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Building successful government relations

by Nicola Macdonald

Steve Baker (pictured right), head of defence & security engagement – Defence and Security portfolio at Clarion Events, on attracting sector-critical people to your trade event.

Clarion’s Defence portfolio, led by DSEI, is regarded by many in the defence event sector as being the benchmark in terms of engagement with key attendees across government and the defence industry; however, it has taken a lot of ground work to get to where we are today. 

All industries and events have their VIPs; however in Defence many of our key relationships are with Government officials, and when an election is called you may well have to start all over again. Every time the PM shuffles her Cabinet it can lead to changes among the defence ministerial team (or sometimes they simply resign) and you’ve got to start all over. 

To complicate matters further still, DSEI is a biennial event and the majority of military decision makers and influencers change post every 18-months as part of their professional development, meaning that continuity is continually being lost as the Ministry of Defence (MOD) contacts in key posts that your exhibitors wish to meet change between shows.

Prior to 2009, UK Government and MOD red tape heavily restricted attendance at conferences and exhibitions. The result was that even those personnel with direct involvement in procurement or tasked specifically with industry engagement often struggled to secure permission to attend our events. A positive change came with the new Government’s f redressing the way the MOD does business with industry, changing it from one of customer-supplier relationship managed through the MOD procurement department to more of a partnership relationship that functioned at all levels – including the final end user. 

This however was a top-down broad-brush policy, not a Government missive to attend our events, and therefore we identified that we needed to ensure this policy shift was mirrored by a change in attitudes, placing our events at the heart of the MOD’s procurement and industry engagement activities.

To build cross-government relations we needed to earn trust, respect and credibility

To build cross-government relations we needed to earn trust, respect and credibility.To earn that trust and secure cross-government and MOD support for DSEI – and with it our other events in the portfolio – we set out to undertake what are familiar trade show activities: identify our customers’ needs and then shape our events to help them deliver on them. We began to ‘shape the DSEI agenda’ to ensure that everything we did, from content to show features, aligned fully with the UK Government’s objectives.

This campaign kicked off 18 months out from DSEI 2013, when we secured formal meetings with the Defence Ministerial team and many of the most senior of UK MOD officials from the defence procurement organisation, the MOD Headquarters, the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

From these engagements, we also had the chance to deepen our understanding of their key requirements. This feedback then helped us shape the seminar programme and sector themes on the show floor, and attending DSEI now became a means of supporting not only MOD procurement, but also supporting the entire UK defence industry.

The output from our MOD engagement meetings was turned into a series of tailored value propositions for each of the key sectors within DSEI, which we published online allowing those who wished to attend from across the MOD to quickly and easily create strong business cases for signoff by their superiors. We also began running a regular schedule of Parliamentary Receptions in the House of Commons to brief MPs, underlining the key role that DSEI plays at the heart of the defence industry by providing an effective, transparent platform for the British defence and security industry to demonstrate its expertise and capabilities to potential overseas customers.

The final piece in this jigsaw was to secure formal endorsement right from the top of the MOD hierarchy.This was forthcoming in mid-2013 in the shape of a formal letter signed by the most senior MOD civil servant and the top general in charge of the Armed Services – the Permanent Under-Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Staff – that actively encouraged MOD attendance at DSEI. As a result, DSEI 2013 enjoyed the strongest ever attendance from across the UK MOD, UK Government Ministers and Members of Parliament.

Many elements of this campaign are unique to the Defence and Security sector, but fundamentally the process is still one of applying event industry expertise and event industry best practice to identifying our senior stakeholders, understand their needs and then reconfigure our events to turn them into vehicles at which our stakeholders can achieve their own objectives.

Proof – if it were needed – that putting the needs of attendees at the heart of the event plan does actually work, whatever the sector you are operating in.

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