I have been privileged to have been able to attend three events over the last month: two official Government pilots and one personal.
As you may recall, last month I attended the Good Business Festival at ACC Liverpool, Westminster’s only pilot business event (for England). I joined 500 delegates for a real-life event without masks or social distancing. The only stipulation was a PCR test before and after the event.
Indeed, there have been nine pilots and it has been reported that only 15 of 58,000 eventgoers have tested positive (some before, therefore didn’t go, and some after). That’s 0.03% percent.
In Liverpool, the rhetoric of the scientists observing us was positive: “don’t act artificially,” they said. We were encouraged to shake hands and, essentially, act normally. If anyone wasn’t comfortable with that, that was fine too. It was important for them see how we behave when filing to and from the auditorium, how we engaged while networking in the breakout spaces, and how we behaved when the trays of lagers came out.
It was all based on a single question: how do we get events running normally again?
England and Scotland
England is in front, in the context of reopening large scale events. The next stage allows events to essentially return to normal from 21 June, subject to things like Covid-status certification, for which at the moment we know very little. Since 17 May, events for up to 1,000 people (or 50% capacity) can happen indoors, moving up to 4,000 outdoors.
Scotland is also moving ahead, but in a different direction, focusing on regions individually. While most of Scotland is in Level 2 (high), some are in Level 1 (medium), with only Glasgow City in Level 3 (very high).
In Level 2 areas, events for up to 100 people can now take place, with those in Level 1 able to enjoy double that. The next level, Level 0, will see that double again to 400, but there it stops: there is no guide on when the taps will be fully reopened, unlike in England.
So, what about Wales?
Last week I was invited to Celtic Manor to join them, the Welsh Government, and myriad other Welsh venues, organisers and other stakeholders for their own pilot event, and it was a very different experience to the one in Liverpool.
I should point out that all the rules and guidance were mandated by the Welsh Government, not the venue. They also share information with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in Westminster.
The key thing to note here is that Wales has neither a restart date like England, or a regionalised system of levels like Scotland, and this is causing a tremendous problem for the nation’s events industry. The Welsh Government has adopted a more cautious stance, with reviews of further unlocking carried out every few weeks (the next review is around the 7 June).
There isn’t much in the way of clarity with regards to what the next step may look like, but we were told categorically that 74,000 people won’t be descending on the Millennium Stadium any time soon.
The question remains: will Wales adopt the English or the Scottish models? My instinct tells me the latter, but it remains to be seen.
In simple terms: Wales does not have a roadmap.
The pilot event
The pilot event itself was heavily regulated with rules, and it’s important to point out that this is not a blueprint for how events will look when things do eventually reopen. It was, as Ian Edwards, CEO of Celtic Manor and ICC Wales told me, a “a small step back towards reopening.” It was an opportunity for scientists to monitor how people move about and so on.
I was required to take a PCR test a day or two before the event, which I did in my home county of Surrey. I travelled down the night before to enjoy a stay at Celtic Manor itself – a reminder of a) how much I miss travelling for work and b) how good the hotel is.
There were in the region of 90 delegates invited to this event (and, incidentally, 74 staff), and we were divided into three groups of 30: blue, red and yellow.
All three groups entered the Celtic Manor’s events complex through different entrances where each had to have a further lateral flow test.
Wearing masks, we sat socially distanced from one another in groups of four while a medical professional supervised our tests. It took about 30 minutes before we were given the all clear.
As a member of Blue Group, I joined the line as we filed up to the grand Caernarfon Suite, which in normal times can host 1,200 delegates.
This time, the 90 of us were sat spread out and socially distanced, and the speeches began.
After the initial session, the three groups broke off into separate breakout rooms. The Blue Group were based in the Beaumaris Suite, which again in normal times can accommodate 280.
Again, we sat spaced out, and three speakers presented to us over the course of the afternoon, mainly talking about the need for a roadmap or restart date. Each group sat apart for lunch, too. We sat two people on a table built for six.
We ended the day by returning to the Caernarfon Suite for some closing words, and then that was the end of the event.
Is it sustainable?
No, it wasn’t. And this is where the problem lies. Celtic Manor was the host venue of choice because, not only are the team well drilled experts, but because it has numerous spaces of varying sizes and multiple entries and exits. It is therefore quite easy to keep people apart and so on.
The Caernarfon Suite can hold 1,200, so it’s not financially viable for them to be only allowed to host up to 90 people at any one time.
“We’ve really gone to an extreme day,” Edwards told me later. “Everyone is socially distancing, everyone needs a test prior to coming today, and everyone is wearing a mask throughout the whole event.
“We’ve got Public Health Wales and our local council here so they can see what it [running an event] actually means in reality, not just in theory from behind a desk. It’s exciting, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
“If we’re going to make business events sustainable, this cannot continue. If it continues in this vein, business events will just not happen in Wales. Many people will lose their businesses.”
That is indeed a big concern, and not just by Celtic Manor and ICC Wales. I spoke to several other venues and a couple of local organisers and they all share the same sentiment. The lack of a clear roadmap or dates is causing serious problems. How can Wales expect to compete with England, for example, when the latter can already host large events now, and will then be fully unrestricted on 21 June? Organisers won’t be booking anything without some manner of relative certainty.
We’re not just talking about the next few months, either. Events don’t just happen overnight, they are often booked many months, sometimes years in advance. Without the certainty, organsiers will simply go elsewhere, and that will cause irreparable damage to the Welsh events industry.
What happens now?
So, what happens now? News that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines protect against the variant first identified in India must offer the Welsh Government – and everyone for that matter – great comfort. Add to that, with only 15 out of 58,000 people attending the English pilot events tested positive, one would hope that by the next review in early June, the Welsh Government will give the sector some broad guidance.
In short, they need a plan. For every passing week that they don’t have one, more and more business will be lost to elsewhere.
“It’s really important that [Welsh] Government relooks at what is happening now,” Edwards told me. And he has a point: there is no audience as compliant as a business events audience. “We have a new minister, and it’s really important that we work with him and the Welsh Government to look at what we are doing and to make it realistic. Of course, we want it to be safe, but the great thing about business events is that we have a compliant audience, and they want to make it work.
“By working together, we can push the boundaries to, maybe not where we were pre-Covid, but at least with different protocols in place, different mitigations – it doesn’t need to be two metres – we can work within that.
“There’s a great lesson be learnt today.”
There is a real worry among people and businesses that Wales is going to get left behind as England and Scotland move towards reopening. And while this is a very real concern, I urge you not to give up on them.
As an organiser, if you have an event planned in Wales, or were planning to take their event their later this, just give it a few more weeks before making a call. Keep a dialogue going with your venue and partners. They may not have the answers, but things are going in the right direction. It is a matter of when, not if events are allowed to reopen.
One thing is certain: whichever Welsh venue you plan to book, they will be monumentally grateful for your support.
As with One Industry One Voice, no one should be left behind. And we can help support Welsh venues, suppliers and freelancers by at least giving them a bit more time.
The next move, though is on the Welsh Government, and they need to announce a plan soon.