A scientific approach

Marketing Manchester’s director of tourism Nick Brooks-Sykes grew up on the Isle of Arran, where his parents were hoteliers, so tourism and hospitality is in the blood. He cites his father as an early career mentor who encouraged him to go into the hospitality industry.

Having studied French and German at Stirling University, Brooks-Sykes completed a postgraduate degree in Tourism at the Scottish Hotel School in Glasgow at a time when tourism courses were in their infancy.

“Only Scottish Hotel School and Surrey University ran courses then,” he says. “I learnt about destination management and how tourism doesn’t just happen, but, with the right support and proactive intervention, it can really grow a local economy.”

The best piece of early career advice, he says, was never to forget that we are in a people industry. “Earn respect and respect others. We work in a small world, so develop your networks and they will last throughout your career.”

Brooks-Sykes has been director of tourism in Manchester for under a year, although he had a previous spell in the city heading the North West Regional Development Agency, before leaving to become chief executive of Bath Tourism Plus.

Bath and Manchester must have been very different challenges?
“Bath is one of the world’s most beautiful cities and it will always be a ‘must visit’ destination,” he says. “It was the excitement and energy of Manchester that attracted me back. I love the ‘Let’s make it happen’ attitude and the city’s ambition. I feel we are on the cusp of something very special; so many pieces are starting to fall into place and there is a very pronounced sense of optimism in the air.”

Manchester is an international destination with a rapidly developing infrastructure, Brooks-Sykes points out. “The city has a world-class airport, which offers 210 direct connections including all major European destinations as well as daily flights to international destinations including the USA, Hong Kong and the Middle East. It’s also advantageously located in relation to Britain’s motorway and rail network and the huge investment made in public transport makes Manchester perfectly equipped to provide fast and efficient transport for delegates attending a conference or event.”

He adds that the city is continuing to invest in its conference product where assets include venues such as Manchester Central, academic venues, sports stadia and cultural assets such as Central Library and Whitworth.

“The city’s diversity and offer is perfect for organisers looking for inspiration and cost effectiveness.”

Hotels appear to be matching the investment ambition elsewhere, with over 7,000 bedrooms now within the city centre and 19,000 throughout the wider region.

“We will see over 3,000 new bedrooms come on line in Manchester over the next few years,” Brooks-Sykes adds.

He believes the city’s industrial and academic strengths give it an edge to attract international conferences, especially from biomedical, science and advanced manufacturing. “These strengths played a big part in securing the EuroScience Open Forum 2016 and the title of European City of Science,” Brooks-Sykes says.

Now, he is part of the team driving the Greater Manchester Strategy for the Visitor Economy, which sets some grand ambitions.

“If we meet our targets, then tourism will be worth almost £9bn to Greater Manchester by 2020 and will support over 112,000 jobs. The industry is currently worth £7bn and supports 88,900 so there is a lot to do,” he says.

Brooks-Sykes highlights some of the developments taking shape in the cultural sphere: “Manchester Central Library reopened last May; the Whitworth reopened last month; and in May HOME, the city’s new multi-arts cultural centre will emerge. All have versatile event spaces, adding to the stock of some 250-plus unique venues across the region.

“Throw in new developments at the universities such as Manchester Metropolitan University’s Birley Fields campus and new hotels such as Hotel Football and the upcoming Innside Manchester and Hotel Gotham and there’s never been more choice for organisers.”

Brooks-Sykes has more than an eye on how Manchester ranks on an international level. “We are increasingly looking to cities in Europe and further afield to benchmark and compare ourselves. Tourism is a global industry and we mustn’t forget that visitors have lots of options.”

Brooks-Sykes is never far from a statistic and highlights trends emerging from the city’s most recent value and volume report (2014). He picks out significant growth of association business – up by 76% from £185m in 2011 to £325m in 2013 and says association business now represents 31% of the delegate market, compared to 18% in 2009. The economic impact generated by international association business in 2013 doubled from 2011 to just under the £100m mark. “Furthermore the proportion of total economic impact generated by overseas delegates increased to 11% (from 6% in 2011),” he adds.

Thirty science-based association events are in the Manchester events pipeline, including the EuroScience Open Forum 2016.

Manchester’s tourism director is keen to stress the importance of sport and music events in driving visitors to the region.

“Manchester Arena regularly fills its 20,000 seat capacity and our two Premiership football teams have a similar impact whenever they play at home.”

While on the stat attack, Brook-Sykes claims Manchester is the most visited English city for international visitors outside of London. He notes the New York Times recognised Manchester as the only British city in their list of ‘Places to go in 2015’, citing the Manchester International Festival and the cultural calendar as major draws. It currently ranks 68th (2013) globally by ICCA for international conferences.

There was a time when our North West city giants jealously guarded their meetings turf despite the best efforts of the North West Conference Bidding Unit. However, there is a new atmosphere of co-operation in the air.

“People often ask about Liverpool, and they are putting a lot of work in to improve their business tourism offer,” says Brooks-Sykes. “Although there may be competition in some markets, it’s fantastic to see the region as a whole improving in the sector.”

Business tourism contributed £823m to Greater Manchester’s economy in 2013, but Brooks-Sykes stresses the value extends much further than simply the monetary.

“Association meetings attract some of the world’s leading minds, helping the city to become known for knowledge while boosting key sectors. It’s one of many strands helping to raise the city’s profile, inspire  collaboration, talent attraction and investment.”

What would he like to see being done better in the industry?
“We need to make it easier for business visitors to get into the UK, especially from developing countries. We also need government to recognise that we are competing for business and issues such as VAT and Air Passenger Duty place us at a disadvantage. Our regional airports have capacity to grow and we should use this opportunity to spread the benefits of tourism.”
Manchester will be European city of Science 2016 and Brooks-Sykes notes the city has been at the forefront of scientific innovation since its leading role in the Industrial Revolution, with its current pioneering research in computing, biomedical and material sciences.

Brooks-Sykes reels off a list of top medical and scientific conferences coming to Manchester including: International Surgery Week, April 2015; Graphene Week, June 2015; World Conference on Ecological Restoration, July 2015; European Association for Cancer Research, 2016; ESOF, July 2016; and International Symposium on Medicinal Chemistry, 2016.

“The European City of Science will be an 18-month celebration of innovation and inspirational science, which will engage with people from across Greater Manchester and beyond. We already have a great annual science festival but this will be non-stop. The science party will take place on our streets, in our schools, in our labs, business parks and cultural venues, as well as on the TV, on the trams and in our sports grounds.”

Brooks-Sykes also encourages organisers: “Bring your events to the city during European City of Science.”

He is also expecting a big impact from the Northern Futures deal, new funding that could, he believes, deliver a step change in the way the North is presented in global  markets.

“Working with colleagues from across the North, we have devised a programme of marketing activity in five key international markets, working with travel trade, media and transport carriers.”
With HS2 on the transport horizon, further big opportunities are likely for the city.

How does he relax outside of work?

“I’m a professional tourist, so always need to see the latest developments and check out what’s new wherever I go on holiday. I learnt to sail a few years ago, and found that a great way to relax – a perfect mix of fresh air, mental stimulation and physical effort – and always the promise of a sociable quayside drink at the end of the day.”

Brooks-Sykes has ambitious targets and recognises competition is fierce: “But business is out there and I have total confidence in the quality of our product offer and our ability to deliver outstanding events. So we are going to fight hard!”

This was first published in the April issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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