Features / conference

Sector spotlight: business events

By laura collacott, Monday Mar 6, 2017



  • In 2015 there were an estimated 30,700  business events at Bristol venues, catering for around 1.9 million delegates.
  • The spend by delegates on venues and in the city was estimated at £202m.


As well as a very healthy festival scene, Bristol plays host a large number of business events each year, and as the number of conference spaces in the city continues to proliferate, that number looks set to rise.

The Destination Bristol Conference team is charged with luring people to our shores, with a team of four promoting the Bristol city region as a destination for conferences and meetings. A not-for-profit company funded by the local authority, their free venue finding service serves both planners and agents alike, and works alongside a range of services designed to offer helpful and impartial advice on delivering conferences and business events in the city.

“We also proactively identify potential events to come to the city and support the development of bids to bring in business,” says the company’s head of tourism, Kathryn Davis, explaining their remit. “These often involve a significant amount of liaising with clients and venues, organising site visits, negotiating rates and developing partner programmes.  Often it can involve competing against other destinations in the UK and overseas.”

She says “ensuring that Bristol remains compelling and competitive in a busy market place” is the biggest challenge for the year ahead, though the continuing wave of accolades isn’t doing the city’s trade any harm.

“There are definitely opportunities to bring business from London to Bristol using the GWR conference rail fares as an incentive.  With cheaper overnight accommodation and a variety of meeting space options, Bristol is a great alternative destination.  Great connections at Bristol Airport also mean that the city is well placed for international events.”

But, as always, there are challenges, one of which being the absence of a dedicated convention centre like London’s ExCel or Birmingham’s NEC. “Some event organisers and agents take this to mean the city is unable to deliver larger events and conferences,” says Kathryn, which “absolutely isn’t the case”.

Places like the freshly released Ashton Gate and the future arena are aiming to step into that breach.


At Ashton Gate, a two-year, £45 million redevelopment project has transformed Bristol City and Bristol Rugby’s home ground into a state-of-the-art venue, the largest conference and events venue in the South West with 36 meeting rooms and 5,500 square meters of exhibition space. The venue employs more than 1,000 people and its flexible space means it can cater for intimate company events as well as large-scale ones.

“The fact that most of the Ashton Gate senior operations team come from the hospitality-industry is no accident,” explains Bristol Sport chairman, Martin Griffiths. “I want delegates and customers to have the same high-quality customer experience that they get from a five-star hotel.”

“It’s been very reassuring to attract some extremely large national and international events in our first year of operation,” says chief of stadium operations Mark Kelly. “Bristol has historically struggled to host large events with companies going elsewhere, like Birmingham and Manchester.” Blaming disjointed public transport, he adds, “Bristol is not on the map for large events”.

But it’s something they’re working to change, with new facilities in places like sports stadia (Bristol Pavilion and the Memorial stadium), museums and art galleries (M Shed, At-Bristol, Bristol Museum, Arnolfini), concert venues (St George’s, Colston Hall, Motion) and attractions (Bristol Zoo, Folly Farm, Create, Tobacco Factory, and Engine Shed) diversifying the venue offering away from hotels. That’s alongside plenty of smaller venues – the Vassall Centre, The Beeches, The Distillery Room, Engineers House, for example – and the universities opening their facilities to conferences and corporate events.

“We have a wide range of truly unique venues,” agrees Kathryn. “For example, At-Bristol Science Centre and its 3d Planetarium, Brunel’s ss Great Britain, Arnos Vale Cemetery and with Aerospace Bristol coming soon, these and many more are venues that are absolutely one-offs and inspiring settings, offering experiences that in many cases can’t be replicated elsewhere.”

An exhibition at the Paintworks

The Paintworks stages a large number of exhibitions, including degree shows and mini-festivals, with a capacity of up to 300. “For a city the size of Bristol, there aren’t many large venues for 200+, particularly blank canvas venues,” says manager Natalie Franco. “I think there is a chronic shortage though of event larger venues for 500+ events.”

That’s not to say the hotels aren’t still in the game. Doubletree by Hilton City Centre recently underwent a £5m refurb, adding new conference space in the process. The chain also rebranded its North Bristol hotel near the M4/M5 interchange as a Doubletree – Hilton’s brand pitched at business travellers – after a renovation.

Newly opened, the Harbour Hotel offers a grand new ball room to the city centre space, while the Mercure Holland House has undergone an extensive make-over, just a few of the new offerings in a  large crowd.


Providing the link between venues and clients are the large cohort of event organisers. Blue Wren organises events, corporate entertaining and team building, collaborating with other boutique event companies. “We have found a shift in clients wanting more experience-led events that really immerse the customer; whether it’s a pop up kitchen or a hands-on experience day,” says founder Jessica Davies. “The challenge here is to think out of the box and create unique, one-of-a-kind events that satisfy the needs of the clients.”

A rooftop party from Blue Wren

She’s excited about the sector’s prospects: “The new £90 million Bristol arena with a 12,000 capacity will not only fill a gap in the entertainment sector but will mean a huge influx of visitors in the future. Its sheer size and green credentials will mean that event planners have a fantastic new space to host large scale events (which is currently limited to the Engine Shed). Who can’t be excited about that?”

“For corporates the city is desperately lacking in venues, with a poor choice of hotels,” says Alistair Paul, account director at Bright Event Management, who stage events for Ovo, L’Oreal, Dyson and Bristol Media. He’s welcomed the opening of Ashton Gate’s facilities and “extension of the lease for the event space at Temple Meads for another three years”.

Phil Rhodes has been operating Rhodes Event Management for 28 years, with a turnover of £750,000. Though he’s cut back the business since 2008, he says the market is “quite buoyant” despite the Brexit effect, with a general mood of optimism. He says Bristol shouldn’t even try to compete with the large players such as Birmingham and Manchester, but instead carve itself a niche as “modern, hip, trendy”.

Freelance event manager Thomas Heiser, director of his own company, Focal Point, believes Bristol’s adaptability makes life easier for events professionals. Last year he delivered TSB’s annual partner conference, followed by Venturefest 2017.  “I’d say that 80 per cent of my work is from Bristol organisations, partly due to the openness of Bristol organisations to work with freelancers. From national banks to local tech groups, there doesn’t seem to be the stigma associated with freelancers that I’ve experienced in other cities.

“When it comes to delivery I have a pool of experienced freelancers that I hire in when I need them. People are so willing to work across a multitude of projects. 90 per cent of the people I work with wear a different hat each day of the week so I can afford to bring in really experienced team members without having to employ them full time.”

Recurring events help to bring repeat business, keeping business healthy. “We’ll need to increase capacity or limit the amount of new clients we take on this year,” says Thomas. “The future is definitely rosy for B2B events. Perhaps more than ever, people see the value in meeting people face to face so there will always be a need for good corporate event managers. As long as you deliver an experience that is engaging, imaginative and that leaves attendees in better position than when they walked in – you’ll have done a good job.”


Read more: How to plan a successful conference




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