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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

The Football Legacy
My past trips to Manchester have left very mixed feelings. In February 2001 I sat next to Meetings Industry legend and IMEX Managing Director, Paul Flackett, an ardent Manchester United fan, and watched in disbelief  as United put six past  Arsenal. A year later, in May 2002, from the same seat, and with the same companion, I experienced silent euphoria as Arsenal took the premier league championship with a 0 – 1 victory at Old Trafford. Mixed feelings, indeed.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 17.04.42Since then there have been seismic shifts around Manchester none, perhaps, more evident than the city’s impressive re-positioning as a serious meetings destination with a very clear strategy that pivots around knowledge, culture and intellectual capital and one that largely ignores the world’s biggest, most famous football franchise, Manchester United.

For someone like me whose relationship with the city had been exclusively through its soccer teams – and Manchester City, under its Abu Dhabi owners, has also been doing its bit for the Manchester brand – the rapidly emerging Manchester for MICE is an astonishing revelation, particularly for the extent of its infrastructure and the clarity of its strategic vision.

Infrastructure – Manchester Central

Last week we visited Manchester CentralScreen Shot 2015-09-12 at 19.02.47, the conference and events venue located in the city centre, and were blown away by its facilities and the supporting infrastructure. The entire campus is built around a re-purposed late nineteenth century train station – like the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – which now constitutes the 10,000 sqm pillar-free, divisible and eminently flexible Central Hall. Adjacent to and connecting with the Central Hall are an additional 3 distinct spaces: the Exchange Auditorium with over 800 amphitheatre-style seats, the Exchange Hall (which can take up to 1200 for a banquet)  and the interconnecting, divisible Charter Rooms. All the large spaces are supported by extensive, versatile breakout rooms and the entire campus can comfortably accommodate 3 large meetings simultaneously.

Infrastructure – Hotels and Cultural Hubs

Directly facing the Convention Centre are the 5 star Radisson Blu Edwardian with 263 guest rooms and the 100 year old 4 star Midland Hotel with 312 guest rooms. Within a 10 minute stroll of the facility there are another 12  hotels  obviating the need for transport shuttles for city wide conferences. The cultural depth of Manchester, too, has deepened significantly over the last decade with significant regeneration projects like the award winning Whitworth Gallery which is part of the Manchester University Campus.

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Established at its current site 126 years ago, the multi-award winning Whitworth has recently re-opened following a £15m refurbishment that has seen the gallery double in size and open right out onto the park in which it’s located. The extended gallery combines rooms in the original period building and a series of brand new contemporary light filled spaces to the rear. During a super-quick visit we visited a wonderfully provocative exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, saw some famous painting by Turner and Blake and ended up in the middle of  bewildering  installation by Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams entitled “The Starry Messenger”.  It all felt like Berlin, Beirut or Barcelona, certainly not Manchester!

Yet The Whitworth is only one of many world class museums and galleries in the greater Manchester area. The Manchester Art Gallery, the Museum of Science and Industry, The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum, amongst others, all help to position Manchester as a city of great cultural importance and take the focus off football and any residual notions in the minds of international visitors that England is only about London.

All part of a bigger plan

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 19.06.21Manchester’s rapid traction as a serious, valid destination for meetings and conferences is only the tip of the iceberg, the final flip of a long range strategy put in place around the time when Arsenal beat United at Old Trafford to take the premiership title. The Manchester Knowledge Capital Initiative was established in 2002 and its vision has been front and central for subsequent Manchester City Centre Plans in 2004, 2008 and 2012 which set out to make Manchester “a great place to work, live, shop, a place people can get to and get around within, a place that brings people together, a place to enjoy, a place that thinks and creates …”

The 2008 plan highlights conferences and events but specifically  distinguishes between conference and general tourism and displays a keen understanding of key success factors and the time frames necessary to implement real change:

Manchester’s entry into the conference and convention market has been nothing short of phenomenal, swiftly becoming a premier conference city. This demonstrates the potential attractiveness of Manchester city centre for many professional and trade bodies and indeed senior delegates of a wide range of organisations. Primary infrastructure such as Manchester Central and the Manchester International Convention Centre, together with a raft of hotel development, is in place and planned investment in Manchester Central will ensure Manchester’s continued viability and success in the international conference and convention market. […this has happened and is described earlier …] The ingredients of success must also be explicitly recognised in all other relevant activities, from public realm design, through marketing, to street management and maintenance. As with the interface between events and tourism marketing, the planning timeframe is one of three to five years and these are synergies that cannot be developed on a year to year basis.

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Manchester’s rise in the ICCA rankings proves the validity of the strategic vision. By numbers of conferences hosted it has increased by 126% in 10 years but somehow I think this is just the beginning. Nicola McGrane, Managing Director of award winning PCO, Conference Partners, agrees:

The Universities and Research Institutes in the greater Manchester area are doing amazing work. The new Cancer Research Centre is a perfect example of how Manchester is positioning itself as a knowledge hub and this, coupled with the city’s great convention centres and accommodation providers, will ensure Manchester’s continued growth for Meetings and Events

Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are Managing Partners at SoolNua, a marketing, strategy and training agency working with destinations, venues and hotels on MICE related business.







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