The V&A museum and £1bn waterfront development have propelled the Tayside city to international prominence – and the business events industry is aiming to follow suit.
In 1998, the number of delegates visiting Dundee and Angus for meetings and conferences was under 10,000 – with only 32 international visitors (barely a bus load) attending events in the region.
Fast forward 20 years and the city by the Tay plays host to 225,000 delegates every year – with 19,500 travelling from abroad to attend business events. With the new V&A Dundee sitting as the jewel in the crown of a £1bn waterfront regeneration, you get the sense the city is preparing for a very special chapter in its history. Already, the V&A – the only such museum outside of London – has garnered worldwide attention, and it hasn’t even opened yet.
The Wall Street Journal put the city, population 148,000, in its 2018 list of “hot destinations” to visit, alongside Shanghai, Madagascar and the Faroe Islands. CNN ranked it as one of the seven coolest places on earth this year, with Paris and Tokyo on the same list.
The glory days of Jute, Jam and Journalism – and the place that pioneered the cash register – may belong to an era long past but the V&A will almost certainly change that; the waterfront development aside (lots of places undergo a facelift), it is this one building whose cultural capital will, it is hoped, become a magnet for the real stuff.
It’s refreshing on my visit to the city not only to sit down with Karen Tocher, who runs the convention bureau for Dundee & Angus, but also John Alexander, who at 29 is the youngest council leader in the country.
PART OF MY focus over the last 12 months, in developing the Business Events Leaders’ Summit in Glasgow, has been to look for evidence of a willingness for senior political leaders to work with the meetings industry, which has been banging an ever louder drum about the wider role that business events can play in the economic and social development goals of regions and nations. Mr Alexander, who is also Chair of the Scottish Cities Alliance, seems to grasp it.
“A key component of our economic strategy is the Tay Cities Deal, which is a £1.8bn programme of investment over a 10-year period and I would hope that growth through the Tay Cities Deal would bring with it additional benefits in terms of business events,” says Alexander, who mentions energy, computer gaming, medical sciences and ethical hacking as key areas of focus for Dundee.
He adds: “There is potential off the back of that investment that we will see international events coming to the city. We have completed a body of work which has tried to broaden what the city has to offer to business, but also what we can learn from people who are working in the realms of delivering major events that are complimentary to the work of the city.”
Dundee is aiming to increase its business events traffic by 20% in the next five years; its academic ambassador programme, launched in November 2000, has been a key focus to drive that agenda and there are now 250 ambassadors from the city’s three academic institutions – University of Dundee, Abertay University and the James Hutton Institute – who have brought over 200 conferences to the region, contributing over £36 million to the economy.
The city has hosted business events for largescale associations over the course of the last few years, including the International Society for Addiction Medicine (ISAM), where over 600 delegates from 56 countries visited the city for its 17th annual comgress in 2015, with the support of the VisitScotland Conference Bid Fund. Although the fund is now closed, the city’s three academic institutions – along with the convention bureau – are working cooperatively to secure an educational conference in 2019 or 2020 for another 600 delegates.
CAIRD HALL – which can accommodate conferences or the size of ISAM – has typically been the largest venue for delegates but there are plans afoot to boost the city’s capacity. This follows a growth in demand which has seen venues such as the Apex Hotel installing a temporary marquee for events such as the Courier Business Awards and overall the city seems to be embracing the notion of bringing in more academic and association business events, for between 300-800 delegates, which falls within the average range for the sector. To secure the upcoming World Karate Championships in June, the city will use a combination of the ice arena and a car park marquee to welcome 4,000 spectators, delegates and officials.
The city itself does not have the hotel capacity to host all of those incomers, so will be working closely with accommodation providers in Fife; the emerging school of thought is to position Dundee not in isolation (or within traditional council boundaries) but as a ‘regional destination’, working more closely with tourism, business and public sector bodies across Fife and Perthshire.
The Tayside area currently has 1,199 bedrooms with a confirmed 617 additional rooms coming on stream between now and 2018, 283 of which will be 4-star, including a number of new hotels in and around the new V&A and train station development at the heart of the regeneration zone. The dramatic increase in bed space will also enable the city to host multiple conferences at the same time, a crucial driver for economic impact.
The Tayside Conference Centre Feasibility Study – commissioned by Scottish Enterprise – is also looking at ways to enhance conference capacity, as it identifies the city, ‘does not currently offer a landmark facility with major event appeal and delegate capacity’. Karen says the plan would be to have a purpose-built conference facility – with breakout capacity – which could host business events for up to 800 in the near term and with an “aspiration” of 1,200 for future years.
THE EXACT location of any future centre has yet to be determined but the report states, ‘there was a clear and consistent view identified throughout the consultation process that Dundee was the most appropriate location for enhanced conference facilities in the region.’
Looking at the potential of the V&A to be a venue to host social programmes, my own view is that it would be madness if the plan wasn’t for a new centre – if given the green light – to be sited as close as possible to the incredible new £80m building, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. “We’re putting ourselves on an international stage,” says Karen.
“Dundee is growing at the moment, and we have done a phase one feasibility study looking at the opportunity for where there should be a conference facility in the Tayside region and we’re going to be progressing those plans.”
She adds: “I think the drive will still be the academic and association sector but I think there’s going to be a lot more involvement between academics and private sector and being able to say ‘this is what’s happening out in the real world’, showcasing our achievements, and how that actually links back to research. We’ve always come with the attitude of punching above our weight.”
Alexander says: “The waterfront project has been 20 years in the making and we’re at that pinnacle stage now where we’ve landed an internationally acclaimed museum of design, we have a UNESCO status and everything that comes with that in terms of the calibre of expertise. 2018 is a pivotal year. It is a year where we can spotlight and showcase what Dundee can do, and can do extremely well.”