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Croeso Cymru: CN talks to Heledd Williams

There has been much hype around the new ICC Wales, which is currently taking shape alongside the M4 motorway in the outskirts of Newport. When finished, this new venue, which is privately funded by Celtic Manor, will bring an additional 26,000sqm of floor space to the Principality. However, it is unfair to think that the business events scene in Wales is defined by one venue alone. There is a multitude of spaces spread across the country, from Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in the south to Llandudno’s Venue Cymru in the north, and in between a vast rolling land full of incentive possibilities.

Heledd Williams was appointed head of business events at VisitWales earlier in 2018, so who better to tell us about the exciting times ahead?

Why do people choose Wales as a meetings destination? “Wales is accessible, is part of Britain but is different with its offer,” says Williams. “Wales is friendly, is innovative, compact and has a lot to offer. It is less than two hours from UK cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. 

“We have some stunning venues and hotels, from ancient castles to famous golf resorts and state-of-the-art venues like the new ICC Wales.”

Williams also highlights the role academic venues play on the events scene, telling me that there are eight universities, four of which are in the world’s top 500.

So how much are business visits worth to Wales today, and what are the predictions for growth? 

Williams says that Wales “achieves less than 2% of the UK’s business events value currently.” She adds: “In 2014, business events value sat at £343.4m, just 1.59% of the £21.9bn value for the UK as a whole. There is an opportunity to achieve economic benefit of up to £24m annually.

“There is a potential to increase market share from both UK and international associations, public and third sector meetings as well as corporate meetings and team building events.”  

Visit Wales is wholly owned and operated by the devolved Welsh Government. There is an overall budget for tourism marketing which supports the effort of business events within this context. So what is the plan; how will business be brought to the Principality over the next five years? 

Williams says: “The main goal and ambition is to link to the industry sectors being targeted for inward investment, foreign direct investment and economic development throughout Wales. Sectors that we will be targeting include advances materials and manufacturing, creative industries, energy & environment, financial & professional services, food & drink, life sciences, tech and tourism.”

Williams cites an example of how the country will draw attention: “The £100m Sêr Cymru initiative brings prestigious research chairs to Welsh universities and supports national research networks in life sciences and health, low carbon energy and environment, and advanced engineering and materials. 

“Wales has created an agenda that aims not only to expand academic science, but to translate science and technology into applications that lead to economic growth. In line with this, the universities of Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth have been investing heavily in infrastructure such as the new £300m Innovation Campus at Cardiff University.”

This sounds like a good strategy, but I want to know if the effort will be concentrated on the cities, or will there also be a focus to spread things out nationwide? 

Williams is clear in response that the country as a whole will play its part. She says: “Wales is already a strong offer for leisure and group business and is also widely recognised as a major event destination having hosted so many globally recognised events such as football matches as part of the 2012 Olympics, WOMEX 2013, Rugby World Cup 2016, the UEFA Champions League Final in 2017 and the Volvo Ocean Race 2018; all of which have brought many corporate opportunities to us.

“The plan now is to capitalise on this opportunity and to present Wales as a viable destination for business events focusing on a variety of venues and experiences across the country, and looking at our infrastructure and aligning to planners’ needs, responding to what could work in Wales.”

Indeed, some of the ideas are quite unique. Williams explains: “We utilise our natural landscapes and create experiences from disused industries such as Zip World above Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda – the world’s longest and fastest zip wire. There’s also surf Snowdonia where a man-made surf lagoon sits at the base of the Snowdonia mountain range. We offer coasteering, canyoning, vintage car driving, food and wine tours and all sorts of team building activities in rural, coastal, and urban locations. And because Wales is small and manageable to navigate, it gives ample opportunity for delegates to experience more.”   

Is the focus solely on the ICC Wales; where do venues like the Millennium Stadium and Venue Cmyru stand? 

Williams acknowledges that the new 5,000-capacity complex is a catalyst for change but is certainly not the be all and end all. She says: “ICC Wales is a catalyst and an opportunity for so many products and experiences across Wales to come together and work together to present a variety of options and experiences for future event planners and buyers. 

“You could have a small meeting for 10 in the guest tower at Cardiff Castle, host 5,000 in the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, or 2,500 in Venue Cymru’s Arena.” 

It doesn’t stop there. Williams adds: “Delegates can have a meeting in a Yurt or a teepee in the forest or in any of our top-ranking university venues. Then there’s a different kind of meeting that could be hosted at St David’s Cathedral, or at the rapids at Cardiff International White Water Centre or on the Menai Straits on a Rib Ride. There are also over 600 castles that are a sight to behold, many of them offering themselves as venues with a difference for those out of conferences experiences.”

I ask Williams where event buyers can speak to her and her team in the coming months. She says: “VisitWales is a strategic partner with VisitBritain, and we are attending some of the big industry exhibitions such as IBTM World and IMEX. We also attend some European industry forums as well as strategic lunches and events with VisitBritain.”

Wales, it seems, is on the move.