According to figures published in June by the International Convention and Congress Association (ICCA), Edinburgh is now the 15th most popular conference destination in the world. It is also one of the fastest growing cities in the UK and has one of the fastest growing airports in the British Airports Authority network.
Yet, despite its enviable position as a city with a wealth of history and a modern outlook, to climb further up the rankings Edinburgh still needs to address issues such as accessibility, cost competitiveness, and a varied venue capacity.
Faye Sharpe, director of sales and marketing at IBR, says that Edinburgh is occasionally seen by London-based organisations as being too far away and, therefore, costlier. "However, they probably perceive the distance to be greater than it is, she says. "It can be easier to fly from London to Edinburgh than drive across London."
She also believes Edinburgh is no longer a cheaper option. "It attracts tourists as well, so it doesn't necessarily have to lower its rates," she adds. "The demand is still there during the summer months, when delegates would ordinarily expect to pay less as it is perceived as the conference low season."
The task of addressing these challenges falls primarily to the Edinburgh Convention Bureau (ECB). With nearly 200 members, the ECB's main focus is for events with 500-plus delegates. Last year, it helped to generate over £36m for the area's economy - almost a third of the total value of local business tourism.
Head of the ECB Sue Stuart admits Edinburgh faces stiff competition from other destinations. "Cities that had not previously seen conferences as an economic generator are increasingly grasping how to operate in the marketplace, she says.
"Yet we believe it's difficult to compare Edinburgh with other UK cities.
In feel we compare more with places like Bath and Harrogate because of the architecture, elegance and chicness. But if you compare the C&I infrastructures around the UK, then we're probably competing with Brighton, Birmingham and London."
Since 1996, the ECB has operated its Ambassador Programme - an initiative adopted by a number of destinations. This involves over 2,000 ambassadors from commerce and academia who may have inroads into securing conference contracts.
With over 75 per cent of conference destinations selected on the basis of the quality of the local member's bid presentation, ambassadors play a vital role, and the ECB helps them to prepare bid documents for presentation to the site selection committee. To date, the programme has attracted over 170 major conferences to Edinburgh, generating more than £36m in revenue.
"The city is working together to understand what conference organisers want, adds Stuart. "For example, hotels are increasing their room allocations so we can use fewer hotels and make organisers' jobs less complex. It's unusual to see cooperation among hotels working as well as it does in Edinburgh. If we have a problem winning a piece of business, we can call the general managers and say we need a better rate. And they will do it for the good of the city."
Furthermore, this month, the ECB is due to launch an online marketing initiative at www.meetingsdirect.net, which will enable conference organisers to complete a request for proposals at the touch of a button.
To meet increasing market demand, the city's showcase venue, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC), which offers the 1,200-capacity Pentland Suite and ancillary rooms for up to 100, has embarked on a £25m extension, including 2,000 sq m of multi-functional space, due for completion in 2006. This will double the function space and will help attract larger conferences.
The new, subterranean suite will seat up to 2,200 arena-style, 1,500 theatre-style and offer up to 1,500 covers for dinner. The greater capacity and scope could more than double the economic benefit the EICC brings to Edinburgh and Scotland every year, from £17m to £39.5m by 2010.
The EICC's marketing team leader Martin Bailey says the extension plans were prompted chiefly by the growing trend for conference organisers to look for additional space to sublet to exhibitors in order to raise revenue and offset their own costs.
Like ECB's Stuart, Bailey acknowledges the market is getting more and more competitive worldwide and says the challenge for every conference city is to create a distinctive product to set it apart. "We're looking to offer five-star service and accommodation. The 'soft' services are as important as the physical structure of the buildings. All our research shows that the destination is absolutely critical and the number one reason why people come here."
Conference groups are not confined to the EICC. Murrayfield Stadium Conference Centre conference and banqueting sales manager Carrie Rijskijk believes alternatives to the larger venue will help Edinburgh retain its appeal long term. The Scottish rugby headquarters can seat up to 1,200 for dinners and offers an additional 16 meeting rooms. "The EICC is a large conference group's first port of call, but there are so many more places in Edinburgh that can handle large numbers, she says. "However, the situation is improving because clients are looking for something different for their delegates, such as a sporting venue."
In November, another alternative venue, the Edinburgh Corn Exchange, already a concert venue, will open a purpose-built conference and banqueting venue to accommodate up to 600 theatre-style.
Sharpening the city's offer further still is the continued expansion and renovation taking place throughout its hotel stock. But this alone does not guarantee winning more business, says Apex Hotels sales and marketing director Chris Lynch. "Edinburgh lacks venues with that bit of thought and charisma, he claims. "It tends to be the same standard, branded conference offering which can sometimes be a bit bland. We could really do with something a little more stimulating. To this end, the informal, design-led Apex Hotels offer conference facilities in three art-filled properties. In the Grassmarket, Edinburgh's historic heart, the 175-room Apex International and the new 119-room Apex City offer nine meeting rooms between them with capacities of 225 theatre-style.
The 70-room Apex European has three meeting spaces, the largest seating 100.
Elsewhere the Carlton Hotel on the Royal Mile has just undergone an £8m refurbishment, as has the 200 year-old George Inter-Continental. The latter has ensured it retains much of the original elegance befitting the exterior's listed facade. The property's four meeting rooms range from 20 boardroom-style to 200 theatre-style. "A lot of people are looking for a relaxed atmosphere, says the George's account manager Lynnel Stoddart. "There's far more team-building going on, rather than strict seminars and meetings, and that's what we hope to project."
Major chain presence
Of course Edinburgh's hotel stock also comprises the internationally recognised chains such as Crowne Plaza, Hilton and Sheraton, but Glasgow-based 88 Events Company owner Sheila Samuels also cites the city's unique and wide variety of venues, both historical and modern, as a major plus point to further increase its competitiveness.
Historic venues are in abundance in the city. Lauded as one of Scotland's top visitor attractions, Edinburgh Castle hires out its 19th century Gatehouse Suite above the portcullis for corporate events and can seat up to 40.
Its Jacobite Room holds 150 theatre-style, or the entire castle can be hired for groups of up to 1,000. The venue has been used recently by Standard Life and BMI.
Alternatively, the Hub, a former church and now the Edinburgh International Festival headquarters, offers space enhanced by stained-glass windows, vast wooden floors and ornate ceiling beams for groups up to 300 for a banquet. Three other rooms are available for 70 delegates theatre-style.
Evening events can also be held at the adjoining Royal Museum and Museum of Scotland under a huge Victorian atrium looming above the 650-capacity main hall. Lighting and special effects are available to create a customised atmosphere, and there are two other banqueting areas accommodating up to 120, plus two fully-equipped auditoriums seating up to 276.
For a more modern feel, delegates can learn about the earth's origins and environments at the hi-tech attraction, Dynamic Earth, which counts Norwich Union, IBM and Audi among its clients. Three spaces are available for corporate events, the largest accommodating 1,200 under its futuristic, translucent, marquee-like roof. A popular event involves sipping cocktails in the 'Polar Regions' before moving on to dinner in the 'Tropical Rainforest'.
For regal splendour, nothing can top the Royal Yacht Britannia, now permanently moored in the new Sir Terence Conran-designed Ocean Terminal complex in the port of Leith. The ship hosts a range of events from small group dinners to gatherings of 250. Guests are piped on board for cocktails in the State Drawing Room or on deck before moving on to a dinner in the State Dining Room, followed by a tour of the ship.
In spite of venues of such grandeur, it is the city's investment in key infrastructure and a keen awareness of what corporate buyers want that will propel Edinburgh up the ICCA listings. Sharon Greenspan, MD of DMC Explore Britain, says that if she had a bad thing to say about Edinburgh, it would be the cost. "Edinburgh used to have lots of peaks and troughs, but now it's more of a year-round destination, and the price doesn't reflect the troughs any longer, she says. "But if we don't use it, somebody else will. Edinburgh and its hotels and venues have got a captive audience, she concludes.
Company: Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland
Date: 21 July-1 August
Venue: Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa
Agency: Meeting Makers
Event: International Banking Summer School
Group size: 150
Budget: £5,000 per person
For the first time since 1982, the International Banking Summer School chose to hold its annual event in Scotland. It was attended by 150 middle and senior managers from international banks and financial institutions from 44 countries, including 20 from the UK.
The Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa in Edinburgh was selected as the venue for the ten-day programme, using its Edinburgh Suite and all the other meeting rooms, along with four bedroom suites for breakouts. The event included seminars and practical sessions from international academics and consultants.
"The conference was the longest in our 15-year history and we wanted to create an intimate atmosphere, where delegates could network and exchange ideas in what was essentially a learning exercise, says Meeting Makers managing director Graham Samson, who organised the event for the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland (CIOBS). "The hotel provided the right ambience and met all our requirements. The whole event was enjoyable and extremely successful."
Aside from the business schedule, a range of evening social activities were arranged, including events in venues as diverse as Dynamic Earth, Stirling Castle, Hopetoun House and the Museum of Scotland. A Rod Stewart concert at Edinburgh Castle and a contemporary Scottish evening at The Hub, where all delegates wore Highland or national dress, were cited among the highlights of the event, as were a golf outing and a visit to a distillery.
The CIOBS PR and marketing manager Tes Joyce was pleased with the programme.
"There were other summer schools we wanted to better - especially Melbourne in 2000, which everyone raved about, she says. "One of the key objectives was for delegates to feel they got good academic content from the school and a good social programme. The feedback from delegates was excellent, and the Sheraton staff were always calm and very helpful."
Edinburgh has more restaurants per head of population than any other UK city, and the fact it boasts only one Michelin star restaurant belies the variety and quality of food on offer
Offers a room with a view perched on top of the battlement walls of the Museum of Scotland and serves meals overlooking the castle.
Capacity: 90; 150 for receptions
Meaning aromatic in Spanish, Oloroso also offers rooftop views as well as a European/Asian menu.
Capacity: 80; 200 for receptions
Diners can choose between a dungeon-like dining room - where guests may have to share tables with a witch mannequin - or a medieval-style banquet room, decorated with massive candelabras and heavy drapes. Capacity:120; 250 for receptions
A newcomer to the Edinburgh dining scene, groups can experience a range of dishes from Northern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Thailand.
Like its London-based sister restaurant, Yo! Below is located in a huge basement room with sunken tables, waiters to serenade customers with karaoke between DJs,tarot card readers and masseurs.
Capacity: 180; 250 for receptions
Delegates can mingle with local socialites, media types and business movers at this venue, one of the most recent of Edinburgh's new wave of 'style bars'. Selected areas are available for corporate hire.
Located within the Balmoral Hotel, this restaurant bucks the trend of many hotel restaurants that trade quality for convenience, and serves award-winning French cuisine in elegant surroundings.
Capacity: 80 dining
EST EST EST
One of Edinburgh's most popular eateries - even Mick Jagger had to queue for a table - Est Est Est serves nouveau-Italian in a lively atmosphere.
Capacity: 50 for dining, the upper level is available for exclusive use by groups
Edinburgh Convention Bureau
4 Rothesay Terrace, Edinburgh EH3 7RY
Tel: 0131 473 3666 Fax: 0131 473 3636
Contact: Sue Stuart
edinburgh.org Web: www.edinburgh.org/conference