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‘There’s no joined up thinking!’ Simon Hughes blasts government

Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) chair Simon Hughes has blasted the government over its treatment of the events industry during Covid-19.

As the industry continues to wait for a timetable for reopening, Hughes said a lack of joined up thinking in Whitehall is to blame – and suggested it could even be down to the effects of Covid-19 on ministers’ cognitive abilities.

And he also sees a huge missed opportunity for the industry in the reopening of pubs and restaurants from last weekend.

Speaking to M&IT, Hughes said: “We could have allowed the events industry to manage the reopening. Boris Johnson has asked people to be sensible – last time he asked people to be sensible half a million people showed up at Bournemouth beach. We don’t have a great track record of being sensible. The risk of there being a lift in the R rate seems quite high.

“We’ve already made the argument that the industry is about managing and assessing risk and being organised and professional. Venues all around the UK have significantly invested in mitigating devices to create medically secure areas. Rather than just reopening all the pubs and restaurants we could have opened a number of conference centres. We could have demonstrated that it’s possible to run safe events.

“We could have said to registration companies to put in place registration systems for pubs and restaurants, instead of all trying to sort out their own. One thing we can do is organise really accurate data on who’s at our events. We could then do the test and trace bit. If ministers really understood our industry why didn’t they look to use the good stuff we can do – and we can do it standing on our head. It’s a missed opportunity.”

Cognitive impact

Hughes explained his theory on why it’s taking so long for industry guidance to appear.

He said: “I spent a week thinking, ‘what’s holding us up? Why can’t we get an answer?’ The blockage is somewhere around the Cabinet Office and Number 10. Many of the Cabinet have had the virus. Maybe that’s the reason we’re not getting any real answers.

“Even for people who have had really mild cases, the cognitive impact has been quite deep. They’ve had memory problems, brain complications. Maybe they just can’t make decisions properly, they’re not focused on things that are important.

“If they’re worried about risk, why open up pubs and restaurants when they could have opened up events and learned some lessons? And then, they’re hoping that everybody behaves themselves?”

Hughes outlined why he thinks the industry has been overlooked.

“It’s the classic silo impact,” he said. You’ve got the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Treasury and also the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). There are lots of conversations happening, but there’s no joined up thinking. We might be finding that retail solutions are good solutions for big trade shows.

Visit Britain has been convening a tourism group and we’ve never had anyone turn up from the Department of Transport. It’s all very well talking about what we’re doing to make tourism heritage sites and venues safe but people have got to get there.”

World class industry

Hughes also expressed frustration at the lack of clarity and guidance around events – and the lack of recognition for the industry during the crisis.

“I’ve heard the people preparing that guidance have found it quite hard as the standards the industry already has are ahead of the standards the government wanted to suggest. There’s been lots of messing around with a lack of understanding of the detail. Our industry is fantastic on detail, it’s what we’re so good at.

“In the new world we’re heading into as an industry to get into that detail to deliver those solutions and reassure clients and guests that we are looking our for them is one of our trump cards. It’s part of our DNA. That’s why it’s disappointing we haven’t had the chance.

“We didn’t get the credit with the Nightingale hospitals. If you asked most people, they’d tell you they were built by the British Army in super quick time – in most cases they just used all the normal contractors in those venues. It was a great example of our industry and how an extended supply chain can create world class solutions. We’re a world class industry but we’re not working in a world class system.”

Question of confidence

Hughes said that restarting the economy is going to be a tougher task than closing it down, but questioned some of the decisions that have been made.

“The question of confidence is absolutely paramount, getting people normalised to going out and socialising,” he said. “Again, we could have offered that as a way of looking at the impact of bringing people together. That might have helped us a lot more.

“A lot of people in the industry can’t see the difference between people wandering around B&Q and people being in an exhibition. People can go to the cinema – if it’s about duration, most movies last as long as a plenary session. You can go and play bingo, but you can’t open a lecture hall.

“I used to run an event called The Business of Events. Now you can open bingo halls, I’m thinking of launching The Bingo of Events and running it like that. ‘Eyes down for the next session…’.

“The longer this goes on the more people are going to just start doing things. We’ve got to get it going soon, we really have.”

Curt response

Hughes added that the lack of a single voice of representation for the industry has hindered efforts to get it going again.

He said: “Business events in general disappear if you wrap them in tourism – that’s a lesson that all of us have learned. The lockdown came in quick but we didn’t appear in lockdown phase and we haven’t reappeared in the ‘let’s get going’ phase. Tourism has been useful, I don’t want to dismiss it, it was useful in terms of the sector deal.

“On social media there’s a lot of antagonism around talking to the civil service, I think that’s unfair. They’re working very hard, they do understand – but they’re being blocked somewhere along the way. We’ve been asking the question ‘why aren’t we getting a start date?’. We ran innumerable surveys, provided case studies, we promoted their survey across the BVEP and they say they don’t know. I had a rather curt response. It was clear they were admitting they couldn’t answer the question.”

Lack of clarity

Hughes mentioned that transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris has told a constituent that the industry can start up when the Covid Alert Level is downgraded to 2.

“If someone had said to me that that was the approach I wouldn’t have liked it, but at least we have something to say to people about what’s happening,” he said. “The lack of clarity means that people are doing things that might have difficult consequences later on down the track. People are getting frustrated, they’re just going to go ahead with things, they need to keep clients engaged.

“The other really big issue is that the big things that could generate trade, such as exhibitions and trade shows, every week that goes by the people who run these shows, and their suppliers, are running out of cash. They have no income coming in. We’re going to see insolvencies. It makes me really worried.”