The Big Interview: Amanda Ferguson
Amanda Ferguson, head of business tourism at Convention Edinburgh, talks to Martin Fullard about her challenges and ambitions for the city
How did you get into the business events industry?
If you’d asked me when I was 18 whether I was going to end up in the events industry I would have looked at you rather oddly! I studied international business and languages, and while the events industry wasn’t on my radar, I knew I wanted to be involved in something with a global outlook. My language skills have, I guess, influenced certain career choices.
I began my working life at a heavy engineering company in Scotland, I was selling boring tools (for excavating holes, we’re sure they were exciting) to the Germans.
After that, and by coincidence, I found myself working at the EICC in marketing, which was my first taste of the industry. I was hooked on day one. Night and day, I had a real passion for the product I was selling and had a great affinity for the destination I was promoting. I got a lot of job satisfaction, and that’s determined that I remain within this industry.
I then joined for VisitScotland, where I stayed for 10 years. I was heading up the European and UK Business Events teams, before moving across to Convention Edinburgh in the summer of 2017.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
I think it is obvious what the biggest challenge is for me now; it is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career so far: the funding of the DMO (Marketing Edinburgh, of which Convention Edinburgh is a part). We’re going through a transformation consultation process, reviewing the business and how we are funded because public sector funding is being withdrawn. As of next year, we need to have a self-sufficient model that works for us. It’s an extremely challenging situation but not without its opportunities.
To deal with that, in terms of lobbying councillors and local politicians, as well as maintaining a focus within the team and keeping the day job ticking over, is a huge challenge.
It’s worth pointing out that isn’t something unique to Edinburgh. There are other cities, DMOs and CVBs which are facing similar cuts, and I think the industry, as a whole, needs to find a solution.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, what marks it out as a top conference destination?
It’s an attractive city like you say, there are harder cities to sell out there for certain. It’s easy to strike up conversations with clients when you say you work for Edinburgh. There’s always a positive reaction when I say where I am from.
But I think what does set the city apart, which is shown in the ICCA City Rankings each year, is the knowledge economy. There are four universities, over 100,000 students, and the city itself has historically had a strong tradition of innovation, driving scientific discoveries and new thought. This really appeals to Association business.
We love the EICC, but what else does Edinburgh have to offer?
Beyond the EICC, which we all know, we work with a lot of academic venues which are very successful in attracting meetings between 50 and 500 delegates. There is the Royal College of Physicians, Surgeon’s Quarter, and Edinburgh First, which is the conferencing arm of the University of Edinburgh. These particular venues have significant conference capacity and host academic and association type conferences week in, week out.
Then there are our hotels. Edinburgh has about 20,000 hotel beds in the city, with about 2,000 further bed spaces coming online over the next few years. There has been a lot of hotel investment of late, and occupancy rates remain high at 84%, it really is a lucrative place for hotels to invest.
We work closely with hotels that have conference facilities, such as the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, which can accommodate 500 delegates, and the Radisson blu in the heart of the Old Town. We work with all of them!
What’s the recipe for success in bringing business events to the city?
Collaboration is a very important word when it comes to city bidding. The CVB would generally lead on a lot of city bids, but sometimes venues might take that leading role, which we then support. The CVB isn’t about dominating the bidding, it’s about adding the value when it is needed.
Also, Edinburgh is the gateway to Scotland and the home of the Scottish Government, which in itself can attract large conferences. When it comes to bidding for ‘trophy conferences’, One Health for example, which is coming in 2020, that was very much a partnership exercise with VisitScotland, the Scottish Government, and the EICC. Everyone came to the table for a whole city bid and it was endorsed by the chief medical officer in the Scottish Government. It was about approaching the right people who can unlock doors.
Few topics are as thorny as the transient visitor levy, the so-called ‘bed tax’. Edinburgh looks to be pushing ahead with it, what’s the latest?
It’s a divisive topic, the transient visitor levy (TVL). As an organisation we have adopted a neutral stance on this. It’s not our job to implement a TVL per se, that rests with the Local Authority. They commissioned us to carry out research with residents and visitors to gauge the level of support. Everyone certainly has an opinion on it in the city, and we needed to find out how everyone felt about it. The research suggested people were generally in favour of the TVL, and the Scottish Government has now said it will give agreement to Local Authorities to implement it. It still needs to be passed as a law, which I can’t see happening before 2021, and even then who knows what will happen before that time? It looks like it will happen, but there remain a lot of variables that could see a U-turn yet.
I guess there’s a case for it if there was a guarantee the revenues were ringfenced for reinvestment to the industry?
Absolutely. I haven’t been involved directly in these discussions, but this is certainly an issue I hear repeated across the city. Those who are opposed to the TVL are vocal in asking how this money will be spent. People want to see the money raised go back into the city and invested in the infrastructure that some feel are over-burdened with the impact of tourism. The devil is in the detail, I think I’ll leave the politicians to get on with that one!
How are you going to ensure the city stays at the sharp end of conference business in Europe?
We sit 27th in the ICCA Rankings, this year, up five places from last year. While I’m working on the funding issue at the moment, we have to make sure we future-proof the CVB. It’s important that we give leadership and show ambition to the city and industry and tell them where we want to go. It’s no secret that my ambition is to place Edinburgh into the top 25 in the ICCA Rankings, consistently. Working with the key venues I mentioned earlier, in partnership, I can offer this leadership, and see no reason why we can’t achieve it.
In terms of future-proofing for Association business, one area that I have become increasingly conscious of is the issue of succession planning. Not just in
my role, but in the Ambassador Programmes. These are academics we work with to
bring conferences to the city; they tend to be people who are quite senior in their roles and bidding for things which may be up to 10 years away. I need to be thinking about who will be bidding for these conferences in five, six, seven years’ time. We are already working with younger people to be the next generation of ambassadors.
Complete this sentence: you should bring your conference to Edinburgh because:
It’s a world-class, stunning destination. It’s a small city but a huge destination which has huge academic credentials behind it, making it relevant to associations and other larger events. It will give you a memorable experience.
Describe the city in three words:
Vibrant. International. Close-knit.