The Midlands Meetings Empire. Conference News. January 2012

Our big cheese, Stephen Morton-Prior  is interviewed by Sarah O’Donnell from Conference News in preparation for the fabulous article written on the West Midlands in Conference News. Below is the interview along with some pearls of wisdom.

1. What does Birmingham offer a conference organiser that is unique to the rest of the UK?

I’m not going to pretend that Birmingham’s reputation is one of glamour, style and sophistication. Perhaps best known for it’s dreary 60’s architecture and soulless city centre, Birmingham has been stuck in a rut with an unfair perception since the opening of its Ring Roads and the original Bulll Ring! Still, many only think of the city in terms of the NEC, NIA and possibly the Balti curry!

However, the city has changed, indeed it has been entirely reinvented from the foundations up and what has been created is a fabulously well planned, major city center that’s design and style has opened the eyes of the cities most die hard critics. And, you still have the Balti curry!

So, what makes Birmingham unique? Well, its not just one thing. Certainly its design and reinvention has led to a city scape with iconic architecture and facilities that rival any major European city. However, did you know that Birmingham has more canals than Venice and boasts as many cafes and restaurants as London. In turn, the city has its own symphony orchestra, ballet and is home to one of the largest fine collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the UK?

It always amazes me how rich the art and culture scene is in Birmingham and one, which is accessible and affordable unlike many other European cities! Recently, we discovered a 12 piece community band at a local arts centre, all highly talented and embracing their future through music. They sent shivers down our spines and really demonstrates the thriving city art scene.

You don’t have to look far to see just how unique Birmingham is. The rich cultural scene is combined with a variety of attractions, all entirely flexible and ‘wanting’ to do business. For example, the Sea Life Centre gives delegates a chance to network with sharks, whilst the Black Country Museum gives groups a chance to experience a real, living, breathing museum which celebrates the rich history of the city and the Black Country. In December, Birmingham’s city center is transformed into the largest outdoor German Market outside of Germany. Food, beer and stalls line the center and is packed from morning till night – a fabulous vibe!

With the cities redevelopment, hotels have followed suite and Birmingham has some of the best quality bedrooms and meeting space outside of London which really makes the city offering  unique. The Crowne Plaza, Hyatt, Marriott, Radisson Blue to name but a few, can all found within less than 10 minutes walk from one another. Perhaps wrongly, the city has priced itself too low in regards to DDR and room rates and its not uncommon to see rates as low at £70.00 per night and DDR’s for as little as £45.00. I do think the value of the city can put people off coming as its natural to question ‘why so cheap?’ But, honestly the city is thriving and with this value, it allows any organizer to get more bang for their buck.

The thrive and certainly the fibe is testament to the impending launch of Hotel Indigo and the soon to be opened Hotel La Tour. Positioned in style close to Mal Maison and Hotel Du Vin, the city has a super cool design hotel scene which is unique for any city outside of London. We have Michelin star restaurants which are incredibly affordable and the new Marco Pierre White restaurant will be open to groups.

Now, don’t forget Birmingham’s location. The city is less than 3 hours drive to almost 80% of all major populations and its station quite literally connects with the entire country. Getting to Birmingham is easy for Brit based events and with the support of a regional airport, Europe and beyond is accessible

2. Are there any restrictions or failures in the running an event in the city? 

As a conference organizer, the biggest failure to the city is its worldwide connectivity. We are in a difficult position as we are sandwiched between London and its airports to the South and Manchester with its impressive international routes in the North. Both can be reached in around 1h30, so it’s hard for the city to attract major international carriers.

Emirates flies daily which has really opened up Birmingham internationally and US carriers have tried and somewhat failed in flying. More carriers and routes are being attracted but, we could have more. I think realistically, Birmingham will always be a regional hub as it’s really easy to connect to the major northern and southern gateways.

Perhaps the second failure is in the city being viewed as the ‘second city’, rather than a city with its own character and vibe. It’s impossible not to compare Birmingham to London or perhaps even Manchester and as such, Brummies often view themselves as the underdog. Perhaps this is why hotel rates and value are so highly regarded in Birmingham, but this can often work to our disadvantage as you hear the question ‘why so cheap?”

3. What type of events would you hold in the city? Are there’s certain events you would hold there? 

I have often been asked what limitations the city has with events, and quite honestly, I really struggle to answer. Birmingham was quick to recognize that its future and international standing was very much dependent on being a major event city. Birmingham is home to the ICC and NIA both of which can comfortably hold events for several thousand. Supported by a rich and diverse hotel portfolio that can hold events of up to 500 plus, I often wonder if there really is any city better equipped with event infrastructure.

Most hotels are within easy walking distance of one another and work together especially with larger events such as the Liberal Party Conference and most recently, the Trampoline and Tumbling World Championships in November.

I always recommend Birmingham as the ideal city for UK events where you have a pan UK delegation as it’s just so easy to get too and from. Conferences, Exhibitions, Roadshows and any event that truly has quality and cost saving as key to their brief are ideally positioned. It’s hard to pinpoint ideal event types as the city is suited to almost any type of event. However, possibly incentives is one area which is a hard sell.

Realistically, it would take a very clever man to sell Birmingham as an incentive destination in its own right. The city has great social programme activities for an event but, it’s infrastructure is certainly most suited to serious events where the focus is on business.

Nonetheless, we are finding Birmingham as an ideal hub for incentive groups keen to explore Stratford Upon Avon and Warwick, both within 45 minutes drive and also groups visiting to attend concerts at the LG Arena. Due to great value hotels, Birmingham does become an affordable hub for these types of groups and when combined with experiences, we can really offer great programmes

4. How is the infrastructure for running an event there? Ie. Transport, hotels, conference centres, access etc. 

The NIA and ICC are the two major blank canvasses of Birmingham and can offer space for almost any type of event. Perfectly located in the cities heart, all major hotels along with a variety of more low cost options are within a 10 minute walk.

There is an incredible portfolio of hotels ranging from the Premier Inn (which is actually very nice) along with the major chains such as Haytt (connected to the ICC), Radisson, Marriott, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. One absent chain from the centre has been Hilton, this is soon to be changed with Hampton and Garden Inn opening their doors before spring 2012.  The overall quality is spot on and 3 star properties such as the Holiday Inn are as good in every way to their 4 star counterparts.

The city is pedestrian friendly and although all hotels are easily accessibly by car, its easy to navigate by foot. That’s good as our public transport is limited very much to buses and not recommended for groups.

Birmingham is the city where people meet, it’s a city that has been reinvented with the conference organizer in mind and as such its easy to arrange a programme. The center is small in comparison to London which means that transfers from one venue to the next is never more than 15 to 20 minutes dependent upon traffic.

Getting to Birmingham is easy both from the motorway, rail and air (from major gateway points) however, public transport is limited to buses with no subway system. I always suggest staying in centre or providing coaches as it’s difficult at times to navigate without a map.

There are DMC’s (such as Clearwater), AV suppliers and coach companies all working alongside Meet Birmingham and the Convention Bureau, allowing an event organizer a one stop shop for event services. Suppliers work together with the bureau, its incredibly simple for an organizer unfamiliar to Birmingham to find the support needed. There are so many hidden gems in Birmingham and there is a myriad of support to help discover them.