More than 50 meetings industry professionals gathered in Glasgow yesterday for a panel-led discussion about developing the national conference ambassador network.

Leading academics joined VisitScotland and convention bureaux heads in a fireside chat about how to work together to boost the number of conferences coming to Scotland.

The Q&A-style event, which took place in the Lighthouse in the city, was designed to promote VisitScotland’s INNOVATETHENATION programme – celebrating its first anniversary – which seeks to attract conference ‘ambassadors’ from the academic community to help position Scotland as a destination for conferences in key economic sectors.

Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen convention bureaux all took part in the ‘INNOVATEFORUM’, along with representatives from their respective academic communities, with the discussion focusing on how both communities can stimulate a productive working environment to help attract large association conferences to the country.

Rory Archibald, Associations & Sectors at VisitScotland, said: “We engage with academics, we engage with local experts to create a community of Scottish ambassadors to help attract business events to Scotland – to strengthen our profile, to strengthen our knowledge, and to strengthen our communities. We are trying to find new ways to engage with traditional ambassadors but also to engage with new ambassadors who have perhaps never considered it before.”

The event focused on what makes a good meeting from an academic perspective; most present agreed that there had to be ‘good science’ but also ‘good fun’ contained within a social programme. The ambassadors considered Scotland to be a high-quality destination for events with supportive convention bureaux which helped reduce the time and resource burden on academics to produce a conference bid. Facilities and infrastructure were also considered to be ‘first class’. From an academic perspective there were concerns from a UK context that it is sometimes easier to access major cities in England which could act as a deterrent for large associations hosting their meetings north of the border.

However, one of the most challenging issues facing conference bids was the perception from a European point of view over the implications of Brexit.

Professor Richard Russell, a Consultant Paediatric Gastroenterologist at Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Children, helped to secure the bid for the meeting of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology 2019 (ESPGHAN). The event will welcome 4,500 delegates to the city, injecting £7.2 million to the local economy.

However, he said Brexit was already starting to “cast a shadow” over the bidding process for other European association conferences that Scotland hopes to attract.

He said: “I think it’s an issue. Having enjoyed everything that went into the bid for 2019, we have gone into another organisation to bring a European meeting of a similar size and that’s why they’re not coming; too much uncertainty. I think it is a real challenge for European things to come to Scotland or the UK with Brexit and the uncertainty that it brings.”

However he added: “But it makes it much cheaper than before and I think we just have to promote the positive aspects of things while they happen but they don’t like the uncertainty of Brexit; these conferences are happening two or three years in advance and it’s an uncertain environment and they don’t want to risk going into that environment. I think it has a negative impact but I think we have to take a positive side to it and say if that’s the case you’re going to get more for your Euro coming to Scotland than you did two years ago. The economic uncertainty has honestly cast a shadow over the bids that we work on.”

Dr Richard Reardon, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, said he hadn’t had direct experience of Brexit affecting a bid he was involved with but recalled that a previous bid involving Greece – which has also been through turbulent political and economic times – had put off an association conference organiser. He said: “There was quite a lot of uncertainty about their financial situation and the association were less keen. I think any uncertainty is likely to put these organising committees off.”

The panel comprised:

Neil Brownlee, Head of Business Events, VisitScotland

Rory Archibald, Associations & Conferences, VisitScotland

Aileen Crawford, Head of Conventions, Glasgow Convention Bureau

Amanda Ferguson, Head of Business Tourism, Marketing Edinburgh

Graeme Mackay, Ambassador Programme Executive, VisitAberdeenshire.

Professor Richard Russell, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow

Dr Richard Reardon, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Karen Wares – Scientific Programme Committee Coordinator, Infection Prevention Society