Show 39 – Reflecting on the Meetings, Events & Conferences Sector

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Recorded at the Meetings Industry Association’s (mia) Annual conference (March 2017).

Part 1 – Trevor Williams

The first guest to discuss the events’ industry with Russell Goldsmith was Trevor Williams, Professor of Economics and Finance at Derby University, and a member of the Institute of Economic Affairs Shadow Monetary Policy Committee, where he has the role of a rotating chairman.

Trevor had opened the conference with a macro scene setting presentation on the wider UK economy, highlighting a number of challenges that the UK is going to be facing in the months ahead, which of course includes Brexit.  He also raised concerns over President Trump’s threat of protectionism in the US, Russian adventurism, Political risks from votes in Netherlands, France & Germany, and concerns from China and the Middle East.

In terms of Brexit, Trevor expects the UK to have a ‘Hard Brexit’, which he explained would mean leaving both the customs union and the single market.  He therefore believes that the focus for UK policy makers must be to forge trade deals to replace those it had with the EU, which needs to happen as quickly as it can after leaving the EU.

With respect to the Meetings and Events sector in particular, Trevor said that the change in output over time is more cyclical and volatile than overall growth in UK economy and it appears to already be slowing and in fact has turned negative year on year, meaning there are fewer meetings and events of the same basis compared the year before.  This has been as a result of the uncertainty generated by the Brexit vote and that business investment in the UK has slowed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though for the sector post Brexit and in fact, one thing the UK meetings industry has benefited from is the weakening Pound as it’s resulted in it being cheaper for people to visit.  Trevor said that this has meant that the foreign element of meetings and events has probably been holding up. He was also quick to add that the UK is a welcoming environment and is seeing lots of tourist flows as a result in the fall of the currency.  However, he explained that the overarching growth in the sector is driven by what happens domestically, and that slowdown has already begun to show up and therefore the benefits of the fall in the currency are not enough to offset this.

Trevor does believe that ‘face to face’ and that the personal touch and human contact, seeing the white of someone’s eyes, can’t be beaten in any other way of communicating and therefore thinks the Meetings and Events industry is vital and is certainly not on the verge of collapse and that it does have a healthy future.  However, as he pointed out previously, he stressed that the volume is not as strong as in previous years.  Of course, he also pointed out that once Article 50 had been triggered, there may be a requirement for lots of events and conferences providing advice to businesses as what to do as plans for the UK leaving the EU begin.

Part 2 – Jane Sunley (starting at 10:59)

In Russell’s second interview he spoke with Jane Sunley, Founder & CEO of Purple Cubed, an Employee engagement consultancy and tech provider.

Jane had been part of a panel discussion about industry talent and one of the key issues she highlighted is that she doesn’t feel that organisations are placing enough emphasis on nurturing UK talent,  She said that companies need to have a plan on how they are going to be an employer of choice and a best place to work so that people want to work there.

To highlight how Jane’s company helps their client’s in this sector retain their talent and improve engagement, she talked through some of the work they had carried out, using their bespoke software product ‘Talent Toolbox’, with Valor, a hospitality management company, that operate (according to their website at time of writing) 19 hotels including, 4 Holiday Inn’s and 5 Crown Plaza’s.  When the organisation employed a new CEO and new HR director, whilst going through an expansion plan, they ensured they put a plan to, as Jane explained, make sure the culture was very clear and engaged their people, ensuring their leaders were role model leaders and embracing and reinforcing the culture every day – see full story on Diginomica.

Purple Cubed Talent Toolbox:

Part 3 – Deidre Wells OBE (starting at 20:18)

The final guest on this episode was the Deidre Wells OBE, Chief Executive of UKinbound, a trade body for approximately 370 member organisations involved in inbound tourism to the UK, such as tour operators, hotels, attractions and service providers to the industry, plus she also sits on the UK Government’s Tourism Industry Council.

Deirdre had been on a panel at the conference discussing life beyond Brexit in the Meetings and Events Sector and she said that what characterises the meetings industry is resilience.  She explained that amongst her organisation’s members, confidence is strong in terms of what the short-term opportunities that Brexit provides, mainly due to the fall in the Pound, resulting in the UK becoming a competitive place for inbound visitors when they’re hosting events, or coming for leisure purposes.  As for the long term, her confidence will be based on how the negotiations [between the UK and EU] will pan out and on this, Deidre made specific reference to getting the right support for their workforce, in particular, their migrant workforce, and continuing to have access to the Single Aviation Market, which she said is critical for the 70% of visitors to the UK that come by air, which she said would be a strong signal to the industry that the UK is going to get a good deal post Brexit.  However, Deidre also made the point on what the look and feel of the ports and airports will be for people visiting from overseas will also be important, both in terms of logistics, i.e., how easy for people to transit through them but also what the welcome will be like.

As an industry body, UKinbound lobbies government on behalf of its industry, and in that role, as part of their wider annual conference, the organisation hosted a round table meeting in February with CEOs of Inbound travel companies but invited Giles Smith from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to attend as well.  In the meeting, they raised three key concerns over Brexit and its potential impact on the industry, which Deidre said were:

  1. Employment – what’s going to happen to the 30% of UKinbound member employees who are migrants in the short-term, and how those companies can continue to replenish that workforce in the long term
  2. Access to the Open Skies Agreement – as mentioned above – ensuring there weren’t extra barriers to prevent people travelling to the UK as easily as they can
  3. Welcome on arrival – ensuring no changes to the transit arrangements to EU visitors, who make up 2/3 of visitors to the UK.

However, despite these concerns, Deidre made the point that the industry has dealt with 9/11, Ash Clouds and Foot & Mouth, and so Brexit is just another challenge.  Therefore, she said that her industry needs to ensure it is as resilient as possible and to keep calm and keep doing business through the [Brexit] negotiations as they pan out.

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