Barcelona and Leeds are closer than some people think. Peter Beber reports on a business and cultural initiative that answered a few questions but also raised a few.

Just as this issue was going to press, a group of 20-odd lawyers from Barcelona were making an official visit to Leeds. Over two days they were due to take part in a seminar with Leeds lawyers looking at how to expand a legal business, and have an official dinner at the Royal Armouries.

“We have 20 very significant lawyers coming,” Deborah Green, chief executive of Marketing Leeds, told this magazine just before they arrived. “Usually on these sorts of delegations you only get eight to ten people, so the fact that we have so many coming is a sign of how they value the city.”

The Catalan delegation will be the latest return visit to be paid since Marketing Leeds itself organised a Leeds in Barcelona event back in March. Over the course of three days, a party of 115 Leeds business representatives (plus the odd hack) met key civic and business leaders from Barcelona.

The Leeds delegates brought with them a troupe from Opera North, Northern Ballet Theatre and Phoenix Dance, who in a show as part of a formal dinner, were able to display just what a cultural powerhouse Leeds can be.

In return, the delegates were shown some of Barcelona’s key new developments, including the @22 media district that has already attracted the likes of Yahoo, and the Fira, the city’s convention centre which has in its recent history succeeded in attracting the kind of trade shows most venues in Yorkshire can still sadly only dream about. Bread and Butter, one of Europe’s biggest fashion exhibitions, has only just stopped exhibiting there. In fact, Sonia Graupera, the director who showed delegates around, said that in the last two meetings she had had with potential exhibition organisers, the price of mounting a show there had not even been mentioned.

She was probably being disingenuous. Those exhibition organisers no doubt did have a price ceiling, which her quote managed to come in under, but they were probably even more interested in catching onto the coat tails of the sort of goodwill that has hovered over Barcelona pretty much ever since it hosted the Olympics way back in 1992.

It is now a top city-break destination and remains an epitome of coolness, despite the worsening economic situation in Spain. Leeds could probably do with a dose of that as well. “The trip was a clever use of marketing and relatively low cost to put on,” says Howard Kew, chief executive of Financial Leeds, who was one of the delegates back in March.

“It made sense to try to have an association with a superbrand like Barcelona.” The legal delegation were not, in fact, the first from Barcelona to make a return visit. Just to show how with it Leeds as a city is, Marketing Leeds hosted a reception for bloggers during the Leeds in Barcelona event, and a group of 15 Spanish bloggers have since made a return trip to see what the fuss is all about.

“It was odd to see how protective the bloggers were about what they were doing, because they know everyone is going to see it almost immediately,” says Deborah Green. “They would all take a look around, and then go off into little corners on their own.

But the coverage they gave us was amazingly positive, and quite insatiable.” Coverage has expanded out into more traditional media, too. “We have had articles in La Vanguardia – the main newspaper there,” says Green, “and two other publications have also written about Leeds.” Not surprisingly for someone with a keen interest in marketing, she can say what the value of all this free publicity is to Leeds down to the last penny.

“We reckon it netted £964,423.98 in equivalent advertising space,” she says. There have already been more cultural exchanges promised too. “Phoenix Dance has already been invited over again by the Barcelona Bar Association,” she says, “and Northern Ballet Theatre has been invited to Madrid and Lisbon – and had some very positive leads.” But of course the main purpose of this trip, which came 18 months after Marketing Leeds’ inaugural foreign visit to Milan, was to build bridges for business, and to that extent the Catalan lawyers’ visit in June is perhaps more significant.

In March, Leeds Legal, the association with aims to represent the legal sector in the city, signed a deal to work together with the Barcelona Bar Association, which despite the name, covers all lawyers in the city. (The UK is actually the only country in the world where there is a split between solicitors and barristers.) A consensus seems to have been reached that there are strong possibilities for the two legal sectors to work together, particularly on matters relating to intellectual property.

“We found that over there they tend to use US IP protection,” says Kew. “That’s fine except that the US is also the most expensive legal system in the world.

We hope to show that we can offer them just as good IP protection that is much more cost-efficient.” Young lawyers’ groups from both cities have also jointly submitted a bid for EU funding to run a lawyer exchange programme, which James Haddleton, current president of the Leeds Law Society, thinks could reap big rewards at both ends.

“What better way to develop exchange opportunities for young lawyers, and from that, who knows?” Deborah Green says the Leeds lawyers are also keen to help Creative Leeds, a group which represents creative and digital companies in the city, foster stronger links with the Barcelona lawyers, possibly in the hope of running a familiarisation visit again to Barcelona in October with more creative types.

Creative Leeds was a relative latecomer in signing up to come on Leeds in Barcelona, but chairman Steve Smith thinks they managed to “produce something of substance” by bringing with them Sir John Sorrell, chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), who managed to wow many of the design-oriented Catalan delegates at a special dinner on the first night.

As for possibilities of working together in the design field, the city already has a very successful Barcelona Design Week, and there have been initial discussions about replicating something similar in Leeds.

“Barcelona has a strong tradition of architecture,” says Smith, “and we have some world-renowned architects in Leeds, so we have set up a sub-group to look at that.” Also in March, delegates from Leeds University met their counterparts from La Salle University and the Barcelona Polytechnic.

According to Green, they are mounting a joint bid within the European framework programme to run research looking at how to make future cities more sustainable. There is even more excitement on the more “sexy” end of the creative industry. Screen Yorkshire met Catalan Film and Television – its Spanish counterpart – in Barcelona and subsequently at Cannes.

There is now a real possibility of a script currently being developed by an unnamed Yorkshire-based screenwriter and set in Girona being jointly developed by both parties into a film. They are meeting again in London this autumn.  This is not as peripheral as it sounds.

A source told this reporter that Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the Oscar-winning film Woody Allen film that revived interest in the city a couple of years ago, was only based in Barcelona because the city bid most to have Allen come and film his already-completed script there. It could conceivably just as easily have been Vicky Cristina Leeds.

Not to be outdone, there was a group of Leeds hoteliers at the Barcelona event who, according to Deborah Hindley, manager of the Leeds Hotel Association, had a successful meet-the-buyer event with Barcelona-based conference buyers. “Their existing knowledge of Yorkshire was better than it was in Milan where it was very basic,” she says. “In Barcelona they seemed to know a lot of what Yorkshire was about. We have since surveyed those who came and they are very interested in what Leeds has to offer. We are arranging with our partners to organise a familiarisation visit in October.”

But what about those representing perhaps Leeds’ most significant business sector, financial services? Financial Leeds ran aseminar on access to markets and, according to Howard Kew, found that Spain is far less sophisticated than Britain in how it organises its small capital markets. So there could be an opening there. But you get the feeling from his carefully chosen words that he was perhaps expecting a little more awareness of the event from the Catalan side.

“Hard business benefits are always difficult to measure,” he says. “You can get hung up on bums on seats when a lot of it is about quality rather than quantity. The turnout at our seminar was less than we expected but the quality was good.” He says the whole expedition still cost less than a two-day conference in London.

Deborah Green, meanwhile, points out that the remit of her organisation is very much to bring trade organisations together. It is the likes of UKTI, she says, to create the kind of trips where business deals are signed.

“In any case we did find a venture capital fund in Spain looking for IP expertise who we were able to help. And two delegates got help from a Catalan adviser in a deal worth £50,000.” But just how effective is it to compare the two cities? They would appear to have some similarities on the surface. Both are former textile producers that are part of a larger city region, and both are constantly battling against being seen as secondary to their capital cities. But already differences are starting to emerge. In many ways Barcelona isn’t really the second city in Spain, but is the first city in Catalonia, a region with its own autonomy and language.

Much of what gets done in the city is decided on not by the national government, but by the regional Catalan government and in many cases, the city council and mayor. It’s an autonomy that Yorkshire should envy, and one that James Haddleton believes has led to great things.

“We are very cautious and conservative in Leeds,” he says, “and that doesn’t always allow for entrepreneurial flair. Look, for example, at the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona. At the time they were built people would have really objected to them, but they carried on with them anyway and now everyone comes to see them. Leeds could learn from that.” Howard Kew would concur, adding that the decision to bid for the Olympics was a similarly bold risk.

“The bid ended up being good but it might not have looked so at the time because then the whole Olympics idea was looking wobbly,” he says. But some would also argue that the way things are done in Barcelona isn’t as rosy and self-fulfilling as some would have you believe.

At a briefing during the Leeds in Barcelona event, Martyn Warr, UKTI director of trade in Iberia and himself a Yorkshireman, pointed out that major infrastructure projects, such as improvements at Barcelona Airport, are still very much the responsibility of the central Spanish government.

That is something Leeds folk will need to consider when the transport debate rages at home. Kew went on the visit to the Barcelona Stock Exchange, but says he did not see anything there that made him envious that we do not have a similar regional exchange in Leeds.

“I really thought it was a club for old guys who wanted to smoke strong cigarettes,” he says. “There was nothing they were doing that I couldn’t have done from my PC at home. The local society is sympathetic to such an institution and who wouldn’t want to work in a beautiful building like that? But it’s really a generational thing.

Just as the media people from our delegation thought Barcelona was a generation ahead, we thought it was a generation behind.” Jim Vincent, managing director of the Royal Armouries International, was also fascinated to discover that a conference theatre within the Fira capable of holding 2,500 people was used fewer than 30 days in the year.

“That suggests people are right to say the proposed new Leeds Arena should not have a conference hall and should only be an entertainment venue,” he explains.

“After all, if they can’t make a venue like that work better in Barcelona the chances of us being able to do so in Leeds are even more remote.” So where next? There has been talk of the next Leeds foreign trip being somewhere in Asia, and Green says Marketing Leeds may go out to Hong Kong in the autumn to research ideas there.

Kew says he would be happy to go on the next such excursion. Since March there has, of course, been a change in political control at Leeds City Council, one of Marketing Leeds’ main backers. The new leader of the council, Keith Wakefiled, has not always been supportive of the organisation.

It was he who first drew to the public attention back in 2005 the fact that the “Leeds Live It Love It” logo the agency had just launched was not original. However Green insists that for the moment at least it is business as usual. Whatever happens, at least one benefit of the Barcelona visit everyone commented on was the ability to network among themselves. That might sound an expensive way of doing so, but Vincent for one is pleased.

“In terms of immediate success it has been very useful,” he says. “We normally wouldn’t have met the people from Leeds Legal, but, thanks to the lawyers coming, they have now booked an event that is worth £3,000 to us.”