In 2004 the UK attracted 196 association conferences and exhibitions and the value of business tourism in general soared to more than £20bn, representing 53% growth over the past ten years.
London alone snared 44 association events, up from 34 in the previous year. Such was their scale that they involved some 85,715 attendees - a massive 447% rise from 2003 - and brought a total economic benefit of £75.6m to the city.
Building on such a bumper year, one current medical bid for 15,000 delegates is worth £15m to London, says Visit London client services manager associations Helen Horsfield, while the likes of World Travel Market with 44,000 visitors and The International Boat Show with 213,000 create huge spin-offs around the city.
Destinations and venues across the UK agree that association business, conferences and exhibitions are often bigger and last longer than corporate events. In addition, delegates come from further afield and there tends to be more social add-ons and more post-event extensions. In fact, there is usually a greater opportunity to pump cash into the local community.
Bournemouth International Centre contributes £40m-£50m to the local economy, and Edinburgh International Conference Centre calculates that its economic impact has reached £23.2m, a figure it plans to double when new function space becomes operational in 2008.
It also comes as no surprise that the NEC is worth £1.7bn to Birmingham with shows such as Ipex, one of the world's biggest print and visual communications conventions with 80,000 visitors, plus machine tool show MACH, expected to take over 26,000sqm of space with 500 exhibitors and 21,000 visitors in 2006.
Impressive figures, but behind the gloss lies the hard fact that the UK has started to fall behind its competitors in attracting association events. The key outcomes from the International Congress and Conventions Association's (ICCA) summer debate indicated there is no room for complacency as the UK's ranking slips year on year. Brian Horsburgh, chair of the ICCA UK and Ireland chapter, says: "The UK is not growing its share as fast as other international competitor countries."
He cites one obstacle as being that other nations are perceived as offering better value for money, while the lack of involvement by the UK's main full-service airlines in the events industry is also seen as a further barrier to growth. In addition, the absence of any formal subvention arrangement for events at a national level is considered another disadvantage for the UK.
"Although there is sometimes support for securing a conference at city level, and there can be subvention in kind in the form of civic receptions, free local travel and subsidised venue facilities, this is patchy," says Horsburgh. "It is rarely possible for one host city to provide a level of support comparable to some of its international competitors."
Until the UK truly unites to shore up future bids, association epicentres will continue to fight their corners. And despite his concerns Horsburgh proclaims: "The UK is well established in terms of hi-spec, well-developed venues and there is a lot of investment."
As well as flagging up developments, convention bureaus feel it is very much a destination sell with the focus on access, transport, diverse social options and food and beverage, along with partner programmes.
Last year a new initiative in the North West, comprising Manchester, Liverpool, Blackpool, Southport, Lancashire and Cheshire, set up the North West Bidding Unit to bring more association business into the region.
It researches leads, tries to establish links between trade bodies and the destination, and leads an ambassador programme, getting senior academics with association ties on side. "The area has already won £1.5m of business through the unit," says Marketing Manchester commercial director Melissa Marriott. "The city council is incredibly forward looking so we also have a subvention fund to assist with marketing support and social events."
To attract business, other destinations draw on ICCA and Union of International Associations statistics to research key trade bodies and identify their rotation patterns. They then work with local ambassadors and committees to front bids and serve as a central point of contact.
"The switched-on cities have also realised that if they attract associations in certain sectors and build on that existing expertise they can use it to attract more business," says Marketing Birmingham commercial director Ian Taylor. He points out that the city is strong in the professional services, IT, medical and autosport sectors, all of which are ripe for exploitation. The Autosport International show, for example, will be held next January at the NEC. "If you have a natural base of expertise the association finds it an easier fit to come to the destination," Taylor concludes.
Although things are becoming more competitive for venues, new business is arising. Professional associations are being created all the time, and many of these are splitting and becoming more specialised, which in turn should lead to yet more opportunities for venues.
The UK events industry is reaping the benefits of the EU presidency, and the Olympics win will become integral to its marketing strategy. This all points to a market that can, and almost certainly will, develop further.