Wales is blazing a trail for the conference trade, receiving 574,000 domestic business tourism visitors in 2014 (that’s over 1.4m bed nights), with an expenditure of £137m.
This year’s January to May business tourism sales are up 23% on the same period last year.
So what makes Wales so appealing? Just two hours from London by rail, with good flight connections and easy road access, it certainly tops the ‘easy to get to’ list.
And getting the green light for the new Wales International Convention Centre (WICC) in Newport, close to the English border, can only add to the country’s appeal, bolstering the already booming market in South Wales, and beyond.
There’s a high expectation of the new centre, designed to attract more major international events – from showpiece conferences for large associations and multinational blue chip companies to political party conferences.
A Visit Wales spokesperson said: “We believe the new centre will provide a substantial boost to the South Wales economy. We expect it to help Wales deliver business events on an international scale and create around 250 permanent jobs.”
An independent economic impact study backed this view, showing that the new WICC will create around 110,000 bedroom nights per annum for hotels throughout South Wales.
It’s easy to see what the fuss is about. The WICC will be the largest facility of its kind in Wales and the south west of England, with capacity for around 4,000 delegates, and construction starts next year.
With a total capacity in excess of 20,000sqm, the main auditorium will hold 1,500 delegates with the flexibility to divide into smaller spaces.
A separate main (pillar-free) exhibition hall will stretch to 4,000sqm and accommodate up to 2,700 guests for a gala dinner.
A further 15 meeting rooms will cater for all sizes and types of meetings and events, and complement the existing convention centre facilities at Celtic Manor.
The new conference centre will also provide fully integrated audio-visual facilities, green rooms and production offices, and a multi-storey car park with 1,500 spaces. There will also be a reception atrium, open spaces for networking, full disabled access and an outdoor plaza and terraces.
Others hotels and venues are also pushing ahead with new plans for international guests.
The Welsh summer culminated with the kick-off of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Cardiff, and Vale Resort is celebrating this in grand style by hosting the entire Welsh team, as well as the French, and maybe more.
Sales and marketing director Paul Beddoe, said: “The Rugby World Cup 2015 is one of the world’s major sporting events and with pool games and quarter-finals being played in Cardiff, it presents an opportunity for hotels in and around the Welsh capital to showcase themselves to international sports teams and travelling fans.
“The Vale Resort is proud to be hosting Wales, France and either Argentina or Ireland rugby teams for the quarter-final matches held in Wales. Our guests know that they have access to world-classvrugby training facilities and an environment that caters to the needs of professional sporting teams.”
Following a £1m refurbishment programme at the main hotel, the focus is now firmly on completion of Hensol Castle to develop the 400-year-old building into a 30-bedroom hotel and conference venue, which will take the total bedroom offering at the Vale Resort to 175 rooms.
Also popular with international sports’ events, the SSE SWALEC stadium offers conference facilities, as well as a 16,000 people capacity sporting arena.
Aside from the fame of hosting this year’s 1st Ashes Test Match, the venue has many other attractions.
It’s located in historic parkland, yet close to Cardiff city centre and the M4, and up to 2,000 can be accommodated for conferencing and banqueting, with views across the international cricket ground.
The function suites range from small private meeting rooms to spaces for events for 1,000 people theatre style, or 500 for dining.
Sports appeal and heavy investment are marrying well to make South Wales a much sought-after location.
Cardiff’s five-star St David’s Hotel & Spa has just invested £500,000 to renovate 40 bedrooms, upgrade the Marine Spa and install specialist lighting to illuminate the hotel’s futuristic façade.
Crowned Wales’ Leading Business Hotel 2015, for the second year running, St David’s is enjoying strong sales, and is keen to boost them further by developing a new BBQ area for outdoor events, in addition to renovating it Tempus at Tides restaurant and launching a five-star champagne bar.
And on the north coast, the recently redeveloped historic Llandudno Bay Hotel has been awarded a four-star Visit Wales grading. The extensive renovation work has seen the Grade II listed building become a stylish 61 bedroom, boutique-style hotel, with function space for 150 people, a 90-cover restaurant and a chic champagne bar and lounge.
There is Venue Cymru nearby and a large stock of beds in this popular leisure destination.
Meanwhile, the Corran Resort and Spa in Carmarthenshire has more than doubled its restaurant size as part of expansion plans.
The restaurant, which has been awarded two AA Rosettes, can now cater for 220 and phase two of the works, including the 28-room East House extension, are expected to be completed in early 2016.
There’s also new accommodation at Cardigan Castle and the St Brides Spa Hotel apartments.
Cardigan Castle opened to the public for the first time in April 2015 and now its unique set of conference rooms has opened for business also.
Wales also has its finger on the pulse of lots of adrenalin sports, from coasteering to caving, climbing and white-water rafting.
Groups can try bushcraft in South West Wales, survival courses in mid Wales, tree top adventures in North Wales, or Go Ape in South Wales. The country’s fast gaining a reputation as a mountain-biking Mecca too.
Incentive groups can also enjoy more traditional pursuits such as sailing, horse riding, hiking, fishing and golf, as you’ll find more than 200 courses in this small country.
Culture seekers will find Wales boasts more castles per square kiliometre than anywhere else in the UK, free national museums showcasing arts, language, and the natural environment and plenty of chances to put your feet up and enjoy a trip on a steam train.
There’s also a new £2.5m water sports and visitor centre at Llandegfedd Reservoir. Groups can explore the underwater world at Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre with a new virtual reality experience, and can view the first Jurassic meat-eating dinosaur ever discovered in Wales at the National Museum in Cardiff.
Senior members of the Business Visits & Events Partnership (BVEP) spent two days in Wales earlier this summer to learn more about the country’s plans to attract even greater business events.
Chair of the BVEP, Michael Hirst OBE, summed up the views of many: “As well as being welcomed warmly and treated to some outstanding Welsh hospitality, it’s fair to say that we were all extremely impressed by both the ambitions of Wales to be a major live events destination but also the quality of the venues, infrastructure and service.
“There is no doubt that Wales as so much to offer and that offer is growing rapidly.”
We couldn’t give justice to all the conference and incentive opportunities Wales has to offer in one feature, so cherry picked a few to give you a taste.