Inaugural Business Events Leaders’ Summit hears need for ‘higher order strategy’ to integrate business events within wider policy goals

Scotland requires a ‘higher order strategy’ which places business events at the heart of economic and social policy-making across all departments of government, the inaugural Business Events Leaders’ Summit has heard.

If Scotland is to continue to compete on the world stage, it must articulate a vision whereby business events are seen by industry and government as a powerful tool to stimulate inward investment, attract global talent and to support the work of key economic sectors. “We are change agents, not travel agents,” was a message which permeated through the gathering of high-level business events professionals at #BELS18 at Glasgow’s SEC on March 21.

But the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions) industry, worth a putative £2bn to the Scottish econony, has characteristically evolved as a tourism concern, the event heard, and that any benefits derived from it, especially those over the longer term (such as the legacy of a new scientific discovery or a new business deal made), are not effectively measured by government, its agencies or even the industry itself.

In order to push the agenda for the MICE industry in Scotland and farther afield, its leaders must articulate the vision to politicians that investing in the sector is vital not only to attracting international conferences to populate hotels and venues, but also to the wider realms of society, in terms of their long-term or ‘beyond tourism’ benefits, evoked by projects  such as the Iceberg, conceived by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC).

In Australia, for example, Business Events Sydney worked with local academics to develop a model which proved the worth of meetings as a tool for economic and social change; politicians then used that research – carried out by the University of Technology Sydney (#BELS18 speakers Professors Carmel Foley and Deborah Edwards) – as an evidence base before investing in the new ICC Sydney convention centre.

Neil Brownlee, Head of Business Events at VisitScotland, told delegates: “I think we truly need to be driving Scotland’s economic and social transformation through business events. I think that’s fundamentally where we need to get to in Scotland. How can we do this? The higher level ambition – we need a higher order strategy.

“The Iceberg is the way to the future. We need to articulate that argument in Scotland, to Scottish Government and others.

“We need to convince and convert people to what business events is about. We need to keep the tourism bit because that’s an important part of the offering.
“I think we’re making progress rather than perfection but I think… we need a higher order strategy, and that’s where Scotland needs to get to.”

The meeting was the first time this quantity and calibre of industry leaders had gathered formally in Scotland for a summit to discuss high-level strategy. More than 120 delegates from organisations including Trump Turnberry, The Balmoral, University of St Andrews, Fairmont St Andrews attended alongside national and regional government bodies including VisitScotland and regional conventional bureaux as well as the big publicly-backed meetings centres such as the SEC in Glasgow, Edinburgh’s EICC and the new AECC in Aberdeen.

All took part in afternoon workshops based on developing those principal MICE centres, with outcomes collected and disseminated by EventsBase magazine, which are available online.

Nationally, the strategy to develop ‘Business Tourism’ sits within the over-arching Tourism 2020 strategy, which is due a refresh next year, a process to be completed by the industry group Business Tourism for Scotland (BTfS), Chaired by Judy Rae, who has worked hard to push business events further up the industry agenda with key stakeholders, including the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Scottish Government.

Paul McCafferty, Head of Tourism at Scottish Enterprise, paid tribute to that work and said: “Prior to the launch of Tourism Scotland 2020, our support from Scottish Enterprise was very much about business infrastructure investment often driven by wider regeneration in place development priorities.

“It was a significant investment in cash terms and in terms of creating capacity for Scotland to operate internationally in the business events field but very much about bricks and mortar. Following the launch of the strategy, we moved away from the simple bricks and mortar approach which was evident in the likes of our investment in the EICC or the early days of the SEC or more recently the Hydro Arena and considered much more about the wider economic contribution that business events could make for Scotland also how the contribution could be made to the sector development agenda.”

McCafferty admitted that it has been “challenging”, however, to articulate the benefits of the long-term impacts of conferences because of the nature of them being so far from the point of immediate, measurable economic benefits. But event though it’s difficult he urged the audience to make a ‘clear ask’ of government as to what it wants, and then base that on evidence.

“What would it mean in terms of additional economic value and thus the justification for the allocation of the resource,?” he said. “In the case of business events, as we’ve heard, that is a very, very difficult thing to do, but my feeling is somehow we have to find a way of cracking this.”