In an interview with EN guest editor Phil Soar, Paul Thandi CBE, the CEO of the NEC Group, has spoken about dealing with prime minister Boris Johnson during the pandemic.
Thandi gave rare insight into what really went on in the last 20 month. He spoke about how the government was reacting to the pandemic and how little ammunition our industry has. It shows not that government agencies are not thinking about us accurately, more that they don’t think about us at all.
See the video of this interview here.
Phil Soar: Paul, you were the person who first became heavily involved with government, when you offered the NEC free of charge for the Nightingales, and you’ve also, through 2021, been the representative of the whole exhibition industry, at the heart of government, on the core DCMS committee. When did you first realise that this crisis had hit, and that you were going to be at the centre of the storm?
Paul Thandi: It was 26 March 2020, when we actually said to all the staff, right, you’ve got to go home and shut down the business. So the next week, we did a video broadcast to staff, and I was very honest about that. I just don’t know when this is going to end. At the end of that, actually, it brought tears to my eyes. Remember we are talking about more than 1,000 people. It was then when it struck me, whilst a lot of people out there, were thinking, okay, we’ll be back in the office in September. I kind of thought, I’m not sure because that isn’t what I was hearing from people we knew in China, people we knew in the Far East, and places like that. So we quickly triaged the business and in our business, like many other private equity owned businesses, we use our cash very heavily.
PS: But at that stage cash was everything – for all of us.
PT: Yes so cash was the thing that we needed to do – bearing in mind we have an operation in the exhibition industry, in the convention industry, in the arena’s industry, but also a food services business, a hospitality business, a real estate business and a data business etc. We quickly went about talking to our supplier base. Now look, guys, you got to help us out because we really can’t afford to pay you – if we do we’ll have to turn the lights off full stop and that’s us done. No NEC, Arena or the rest of it.
We then got invited into a load of government committees – we deal with them a lot because we are one of just three secure locations outside London that government can commandeer in a crisis. And I was on a call with Boris on a couple of Sundays after he made those first announcements. I think it was more of a PR thing than anything else. But through that period, we also set up with Jeremy [Rees] at ExCeL , Nigel [Nathan, MD of Olympia London], Peter Duffy over in Glasgow, we set up this CEO call about things – you know, look, we’ve got to talk to each other and help each other out.
PS: And how did the Nightingales hove into view?
PT: Jeremy (Rees) got a call from the NHS, saying, look, we need to talk to you. And he spoke to me and he said have you had a call yet? I said “Actually, I haven’t”. But that afternoon, I got a call from the NHS. I can’t remember if it’s from the NHS, the Boris team, Matt Hancock or the local guys, but quickly, we were then around a table discussing how to put a hospital together. It was a case of managing my board and saying shareholders: “Look, guys, we need to do this, do the right thing here and we’ve got to do it for nothing”. Once we did all that, and by then furlough had kicked in so a lot of our staff were on furlough. And we’re going to do it for nothing. And the thing that bugs me to this day, and will bug me forever, is that there were a lot of professional firms, a lot of suppliers to the NHS, that actually were making out like billy-ho.. They were running around our site telling us how much money they were making, what the government had promised them. I’ve got my IT guys working 24/7 trying to keep this thing going and my operations team is guiding everything and putting the thing together and they are the ones doing most of the work. They’re saying to me hang on a minute, boss, we’re working 12/16 hours a day. These guys are out there making videos saying how great they are and we’ve done it for nothing. So that was a difficult situation. Also negotiations with government, NHS, NHS England, and then all the local guys just over-complicated things.
So everyone looked as if they’d spent five weeks without sleep, and a lot of other people were working 17 hours a day trying to keep the lights on in our business, but also trying to get these things in the Nightingale together.
PS: David Ross – who lent Boris his holiday home in Mustique – asked you to get involved didn’t he?
PT: Yes: He got asked by Boris Johnson to put a taskforce together, bearing in mind myself, Jeremy, everyone else was on about 10 different task forces by then, some were DCMS, some would be BEIS. And the biggest thing about it that struck me about those other task forces was that actually all they’re doing is just listening to you. But they’re not actually doing anything about it. So when people are fake listening as such, it kind of gets you down. To be fair to them, and I had a couple of calls with Oliver Dowden (then the minister at DCMS) and some others, you could tell that they were as frustrated as we were because their hands were tied, because everything was being controlled by number 10. I mean everything. Everything was controlled by Boris, Gove and Dominic Cummings – the man that needed to drive 200 miles for an eye test. Then we had the farce over the PPE equipment for the NHS staff. I’ve got a lot of family in the NHS. So I kind of know from the front end and first hand how bad it actually was.
PT: So to start off with on this task force I think: “Let’s see how it goes.” But in the end I saw that I didn’t want to upset anybody, but I can’t I can’t let some of these decisions lie. My job is to represent our sector, our industry. Therefore, and I said to John van Tam: “Can you explain to me why 125,000 people in three weeks time can go to Westfield unchecked, only wearing a mask, nothing else. And yet, we are still limited, in a building that is five times the size of Westfield, to 30 people. Please explain that to me.
He couldn’t say anything. John van Tam’s not a guy that’s used to being challenged. I could see the other people on the call, the scientists that sort of, you know, people looking at you on Zoom and Teams, you can see them thinking, ‘Oh, God, you can’t ask questions like that’. But anyway, he said, they are policy decisions. Full stop. then, after a couple of these meetings, it became clear that actually these guys didn’t want us to challenge it. They went “okay to open retail”……..Well, fine for retail, and for pubs, because they win votes. Yeah, that actually presses buttons for the British public. So this is a big learning for us as an industry. We can’t just go ‘that’s wrong.’ We’ve, we’ve got to nuance our message. That means persuading this government that we can mean votes.
PS: It may not seem that way at the moment, but we won’t have this government and the sainted Boris Johnson for ever.
PT: Yes, but whether it’s economics or whatever it actually is, that’s what became clear to me – that unless we start talking in their language at these meetings, then we are not going to get anywhere. The meetings were fascinating about the depth and the analysis that they’re actually doing on the heating and ventilation systems (for instance) and all of you know, we’ve been through some safety guidelines that were issued in December 2020 about fresh air and how much fresh air we got to get in per person per square metre, etc. That sort of stuff was good.
PS: You were communicating this weekly to a group of us – and very valuable it was.
PT: Yes, I set up a communications channel with four or five of the leading people in the exhibition industry, you being one of them, of course, and Mark [Shashoua] and Lisa [Hannant], and Mark [Temple-Smith] at Informa and Doug [Emslie] as well. So, we set that up, I had the similar the same thing with Phil Badri who runs Live Nation, and Greg Conley on the trade association. So those were my communications channels. And whilst I was set talking to you guys, what I was so conscious of, I didn’t want you to feel as negative as I felt when I was in these other board meetings when I thought if I tell them that actually guys, they just don’t want us to open. There’s no rhyme or reason, there’s no science. They just don’t want us to open because actually, we don’t matter. Yeah. And so after a while, I got through to a chap called Alex Hickman, who’s one of Boris’s advisors, and said to Alex, ‘it’s completely unfair, you’ve now opened theatres, you’ve opened everything. You talk about football stadiums even opening. They don’t need to open, they’ve got billions in sports rights, while we’re dying. We’re bleeding out slowly. And this is what we represent. Whether it’s £70billion or £7billion, whatever the number is’. Alex got it straight away. And he kind of changed it.
Alex probably was the guy that changed that. I must admit, on one of the committees, you kind of sat there thinking the scientists’ idea of what’s a safe environment is everything remains shut permanently, and lockdown is the way forward. So that that was what I was faced with. Then knowing that I had to try and communicate some modicum of a decent positive message to you guys.
PS: Going back to the Nightingales, was the NEC Nightingale ever used?
PT: No, not really: Jeremy had a small number of patients in ExCeL
PS: 43 if I remember correctly.
PT: And talking to Jeremy, why were those patients there? Jeremy wouldn’t want to seem cynical, but on the same day those patients came there, there happened to be a lot of cameras outside.
PS: Yes, we did have a discussion about that. So, really, the Nightingales were never actually used. Though, trying to be fair, no one could really know what was going to happen. You and I had a long conversation at the time, where you said it was all very well to spend a fortune setting everything up with the beds and the waste and the electrics etc. But you couldn’t actually see where they were going to get 20,000 staff from. Where were they going to find 20,000 extra doctors and nurses to staff them? The existing hospitals were already over-run. Brexit had caused numerous nursing staff to leave and the government wouldn’t relax visas for any additional staff to come in. How was Matt Hancock going to magic another 20,000 professionals out of thin air?
PT: That was always the biggest problem nationally in setting these things up. You can’t really fault them. Because people were dying. What we didn’t want was what was going on in Italy. People dying in hallway. The world was falling apart. But I just think of the size and the money spent. I even spoke to the group of NHS chief execs about how they were going to handle this – and there’s about 15 of them that which sums up the organization itself – you haven’t got enough staff in hospitals as it is. The front office staff are being killed or dying anyway because, quite frankly, you’re then going to put the dying in here and we will just get anyone dying of Covid in the early months up until about September. The majority of those people dying didn’t have breathing difficulty. It was organ failure. You couldn’t treat that in our beds – they had to be in surgery
PS: So we have to move to the business department and try to get our message across?
PT: You’ve got to play with the cards that are dealt. But I know, we have to work with those people to get our industry to the top table.
PS: It reminds me of a story about Jowett at Oxford in the late 19th century. There was a conference of the then existing higher educational institutions. The Glasgow Vice-Chancellor had disagreed about some point or other and said to Jowett: “I hope you don’t think badly of Glasgow because of this. To which Jowett replied: “My dear sir, don’t worry, in Oxford we don’t think about you at all.” We are in the same boat aren’t we – it is not that we are thought about insufficiently, we are not thought about at all.
PT: Unless we can nuance or make our message more eloquent, we won’t get anywhere. To achieve anything, we have to show we mean votes – the votes of the people in the West Midlands for instance. We can carry on going on about being worth £70 billion to the economy, but it just doesn’t move the dial for these guys. They just don’t care, they don’t have any business or commercial background. ‘Does it mean votes’ is what matters to them.
Votes is what will move the dial. If, actually we’re gonna affect the next local election in this area. “Because you, Boris, haven’t done this for us in the West Midlands. You haven’t done that for us.”
PS: I know, you feel very strongly about this. You are more exposed than anybody because you’ve spent more time with government than anybody else in our industry. And what? It’s been a discussion for years, but you know, but we’ve really seen it in action, in full cinemascope, in the last two years? What do we actually do? What can we do, that we have not done in the last 18 months?
PT: One, we need to pick a small team, small teams, right? Work faster, that’s a fact. So the problem is we’ve got too many people involved, we have to canvass too many people to get their opinion and get agreement across it to bigger platform. So we all need to agree between us all, who are the small team who’s going to be in it. Whatever that team come up with, we all stand by, and that that team needs to come up with an argument that covers our economic impact, covers a regeneration that we do, but actually links it to votes across the country actually makes it talk a language that these guys understand and respect, which is simply about their re-election next time around. Full stop. And because of what we do, we can help them
PS: And then what? Do we as a small group come up with one or two messages that we have to get across – about votes and your re-election Mr/Mrs MP – and then go for it?
PT: We’ve got to go straight to the top boys in PR and influence, and speak to them. Run a beauty parade and say right, this is what we need to do, how would you go about doing it, see what they all say, pick the benefits go with one simple thing. Phil, you’ve done it a million times with all the investment banks you’ve used. Pick the key messages, and hammer them home. Pick who, who you want to work with. That’s what we’ve got to do. It will take time.
PS: It also takes money.
PT: Yes, I’ve been bleeding cash and I’ve made 500 people redundant. So be realistic about how much money you can ask me for and others as well. I’m private, you know, we took on more debt. I’ve got more debt than I ever wanted. But in the end if the industry really wants to put itself in a position where it has a voice at the table, where it prepares itself for the next time this happens – then we have to do this. At the moment it isn’t that our voice isn’t loud enough – we don’t have a voice at all. We are not relevant. DCMS – culture, media and sport. Seriously.
PS: You and I have seen a number of shows here together at the NEC in the past seven weeks that have gone very, very well and seem to have answered the question “will shows come back.” Are you optimistic?
PT: Yes, I’m as optimistic as you and I’m more than happy to say that publicly. Sadly you and I have both gone back quite a long time when people said the internet is going to kill us. This is gonna kill us, hybrid is going to kill us. You cannot replace what we do. Humans need other human interaction. It’s a fact of life. Lockdown proved it. I can’t wait to get back to the office. You need to see other people. You need to see a supplier, you need to see your customers. You need to touch and feel the live product. People want to get what they used to do back again, look at festivals, festivals had 10% no shows. People would have tickets but just didn’t come. But the people there still spent more than if I’d had 100% of the people turn up. Because people haven’t been able to live their lives.
PS: Okay, to finish the last 18 months where you’ve been industry’s interface with the government really, if you learnt one thing that you didn’t know, or you didn’t realise before, what was it?
PT: You got to talk their language, You’ve got to understand what matters to them, not what matters to you. And then try and bring it back to votes. Yeah, because without that we can talk about our economic impact we can talk about but we’ve got to get our exhibitors to start to talk about what we do as well. You run some large shows, you’ve got to get some of your large companies that exhibit with you, you’ve got to get them to start talking about us talking to government, etc. We’ve got to be a bit clever about our message and how much we matter to UK Plc and how much that matters to tax generation, wealth generation that builds schools, hospitals, etc, etc. That will help a future government get re-elected.