This is my first article for the mighty EN, mouthpiece for the industry, guardian of the truth, and font of all knowledge (that is how it was sold to me, anyway). The truth is, though, that I have absolutely no idea of whether a) I can write coherently and b) whether what I write is of interest. But here goes…
What I will try to do is to write and discuss topics that are, in my opinion, interesting, informative and even occasionally entertaining. While I appreciate that my definition of each may be different to yours, I hope that at least some of the topics covered will hit the mark. I also want to ensure that I am covering subjects that matter to you and while we represent a broad church spanning the independent sector through to the corporate and private equity-backed businesses it is important to me that we provide something for everyone, so please, please let me know if we are missing anything.
Broadly speaking, I aim to cover the key issues facing all of us. Some of which, like diversity and inclusion, sustainability, digitisation and leadership, apply in the broader context, but others are specific to our wonderful industry. I want to unpick what makes certain event brands ‘cool’, what we need to do to futureproof our industry and get under the skin of some of the inspirational, innovative and colourful characters that inhabit our amazing world of events. I am also hoping to bring in some ‘outside thinking’. For example, what can we learn from retail, hospitality, aviation for instance, and how we can apply that thinking to make our events better for our customers?
My first assumption is that most of us are sick of hearing about how we are facing “unprecedented times” and “navigating unchartered waters”. Yes, we have been through a wretched year but everything I hear is that we are now coming out fighting. Working on the basis that a rising tide lifts all boats we are working closer together than at any time. Time will tell whether we will return to our old habits when the storm has cleared. Let’s hope not, as while parking charges and the price of a G&T at the bar are important, there are bigger issues facing the industry and we are better facing them together.
NEC Group CEO Paul Thandi represents sector on ERP Board
We are at a crucial and pivotal moment for the industry and the decisions made by Government over the next few weeks will impact the events business profoundly. The Events Research Programme (ERP) is aimed at providing the analysis and data that will ultimately set the guidelines and protocols that will govern our industry in the short term and hopefully result in a timely re-opening.
We should all be heartily thankful that Paul Thandi has been appointed on to the Board that governs the ERP as I am convinced he will represent us extremely well. Paul is a veteran of our industry, speaks with authority on behalf of venues, suppliers and organiser, and can do so in compelling language that will ensure we get the right results for the UK and our industry (so, no pressure).
On-site testing isn’t effective or practical
For us to help in the economic recovery we firstly need to have certainty. We need the 21 June to be set in stone. Secondly, we also need clarity of what conditions we need to meet to give confidence to customers and to the regulators. It remains to be seen what those conditions are although we need to be careful what we wish for. I am not convinced that on-site testing is effective, practical or economically viable and therefore some form of vaccination passport seems to be a good alternative (notwithstanding the current concerns about civil liberties which I would consider a price worth paying in the short term).
We need to ensure we are being treated fairly and that we are not being singled out and expected to jump through hoops that other sectors are not. There seems to be a bizarre case of exceptionalism that enables shopping centres to open with limited controls, yet we have to radically change an event environment that is already significantly safer. Our venues have gone to extraordinary lengths to make them Covid-secure with deep cleaning and enhanced ventilation, and even stepped up to provide extra medical cover via the Nightingales when they were asked. Surely, then, we can be trusted to run safe and compliant events.
A series of 10-15 pilot events have been selected to run in April and May with a range of sporting, cultural and business events. These pilots are designed to explore approaches to social distancing as well as testing protocols and as an industry we need to get firmly behind them and input into their design as their success will ultimately lead to in the Government’s words: “the full re-opening of similar settings across multiple sectors”.
We can argue about the need for them, and the choice of which events have been chosen as pilots but the facts remain that the Government is firmly advocating a science and data-led approach and this will hopefully give them the re-assurance and processes they require. We have little choice other than to support the ERP, and while we may have to accept measures such as random testing at events, this is a price worth paying in the short term (and these measures will surely be phased out in the longer term). I am sure that Paul will be advocating a pragmatic and sensible approach thus enabling us to return to what we are all so desperate to do: run safe, well organised and world beating events.
Confident about confidence
I am absolutely convinced that once we have official permission to run events our customer’s confidence will return quickly. Speaking to a number of exhibitors and visitors from a range of industries it is evident that there is a real need to get back to face-to-face. A manufacturer of scientific equipment I spoke to last week said that his sales were down by 30% as a result of not exhibiting and the Association of Event Organisers (AEO) has calculated the cost of not running events for the next six months to be a massive £38bn.
I know that it is a complex issue, and that the recovery will happen at varying speeds depending on geography, sector, international vs domestic, type of show and so on, but what is clear is that we will be back and those teams that have invested in keeping their customers close and are forensically clear about what value they offer their communities will come back quicker and stronger. Of course, that is obvious and a truism in ordinary times but we can all point to painful examples of events that have misread the signs and the mood of their industries.
Covid, like other ‘black swan’ events, will accelerate this Darwinian process and sadly to horribly misquote Warren Buffett, we will all see who is skinny dipping when the tide goes out… This of course presents plenty of opportunity for agile, innovative individuals and businesses and will ensure that the next year will certainly not be boring.
Finally, one subject I would like to return to at a future date is sustainability. Our industry has not been a beacon of best practice in this area and while we are catching up and making progress (somewhat slowly) I attended a webinar a few weeks back and was slightly bemused that the same old arguments were being made for not embracing it more fully.
The idea that “not having the budget” or that “leadership isn’t committed to it” seem somewhat anachronistic and incredibly short sighted. Surely our customers demand it, it is the right thing to do for the environment and for the long-term viability of our business it needs to be central to everything we do.