As Liz Truss continues to unpack her moving boxes and attempts to responsibly recycle the mountain of bubble wrap from No 10 Downing Street, our new Prime Minister faces a to do list longer and more challenging than at any other time in recent years.
Being totally pragmatic for a moment, its fair to say that the events sector is highly unlikely to be on that list. To be fair, it’s also doubtful that many other sectors will feature either, with the emphasis for the remainder of this Parliament being on the energy and cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine.
So, how is it that an industry valued at £84 billion less than two years ago seems to be off this list, especially when it was so heavily engaged across all aspects of government during the pandemic.
Firstly, it’s important to understand how government works if the industry really wants to engage with it and ultimately influence policy decisions that can create a more successful events sector.
The UK Government (often referred to as Whitehall, although the levelling up agenda is starting to change even this) is an enormous, complex, bureaucratic and ever-changing, at least in terms of people, organisation. It consists of over 20 what are referred to as Ministerial departments, in other words those led by an appointed Secretary of State and a team of junior Ministers and officials, who develop, direct and deliver policy across their agreed portfolio on behalf of the elected government of the day. In addition, there are a further 20 smaller non-ministerial departments, which operate on a similar basis but without a cabinet minister at the helm, and a further 400 or so government agencies who deliver a range of activities. The department that is responsible for the events sector, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) often referred to as our sponsoring department, has 43 separate public agencies under its control. Add to this a central department called the Cabinet Office, which coordinates delivery of the government’s priority objectives, and ultimately their political manifesto, and which is closely linked to the Prime Minister, and we have a complex task ahead, to understate the obvious. If this wasn’t difficult enough, our new Prime Minister, as with her many predecessors, has not one but three jobs, each with diverging objectives.
Firstly, the PM is a Member of Parliament, elected by her local constituents, in this case the good people of South West Norfolk. Becoming, and most importantly remaining an MP, enables all Ministers to continue their journey up the slippery pole of politics and ultimately government. While Liz Truss will be forgiven for not having time to attend her local constituency surgery’s each week, where residents can raise issues directly with their elected member, ranging from everything from policing to potholes, she still needs to ensure that she continues to receive the support of her constituents at each election to enable her to remain in office. Interestingly, Boris Johnson (remember him?) only has a current majority of 7,210 in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, the lowest of any sitting Prime Minister since 1924, and now regarded as a marginal seat. This shows the delicate balance that needs to be maintained in delivering on both your constituency and Ministerial responsibilities.
Secondly, you are also leader of your party. As Leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it its official title, our new PM must also maintain discipline across the parliamentary party, which consists of the 357 Conservative MP’s that currently sit in Parliament, and ensure she is reflecting their opinions to gain their support and confidence. Something that both Boris Johnson and Theresa May will undoubtably have views on.
Finally, she has the small job of being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Being Prime Minister of one of the largest economies in the World, while also having two other major roles, is almost unheard of in any other major western democracy and goes some way to explain how government, and the civil service that supports it, must be structured to operate effectively.
It’s also worth noting that Ministers, and others with roles across Government and Parliament, including Parliamentary Secretaries, Chairs of Select Committees and Chairs of All Party Parliamentary Groups, including our own Chair of the APPG for Events, Theresa Villiers, and newly appointed Culture Secretary at DCMS, Michelle Donelan, must also juggle their Whitehall and Westminster roles with their constituency ones.
I offer this simply as ‘background’ and to help us all understand why the task ahead is so challenging, but also to use my almost 25 years in communications, advocacy and public affairs to highlight what I believe to be three main issues that the events sector needs to address quickly if it is to achieve its long-term objectives and ultimately create a more successful events sector for everyone.
1. The events industry doesn’t know what it is
Having been involved in the events industry for some time, the question of its own identity is one that comes up on a regular basis. Moving out the shadow of consumer tourism was and is the right thing to do. But never forget that, when it might suit our purposes to temporarily step back in, as was sometimes the case during the pandemic, we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.
Over time, we have wanted to be seen as being part of the communications sector, creative industries, business tourism, inward investment, the experience economy and marketing. The simple fact is it doesn’t really matter what we call ourselves. Other sectors have faced this challenge, and continue to do so, including automotive, medical and technology, but they continue to receive government support and attention, despite perhaps their descriptor not fully reflecting everything they do. What’s more important, in my view, is that we are not seen as simply a subset of something else. Something even bigger. That would simply confuse things and ultimately erode our value even further.
We have been working with clients around the world during the past few years, trying to find a moniker that better describes what we do as an industry. We failed. The closest we have ever come is simply Business Events. Is it perfect? No. Does it capture every aspect of our diverse sector? No. But for now at least, it’s the best we have, and we should just embrace it for what it is and be proud of an industry that continues to survive and thrive in the challenges that it faces.
2. The events industry doesn’t know what it wants
This was very evident during the pandemic. Several times, when we were helping the industry lobby government over those first difficult months, I heard organisations say, “we need more support”. But when pushed as to what specifically they were looking for, the response was often vague. If there is one thing government wants when dealing with any industry issue, its clarity. They want to know what the problem is, what the potential negative impact on the economy and/or society is and what the possible solution is. And they want evidence. Lots of evidence. Invariably the lack of credible evidence backed data meant that our lobbying often fell at the first hurdle. Despite popular belief, and Sky News, governments are reluctant to just throw money at problems without good reason, and good reason comes with evidence. Our lack of cohesive and credible data has, we must accept, hampered our ability to put forward any compelling case for any degree of significant support in recent years. While there are now ongoing efforts to address this, especially around SIC codes and other initiatives, we do need to have a clear view as to what support we want. In other words, what kind of relationship do we want to have with our new government? At the same time, we need to recognise that there is probably more we can do for them, than they can do for us. The business events industry ticks more of our new governments policy and manifesto objectives that we perhaps realise. As well as delivering jobs and taxation, we can also contribute to the levelling up agenda, drive exports and stimulate inward investment in priority sectors. We just need to find a way to tell them that. The first part of the solution is to have a single, clear, unified and coordinated approach. Which brings me neatly onto problem number three.
3. The events industry doesn’t know who it is
The constant and rather thorny question of not speaking with a single voice was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. There were loud calls from all corners of the industry to ask why we didn’t have one. It was a fair question, but one that didn’t really need an answer. Because we already had one. In fact, we have had a single voice for over 20 years. Its very frustrating, because the Business Visits & Events Partnership (BVEP) who are, at least until someone decides otherwise, the umbrella organisation for the UK events sector, and recognised by government as the official body representing the events industry, worked tirelessly during the pandemic and continues to do so today. It has championed every aspect of the events industry and works closely with government departments and other public sector bodies to lobby and fully represent the concerns of the industry. It has led on several major issues including SIC Codes and the COVID Recovery Plan and delivers regular research that continues to shape the industry’s revival.
I totally understand that our industry is tribal by nature, and the number of individual trade and membership bodies that we have across our diverse industry should be celebrated, rather than disparaged. It reflects the wide variety of sectors that we have within our industry, including venues, exhibitions, outdoor, experience, agencies, production and so many more. And each of these have their own unique challenges that need individual solutions. But, when it comes to dealing with government, we know that they do not want to talk to 34 organisations. They want to speak to one. And that’s the BVEP.
The BVEP has also achieved some big wins in government, alongside others, including being a key advocate for the formation of the first ever Events Industry Board, which now acts as one of the working groups of the Tourism Industry Council and advises government on policy and strategy related to the events sector. The creation, alongside DCMS, of the Cross Whitehall Group, which coordinates activity across several key government departments to push for a more joined up approach and engagement within key policy areas, has also been an important step. The impact of these two things, championed by the BVEP, cannot be underestimated.
Michael Hirst OBE, who was until recently Chair of the BVEP and who now Chairs its Government & Advocacy Working Group is, in my opinion, owed a significant debt of gratitude from everyone involved in the events sector for continuing to keep the BVEP, and the industry, fully engaged with government, especially during the pandemic. The impact of that, despite the obvious challenges we have today, should not be ignored, or undervalued.
So, the industry needs to recognise the position, value, connections and status that the BVEP already has with government, and other wider industry bodies, where all of the major trade associations and players sit around its table. We need to accept it as our official voice, embrace it and support it, because right now they are our most important asset if we want to create a genuine partnership with Government. If you are industry trade association, destination, consortium or other organisation that wants to be at that table, and contribute to the debate, I urge you to join others in the BVEP.
Having been in this industry for a long time and worked closely with government and other public sector bodies and groups, including the APPG for Events, I am not so naive to think that by just addressing these three questions, we will immediately solve all the immense challenges we face as a sector. But it’s a start.
The other point I would make, to keep ahead of our governments thinking, and to try to understand where their priorities lie right now, is to recognise that we are less than two years away from a general election. That means that our government will be looking at short term policies that are basically popular with the general public and ultimately vote winners, especially in marginal constituencies and across the north, in the so called ‘blue wall seats’.
My final point is to keep an eye on the polls. As I am writing this article, Labour is, on average, around 10 points ahead in the latest national opinion polls. If a General Election was held today, Labour would be forming the next government and Sir Keir Starmer would be Prime Minister. Now, opinion polls can, on occasion, be about as accurate as your horoscope, as recent history has proven. But be under no illusion that a Labour government in the next two years, with a new manifesto and set of many opposing policies, is a real possibility. So, from an advocacy perspective, building relationships with Labour’s shadow cabinet, MP’s and policy advisers should be a major priority for our sector right now.
Five years ago, to increase engagement with government and raise the profile of the events sector with politicians and policy makers, we created The Business of Events (TBOE). Essentially, TBOE aims to promote business events as a force for good and highlight how they can be used to achieve local, regional and national policy objectives. So far, we have held six separate leadership forums in London, Newport, Edinburgh and Barcelona, along with a series of private receptions and dinners, connecting our industry with Ministers, officials, MP’s and other public sector representatives. I think it’s making a difference.
On 02 November we will be holding our first ever UK Policy Forum. held in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and VisitBritain. This event will bring together leading destinations, venues, trade associations and event organisers from across the UK to connect with those across the Westminster village, including from the opposition parties, to discuss how business events can thrive through developing a more policy led approach.
It will also give us an important opportunity to re-connect and re-engage with Ministers and officials following what has been a been a pretty tumultuous time for our government, and to show that as an industry we have the ability to not just ask for support when we feel the need to, but to offer solutions that deliver the policy objectives that we all want and to ultimately improve the lives of everyone across the UK.
Having these conversations is going to be crucial if we want to move from the business of government to the business of events, and to solve these three problems, once and for all.