Today, when finances are tight and travel budgets a big concern, organising your company’s annual conference close to home makes economic sense.

If the UK has lagged behind its European counterparts in terms of variety and scale, it can now boast an increasing number of conference centres that have the right technological and accommodation infrastructure.

Sofitel’s Terminal Five convention and conference centre at Heathrow Airport, London, is one example of the high-end facilities now available in the UK. But it is not just in London that investment in conference facilities has come to fruition. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – so long the bridesmaids to London’s pre-eminent position as significant conference host – can boast a string of elite venues.

Regional and metropolitan government in the UK will surely be hoping that these newer, bigger and more technically advanced facilities will provide much needed boosts to their economies.

This is particularly true in the light of last year’s British Conference Venues Survey, which revealed a downturn in direct revenues for the UK conference market during 2005-07.

Revenues fell to an estimated £8bn ($11bn) compared with £9.8bn in 2004-06, the survey found. This was mainly due to a reduction of about 6 per cent in the average number of conferences per venue – down from 422 in 2004-06 to 396 in 2005-07. A shift from residential to non-overnight conferences had a significant impact, as the former delivered almost two-thirds of overall venue income.

The survey also confirmed the growing importance of the not-for-profit sector. During 2005-07, the public sector and associations accounted for 52 per cent of all meetings and conferences, while corporate conferences, which traditionally account for two-thirds of the market, were down to 48 per cent.

UK tourist and marketing chiefs believe the importance of conference spending within local economies cannot be underestimated.

Caroline Packman, head of VisitScotland’s Business Tourism Unit (BTU), says: “The Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow is contributing greatly to the local economy by hosting major conferences that are drawing record numbers of delegates.

“In 2008, four meetings – the World Congress on Pain, the International Confederation of Midwives, the International Astronautical Congress, and the European Sleep Research Society conference – drew record delegate numbers (more than 13,000 in total) and benefited Glasgow’s economy greatly.”

Scotland is continuing to invest with some £800m being ploughed into new and redeveloped venues across the country.

Edinburgh is home to the International Congress Centre, a five-star venue that is accredited with the highly regarded ISO 14001 environmental management standard, while Glasgow’s SECC is adding a £62m national arena to existing facilities.

Ms Packman says: “It’s good to remember what’s on your own doorstep. Scotland offers a diverse range of world class facilities and, in times when it’s increasingly important for businesses to deliver cost-effectiveness, Scotland is highly accessible.

“What’s more, there are no exchange rate fluctuations to consider and budget for. Conferencing within the UK means travel times can be short and travel costs can be considerably less than those for trips overseas.”

In Wales, the opening of Newport’s Celtic Manor in 1982 and its suite of US-style conference rooms and support facilities, not only boosted the local economy, but may have been the spark for more high-quality conference venues throughout the principality.

In addition to established conference venues, Wales sees three new centres open next year, including the racecourse at Ffos Las, Llanelli; Cardiff Stadium; and the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth.

Roger Pride, marketing director at Visit Wales, says: “Time and time again, conference and event organisers are returning to Wales because it offers good value for money.

“It is not always about offering the cheapest prices – although Wales is extremely competitive. It’s about our venues being more flexible. These additional benefits make all the difference to event organisers who are looking at every way to squeeze their budget.”

Belfast also has a number of new or refurbished facilities in the pipeline, in addition to those at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, with three new five-star conference suites.

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What’s new in the UK

England
Sofitel London Heathrow
Directly linked via a walkway to Terminal Five, this is one of the highest quality and exciting event spaces that London has seen for some time.

Conference facilities are outstanding, with capacity totalling 2,800. Some 1,700 can be accommodated in the main conference hall and there is a 1,250 person banqueting facility. And how often do you get to have a meeting in a zen garden?

ACC Liverpool is a combined venue housing an 11,000-seat arena with a 1,350 capacity convention centre. Located near the River Mersey, it is one of the largest purpose-built venues in the UK. The Echo Arena was inaugurated in January 2008 with a spectacular opening ceremony for the European Capital of Culture year. The BT Convention Centre opened in April 2008 and 47,000 delegates have used it since. The BT Convention Centre has 1,350 seats, a 3,725 sq metre multi-purpose hall and 18 further meeting rooms. The campus style layout makes ACC Liverpool good choice for high security events.

Scotland
The Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre
in the UK’s oil capital hosts theatre-style conferences for up to 2,000 delegates. This year, thousands of international oil and gas executives will head for the Offshore Europe exhibition at the AECC, which has added a new Holiday Inn to its facilities.

One of the country’s newest large-scale conference venues is Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort. Located in the Cairngorm mountains, it can accommodate 1,200 people.

Wales
After the Millennium Stadium, the £30m Cardiff City Stadium will be the second largest in Wales. It will have two main conference/dining areas. The restaurant will accommodate up to 700 delegates, and the lounge bar area up to 1,700. In addition, the stadium will have 14 boxes which may be used as smaller meeting areas.

Also in Cardiff, The Swalec Stadium, home of Glamorgan County Cricket Club, can accommodate conferences of 10 to 1,000 delegates. Two additional conference suites with capacities of 300 and 100 respectively and five more boxes will meet demand for the 2009 Ashes Series.

Further west, Ffos Las racecourse, based near Llanelli in Carmarthenshire, is approaching the final furlong in its two-year build and will open its doors to the corporate market this June. The £20m, 600-acre racecourse comprises a one and a half mile National Hunt and flat race-track with grandstand. In addition, it offers hospitality for up to 500 delegates. The course’s restaurant, which overlooks the track, can be hired year round for events and conferences.

Northern Ireland
The Ulster Museum in Belfast is being redeveloped and will reopen this summer with an orientation hall, a lecture theatre seating up to 200, a glass-fronted restaurant for 200 people and a range of gallery spaces suitable for corporate events. Elsewhere in the city: the Europa Hotel has opened a new conference and exhibition centre with the latest technology (capacity 620); the Le Mon hotel has refurbished its conference and banqueting suite (conference capacity 1,000 ); and the Culloden Hotel continues to invest in its five-star conference and small meetings facilities.

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