Joined-up thinking can help Scotland attract major business events, says Marketing Edinburgh’s new Head of Business Tourism Amanda Ferguson. 

I meet Amanda Ferguson not long after she has started her new role as Head of Business Tourism at Marketing Edinburgh. “Week five,” she says, as though mentally checking time on what is a very big step from an operational role at VisitScotland – where she was Senior Marketing Manager, UK & Europe – into a position of leadership, and greater public profile.

When it comes to bidding for MICE business for Edinburgh the buck essentially stops with her. But at no time during the next half an hour of our conversation does she appear daunted by the challenge – of trying to secure in the order of £97m in conference wins for the capital.

“I’m thriving on the challenge,” she says. “It is what I expected, I knew it was going to be challenging but I’ve certainly got my feet under the desk and there’s no time to take a break and take stock of everything. You’ve just got to keep everything going at the same time as getting up to speed,” she says.

She nurses a coffee as she reflects on the previous evening where she attended a dinner to celebrate the contribution of academic ‘ambassadors’ to the city, who over the last 21 years have helped bring in conferences worth £941m to the capital. Whilst she is keen to keep reinforcing the message among Edinburgh’s academics of the vital contribution they make – helping to influence their international peer groups to attract large association conferences to Edinburgh – she also wants to hitch her coat tails to the current meetings industry zeitgeist.

That means developing links with business and creating, where possible, corporate ambassadors to fulfil a similar role on the international stage.

The so called ‘sector-specific’ approach relies on bringing in business events which match a city or nation’s key economic strengths. As we sit discussing the strategic developments of the meetings industry, she flashes a piece of paper with the key sectors she’s looking to target: Life Sciences, Technology, Creative Industries, Renewable Energy, Food & Drink and Financial Services.

“Those are the big six that we’re focusing on,” she says. “Essentially, we’re looking at positioning the city and its centres of excellence for core sectors and focusing on that.”

Ferguson has barely got through the door and although she clearly has the benefit of a strategic awareness inculcated at the national tourism agency, she is not about to radically overhaul the way things are done at Marketing Edinburgh.

She pays tribute to her predecessor Lesley Williams, and the team she is now working with at the organisation.

“It will be several months, if not 12 months, before I decide if I’m going to be strategically changing anything. I’m certainly not a game-changer in that sense where I come in and throw everything out with the bathwater. There’s a team operating very well as it is so let’s understand how they’re working, can we make some efficiencies, and then longer term look at what we’re doing,” she says.

She is joining the organisation at a time where a new board has also been recently appointed, and an element of ‘fresh blood’ will bring commercial impetus to the development of a new five-year strategy in the autumn.

At the same time, she will be spearheading a new digital marketing campaign – ‘Make it Edinburgh’ – on behalf of partner organisations (Edinburgh Airport, Edinburgh Hotels Association, Surgeons’ Hall, EICC, ETAG, Scottish Enterprise – with match funding from VisitScotland’s Growth Fund) who have all responded to the need to position Edinburgh’s economic strengths nationally and internationally. That campaign will target key trade and social media in a bid to boost Edinburgh’s profile for those key economic sectors.

“The objective is to increase business inquiries in terms of conferences and MICE business coming into the city in the short to medium term, so 12 to 18 months,” says Amanda Ferguson.

It’s also a subtle reminder that the city is open for business; just as London did in the aftermath of brexit, Edinburgh is keen to dampen down market jitters by emphasising a ‘business as usual’ approach to what has been a turbulent time, politically and economically.

“Across the group and the city, there was a concern about the political and economic uncertainty and it was felt among these key stakeholders that we needed to address that,” she says.

She adds: “This is very much about taking action to counter any kind of negative perceptions.”

The concern is more than just sentiment; the latest Marketing Edinburgh ltd Annual Review 2016/2017 states that Convention Edinburgh has delivered an increase in economic impact in the last four years by 10%. But, it notes: “2016/2017 has however been fraught with challenges that have resulted in an under achievement of target – c£80M*.” The report cites Brexit and Indy- Ref2, and the closure of the National Bid Fund in 2016 among the chief reasons for a lowering of expected revenues.

Convention Edinburgh hosted a dinner for its 'gold standard' academic Ambassador programme last month.
Convention Edinburgh hosted a dinner for its ‘gold standard’ academic Ambassador programme last month.

Amanda Ferguson sees the winning of major ‘trophy conferences’ as one of the key drivers for raising the profile and activity in Edinburgh’s MICE market; joined-up thinking between the likes of VisitScotland, the convention bureaux, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government is also high on her agenda for helping to bring in those major events.

She cites a discussion she had the previous evening with an executive from The Data Lab – the government-funded data science innovation centre – which has established its own DataFest event in the city. It has already become an international event but for that particular sector Strata – which has Google and Intel as its global sponsors – is the biggest and most well-known on the international circuit.

Ferguson says: “It’s really exciting to think that there could finally be joined-up thinking from a tourism perspective, showcasing sectors that flow through naturally into Scottish enterprise and for government departments to understand that hosting these big conferences raises our profile and leads to more jobs.

“The Data Lab is already engaging very closely with Scottish enterprise and they’ve got a big agenda to push out roadshows across the country as part of DataFest.

“That’s a great illustration; they’ve created that event themselves and it’s pulling in international audiences, especially from the North American market. That’s pulling in key influencers, decision-makers and investors from across the world from that sector. But why not also have the ambition to bring something like Strata into Scotland?”

She adds: “Each industry sector, be that genetics, big data, informatics and cell biology, they will all have the big trophy conference that each industry goes to. It’s big high-profile, international events like these where joined-up thinking can lead to doors being opened and help bring them over the line.”

*Estimated figure; full year’s figures yet to be published