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What’s the plan, Boris?

by EN

EN asks: What’s the strategy for the eighth biggest industry, worth £11bn to the UK economy, Boris? In a nutshell, there isn’t one…

However, there is a plan of sorts, rubber-stamped by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) minister, Helen Whately, and called The UK Government’s International Business Events Action Plan (or Action Plan). 

It’s not a strategy, far from it, unlike the momentus undertakings of the Industrial Strategy approved by Theresa May back in 2017, when we all knew that we were leaving the EU. In it, the former secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark, rethinks what the manufacturing industry requires, and identifies five pillars that form the foundations of a plan for industry including; ideas and creativity, people, infrastructure, business environment and regions. For me, it sets a benchmark for sectors to follow.

Furthermore the Industrial Strategy makes some impressive promises, like raising research and development (R&D) investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, increase the R&D tax credit to 12 per cent, invest £725m in new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Programmes to support innovation and invest £64m in developing skills and establish a new £2.5bn Investment Fund to drive innovation in the UK.  

As it stands, the Action Plan aimed at exhibitions, all 25 pages of it, is far more toothless than May’s 256 page document. Instead, it seems more like a few ideas strung together. Despite the Event Industry Board’s (EIB) continued committment and advice to the DCMS and the Department for Arts, Heritage and Tourism (DAHT), the government has promised just £250,000 of investment for 2020. This money, which is an extension of VisitBritain’s GREAT campaign, has supported 38 events over the past three years, a chunk of which were government quangos or local authorities. 

The Action Plan starts with an impressive list of facts noting that the business events sector brings in around £32.6bn, and 8.8 million business visits, bringing a further £5.3bn into the UK economy.

When EN first contacted the DCMS minister, with three pages of carefully constructed notes, and questions, including; do you believe the government is fully equipped with a sufficient understanding of the sector when negotiating with the EU, and other nations? The DCMS embarrassingly replied with a just few lines. 

EN challenged the minister, asking her if a ‘few lines is all they could come up?’ despite being told that every agreement they reach with the EU is likely to have an impact on the event industry (i.e. movement of goods, customs, tariffs and paperwork, movement of workforces, skills gaps etc.). Worrying evidence that the government doesn’t take our industry seriously enough, and is clearly absent of a joined-up, strategy for negotiations with the EU.

These concerns are shared by EIB member and chair of the Events Industry Board Talent Taskforce, Sarah Wright. She said: “Given the size of the UK events sector, and the fact that it underpins a vast amount of activity across all sectors that form part of the BEIS Industrial Strategy, I truly believe that it warrants having our own minister. 

“I admire the work that the EIB is doing – trying to move forward the Action Plan with DCMS, and also the work of the GREAT team and DIT, however without serious commitment from government in terms of resource and investment – acknowledging the importance of the sector – I fear that we will lose home-grown talent, incoming international events and the UK’s position as a global leader in the sector – which in turn will impact UK PLC.”

Industry feedback

Diversified Communications UK, MD, Carsten Holm, who has followed the Action Plan with interest, adds: “Unlike most other countries, somehow the UK Government has never quite understood the importance of trade shows in facilitating business and promoting the UK to the outside world.  The industry is not just a huge employer, supporting an estimated 500,000 jobs, but also an important reason for foreign business visitors coming to the UK, with around 30 per cent of the visitor economy attributed to events.  

“But, unlike so many other countries, where the importance of trade exhibitions lies at the heart of economic and political thinking, we lack a clear strategy and support from both national and local government. This equally applies to the government’s approach to trade shows abroad, where the UK is often underrepresented, or we participate with minimal involvement, compared with the often large, professional government sponsored pavilions you see from other countries, who see trade shows as the most important platform to stimulate business and promote their industries to the wider world.

“The government talks about wanting to do more business with the world and if they are serious, the best place to start would be to engage with our industry, and to implement a coherent, long-term strategy.  The UK’s exhibition industry is the single most effective and important platform for promoting trade and so far, we have done a reasonable job.  But I often think about what we could be like, and the implications for the UK, if we had a better understanding and more support from Government.”

A spokesperson for the DCMS, said: “The government recognises the huge economic contribution the events industry makes to the UK both through direct spending and also indirectly with the billions of trade and investment facilitated at events held across the country. Our International Business Events action plan sets out a range of commitments to support and boost this growth further, working alongside VisitBritain and the Events Industry Board.”

Chairman of the EIB, Michael Hirst, who has succeeded in opening the door to government dialogue adds: “The EIB will continue to offer guidance to Ministers in developing more support for the sector. This includes evaluating how best additional resources might be provided and where they might be the most effective. Additionally, the objectives set out in the International Business Events Action Plan need to be fully implemented and additional objectives set. The trade media can best serve the interests of the Board by communicating its work and inputting issues that relate to the Board’s terms of reference so these can be considered, and advice given to ministers as necessary.”

When asked how the EIB thinks the government should work with the industry? And what’s the EIB’s wish list or goals? Hirst adds: “The government already has strong working relationships with the industry, not only through the EIB, but through the representation from the BVEP, on which sit all the leading industry trade bodies. In additional the EIB has undertaken and will continue to do so a series of roundtable with different sector interests, such as venues, organisers and destinations. 

“There is also an Industry Leaders Panel which is chaired by the Minister and enables business leaders to input directly their concerns. There is an overall recognition of the need for a bold approach to the sector to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by business events in growing trade and investment, knowledge exchange and Britain’s place in the world.”

Every detail matters

Chairman of CloserStill, Philip Soar, believes the government could learn a trick or two from other major European cities and that differing standards could lead to a drop in exhibitors from Europe. He said: “Key events in most major European cities are subsidised and there is much deeper integration between organisers and governments. We need a department that is prepared to put money behind events. Governments do a lot more in other cities in Europe.

In the UK, numbers of delegates and exhibitors is a relatively small numbers apart from a few sectors. It suggests we are losing a small number of exhibitors from Europe but it’s not tariffs. What exhibitors are concerned about is standards. If our standards diverge from Europe, exhibitors will have to check they are in line with ours and it could become a significant box ticking exercise and for some it may be too inhibitive and may not bother with the UK.”

Since challenging the minister around skills gaps, after reading an impressive 84 page report created by EIB’s Sarah Wright, which raises concerns around attributing codes so the government can accurately measure workforces,  a spokesperson for DCMS said: “With regards to work on the EIB’s skills and talent taskforce, we have engaged with the sector on Standard Occupational Classification System (SOC codes) and are awaiting updates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).”

In addition to the questions sent to the minster, and on the advice of a contact at No10, EN was asked to send a separate set of questions directly to Boris Johnson that called for a dedicated minister for events, and asked does the PM feel the existing plan is adequate support for one of the UK’s largest sectors? or does he feel adequately informed to be able to negotiate deals with the EU with minimal impact to the event sector? No response at time of print.

EN has since contacted the newly appointed secretary for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, requesting a meeting to be set up next month to discuss the potential of establishing a new Strategic Industry Panel that represents a broader spectrum of businesses across the industry. EN

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