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EIB chair: ‘Ongoing challenge’ with new government appointees

On the day that Boris Johnson was appointed as the new prime minister of the UK, Events Industry Board (EIB) chair Michael Hirst OBE, spoke exclusively to M&IT about Brexit and government involvement in the meetings and events industry.

There is a Chinese curse which warns: “May you live in interesting times.” With Boris Johnson PM saying he is open to leaving the EU with or without a deal by 31 October, the political situation sums up the Chinese phrase.

Brexit was a topic on the agenda at the Events Industry Board’s (EIB) biannual Events Industry Senior Leaders Advisory Panel. The meeting, which took place earlier this month was attended by senior leaders from UK venues, production companies and the creative industries.

“The industry leaders were quite vocal about the fact that the whole question of certainty was absolutely imperative… not knowing how we would operate and have access to international markets,” Hirst said.

“In the case of a no-deal Brexit there have been a number of announcements from the EU which have said that flights will continue, licences will be given for logistical purposes. It’s a moving feast at the moment. One doesn’t really know how this will pan out.”

Uncertainty is the one thing we are certain of. “The one thing we’ve got is a new administration, so it’s a case of watch this space,” Hirst added. “To be very honest, it’s an ongoing challenge for me and many others.”

What this means is a new cabinet, including a secretary of state, a minister for tourism and a minister for international trade. All of these appointments will work very closely with the meetings and events industry.

Going forward, it’s back to the drawing board to make a connection with Johnson’s new cabinet, forging effective, collaborative partnerships. “We have to start working on ministers yet again,” Hirst says. “I’m at Westminster on Wednesday 24 July to take part in a meeting of the all-party group.”

Events Industry Board chair Michael Hirst said that the next few years are crucial for the industry

Events Industry Board chair Michael Hirst said that the next few years are crucial for the industry.

And yet Hirst remains upbeat and takes on a prosaic attitude to the revolving doors of political machinations. “This won’t be the first time we’ve had a change of minister – in the time I’ve been doing the job we’ve had 16 ministers. I wouldn’t call this particularly catastrophic. It’s government, I’m afraid, and they love changing its chief executives on a regular basis.”

Having an ongoing discussion between the Events Industry Board and senior event leaders was to “win, grow and create” business. This is the ultimate aim, not only on the national stage but also on the international scene.

“We will have a continuing series of discussions where industry leaders will come and tell us what’s really going on at the coalface. What their challenges are, what opportunities to improve their standing as an international destination for events and how we will become more competitive and what role government has in making that happen.”

From the talks so far, the main concerns raised by industry leaders are access by visitors to the UK, logistics, the ability to transport goods across borders in order to provide sufficient access for exhibition equipment, as well as questions of employment and skills.

At the Events Industry Board panel discussions, Hirst said it was clear that some of those present were not fully aware of the information and communications that had already been circulated – both by the government and the European Union – which even in the event of a no-deal situation would provide a certain amount of certainty which would help in planning ahead.

“It’s not a question of what we’d like to see – we have a national Action Plan and that will be implemented across government departments,” Hirst said.

“In fact, one of the discussions we had at the panel of industry leaders was the importance of government departments working together. We’ve got two sponsoring departments: the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport and the Department of International Trade. We also want the assistance of the Department of Health if we have an exhibition of green industries.

“We want government across all departments to recognise how business events can support their programmes and responsibilities and get involved – as happens with most of the countries with whom we compete.”

Perhaps an unexpected outcome from the discussions was that industry leaders were “not talking about big handouts of cash”. Instead, there was a clamouring for more ministerial involvement in helping to bid and win events. “We see how strongly that works for sport in the UK. Whenever there is a World Cup, we see ministers present,” Hirst said.

For those interested in financial assistance, there was a presentation at the meeting by VisitBritain on the Business Events Growth Fund which is continuing to operate and does assist events with financial aid.

What became clear from the talks was a need for ministerial support for bids, to welcome visiting missions, to attend event openings, the use of public buildings to have hospitality for delegates, and special arrival arrangement at borders for delegates.

“Britain’s ability to turn on ‘soft power’ support was considered by all the people at the meeting as absolutely critical going forward and working across government departments.”

Part of the action plan in terms of connectivity was investing £250,000 for the improvement of broadband and internet provision at conference and exhibition venues across the UK, which will go live in Sept 2019.

Hirst was adamant that the purpose of the government strategy was focused on growing the footprint of Britain for international events. “We are trying to win international events that are not currently held here and to grow international events that are already here.”