Glasgow does conventions better than nearly anywhere else in Europe.

More than 4,600 readers of UK-based Meetings & Incentive Travel media group voted Glasgow City Marketing Bureau (GCMB) as the best British convention bureau in 2015 for the ninth consecutive year.

Supporting the M&IT acknowledgement, professor John Heeley is director of BestDestinationMarketing.com and author of “Urban Destination Marketing in Contemporary Europe: Uniting Theory & Practice.”

He writes, “The convention department of Glasgow City Marketing Bureau — alongside Vienna Convention Bureau — is widely acknowledged by conference industry experts and practitioners as the best of their kind in Europe.”

In addition, Glasgow achieved a new annual record in conference revenue for the 2014/15 fiscal year, up 3% over last fiscal to $270 million.

Because the destination marketing organization has been viewed as an innovator for so many years, it provides a good lens into best practices and what’s trending in the meetings industry heading into 2016.

Conference Ambassador Program

For Glasgow, the number one meetings industry strategy is showcasing local conference ambassadors who are experts within a specific business sector to attract conferences within that sector.

Working as liaisons for the bureau, the local ambassadors are familiar with the language and nuances of any one particular industry. They also provide visiting conference planners with direct access to industry-specific thought leaders and resources in the destination.

The practice of tapping a destination’s intellectual capital to help drive business to the destination is not new. Glasgow is regarded as the first bureau to officially establish that system 25 years ago.

What is new, more bureaus are promoting their local knowledge base as a primary market differentiator, versus just a behind-the-scenes value add. The GCMB’s website, for example, dedicates significant space to promoting its Conference Ambassador Program with extensive news updates, profiles, and case studies.

The strategy is working more effectively than ever.

In the 2014/15 fiscal year, for the first time ever, over 50% of the contracted conference business in Glasgow was sourced with the assistance of local industry ambassadors, who now total over 1,700 business and academic leaders.

In the previous year, only 35% of conferences were secured with the help of local experts.

According to Aileen Crawford, head of conventions at the GCMB, the biggest value of ambassadors is that they provide relevance. They customize the destination and personalize the event experience to deliver a higher return on spend.

That’s how convention bureaus are positively impacting business outcomes for planners today. They’re identifying and partnering those local contacts that best align with a particular visiting organization. And, the more local experts available to choose from, the more opportunity to differentiate the destination and drive business to local industry.

“We constantly ask ourselves, ‘What do conference organizers need from the convention bureau of the future?’” explains Crawford. “I believe today that just offering information on new hotels is not representative of the era we’re in anymore. Maybe it was 10 years ago.

“Now it’s all about being as relevant as possible to planners and relevant to our city and stakeholders. The unique level of support we provide isn’t available in other European cities.”

Better Engagement With Ambassadors

So what’s next? We asked Crawford, if other bureaus are developing similar programs, especially in Europe where the trend is becoming more mainstream, how does Glasgow continue to innovate?

On the GCMB website, Crawford wrote a post called “Smart Cities vs. Leisure Destination Cities,” where she explains: “Smart cities understand the worth of knowledge exchange and its impact to the conference and to the association. More and more organizers are working with destinations that recognize that fact.“

Therefore, among the top priorities for 2016, Crawford says the bureau needs to work more closely with its ambassadors to get a better understanding of new developments in the city’s primary economic sectors, and the value of those developments for conference planners.

Those sectors include: higher education, life sciences, medical, energy, engineering, manufacturing, low carbon industries, financial and business services, and tourism.

In 2015, over 40% of conferences in Glasgow were affiliated with those industries, in part because Glasgow has Scotland’s largest array of academic and health research facilities.

“Ambassadors are always up to date on the latest research in their fields so they’re also a direct resource for us to keep up with the trends in each sector,” says Crawford. “So for us it’s about being smarter about what’s happening across our sectors, recognizing when there’s new world class research, and plugging that in with conferences in that sector.”

Better Engagement With Organizers

For the months of April and May 2013, the GCMB launched a dedicated website asking “What Makes Glasgow Great?” to crowdsource ideas for a new destination brand that best communicated the Glasgow visitor experience.

For those two months, the website topped 7,000 visits with more than 1,500 people from 42 countries sharing their opinions.

Overwhelmingly, the most popular theme of the responses focused on the people of Glasgow as the city’s greatest attraction. In June, the newly minted “People Make Glasgow” website launched as the official GCMB portal, which won first place in the branding industry Transform Awards that year for “Best External Stakeholder Relations.”

Crawford wants to develop that crowdsourcing strategy for conference organizers, attendees, and local businesses aligned within the conference industry. So she and her team are looking at potential digital content campaigns to aggregate more user-generated content.

“This is going to be an interesting chapter because there’s loads of lessons we can learn around our digital from that [People Make Glasgow] campaign,” she explains. “So how can we support our conference organizers to attract more delegates? If we can be smarter with content and giving better content to conference organizers, that help drive more delegates to our city.”

However, everyone’s trying to do that in some form or another these days. We asked Crawford how she intends to start the process of developing in-house content to attract external commentary.

“We need to get a greater understanding of the communication tools that our conference organizers use, and the timing of that communication,” she said. “When do we use our content, when a potential attendee might be considering coming to a conference, so they say, ‘You know what, I’m going to go to that conference next year.’”

Successful 2015 Conference Bids

The following conferences are a sample of future events secured by the GCMB in 2015 with the assistance of local ambassadors:

  • Academics at the University of Strathclyde, led by principal professor Sir Jim McDonald, play a pivotal role in the delivery of the All Energy conference, confirmed for 2015, 2016 and 2017. It will be worth $7.15 million per year to the local economy, attracting 4,000 delegates.
  • The bid for Meeting of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology 2019 (ESPGHAN) was a joint win for local ambassadors, Dr. Richard Russell and Dr. Richard Hansen, both consultant paediatric gastroenterologists at Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Children. The conference will draw 4,500 delegates and will inject $6 million to the local economy.
  • The European Society for Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery & Arthroscopy (ESSKA) Congress 2018 will attract 2,500 delegates over four days, injecting $6 million to the local economy. The conference was secured by the GCMB in partnership with William Leach of Glasgow’s Western Infirmary, Dr. Mark Blyth of Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and Frederic Picard of the Golden Jubilee National Hospital.
  • Glasgow won the bid to host the European Association for Chinese Studies EACS 2018, led by ambassador Dr. Minna Torma, lecturer in Chinese Art at the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. Over 500 delegates will spend an estimated $1.5 million.
Photo Credit: Queen Elizabeth II opened the new Technology & Innovation Centre at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow in March 2015. University of Strathclyde