Lure of the north: a city guide to Aberdeen

It’s not just about oil – Scotland’s third city is enticing delegates with modern amenities and improved transport links

Aberdeen harbour

Stakeholders are spending more than £5b on infrastructure in Aberdeen

Aberdeen is sometimes called the ‘Granite City’. Even its medieval landmarks have a hard-edged look. But visit on a day when that mica-flecked granite of its city-centre buildings sparkles in the sun, and you’ll see why it’s also nicknamed the ‘Silver City’. And yes, the sun does shine on Aberdeen – daytime temperatures have been known to reach 27°C in summer. Hardy souls go windsurfing from the city’s long, sandy beach.

Aberdeen has always wrested its identity from the North Sea – from fishing, shipbuilding and trade, then from its precious undersea resources. In fact, Aberdeen Harbour Board, created in 1136, is the oldest existing company in Britain. Today, the fishing fleet may have dwindled, but more than 9,000 ships use Aberdeen Harbour every year. It bustles with oil industry vessels and container ships, and a major extension of the harbour facilities is under way – part of a wave of regional regeneration.

 

VillageHotelsAberdeen

Village Hotel in Aberdeen

Oil and gas dominated business in Aberdeen for half a century. The discovery of the giant Forties and Brent oil fields and the Frigg gas field in 1970 and 1971 were quickly followed by the 1973 worldwide oil crisis. The price of crude quadrupled, making the North Sea even more attractive to Big Oil. Aberdeen seemed to become a boom town almost overnight, as thousands of workers, technicians and oil company executives flocked to the city. In a few years, the area’s population almost doubled, seeing it catching up with Edinburgh as the third-biggest city in Scotland, with a population of 230,000. Today, it’s home to one in four of Scotland’s top 100 companies and more than 600 inward investors.

However, it’s a sign of the times that decommissioning will be a key part of SPE Offshore Europe 2017, the North Sea oil industry’s pivotal conference that will be held in September this year. With North Sea oil reserves running low, the focus is shifting.

Aberdeen’s most optimistic promoters say the end of the oil boom may be no bad thing. For too long, some argue, other business sectors have been overshadowed by energy. Now, other areas of excellence have a chance to flourish, and older pillars of the economy, such as agriculture and shipping, are resilient.

In addition, Aberdeen has been a centre of academic excellence for more than 500 years. The modern University of Aberdeen was created in 1860 by the merger of the venerable King’s College and Marischal College, and its Institute for Medical Sciences is now Europe’s biggest single-site health campus. Robert Gordon University, a relative upstart with 18th-century roots, has earned a worldwide reputation as a hotbed for technical, management and engineering studies and life sciences.

Central Square

The Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre’s central square

Investing in infrastructure

Aberdonians may be famously thrifty, but private and public sector stakeholders are pumping more than £5bn into infrastructure projects, including new road links, retail, office and residential developments, a £19m City Centre Masterplan and a £250m City Region Deal supported by the UK and Scottish governments and local councils.

“There’s a lot of collaboration in the city,” says Graeme Mackay, VisitAberdeenshire’s Ambassador Programme executive.

For event planners, the key element of this regeneration plan is the new Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC). Scheduled to open next to the airport in 2019, the £333m venue will have twice the capacity of the existing AECC, combining a conference centre with 47,000m2 of flexible exhibition space, a 12,500 capacity arena and three hotels.

Meanwhile, Aberdeen International Airport is undergoing a £20m transformation to double the capacity of its terminal. New international and domestic arrivals areas and business lounges open this summer.

Aberdeen by night

Moving forward 

“Aberdeen understands it can’t stand still any more. It has to move forward,” says Russell Borthwick, chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,300 businesses employing more than 130,000 people.

Aberdeen still has time to realign its economy to face new realities. The omnipresent background noise of helicopters landing and taking off from the world’s busiest civil heliport is a reminder that the energy business is still ticking over, despite plummeting prices.

Earlier this year, BP group chief executive Bob Dudley called BP’s North Sea business one of its ‘crown jewels’ and said it would continue to invest in major developments, including around 50 new oil wells by 2020, doubling production.

“There are still 20 billion barrels of oil left in the North Sea, so oil and gas isn’t dead by any stretch of the imagination,” Borthwick says. “Our economy is still fundamentally strong – most cities in the UK would give their right arm to have a regional economy like northeast Scotland’s. And we have innovative sectors such as food and drink, agriculture, and life sciences, which are no longer stifled by oil and gas.”

Dunnottar Castle

Sunset at Dunnottar Castle, near Aberdeen in eastern Scotland

New venues for Aberdeen

By 2020, hotel capacity in Aberdeen will reach 7,000 rooms: good news for visitors. Suddenly, the city is no longer short of rooms, and prices have become much more competitive: “When oil was at its peak, you couldn’t get an affordable rate midweek,” says Stevie Brown, PR manager at VisitAberdeenshire. “All of a sudden, we have a very strong hotel room offering across all categories.”

Historic venues will also benefit from regeneration. Aberdeen Art Gallery, founded in 1884, reopens in autumn 2017 after a £30m renovation that includes a variety of spaces for meetings, mini-conferences and hospitality. Aberdeen Music Hall, built in 1822, will relaunch in spring 2018 after a £7m facelift that will give it greater potential as an events venue.

Brew-Dog-Beer-Tasting

BrewDog beer-tasting sessions are available in Aberdeen

Aberdeen off-duty

Aberdeen may be a no-nonsense business city, but it’s rich in heritage, too. Old Aberdeen, midway between the AECC and the city centre, is its historic heart, surrounding the 16th-century campus of King’s College and St Machar’s Cathedral. King Street connects this old quarter with downtown Aberdeen, where the major landmark is Marischal College, a grandiose 19th-century pile that offers a glimpse into the world of the city’s business elite in bygone centuries. In contrast, for a breath of fresh air, visit a clifftop castle that’s straight out of Game of Thrones at Dunnottar. On the way back to town, you can stop off for a swim at Britain’s northernmost lido, the Stonehaven Open Air Swimming Pool (heated to 29°C) or sample Scotland’s most notorious delicacy at the Carron Fish Bar, birthplace of the deep-fried Mars bar. However you choose to round off a trip to the Granite City, you’ll come away impressed by its drive and determination to embrace the future.

Travelling to and from Aberdeen

  • By air: Aberdeen International Airport is seven miles from the city centre and has links to all London airports and numerous UK and international business cities. Jet 727 airport buses take 30-40 minutes from terminal to city centre.
  • By rail: Aberdeen is just under eight hours from London King’s Cross by direct train, via Leeds, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Dundee. There are also frequent trains between Aberdeen and Glasgow and Aberdeen and Inverness.
  • By road: Aberdeen is 10-12 hours from London by road.

For more information on Aberdeen or business travel and events in other UK cities, speak to our team today.

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