THE FINEST SCOTCH

Scotland has entered the premier league as an international conference destination, thanks to vastly improved facilities and sound marketing. David Reed takes to the high road.

Given the choice, where in the world would you go for an international conference? America might beckon, as would a European capital city. For a change, you might book into a Mediterranean resort- or anywhere, in fact, which offers the right combination of business and leisure facilities. Scotland might not appear to immediately fit the bill, but there is every indication that the region is rapidly becoming one of the prime international locations for an event.

According to ICCA, the international meetings association, the US is the top worldwide destination, accounting for 7.15 per cent of events in 1996. The United Kingdom, remarkably, is in second place, with 6.15 per cent. But the American share of the market is declining – it will slip to second place in 1997, with 6.47 per cent – as the UK takes the top slot with 6.95 per cent.

What that figure for the whole country conceals is the extent to which some locations are rapidly increasing their share. The most remarkable change has to be that of Edinburgh. It is now ranked 13th in the world as a destination, up from 20th. London, conversely, has continued to slip from being eighth in 1994 to 15th in 1996.

ICCA bases its data on meetings hosted by its members. These must be regular events, which rotate between at least four different countries, and which attract a minimum of 100 participants. This is exactly the market which Scotland has gone after, and which it is seeing a significant upswing from.

“Scotland is better than ever equipped to cater for all types and sizes of conferences and events,” says Carolyn Dow, head of sales and marketing at the Scottish Convention Bureau (the region is the only one in the UK with its own dedicated bureau).

She points to two recent examples as proof that Scotland is now firmly on the international conventions schedule. In June 1997, Rotary International brought 25,000 of its members to the region, while in September, 6,000 members of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) also took the high road.

This success is the result of two key factors – infrastructure and marketing. With a seven-strong staff, SCB is able to promote the country as a whole, focusing on specific target markets. An advertising campaign this autumn, for example, will be spread across four different media – trade, daily/weekly business press, corporate magazines, and academic titles.

But it is the development of its facilities that has put Scotland firmly into the premier league. Most notable have been the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) in Glasgow and the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC). Both have significantly expanded the available space and configurations organisers can use, with state-of-the-art design and technology.

EICC marketing manager Gillian Beth says the centre is pulling in a new type of client. “We will be hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, the first time it has been held in the UK for 20 years. We were up against two or three other venues but Edinburgh was chosen for the city, as well as the facilities,” she says.

This creates its own pressures. As well as the 53 heads of state and their entourages, 1,200 media representatives are expected to cover the event. But the city is used to massive influxes of both punters and press, not least because of the International Festival and its Fringe, the largest in Europe.

With a new conference centre to complement the city’s older attractions, Beth says: “Edinburgh is a very selectable destination because the two work in tandem.”

Before it was the European City of Culture in 1990, which itself followed on from the “Miles Better” advertising campaign, few might have chosen Glasgow as a glittering international destination.

Now, however, it is likely to jump ahead. With the SECC, it has only the second purpose-built commercial auditorium in the UK (Birmingham’s ICC was the first). This newly-opened facility, popularly known as the “armadillo”, may become as familiar a shape to international junketers as the Sydney opera house. It offers a 3,000 seat theatre space alongside 22,000 sq m of exhibition space.

The two new centres seem likely to increase discussion about the differences between each city. According to Gavin Edgar, event consultant with The Entertainment Company (Scotland’s largest organiser which ran the ASTA event): “Edinburgh and Glasgow have different cultures, although they are only 40 miles apart. Glasgow doesn’t sell heather, haggis and kilts – it has a more open culture. In Edinburgh, maybe be-cause of the castle, there is more emphasis on heritage.”

Scotland’s enduring sense of its own history has found its ultimate expression in the recent Yes vote in the referendum.

This will result in the setting up of a Scottish Parliament in 1999, which will have tax varying powers. While not the full independence within a federal Europe desired by Scots Nationalists, it may well generate more interest in the region.

The political outcome will also have a knock-on effect on conferences and exhibitions. “Constant change will highlight and amplify Scotland’s unique heritage and culture around the world,” says Ian Grant, chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board. “We believe that the Parliament has the potential to enhance both the status of our industry and its effectiveness. We will therefore await the detailed proposals for tourism under the new arrangements with interest.”

“Wait and see” has to be the policy, since the division of power in the new Parliament will depend on the outcome of the election in two years’ time. Much has been made of the possibility of a “tartan tax”, however, and its impact on business.

But a more intelligent way of raising additional revenues, and one which would not penalise residents, might be to follow the model of other autonomous regions around the world. Introducing a tourism tax, in the form of airport charges or per-night duties for hotel visits, would raise significant sums, yet be scarcely noticed by business delegates.

Certainly the market for Scottishness appears to be sufficiently robust to ride the increased cost. As Edgar says: “Like any country you go to, people expect what they have read and seen on packets of shortbread to be what they see here. It is the ‘tartan factor’.”

His company is usually asked by event organisers to provide ceilidhs and bagpipes. At the opening ceremony for the Rotarians’ visit, for example, the entire body of delegates watched a Scottish choir and dancers in Ibrox Stadium.

There are other, less well-known dimensions to Scotland which his company tries to add in. “You can have a gala evening, then we can offer other things,” he says. But he is not about to kill the golden goose. “The strongest Scottish identity we have is obviously highland dress. It is known worldwide. Forget our historic people and monuments, the kilt is the big thing.”

Scotland also offers an enormous hinterland which combines beautiful landscape with modern facilities. This makes it especially appealing for events which are as much about motivating staff as they are about informing them (especially if they are golfers).

Cameron House in the De Vere chain is a good example. Based at Loch Lomond, the newly-enlarged hotel not only has a Michelin-starred restaurant, but boasts the services of a round-the-world yachtsman, Nick Cunningham, to oversee its sailing club. Sales conference delegates can indulge in sport, food and drink as well as networking and receiving the latest corporate message.

In many respects the new SECC building is as much an extension of Scotland’s history as the Parliament. It has contributed many of the best known engineers and architects of the post-industrial revolution – prime among them being Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose House for an Art Lover can now be hired out. As one American visitor remarked about Edinburgh: “The Scots are truly great engineers and show so much ingenuity that they built the castle next to the train station.”

But Scotland is by no means purely an international venue. Dow points out that while overseas business tourism was worth 147m, from 270,000 trips, visits from within the UK were worth 228m in 1996 from 1.4 million trips. “Although the spend per head is much greater for overseas visitors than UK visitors, the UK is clearly our largest and most important market,” she says. In recognition of this, SCB has just appointed a new UK sales manager to target the domestic corporate and incentive market.

Perceptions can be slow to shift where destinations are concerned. But they can take a sudden turn for the better – just ask Glasgow. For Scotland, its new status is likely to provide a further fillip to its already healthy conference and exhibition industry. International associations and event organisers have been quick to recognise the benefits of its infrastructure and glorious landscape.

If anything, it is the attitudes of potential UK customers which might be harder to change. Edgar notes: “To Americans, Scotland is part of London. They can’t believe it is so close. They are used to travelling from state to state and think nothing of it. But the British worry about it being 400 miles from London.”

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