The Battle for Britain

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Anyone with a broad perspective on life can see that the success story of Birmingham is not a threat to London as much as a boost to Britain.

It can only do Britain's conference industry good to have a viable alternative to London. Not that there's anything wrong with Brighton, Edinburgh or Harrogate. Or London, for that matter. It is that Birmingham's new International Convention Centre (ICC) fills a niche and, as was seen from the recent EC summit, is reinforcing Britain's position on the international map.

Since it opened in 1991, the ICC has been hailed as the most user-friendly convention centre in Europe. "Birmingham had to build the best convention centre because it doesn't have the cachet of London," says Paul Swan, managing director of Spectrum Communications, which acted as end-user consultant on the design of the ICC. "It couldn't get away with mediocre convention facilities. London, because it's London, does."

Birmingham may have an absolutely stunning new centre but it still faces a real image problem. In the UK it's Birmingham, which does not inspire the uninitiated. And in the US and much of Europe, the word "Birmingham" is not likely to conjure up much of an image at all.

"Everybody finds that the reality is better than their perception but first the perception has got to catch up," says Barry Cleverdon, general manager of the ICC. "We've got to get meeting planners here. But when we're selling Birmingham in their territory, all we've got to go on is their perception.

"So we sell culture -- the orchestra and the ballet and sport; the National Indoor Arena put Birmingham immediately on the world stage as the indoor sports centre in the country. And the NEC is a world leader."

Not forgetting the countryside, of course: Americans love Stratford-on-Avon, as we all know, and plenty more is within easy reach for partner programmes and dinners out through some excellent local ground handlers like Heart of England Country Tours.

Cleverdon is right, though. Getting the meeting planners to Birmingham makes all the difference. "I was surprised," says Eamonn Santry, who is responsible for organising the Market Research Society's annual 1000-strong gathering. "There are all sorts of things to do around the ICC. There's the concert hall within the complex, the Birmingham Rep, a Ronnie Scott's, Tramps, a few smart US restaurants and no end of truly excellent Indian restaurants. There was some resistance when I moved the event from Brighton, where we had been for 20 years or more and I knew I had to come up with somewhere smart. And people were genuinely impressed."

Another benefit of Birmingham is, as Santry says, that it is the only place in the country that is genuinely easy to get to by car. "People think that Brighton is London by the sea but the roads there are awful and if you live in north London, it's quicker to get to Birmingham," he points out.

Nationally, maybe, but a lack of transatlantic flights so far has been a problem for Birmingham. But the city is now celebrating British Airways' announcement that it will start a service to New York in March. "People don't want to come through Heathrow," says Frances Hurdman, director of sales at the Hyatt Regency. "They have used American Airlines into Manchester quite successfully but now with this announcement and talk of United flying Birmingham-Chicago and Delta starting up to Atlanta, we're looking to increase our level of promotion in the US."

Ultimately, though, some planners still want the cachet of a capital city and London continues to win business. "You can't beat a capital city for most international audiences," says Vanessa Cotton, partner in The Event Organisation Company. But as she points out, it really is a matter of horses for courses. For an international gathering requiring the prestige of a capital city, you use central London. For a nationwide product launch requiring state of the art facilities, you use Birmingham. …