Raising the bar for events

Raising the bar for events

More than simply bringing visitors to Scotland, events generate economic benefits and foster community cohesion, as Paul Bush, director of events at VisitScotland, explains.

Few Scots will ever forget the magic of 2014. The excitement of having the world’s eyes fixed on our nation has inspired a whole generation and created a lifetime full of memories, from Hannah Miley winning gold in the pool at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow through to Europe’s victory in golf’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and more than 1,000 events for the second Year of Homecoming.

When the curtain came down at the end of 2014, Paul Bush knew the hardest part of his job was just beginning. As VisitScotland’s director of events, Bush was part of the team responsible for making sure that the momentum of such a momentous year wasn’t lost and that the benefits of so many world-class events coming to our shores could be spread throughout the whole nation as a lasting legacy.

Bush is no stranger to big challenges though. He was an Olympic and Commonwealth games team manager, which included heading up teams at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, before moving to Scotland in 1998 to become Scottish Swimming’s first chief executive. During his tenure, he oversaw the building of the national swimming academy in Stirling, and witnessed Scotland’s rise to prominence as the most successful swimming team at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006.

Following on from his early career as teacher and sports director, Bush was invited to investigate the role of international sports events by EventScotland’s first chief executive, David Williams. He joined the organisation as international sports director in 2004, shortly after it had been founded by the-then First Minister, Henry McLeish, in response to Scotland’s failed bid to host football’s 2008 European Championships. Bush went on to assume the chief operating officer’s role in 2007.

“I’ve been in this role for about ten years now and it’s been a pretty good ten years for events in Scotland in terms of what we’ve achieved and what we’ve done,” says Bush. “The way that Scotland really rose to the challenge of 2014 was amazing. Between 1 January and 31 December, Scotland delivered the most unforgettable 12 months of activities that we’ll ever see during our lifetime.

“During that short space of time, Homecoming delivered more than 1,000 events and Scotland staged the best ever Commonwealth Games and the best ever Ryder Cup. On top of that, the MTV Europe music awards came to Glasgow. For a country of just over five million people, it really was a spectacular year. In world terms, it was probably unsurpassed. Very few nations of our size deliver something as complex as that and then pull it off with no problems.

“On the back of 2014, we’ve continued to raise the bar. Scotland’s capacity and capability is unsurpassed now on the world stage. The ability of events to drive sustainable economic growth as part of the visitor economy is easy to see. In 2014, the penny suddenly dropped – people began to realise events are the fabric of society, especially for smaller communities. They’re not just important to a community in terms of its wellbeing and social cohesion but they also drive benefits in terms of tourism, the profile of the area, getting people to work together, and the feel-good factor.”

Bush points to a series of big events that is reaching Scotland over the coming years, including the inaugural European Sports Championships coming to Glasgow and other areas of Scotland in 2018, golf’s Solheim Cup arriving in Gleneagles in 2019, and Glasgow hosting part of football’s 2020 European Championships, 18 years after Scotland lost out on the chance to host the tournament.

“The momentum has carried on from 2014,” Bush says. “To keep it going, we need to be innovative and start to think laterally. We have to be realistic – we won’t be able to host the Commonwealth Games again in our lifetime, and we’re never going to host the Olympic Games or the football World Cup.

“So we have to look at events that we haven’t hosted before and we need to look at new markets. We refreshed our national events strategy, Scotland: The Perfect Stage, in December and, as part of that, we’re looking at mass-participation events. These may include traditional activities like running or swimming or cycling, but can also relate to new areas like dancing or walking or climbing or rambling. There are a whole plethora of activities out there.”

Bush highlights the need to cater for different age groups when it comes to events, too. Older visitors may be less mobile but they will often have more disposable income to spend on their trips and have more time to spend travelling. He also thinks Scotland needs to have more events focused on young people, targeting markets such as computer gaming, alongside developing Scotland’s most valuable and long-standing events.

“In Frankfurt, they recently sold all 17,000 tickets for a gaming event within ten minutes,” he says. “In England, the Football Association has sold 80,000 tickets for a football gaming event at Wembley this spring. That’s a combination of participation and viewing.

“We also need to continue to grow our most famous assets – we’ve built up the history and heritage of events over decades, which presents significant opportunities for the future. The Edinburgh festivals are the biggest collection of arts festivals in the world – we need to maintain them and grow them.

In Glasgow, Celtic Connections has grown into a huge music festival so how can this develop further? What should we do in the future to keep Edinburgh’s Hogmanay as a meaningful event in society and around the world? On the sporting front, we get to host the Open three out of every five years – most countries would give their right hand for that opportunity.”

Some of the benefits of hosting events in Scotland are easy to see. Visitors bring economic clout to any area that hosts an event, from buying food and drink through to booking accommodation and using taxis, riding buses or booking bicycles for transport.

The 2014 Commonwealth Games alone generated £740m for Scotland’s economy, while the Edinburgh festivals bring in around £260m a year and the 2015 World Orienteering Championships and the ‘Scottish 6 Days’ companion event together swelled the economies of the Highlands and Moray by £9.4m.

“As well as those direct benefits, there are also the residual or tail benefits too,” says Bush. “If you have a group of five guys coming to watch the Ryder Cup or the Open, they may spend only one day watching the event but then a further five days over a long weekend playing on Scottish golf courses while they’re up here.

“Hosting events also gives destination marketing organisations (DMOs) a tool for selling Scotland on a wider stage. The Open brought £140m into Scotland and that total is now set to rise because the television rights deal with the BBC has ended and it’s been taken up by Sky and NBC instead. It’s hard to put a price on having golf matches in Scotland being shown live on NBC.”

While hosting events in rural locations – like FyneFest in Argyll or Mumford & Sons’ Stopover festival in Aviemore – can obviously bring benefits to smaller communities, participation in larger national activities can also be spread throughout the country.

In 2012, the London Olympics Games’ torch’s travels touched communities throughout Scotland, while the Queen’s baton relay in the run-up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow switched the whole process up a gear. Bush expects the same will be true when the baton for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast spends some time in Scotland.

Away from the glitz and the glamour of sporting or music events, business tourism is often the unsung hero, bringing in around £1.9bn annually. As well as the direct benefits – the same spending on accommodation, food and drink and travel that’s seen with leisure visitors – there can also be a knock-on effect for businesses surrounding a venue, such as a conference centre. Local florists may supply flowers, local audio-visual specialists may be called in to provide presentations or videos, and local design agencies and carpenters can create sets or stages.

“If we bring a conference of 2,000 neuroscientists to Edinburgh or Glasgow then we’re demonstrating to those academics and their professional bodies that we can handle events on those scales,” explains Bush. “That means that they will go home and rave about the great time they’ve had in Scotland and they may encourage other people to come here for their business events as well. All of those delegates are also potentially leisure tourists in the future – if they enjoy their time in Scotland, they could bring back their families for a holiday or recommend us as a destination for their friends to visit.

“Having repeat events – like the Mountain Bike World Cup in Fort William, which is acknowledged as the best course in the world – can also create sustainable businesses within local communities.”

Looking back over the past decade, 2014 is clearly one of the highlights for Bush, but he points to an early high-point on the journey towards Scotland’s landmark year and bright future within the events sector that he recognises as having special significance. “The first major event that we won was back in 2004 when we mounted a successful bid to host badminton’s 2007 Sudirman Cup in Glasgow,” he remembers. “That may sound like an odd one to pick, but it was the first major bid that we had gone for and so we were the events virgins on the international stage. Winning that first one was really important.”