Conference sector adds huge economic value to Leeds visitor economy
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Leeds is looking to concentrate on key target sectors as it works to continue the success it has enjoyed in becoming the fourth most popular conferencing city in the UK – playing its part in contributing more than £212m to the city’s visitor economy.
Wendy Earl, head of visitor economy at official convention bureau Conference Leeds, told TheBusinessDesk.com’s roundtable on the industry: “Digital and healthcare are the big ones. Creativity is another, especially with Channel Four coming into Leeds.”
She said at the heart of the strategy was “joined up thinking” and ways of leveraging existing links in those sectors.
Earl told the gathering of top conferencing and meeting professionals, held at Gilbanks: “It is about how we can build on what we have got. It is not about going out at the moment and trying to get something new.
“It is about how we can sell this more, stick to what we are good at and not try to be everything to everybody.”
Leeds was ranked the fourth most popular conferencing city in the UK in a recent British Meetings and Events Industry survey (BMEIS). The average number of delegates in attendance at events has increased significantly, reaching 368 – up from 238 in 2017.
And business visitors are playing a growing part in a tourism industry which contributed £212.7m to the local economy in 2017. The visitor economy sector is growing at an impressive rate, with day visitors up by 4% and overnight stays increasing by 5.4%.
However, looking more long-term, Leeds is exploring new markets overseas, and that includes possible opportunities in India and China.
Earl said that the city was also considering how it could start leveraging its existing strong relationships across Europe as it develops its strategy to gain more business.
Sarah Rosplock, events and corporate sales manager at Harvey Nichols, said the retailer was looking to play its part in the future development of the sector by getting more involved in cooperate conference events happening in the city. It’s a strategy driven by the fact the conferences sector is “such a big revenue driver” in the city, she explained.
The upmarket retailer’s Leeds-based events and corporate sales manager said the business was looking to expand its role in both hosting and supporting events in the city.
And the roundtable participants discussed the importance of the “whole package” when attraction large delegations – bringing more spend into the city’s shops, restaurants and leisure facilities.
Wendy Ashton-Evans, of Pineapple Events, added: “I do sell the fact that Leeds has amazing shopping. You have got every brand here. People are shocked when they see that.
“It about the night-time economy, getting people into the city if there is any late night shopping, private shopping that is another pull.”
Jamie Ades, senior destination manager (business events) at Visit Britain, added that the quality of Leeds retail offering is also important when it comes to attracting the international market and pointed out that major conferences run partner programmes.
Offering experiences to international visitors is also important when it comes to winning conference business, explained Megan MacBrairdy. venue manager at Horizon Leeds.
She told of one American healthcare event that had been held in the desert one year and on a roller coaster in Las Vegas the next.
When the event came to Leeds they enjoyed a medieval experience that included jousting. MacBrairdy said: “Would Leeds have won that business if we hadn’t thought outside the box? It is trying to sell the whole package. We just have to think differently.”
The creation of a conference centre in Leeds has been the subject of much debate in recent years, with supporters firmly believing the time is right for the city as visitor numbers continue to grow.
The roundtable also discussed what it could deliver for the city and its business tourism sector – and if it was needed; especially as many venues in and out of the city collaborated to host the events and also to ensure delegates had access to the necessary hotel space.
MacBrairdy added: “We should be really proud of ourselves as a city. We haven’t got this big convention centre and we are still coming fourth in the UK.”
Emma Cartmell, chief executive of CHS Group, which connects hotels and venues with conference and event organisers, and which is behind the annual Conference and Hospitality Show in the city, spoke of her doubts that a new centre was the way forward.
She said: “If we had a conference centre then we need the infrastructure, then we need the hotels, then we need to fill it. Actually, building on what we’ve got, trying to expand the offer through retail and travel, might be an easier way.”
She added: “It is about having a plan. What do we want? Are we better off building on what we have got and driving rates?
“It is getting everybody on board with that plan and how they can contribute.”
Wayne Topley, who chairs the 32-member Leeds Hotels and Venues Association and who also runs The Queens in the city centre, said he felt a conference centre was the “next natural step for Leeds.”
Wendy Earl agreed that the city needed to “push” for a convention centre as part of its overall strategy, although she added: “I don’t think we are going to get it too soon.”
Laura Freer, group sales manager at rail operator LNER, said: “We have got to work here and now with what we’ve got and we’ve got a really good package.”
She also spoke about the need to look regionally and to strengthen Leeds’ bid for events by using the attractions of its neighbours in Yorkshire as well as its own.
Freer, whose background is in the conferencing sector in the region, added: “That, to me, is the only way to work, moving forward to bring in this business.”