In this month’s cover feature, EN sets off to investigate the relationship between the industry and government, and enters a world of soft power, evolving partnerships and seemingly endless acronyms.
Here at EN towers we’ve been curious about the relationship between the industry and government for some time. While we’ve naturally been aware of governmental figures popping up at conferences, racing round exhibitions at breakneck speed, and taking to the stage at networking events to espouse their love of the industry, we have a lot of questions.
How is our industry – whether that’s exhibitions, business events or even just events full stop – perceived by those in power? Are our needs considered? How are we communicating those needs, and how do we even agree on what they are? How adept are we as a collective at navigating this dense maze of bureaucracy?
These thoughts and more were racing around our heads when a fortuitous email arrived: an invite to an evidence session for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Events, looking into the state of the events industry in London and beyond. Not a magazine to look a gift parliamentary session in the mouth, we set off for London to investigate further.
In what was an intriguing and occasionally combative series of panels, James Heappey MP, chair of the APPG for Events, along with Lord King of Bridgwater, Barry Sheerman MP, and Chris Davies MP heard evidence from London venues, City Hall (in the absence of an official from the Mayor’s office represented by Tracy Halliwell of London & Partners) and Michael Ellis MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
There were several moments of note during the sessions, but for the purposes of this feature two instances in particular stood out. First of all came an exchange between Jeremy Rees, CEO of ExCeL London, and Barry Sheerman MP for Huddersfield:
Rees: “We’re not getting the support that other cities have from a ministerial and government perspective”
Sheerman: “Is that actually true?”
Sheerman, who later called for more statistics and less ‘whingeing’ from those giving evidence in the session, brought forth the example of the London Olympics as a moment that government and the events industry came together to produce a truly enviable and world-class event.
While that may be true, the one-off example of the Olympics can hardly be held up as an example of the kind of consistent co-operative relationship between government and the events industry that many countries and major international cities have, and which the UK arguably still aspires to.
The second point of note in the session came from Michael Ellis MP. Throughout the discussion it was mentioned that it could sometimes be unclear who the events industry go-to contact in government was intended to be. Simon Hughes, non-executive director of the QEII, even called for a specific minister to cover business events.
Ellis stated that, when it came to coordinating the events industry’s demands and lobbying within government: “I am the link.”
In the days following the evidence session, EN caught up with a number of event professionals involved in the government-industry relationship to get their take on the issue.
“I think part of the challenge is that the MPs have no idea what an event is,” says Chris Skeith, who in addition to running the Association of Event Organisers is responsible for bringing the concerns of the three exhibition industry associations to the attention of government, under the umbrella of the Event Industry Alliance (EIA).
“DCMS have been holding out a hand to us for a few years now, but [different types of events] are fundamentally different businesses, and I don’t think that plays to our strengths of recognition.”
Simon Kimble, chairman of Clarion, who also attended the session, agreed with Skeith’s concerns about the whether exhibitions – specially trade shows – are understood as distinct from the general category of ‘events’:
“At one time it was perceived to be a jolly,” he tells EN, using defence event DSEI as an example. “Some of the military personnel were not encouraged to attend because it was perceived to not be a business event. To me that’s something that needs to be looked at.
“There is confusion about what an event is; in some people’s mind an event is the Olympics, for some it’s something like Glastonbury, and then for other people it’s a good old-fashioned trade exhibition. We’re getting bracketed in the same context, which is sometimes helpful because it makes our industry a little bit sexier, but in other respects it’s unhelpful because it makes it look like we’re more about fun than about business.”
The story until now
For some background on the journey the industry has been on, EN met with Michael Hirst OBE, chair of the British Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) and interim chair of the Event Industry Board (EIB).
He begins by telling us the current situation, as he sees it.
“The whole issue of joined-up government has been a vexing issue for anyone who represents any industry,” he explains. “There isn’t one place to go to where you can resolve all your issues.
“The real challenge for our sector is identifying what those issues are, identifying who is the best to respond to those issues and also working with others who have the same common ground. That’s partly why the BVEP forms such an important part of this, because it collates from exhibitions, conferences, outdoor events, smaller events etc. the issues that members of those areas’ disparate trade associations are dealing with.
“We can pool all of that and go with one voice to the one place we have to go to to get the hearing we want to get.”
The industry’s current relationship with the government has its roots back in 1997, when the Conservative Party met to devise a business tourism strategy, which was included in that year’s election manifesto. It was, says Hirst, the first time that business tourism had been recognised as its own category, distinct from leisure tourism.
“The then Secretary of State for National Heritage, Virginia Bottomley, asked the then VisitBritain, which was the British Tourist Authority, to do a report,” Hirst continues. “I happened to be at the meeting where this was discussed, I was sitting opposite the Secretary of State. I had no direct interest in the sector but then she said, ‘we’ve got to do a report, who’s going to chair it?’ She looked up, I looked down…and that was it.
“We produced the report in 1997, which came up with a recommendation that there be a standing group of interests to represent business tourism, because business tourism had to identify and highlight what it wanted. That was the forerunner of the BVEP, called the Business Tourism Partnership.”
A matter of months later the Conservative Party lost out to Labour in the 1997 general election but, in an unusual move, the new minister accepted the recommendation and saw it through, resulting in the launch of the BVEP in 1999. An umbrella organisation, comprised of trade and professional organisations, government agencies and other significant influencers in the business visits and events sector, the BVEP aimed to:
- Garner the cohesive opinion of these stakeholders and to collectively influence and develop policies, practices and strategies that support and generate growth in the sector.
- Raise sector awareness through clear communications of the social and economic benefits of the business visits and events sector.
“Since then we’ve been plodding, and it has been a plod,” says Hirst. “It’s partly getting the industry to get its act together. Over those 20 years we have challenged the government to do more for the industry, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the lights really went on.”
A sea change
Over the years the BVEP had presented the government with various manifestos on various topics, but in 2015 it decided it was time to lobby for a formal industry-government partnership.
The government agreed to establish the Event Industry Board – a direct link between the industry and representatives from DCMS and the Department of International Trade (DIT)., Sajid Javid MP, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, published the Business Visits and Events Strategy, the document on which the current relationship is still based.
“Like all government documents it was tailored to make sure it met a government objective rather than necessarily an industry objective, although I think that the two are in harmony,” explains Hirst.
“The government thrust is to see a ‘global Britain’, and in terms of events that means attracting more international events to take place in Britain.
“It’s sole focus is essentially to grow the international footprint of Britain as a destination for world events. Those events need to be in harmony with the government’s industrial strategy, which is still evolving.”
A global Britain
This is perhaps a good moment for VisitBritain to enter the story. In 2010 the DIT-funded body decided to take a step back from promoting business visits and events. This decision was reversed in 2016, when VisitBritain created a business visits and events department, began to grow its resources and programme of support. More recently, in 2018 Kerrin MacPhie – previously director of conference and exhibition sales at ACC Liverpool – joined as head of business events.
It was an encouraging appointment for the business events industry, says Hirst, adding: “Kerrin is an out and out advocate of what we do.”
EN sat down with MacPhie to learn a bit more about VisitBritain’s revitalised relationship with the industry.
“The government has put money behind supporting business events, they’ve put that programme in place, and it’s been utilised to help destinations across the UK to go out and bid for events,” she tells EN. “Last year we saw there was also an opportunity to help UK-based domestic events grow to an international audience. We know the international audience spend more and stay longer, so any way that we can support the growth of international visitors is great.”
VisitBritain offers support for organisers both in the form of a financial boost and also what is known as ‘soft power’ – which can involve advocacy support from key ministers and helping organisers make helpful connections in government.
“This is in place,” adds MacPhie. “The more people we speak to the more people we realise don’t understand the detail of it. It’s not something we want to keep quiet about, we want to push it out there.
“If you have a domestic event, you can come as an independent person to the fund and say ‘I’ve got this event, I know that it appeals to an international audience and I know that I can get an extra 200-400 visitors to my show with a bit more support’. You can come direct for that; you don’t have to come through a destination management organisation.”
Closer to home
Although the industry is arguably lacking in comprehensive research proving its value to the UK, it’s generally accepted that business events have an incredible impact on a city or destination.
In her evidence at the parliamentary session, Tracy Halliwell of London & Partners set the value of business events at £41bn and it seems that the message is being heard loud and clear.
When we’re talking about productive relationships between the industry and government, as alluded to by Jeremy Rees during the session, often it’s outwith the capital where the UK really shines. Scotland in particular is held up as a region that’s managed to build a particularly constructive working relationship.
“The convention bureau is the free service offered to event organisers, and that looks at a range of tools that are offered for free,” says Aileen Crawford, head of conventions at Glasgow Convention Bureau. “That also links into things like support from the Lord Provost (City Mayor) and being able to offer that welcome to national and international delegates and a range of support and understanding that business events are important to the destination. There’s the well-understood economic benefit, but there’s also the profile that hosting an event in a key sector can bring.”
Dan Thurlow, head of exhibition sales at the SEC, adds: “The relationships have developed very positively over the years as the value of events to the city and national economies has become more widely recognised.
“They can make introductions to key people/organisations to help with content, provide assistance with accommodation, civil receptions and marketing. It’s what organisers are looking for, and they’ve told us that.
“We often refer to ‘team Glasgow’, which means that any incoming organiser is feeling the full support of a citywide team that bring together multiple specialties and disciplines with one common goal – to help deliver the best possible events.”
This kind of approach is also a priority in Wales, where the all-new ICC wales set to open in Summer 2019. While Wales currently only achieves less than two per cent of the UK’s business events value, industry stakeholders are working hard to establish the country as a premium events destination.
“There is no question that Wales has significant potential to draw further business events to our award-winning venues and destinations, both from within the UK and internationally,” says Heledd Williams, head of business events at VisitWales. “There are open, clear lines of communication with our industry partners in Wales, where we meet on a regular basis, support each other and work together on a combined agenda to present the country as a viable destination for business events.
Looking to the future
From EN’s point of view, one of the most pressing issues facing the exhibition industry is working out our place in all of this.
Much of the talk about the relationship between government and the business events industry is based around attracting larger peripatetic events – generally conferences – to the UK, and while the promise of soft power advocacy from ministers and even financial support is encouraging, many exhibition organisers simply aren’t aware of, or even interested in, this aid.
“If we are doing something that has an international flavour I suspect it’s up to us as organisers to approach the appropriate departments,” says Kimble. “For people who are quite experienced at doing it, go direct, and if you’ve got your minister and know what you’re doing and what your angle is and all the rest of it. If you don’t know how to do it then go through DCMS.
“I’m not entirely sure there’s anyone there helping guide the novice through the maze of government, and if you don’t know what government can give you then I’m not sure there’s anything they can give you.”
So, when it comes to the exhibition industry, perhaps the first step is just to get informed and get involved. Whether you’re an organiser of a domestic event looking to grow your international visitors, a venue hoping to roll out the red carpet, or a supplier concerned with issues around the movement of people and equipment post-Brexit, there is help and advice out there.
Talk to the associations, help them understand the concerns of the industry. A coordinated and constructive conversation with government has to begin at the ground level and now, perhaps more than ever before, the right people are ready and willing to listen.