Testing Times

Simon Hughes, vice chair of BVEP, on the work trade associations are doing to protect the events industry against the effects of COVID-19.

Multi colored confetti above the crowd on music festival.
Photo: Getty Images

“We have a simple message to all countries – test, test, test,” World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva. He described the pandemic as “the defining global health crisis of our time.”

There is no doubt that we are all being tested – tested to the limits across the global event industry. In the UK however we are not all being tested for the virus (unless you are already ill or in hospital, a care home or prison). But from a business continuity point of view the test that we are being subjected to is unprecedented. Across every sector in our diverse industry, our trade associations are working flat out to provide advice, share best practice and information and support their members as best they can in a really fast moving and dynamic crisis.

At the time of writing, a token of the test we are being subjected to… the fact that the tourism sector advice being prepared by HMG is still not available, as developments are moving so fast that it has to be re-drafted virtually every day. This point was picked up by the Meetings Industry Association (MIA) which is currently referring members to advice provided by the Department of Transport on its website. Three quarters of its venue members were reporting event cancellations at the start of March. That number has moved a long way in the wrong way since then.

Like many other Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) partners, the MIA is sharing the daily updates being produced by the VisitBritain team, who are in turn relying heavily on input from across the tourism, hospitality and events industry, convening the Tourism Industry Emergency Response group on a regular basis. Like many other meetings and events, these are no longer face-to-face, but relying on the dubious joy of dial in and hoping everyone remembers to mute their phone when not speaking.

Many of our partners are also convening virtual hangouts and producing webinars to provide their membership with the opportunity to share the latest news and updates. Many have contributed to the survey run by VisitBritain in order to provide detailed evidence of the economic impact that this pandemic is creating. The survey on the impact of COVID-19 saw a massive response, with the data feeding into ministerial briefings for discussion at COBRA meetings. A petition launched to get the government to offer economic assistance to the events industry during COVID-19 passed the 100,000 signatures mark required to get a debate in the House of Commons.

Business loss up to £70 billion
But in the light of the latest announcements, the measures taken in the Budget statement delivered last week now look futile, though welcomed at the time as a move in the right direction for SMEs. Too little too late for bars and pubs, theatres, restaurants, visitor attractions, galleries, hotels, venues, production companies and the extended supply chain that supports our industry, in which many self-employed freelancers who contribute essential services are now wondering how they are going to survive the next few months. This is testing our resilience to the absolute limit.

Trying to get a fix on the economic impact that this is having – and consequently the levels of state aid that could be required – is really challenging too. Event and Visual Communication Association (EVCOM) members are reporting that the demands of re-designing, postponing, re-locating and digitising event activity makes it almost impossible to spend any time working out current business losses. Their focus as always is the needs of their clients. Association of Event Organisers (AEO) members in similar crisis management mode have been able to fall back on the Exhibition Economic Impact Report they published in December last year to illustrate the scale and spread of the financial impact.

Using the numbers developed for the BVEP last year, a similar approach would suggest that the current level of business loss across the whole industry over the first six months of 2020 could easily be as high as £70 billion. In an already crowded autumn market, the option of postponing events and making up the current losses looks almost impossible. What we all need is more time to both see how the pandemic develops and how we as a nation cope with it.

The more clarity we get about plans being developed to manage the outbreak, the more controversy around the strategies being deployed grows. There is real and genuine anger over the way things have been handled to date, which is matched only by the immediate impact in terms of the loss of many jobs and livelihoods throughout the UK.

Coronavirus economic impact
Photo: Getty Images

A sample of the kind of questions being posed by National Outdoor Event Association (NOEA) members reflects these concerns:
• Clarity on insurance and compensation
• Should local authorities enforce this guidance by refusing licences and landowner permission on grounds of public safety?
• Clarity on what constitutes a ‘mass gathering’
• How are long these measures expected to last – any modelling from other countries who are now reopening some public events?
• What compensation (if any) will be available to event companies?
• Are there any support schemes to help with retaining staff as currently many companies will need to make redundancies?
• What financial support is being arranged for those in the events business?
• Clear direction and process for access to funds.
All such representations are being fed directly to officials working to ensure our specific needs and concerns are being met; this is not lobbying – these are urgent, immediate and specific demands supported by hard evidence on the scale of impacts on our industry.

Rebuild and recover
So how do we cope with this test? The economic impact of COVID-19 will be far reaching – 10 or 20 per cent of GDP according to some analysts. Canada, Australia, France and Germany are all putting up huge amounts of state aid to support workers impacted by the lockdown. The scale of intervention required in the UK will need to be 100s of millions of pounds. The Chancellor has stepped up to the plate with his most recent statement, but the acid test will be what action the government takes to address our specific concerns and how long it will take them to implement real changes.

Watch this space – it’s all about the cash now. At some point in the future we will see the current pandemic settle; I’m not qualified to even guess how long it will take. But we are a very resilient and creative industry and will be able to rebuild and recover. Ahead of a BBC interview the other week they presented me with a very, very long list of cancelled events from around the world. Unfortunately, this didn’t then come up in the interview itself because I was ready with my answer.

The answer is obvious of course – the list of cancelled business events, congresses, trade shows, sporting events, cultural festivals, exhibitions, association meetings, summits and consumer shows prove just what an important role live events play in our lives these days. Yes, we can go online to collaborate. We can digitise content. We can engage through VR and AR. All of these channels have a role to play. But being together, in the same space at the same time, sharing knowledge and experiences – there is nothing like that in the world.

It is a very testing time. But we will come through it, working together and being united and focused on delivering solutions that will help us manage future challenges. Keep safe.



Simon Hughes is the vice chair of the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) and runs a business consultancy specialising in providing strategic services to the events sector. Previously Simon spent 10 years as director of live events at COI, where he worked on a number of high profile events for a diverse range of government departments and agencies.

The BVEP is an umbrella organisation representing leading trade and professional organisations, government agencies and other significant influencers in the business visits and events sector. Its vision is to support sustainable growth for the UK events industry. www.businessvisitsandeventspartnership.com

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