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Conference ambassadors: the art of persuasion

No convention bureau worthy of the name would be seen dead without its own ambassador programme. But why are they so important? James Lancaster reports….

The vital role played by ambassadors in attracting international meetings was thrown into sharp relief when proposed budget cuts put the future of Edinburgh’s own advocate progamme into doubt.

More than 75 academics wrote to the city’s councillors asking them to rethink an 89 per cent cut to promotional agency Marketing Edinburgh, which would have made bidding for events harder.

In the end, councillors agreed to reinstate a large chunk of the budget, giving the convention bureau and its ambassadors a stay of execution on the proviso a new business model was found.

Ambassadors play a key role in helping destinations secure international association meetings.

These influential figures – from academia, science, medicine, and business – don’t just lend a bit of superficial gravitas to a city’s bid document but play a leading role in the bidding itself.

They form an important bridge between destination marketing organisations, or convention bureaux, and the sometimes hard-to-penetrate world of not-for-profit organisations.

Since 1998, Edinburgh five-hundred ambassadors have secured 1,348 conferences with 528,605 delegates to Edinburgh, which have added a staggering £900 million to city coffers.

Losing their ambassadors would have been a disaster for Edinburgh, not least because close neighbour and rival for events, Glasgow, runs such a successful programme of its own.

Beginnings

Indeed Glasgow Convention Bureau established the UK’s – and one of Europe’s – first ambassador programmes almost 30 years ago, having recognised the importance of academic conferences in supporting the development of the city and raising the profile of its research institutions.

Like Edinburgh, Glasgow is a city that understands the relevance of its knowledge hub economy, where areas of world-class research influence the conferences that are held in the city.

Last year it is estimated that approximately 40 per cent of the economic benefit from conferences taking place in the city was either led by, or linked to a Glasgow Conference Ambassador.

Ambassador Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, Regius Professor of Medicine and Vice Principal of the University of Glasgow led the bid to secure the European Society of Hypertension and the International Society of Hypertension (ESH/ISH) Joint Scientific Congress in 2020.

Dame Anna said: “It’s fantastic that we’ve succeeded in bringing the joint ESH/ISH Meeting to Glasgow. It will be good for the city and the University and will strengthen Glasgow’s position as a major international centre of excellence in hypertension.”

Aileen Crawford, head of Conventions at Glasgow Convention Bureau, added: “With the largest academic community in the UK, outside London, it was important for Glasgow to establish the UK’s first conference ambassador programme almost thirty years ago to support academic meetings in our city. Today our conference ambassadors are our shining lights, acting as a beacon to attract their professional association conferences to our city.”

 Emerging destinations

Ambassador programmes are now a staple component of convention bureaux all over the world and emerging meetings and events destinations rely heavily on them to gain traction.

The Al Safeer Congress Ambassador Programme in Dubai, for example, helped to secure 31 international association conferences in Duba in 2018, representing almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of the association meetings awarded to the city over the course of the year. The events won are set to attract 39,500 delegates to Dubai from around the world. The city now has 51 ambassador-assisted events in the pipeline, with 71,000 experts from all over the world expected to attend.

As Steen Jakobsen, Assistant VP, Dubai Business Events, explained: “The sharing of industry-specific knowledge and expertise across various sectors through the Al Safeer Programme’s network of ambassadors has strengthened our bids for key industry events, convincing decision makers to choose Dubai as their host city. As Dubai’s strongest advocates within their individual fields and expertise, the ambassadors have contributed to enriching Dubai’s reputation as a knowledge hub and the leading business events destination in the region.”

Competition

Where there is fierce regional competition between major cities, ambassadors can make the difference.  The competitive nature of Canada’s meetings market means ambassadors play an essential role. Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto all have successful programmes.

Last year ambassadors directly helped bring a dozen international association meetings to Montréal – covering everything from AI to Thrombosis – which will attract 32,000 delegates to the city.

There are more than 80 ambassadors who work with convention bureau Meetings + Conventions Calgary to bid for conferences and lobby influential association leaders to back the city.

They represent various key industries: energy (almost two-thirds of the city’s HQs are in this field) tech (including Clean Tech), finance, agriculture, manufacturing, medical, and transport and logistics.

Groups who have met in Calgary after successful lobbying from the city’s ambassadors include the Society of Vertebrae Paleontology, the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, the World Buddhist Women’s Convention, and the International Play Association.

Dave Sclanders, executive director, Meetings + Conventions Calgary, explains why making connections with the city’s academic and business leaders is so important.

“The intellectual capital and legacy content that resides in the city post conference is priceless and goes well beyond the core economic impact of events,” he says.

Quick dividends

The beauty of ambassador schemes is that they can pay quick dividends.

Korea now has 14 individuals, from various professions, helping to bring international meetings to the country – just nine months after the launch of its MICE Ambassador programme.

They have already helped the country win a string of significant, and lucrative, international association conferences, from diabetes to urology, transplantation to neuroscience.

Korea’s prominence as an international convention destination owes much to its pioneering work in industries such as science, technology, engineering, medicine, and art and design.

From engineering and robotics to neurology and foetal medicine, the ambassadors were chosen for the passion they have for their subjects and the country’s ability to host events.

Director Korea Tourism Organisation’s Korea MICE Bureau Convention Team, In Sook Lee, said: “We are very proud of the individuals that are active in bringing international meetings to Korea. Our starting point was to bring together some of the academic leaders that had already helped us to win such major events as IBRO’s 10th World Congress in Daegu as well as previous events such as  FIP World Congress Seoul 2017, and we began really building the scheme last year.”