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Opinion: NEC’s Ian Taylor on why human contact works

by EN

We’re riding the rollercoaster, and we’re not getting off.

2020 saw some almighty drops for the convention and exhibitions industry and 2021 has been another year of twists and turns. And yet, a lot of the year was been spent climbing, creaking and rattling back up to the highs of operational recovery, in all its new Covid-secure guises.

I’m not sure we’re near the highs yet; but I do know there have been moments during this recovery phase when it has felt like some semblance of normality. Our teams here across the NEC, ICC and Vox venues have hosted 178 conferences, exhibitions and events since the reopening; a staggering number when you consider the situation we found ourselves in at the start of 2021.

The time and investment involved in keeping people safe has touched every level of operations. We know recruitment across the industry is hard; security, catering, drivers, the list goes on. We have all relied on the dedication of our industry personnel, who have moved from long-term crisis management mode back into a fast-paced operational system with less people and a greater demand on their shoulders.

The physical and mental toil and energy being poured into venues at all hours of the night are real and felt by all those delivery-side who have surpassed all expectations in their professionalism and execution. At a senior level, our challenges have been, in the main, judgement-based. How do we keep people COVID-secure in a way we can be confident of? What levels should we be checking at? The advice and opinions come thick and fast, yet it’s the venues and organisers the decisions weigh heavily upon as we look to counter-balance our other concerns such as visitor flow, a feel-good venue experience and our customer service levels.

The learnings from this lengthy episode will stay with us. We are more resilient. As an industry we are beginning to realise our worth, and to appreciate we must speak about our sector more consistently, loudly and in a way which people can respond to warmly. And yet, we’ve had moments in the past few months where over tens of thousands of people have been on-site at exhibitions, gigs and events, returning to the things they, as individuals, love.

We can see, daily, that human contact works. Anyone operating in the industry over the past few months has witnessed the joy, and the anxiety, of people coming back together. Those who have been able to return to their traditional trip with their parents to the BBC Good Food Show pre-Christmas; the companies investing in celebratory signage across our halls at the ICC as networks are rebuilt; the kids piling out of gigs at our arenas and the parade of motorbikes driving into our NEC halls as hobbyists reunite.

As I listen to updates on the Omicron variant, I am still approving new contracts for exhibitions and conventions in 2022, reviewing new commercial opportunities and welcoming candidates for new roles in our businesses. We have 2022 shows selling ahead of their audience targets, big-ticket product launches planned by their exhibitors and a buzz from new shows arriving in a matter of weeks.

As an industry, we know we bring people together. Our own networks and partnerships have strengthened, with new networks developing as we diversify from the opportunities the pandemic has given us. In December, the industry embraced the centenary celebration of the Association of Event Organisers, hosted by the NEC at our Vox Conference Venue. It was a treat to see exceptional people in our industry recognised for their efforts in the most challenging of times.

For those of us still on this rollercoaster, every successful event delivered makes it feel worthwhile. I’d like to thank our fellow venues, organisers, associations and supply chains for your support, comradery and kind wishes.


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