15 October 2020

Zoom doom is terrible for business – let’s get back to live events

By Simon Hughes

The Prime Minister is fond of quoting Winston Churchill, so we can only hope he follows the advice offered by his hero in volume seven of The Second World War:

“There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The British people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”

The UK’s events industry employs around 1 million talented, creative professionals, who create experiences ranging from conferences, trade shows and product launches to festivals, weddings, community events and charity fundraisers, contributing around £84bn to the economy. It is known throughout the world for its rigorous safety standards, adoption of innovative technology and technical skills. Events professionals are problem-solvers who can be trusted to deliver safe experiences.

We have therefore watched with growing bemusement as the Government’s Covid-19 secure guidance has allowed shopping malls, indoor markets, cinemas and cultural exhibitions to re-open, but not conference centres or exhibition spaces, whose investment in Covid secure measures frequently exceed the agreed guidance. To mangle a military metaphor, we were marched to the top of the hill, with the expectation that live events would resume on October 1 – and ran pilots to show that this could be done safely – only to be marched down again when that date was abandoned, with no obvious strategy in place.

We need a rescue plan for the events sector, underpinned by a degree of certainty about the circumstances in which venues will be allowed to re-open, and it must be the result of a coherent scientific and medical dialogue. Indeed, the industry can make a positive contribution to the wider Covid-19 suppression strategy, supporting the Government’s ‘moonshot” ambitions by trialling sophisticated test- and-trace schemes at selected events and venues.

The events and experiences industry drives economic growth, with £165bn a year generated from trade shows and exhibitions alone. It is not looking for hand-outs, but without further support more than 500,000 jobs could easily be lost in the sector by February, amounting to the collapse of a world-class industry. Earlier this month, 334 event industry companies from the three main trade associations wrote to the Prime Minister and Chancellor to propose a ‘hibernation scheme’, effectively a government-funded mothballing of the industry until the current constraints are relaxed.

However, this is not simply an economic debate; there is something much bigger and more profound at stake – something we risk losing if we allow the industry to wither and die. We are all social beings: experiences define and enrich us, they dictate the rhythm of our lives and create our memories. That is equally true whether it is a festival in a muddy field, a family celebration, a fun-run for charity or an international trade show. Experiences are important to our mental health and wellbeing.

In the world of work, experiences help businesses to grow; they stimulate and inspire, recognise success and reward talent, announce innovations, promote knowledge and extend networks. We can all agree that 2020 has been the year of Zoom doom, and however well we have adjusted to the new world of remote working, virtual living is not real life. The most effective way to do business, build relationships and engage audiences is through social connection and interaction, and screen time is a poor substitute for the real thing.

So, the impetus for reviving live events will come just as much from decision makers in business – CEOs, CFOs, marketing directors and HR directors – who recognise the value of shared experiences as it will from central government. Now is the time when budgets need to be committed to events in 2021; and while that might seem like an act of faith when we are beginning a new phase of tiered lockdowns, businesses who are brave enough to do so will reap the rewards and steal a march on their competitors. We know that events, whether it is the launch of a new product or a trade show, add value to businesses; not only that, they are crucial to staff engagement.

The industry has launched a new awareness campaign, under the banner One Industry One Voice, bringing together trade associations which represent every sector: conferences, exhibitions and outdoor events; the live music industry; events and entertainment technology.

The message is clear: whether it is making music, creating experiences or making events, the industry has invested in the best technology and management to ensure they can be held safely. Live events will return in 2021 and there will be pent-up demand; now is the time for business to invest in events and experiences.

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Simon Hughes is a co-founder of the One Industry One Voice campaign and chair of the Business Visits and Events Partnership.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.