Leeds: city of soaring ambition

Award-winning events spaces, over 10,000 hotel beds and the country’s most punctual airport – Leeds has plenty to offer the business traveller

The soaring arched roof of Leeds’ Corn Exchange, one of the country’s finest Victorian buildings

Leeds’ Corn Exchange is one of the UK’s finest Victorian buildings – and continues to wow today (Rex)

Hosting a major sporting event can work wonders for a city’s image. London wowed the world with the 2012 Olympics, Glasgow impressed with its successful staging of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. And that same year, Leeds demonstrated that it could put on a show, kicking off the Grand Départ of the Tour de France.

Some tuned into TV coverage of the cycling race naively expecting the backdrop to be all dark satanic mills, cloth caps and whippets. Instead they saw bright skies, grand Victorian civic architecture and the glorious Yorkshire countryside that lies on the city’s doorstep. It was, declared Tour director Christian Prudhomme, “the grandest Grand Départ” in the event’s 111-year history. The bar was raised for all future hosts.

“It was a great thing for Leeds,” agrees Capita Travel and Events account manager Danny Cockton. “It really showed its capacity as a city to put on massive events.” Since then, it’s carried on doing just that. Last year Leeds was a host city for the Rugby Union World Cup and British Art Show 8. It also staged the MOBO music awards, and recently welcomed more than 5,000 athletes to compete in the Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Leeds. It’s also bidding to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. By 2030, it wants to be the best city in the UK.

Business is booming

Not so long ago, such large-scale ambition would have been hard to imagine. But, like many other northern cities, Leeds has seen major changes over the past decade or so. It has managed to shake off the post-industrial decline of the late 20th century. A future has been forged in new sectors such as healthcare, financial and professional services, and digital innovation.

The chic boutiques and arcades of the Victoria Quarter shopping centre in Leeds

Shopping arcades in the Victoria Quarter

Four of the most important UK National Health Service bodies have their HQs in Leeds. More than 30 banks are based there, as is the Bank of England’s only note-issuing centre outside London. And 35% of the UK’s internet traffic is hosted in the city.

Manufacturing is still very much in evidence, too, says Jennifer Young, associate director of visitor economy for VisitLeeds and ConferenceLeeds. “It’s a really strong sector for us,” she says. “Particularly in the fields of engineering, food manufacturing and environmental technologies, employing at least 160,000 people. And we’ve recently seen a very important investment from Burberry. It has bought up a substantial amount of land and is going to be bringing all its manufacturing into Leeds.”

Leeds regeneration

Burberry’s new site will be a high-profile addition to Leeds South Bank, one of Europe’s largest city-centre regeneration projects. The scheme is breathing new life into the once rundown industrial areas to the south of the River Aire. It’s already home to companies including Asda, Ernst & Young and Eversheds, as well as a growing cluster of creative, digital and tech businesses. It’s also lined up to become a future educational hub and location of the new HS2 station.

The Knight’s Way pedestrian bridge arches over the water at the redeveloped Leeds Dock (Rex)(Rex)

The Knight’s Way pedestrian bridge at Leeds Dock, an area that has seen extensive redevelopment (Rex)

There’s major investment north of the river, too, with the £165m Victoria Gate retail development due to be unveiled later this year. Plus the 22-acre Wellington Place will be providing shiny new office spaces and public places.

Not that the city is turning its back on its past. It’s justifiably proud of its beautiful Victorian shopping arcades and smartly refurbished Corn Exchange. And it’s sprucing up Leeds Kirkgate Market (birthplace of Marks & Spencer), which is based in a Grade I-listed building.

Conferences in Leeds

Interesting properties such as these are one of the attractions for conference organisers. As Young explains: “We have some unique venues, many of them with a heritage or arts and culture angle. Our Northern Ballet company has various conferencing spaces, as do our art galleries. The Royal Armouries, part of the Tower of London group, has a conference space in a purpose-built hall next door. And The Tetley, a former brewery, is now an art gallery that also has conferencing space.”

The striking Royal Armouries building in Leeds

The striking Royal Armouries

Then there’s the impressive new First Direct Arena, which opened in 2013. With a capacity of 13,500, it was declared Best New Venue in the World 2014 at the Stadium Business Awards. “The arena is a game changer,” says Cockton. “It means Leeds can now attract the big conferences that it didn’t have the capacity to take before.”

Top transport links

The city’s transport connections are getting a boost, too. HS2 may be decades away, but from 2018, Virgin’s Azuma trains will transform travel on the East Coast line. More services, more seats, shorter journey times and free, faster Wi-Fi are all on the way.

Meanwhile, Leeds Bradford Airport is proving to be one of the fastest-growing regional airports in the UK. Passenger numbers in 2015 exceeded 3.4 million, a 27% increase since 2005. It now offers direct flights to more than 75 destinations, including hubs in London (BA) and Amsterdam (KLM) with onward connections around the globe.

In March, the airport announced that for the second successive quarter it had the most on-time flights in the UK. “That’s key for us,” says Young. “It’s important for delegates coming in to have confidence that they’re going to get to their conference on time.”

Another plus for events organisers is the city’s size. “It’s quite a walkable city,” points out Cockton. “You can hold a big event and not worry if you have delegates in multiple hotels. You can still capture them quite easily.”

Accommodation in Leeds

The city’s total bed stock is 10,911, with university accommodation rooms (6,690) and four-star hotels (2,141) particularly strong. New openings in the pipeline include a 90-bedroom Dakota Hotel, and 234-bedroom ibis Styles Leeds.

And Frasers Hospitality, owner of the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin (HdV) brands, is planning a new hotel in Yorkshire. This has sparked rumours that the city might be about to get a new HdV to add to the existing Malmaison.

Add to this a food and drink scene with more than 300 bars and restaurants. Plus a talent pool courtesy of three universities and the fact that Leeds is collaborating with other regions to promote the north of England internationally. It’s clear that the city’s upwards momentum won’t be stopping any time soon. “These are exciting times for Leeds,” says Cockton. “It’s a fun city, quite young, energetic and competitive. I’m going to enjoy watching it improve over the next few years!”

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