarging rapidly.
"We hope to start a new Ambassadors' programme shortly to get Aberdeen business people and academics to put in a word for us with their associations and companies," says Rachael Greenwood of the Aberdeen and Grampian Highlands Convention Bureau.
Inverness, gateway to the highlands, close to the last great wilderness in Europe and to Loch Ness, the ever popular haunt of cryptozoologists, is also punching its weight as a destination. Its 800 seater Eden Court Theatre is one of the first members of the newly launched Highlands of Scotland Convention Bureau, which covers the whole highland area, and which also has in its membership country house hotels and exclusive-use venues ideal for that corporate think tank!
Dundee, sentinel of the silvery River Tay, has spent £2 million expanding the stage and improving audio-visual facilities at its Caird Hall. The University's award-winning West Park Centre is in great demand and a well equipped 80 seater venue has just opened at Angus College in Arbroath. "We were delighted to have hosted the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland conference in February. It brought more than 800 delegates to Dundee off season," says Lynne Milne, Angus and City of Dundee Convention Bureau Manager. Stakis, the Glasgow-based hotel group, which is expanding through the acquisition of Metropole, is adding rooms to its Earl Grey Hotel in Dundee, just one of a number of investments which the company is making to cater for its growing meetings and conference trade.
The so-called 'cowboys in kilts' films, Braveheart and Rob Roy, are still attracting new visitors to Scotland. "We've noticed a big effect in the incentive market," says Sheena Kitchin. "English visitors seem quite moved by Braveheart!"
More and more, cheaper transport links are also opening up the country to visitors who once saw it as remote or expensive to reach. More competition on London to Scotland air routes and the arrival of low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet have reduced fare levels and have improved flight frequency. Transatlantic flights bring in a growing number of travellers from the USA and Canada, and some analysts expect the proposed alliance between British Airways and American Airlines to increase the options to reach Scotland directly across the pond. The trends towards deregulation of the world's airline routes promises cheaper and more frequent connections between Scotland and Europe.
If you are coming through London, why not eradicate travel time altogether by taking the night train, which once conjured up images of adventure and romance in black and white movies, and is now coming back into fashion. Scotrail's campaign for Caledonian Sleepers has raised the percentage of sleeper berths occupied from 58 per cent to 68 per cent in a year, and the company's goal of creating a hotel on wheels is well down the line.
If business visitors love Scotland, Scotland reciprocates the feeling. The average international conference delegate spends three times more per day than overseas leisure visitors. "They also come predominantly in the spring and autumn, the shoulder seasons, which we are trying hard to develop to encourage even more investment in the industry," says Frank Mullen.
Build a better mousetrap and the press will beat a path to your door, but only if you shout about it! "We've recognised the importance of America both for associations and corporates," says Frank Mullen, "and so the SCB recently led a high powered sales force to the USA to target these lucrative markets. We shall also be producing newsletters with one of the major US meeting's publications."
The SCB will undertake a major advertising and direct mail campaign in the UK this autumn along with other sales activity in the UK and Europe, and other help is available in the form of an SCB website (http://www.convention.scotland.net), a new conference guide, and a directory of corporate hospitality opportunities. The message is loud and clear. Think of Scotland when you think of your next meeting.
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