The Innovation Game

Over the last 10 years Leeds has undergone a massive transformation, establishing itself as one of the UK’s leading conference destinations. Paul Harvey reports.

Leeds is a city brimming with innovation. And it’s that innovation, whether in healthcare, digital, tech or beyond, that has helped the city discover its meetings mojo over the last decade.

It helps being located in the heart of the UK – virtually equidistant from London and Edinburgh – and the city has fantastic road, rail and air links as well as being rich with history and heritage.

Already a major hub for health innovation, Leeds is home to national health and care bodies including NHS England, NHS Digital, NHS Leadership Academy and Health Education England. The private sector has also provided Leeds with the largest cluster of med-tech businesses in the UK – making it a shoo-in for healthcare meetings.

Horizon Leeds is a digitally-led 250-capacity conference and meeting centre developed by NHS Confederation, which boasts three five meeting rooms and a media broadcasting studio. Venue sales and marketing manager Megan MacBrairdy is keen to highlight the city’s credentials.

“Leeds is a hub for healthcare,” she says. “Four out of the five national health and care bodies have offices here in Leeds. The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust is one of the largest NHS hospitals in the UK and one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe, plus NHS England is headquartered in the city.

“We get a lot of conferences of 120 to 200 delegates. In Covid we developed a broadcasting studio set up within months.

“As an independent venue in Leeds we share our enquiries with our direct competitors, because the worst thing that can happen is that the business goes out of Leeds. So if we couldn't do something, we would share it with a competitor so it stays in the city. That collaboration is what Leeds is all about.

“There's a lot going on in Leeds at the moment. You've got a couple of Hiltons, a Dakota and the Marriott. The big one is The Queens Hotel. It’s the old railway hotel as you’re coming out of the station; it’s had a £16 million renovation and now it's doing so well and it’s been so beautifully done. It's an exciting time.”

This spring Leeds also bolstered its innovation credentials with a series of events aimed at shaping the post-pandemic digital and tech landscape as part of [email protected] LIVE.

The programme included a launch event for the Green Finance Innovation Network, the Innovate Space Festival, the FinTech North Leeds Conference 2022, and AI Tech North’s Great Northern AI Summit 2022 at Leeds City Museum.

Claire Heap, head of Conference Leeds says: “Leeds’ conference scene has bounced back following the pandemic. From tech to space innovation, the events demonstrate the important role that Leeds has to play as a driving force of innovative business.”

The city has secured a number of conference successes for 2022 and beyond, including CHS Leeds which took place in May, The 8th International Conference on Concrete Repair, Concrete Technology and Durability, which returned to the city in June and the Pancreas society of Great Britain and Ireland Conference in November.

Professor Michael Grantham, conference co chair of Concrete Solutions, said: “The facilities on offer in the city made it an easy destination choice for our first in-person conference in three years. The Conference Leeds team have been enormously helpful, and we hope to leave our delegates with a pleasant and lasting memory of England and boost research and industry both in the city and the field."

MeetingsInn founder and Leeds resident Andrew Winterburn says: “Leeds is perfectly placed to host smaller association meetings for up to 1,000 people. Due to its strong healthcare links, it is perfectly place for medical meetings, and also for sales meetings due to its central location.

“It’s an easily accessible destination – you can walk the city. There are great newly-refurbished hotels like The Queens, The Metropole, The Marriott and the DoubleTree by Hilton.

“Horizon Leeds, Nexus Leeds and the Thackray Museum of Medicine are ideal for healthcare events, plus there’s Cloth Hall, Northern Ballet, Harewood House, the Armouries and the Corn Exchange. And the shopping is amazing!” 

View from the bureau

“Leeds is at the epicentre of the modern north and conference organisers and delegates alike can expect nothing short of an exceptional experience when visiting the city for a business event. We are a city that doesn’t do the ordinary and our conferences are never off the shelf. We have a collective mix of outstanding venues, from big brand names to independent venues, that all work extremely hard to ensure the events that are delivered fall nothing short of a success.

“Leeds is packed with heritage, cultural creativity, life and energy and offers so much to discover. From paddleboarding at Leeds Dock and exploring the grounds of historic houses, to being spoiled for choice for satisfying taste buds and socialising at quirky independent bars, there really is something for everyone. With unrivalled travel connections from all parts of the UK, Leeds is a great choice for any organiser looking for a destination with accessibility.”

Claire Heap
Head of Conference Leeds

Nicole Woodcock, senior project manager at Leeds event agency XSEM, shares her favourite venues in and around the city.

Bowcliffe Hall

Bowcliffe Hall has the stately atmosphere and grounds of a country house and all the facilities required for modern events. It has several private function rooms, from grand Georgian ballrooms to smaller areas that can be used for meetings, dinners and private parties. There is a secluded meeting room out in the woodland area, raised on stilts, overlooking the beautiful Yorkshire countryside that is great for creative sessions or wellbeing talks.

Their in-house catering team are passionate about food and incorporate seasonal, fresh, locally sourced produce in their menus - some of which is grown on the Bowcliffe Hall estate! Located in Wetherby, close to both Leeds and York, it is the perfect venue for a variety of events.

The Queens

Having recently benefitted from a £16 million refurbishment, this famous Leeds landmark hotel is an awe-inspiring venue in the heart of the city. With direct access from Leeds train station, plus 13 meeting rooms, including the magnificent Queens Ballroom which holds 500 people, this stunning hotel has everything you need for a great event.

Royal Armouries

The Royal Armouries and New Dock Hall is the largest dedicated conference, events and exhibition space in Leeds. The venue offers world-class facilities for conferences, exhibitions, awards dinners and corporate meetings and can accommodate up to 2,500 people. You can even dodge the city centre traffic by taking the Leeds Water Taxis direct to the venue.

Aspire Leeds

Located in the city centre close to major transport links, Aspire is one of our first choices for both small and large events in the city. The event space is really flexible and can be adapted to suit clients’ requirements; whether you would like to host a drinks reception for up to 100 people or a banquet for up to 400. We’ve also been known to build a virtual studio space there! 

Case study

Leeds welcomed thousands of delegates for the UK’s Real Estate Investment and Infrastructure Forum

More than 4,000 delegates docked at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in May for the first ever UK’s Real Estate Investment and Infrastructure Forum (UKREiiF).

The inaugural event, which has already chosen Leeds as the host city for next year’s conference, was created by Built Environment Networking after recognising there was a need to connect people, places and businesses to help accelerate the Levelling Up Agenda.

The three-day event brought the public and private sector together and included representation from all of the UK’s core cities, with more than 300 speakers, including government ministers, devolved mayors, key influencers and policy shapers contributing to the event across 15 stages.

UKREiiF’s comprehensive programme, which included 80 exhibitors, 300 speakers and more than 50 fringe events, took place at The Royal Armouries and New Dock Hall, using all of the venue's meeting and event space to its full potential. Pavilion Square outside New Dock Hall was also transformed into The Investment Zone where delegates attended various sessions and received industry led expert insight and advice across the Social Value Pavilion, Building Better Communities Pavilion, and more.

The conference was kicked off with a delegate breakfast in the Social Value Pavilion and was followed by a welcome session on the Levelling Up Stage. Other sessions included How to Measure Climate Risk for Real Estate Portfolios in the Investor Centre, and Delivering Next Generation Green Infrastructure: Ideas For Creating Greener Buildings & Places.

The UKREiiF annual event also comprised 50 fringe events where delegates had the opportunity to explore other unique venues across the city, network with other delegates and industry leaders, and broaden their knowledge.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, deputy leader of Leeds City Council, says “I am thrilled that Leeds was chosen to host this year’s UKREiiF and we were delighted to welcome over 4,000 delegates from around the UK to our amazing city. The atmosphere over the course of the three days of the forum was electric.

“Leeds has transformed over the last decade and continues to go from strength to strength as a city to invest and do business in. The overwhelming success of UKREiiF not only demonstrates the city’s capabilities of hosting such a prestigious event but further confirms Leeds’ reputation as a key driver for economic growth across the whole of Leeds City Region and the North of England. We look forward to welcoming everyone back next year for UKREiif 2023 during Leeds 2023, the city’s Year of Culture for an even bigger and better event.”