The UK’s second biggest city has strong global connections and a keen eye on the future.
By the 19th century, Birmingham had earned its reputation as “the workshop of the world”, dominating manufacturing across the globe with everything from toys and guns, to jewellery and silverware.
Today, the city is still one of the UK’s manufacturing and engineering powerhouses, accounting for 20 per cent of the UK output. Key specialisations include metal works and the automotive and aviation industries, with the likes of Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce being major employers in the region.
Pre-pandemic the city experienced a surge in exports and business development: “We called it the Golden Decade between 2009 and 2019 because of the levels of growth that we saw,” says Raj Kandola, director of external affairs at Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce.
This included welcoming a raft of Fortune 500 companies, such as HSBC, Goldman Sachs, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who opened major new regional headquarters in response to the city’s growing dominance in financial and professional services.
Birmingham is also expanding into newer areas, particularly in the fields of life sciences, digital information and green tech. “There are a number of key business opportunities that are predicated on the green industrial revolution,” says Kandola. “The West Midlands has the fastest growing technology network in the country outside of London, which is partly thanks to a strong ecosystem of top-class universities. Plus, a number of our anchor institutions like Jaguar and Land Rover are looking to pivot into green technology, so there is a real opportunity here.
“One key project is securing a gigafactory at Coventry airport, which will open up business for the region so we can produce electric vehicle battery technology to support the green transition.”
Another major asset the city can utilise to ensure its future growth is its unique local population. “We’ve got a young and diverse population,” says Kandola. “It’s well known that Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe.” Around 40 per cent of the population is under 25, and the city has a graduate retention rate of 46 per cent – one of the highest in Europe – which helps to cultivate a thriving workforce and opportunities for Millennials and Gen Z.
“Birmingham is also home to around 180 different nationalities – almost one in two residents belongs to an ethnic minority group, while one in four were born overseas. So that gives you ties to the wider diaspora communities and helps to cultivate those global ties and foreign direct investment [FDI] projects,” says Kandola. “Outside of London we have the highest number of FDI projects in the country,” he adds.
The city’s international networks are further fostered by Birmingham airport (BHX), which both serves, and is served by, the multiethnic population. “We’ve got a rich diaspora of people in our region, which support different aspects and feeds all three cabin classes of traffic, with passengers going into the Middle East, the subcontinent and beyond”, says Nick Barton, CEO of Birmingham airport.
This was perfectly embodied by the airport’s “Giant July”, where major announcements included the return of Qatar Airways, Emirates and its A380, and the launch of flights to Jeddah with Saudia. “From an airport manager’s perspective, it was a red-letter day to have those announcements in a single week,” says Barton. “Premium names and wide-bodied aircraft showing real commitment and investment in our region is a major highlight,” he adds.
UK & Ireland country manager for Qatar Airways, Gary Kershaw, comments: “You can see the regeneration that the city’s gone through, and how much money has gone into the area. The new corporates and the continual regeneration, and eventually HS2 means we’re in a good space to return to Birmingham, so it’s a really exciting route for us”.
Birmingham is also one of the best-connected airports in the UK. More than 40 million people live within a two-hour journey of the airport, which is due to rise sharply with the advent of HS2. “We have the best network of infrastructure, roads and rail, of any airport in the UK. We are at the intersection of all the major motorways, apart from the M4, and we also have the railway connecting us to the north and south. So, the existing infrastructure is magnificent and our two-hour catchment is 20 per cent bigger than Canada’s entire population,” says Barton.
The airport is currently working to strengthen routes to European cities, and sees low-cost carriers as a key part of the plan. Ryanair recently set up a base at the regional hub, and more recently easyJet announced it would be parking aircraft at Birmingham, which Barton says is good news for business travellers.
“Of course we’ve got the business make-up. Birmingham is well known for its dense SME profile and at the other end of the scale you’ve got the likes of Goldman Sachs and HSBC. So you couldn’t ask for a better diversity of operations, particularly from a business travel perspective.
“What we want to do is offer almost timetable-less operations for key city connections, where people can almost just turn up, which really suits the business market. We want to make sure that the low-cost network is growing fast to cover those big city pairs,” says Barton.
The airport itself is also undergoing a major upgrade – equivalent to £100,000 being spent every day for the next ten years. This includes more than £40 million on the construction of a new security facility to meet the mandate of 1 June, 2024 when passengers will no longer need to remove liquids or laptops from bags.
Sizeable investments are also being made into green technology, with the airport setting an ambitious net zero target by 2033, well ahead of the government’s 2050 mandate. So far the airport has undertaken numerous initiatives, from replacing diesel vehicles with a fleet of electric buses to investment in onsite photovoltaic energy generation and the announcement of a partnership with ZeroAvia in May 2023 to create a hydrogen production facility.
The promise of HS2
Another major transport boost for the West Midlands will come with the arrival of HS2, the UK’s high-speed railway, targeted for completion towards the end of the decade. “It’s not just about a fast train from London to Birmingham,” says the Chamber’s Kandola. “A lot of the recent investment in the city, and why anchor institutions are moving here, is because of the impact of HS2.
“HS2 is employing 8,000 people across the West Midlands and has already awarded £8 billion in contracts. Once completed, it’s expected to employ around 175,000 people in the West Midlands.”
Birmingham airport’s Barton is similarly enthusiastic about the project: “It’s a staggering bit of infrastructure and we as an airport are a huge beneficiary of it. We’ll get our own station on HS2 and we estimate the link to central London will take about 36 minutes of train time, which would probably put us on about Zone 5 of the Tube map.”
Aside from its business acumen and strong global ties, Birmingham has thriving cultural, lifestyle and tourism offerings. It has more miles of canals than Venice and more green space than Paris, after all, not to mention five Michelin-starred restaurants, the world-famous Bullring shopping destination, and lively nightlife districts.
A major event for the city came last year when it hosted the Commonwealth Games. “The Commonwealth Games were a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle,” says Kandola. “We had hundreds of thousands of people visiting the city, which generated around £800 million worth of economic benefits for the UK. It also gave us a real boost in terms of the image of the city on the international stage, projecting Birmingham as a city of considerable glamour and potential.
“We also hosted the inaugural Esports championships, and now we’ve shown we can deliver these huge events we want to keep that momentum going. The aim is to bid for the Invictus games before the end of the decade.”
Birmingham is no stranger to hosting events – the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is the largest event space in the UK, and the city has several other outstanding facilities.
Unique Venues Birmingham, which recently won the Greengage ECOsmart 2023 Silver Award for sustainability, encompasses a portfolio of 25 venues that includes the Birmingham Repertory theatre and the Library of Birmingham, the largest regional library in Europe.
A major new opening is Eastside Rooms, launched in 2021 in the up-and-coming Knowledge Quarter. The new venue offers 23 event spaces including The Affinity Suite, a 1,200-capacity pillar free room, and is linked to the Aloft by Marriott. Wolverhampton Civic Halls, 30 minutes west of the city centre, also reopened in May following a multi-million-pound refurbishment. It’s set to attract 300,000 visitors a year, adding £10 million annually to the local economy.
There’s additionally an increasing effort to promote the city’s leisure and tourism prowess. So much so that in July this year it was announced that Birmingham would become the new headquarters of national tourism agency VisitBritain/VisitEngland from April 2024.
Councillor John Cotton, leader of Birmingham City Council, said: “This fantastic news further underlines Birmingham’s growing stature as a world class tourist destination. This is a warm, friendly city with award-winning museums and galleries, world class cultural institutions and festivals, major sporting events, family-friendly attractions, and scenic waterways.”
New hotspots include the recently launched rooftop terrace Skyline at Edgbaston Stadium, where visitors can watch cricket with a live DJ, food and drinks. For Peaky Blinders fans a visit to the 10.5-hectare open-air Black Country Living Museum in Dudley is a must, with many of the TV series’ scenes being filmed here. This year, the museum opened a new 1940s-1960s high street where visitors can immerse themselves in history on a bigger stage.
In terms of the arts, this month the Birmingham Royal Ballet will debut the world premiere of Black Sabbath – The Ballet at Birmingham Hippodrome. Launching on 23 September, the hotly anticipated performance will showcase two of Birmingham’s great cultural legacies.
“It’s often the case that it’s only when people come to Birmingham they go, ‘oh wow, Birmingham’s actually really nice and there’s loads of things to do!’” says Kandola.
So next time you’re heading to Brum on business, make sure you leave enough time to explore the thriving culture and leisure pursuits of this vibrant city.
Due to open this autumn, the city centre property is a redevelopment of the Royal Angus Hotel in St Chads Queensway that will be managed by Switch Hospitality. It will offer 161 apartments, comprising 84 studios, 71 one-bedroom and six two-bedroom apartments across nine floors. Additional facilities will include onsite parking, in-room Alexa devices, keyless entry and pet-friendly rooms. swhm.co.uk
Aloft Birmingham Eastside
Opened in 2021, this Aloft property from Marriott offers a vibrant design and tech-forward approach. F&B facilities include the Wxyz Bar, dining at Tempo! restaurant, and 24-hour gourmet snacks at Re:Fuel by Aloft. It also offers 23 event and conference spaces right in the city centre. marriott.com
Leonardo Royal Hotel Birmingham
Following the recent rebrand of Jury’s Inn, the Leonardo Royal Hotel Birmingham on Broad Street officially opened in April, revealing its new look after an £8 million refurbishment project. The property offers 445 guest rooms with Chromecast-enabled TVs and White Company toiletries, dining space Leo’s Bar and Restaurant, and spacious onsite gym. leonardo-hotels.com
The Grand Hotel Birmingham
Following a major £50 million renovation project, Birmingham’s original grand dame reopened in 2021 with many original period features intact. There are 185 rooms, Parisian-style cocktail bar, Madeleine, and US-diner style restaurant Isaac’s. The hotel also offers a Grand Ballroom plus nine more event spaces. thegrandhotelbirmingham.co.uk