BVEP - Business Visits and Events Partnership

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BVEP Blog - Simon Hughes (4th July 2016)

By Simon Hughes, Vice Chair BVEP

On polling day for the EU Referendum I sent a text message to my eldest son in which I wrote that I was feeling sick with worry about the outcome. So I wasn’t surprised to hear one commentator describing the subsequent developments in our political world as having become visceral. The heart versus the head. The leavers versus the remainers. The old versus the young. 1.3 million votes the difference that left me staring in disbelief at the TV screen as the numbers rolled in from across the nation. The people have spoken. So did the markets. Cue strong emotions all round.

The only certainty is uncertainty

We are all in new and uncharted waters and the captain of our ship has abandoned it. Luckily there is a plan. Oh – sorry. It turns out there is no plan. The deluge of conversations, debates, arguments and articles that have poured forth in these unprecedented times often appear to be rehashing the same arguments and opinions used in the actual Brexit debate itself. The only certainty as I write this is uncertainty. So is it possible to predict what this all means for the event industry? Honestly – I don’t think so just now – the jigsaw has too many moving parts and, just to complicate it even further, lots of people are shaking the box. Yet there are some things we can take a view on.

Follow the money

An article in the LA Times suggested that the British had gone mad and wilfully jumped off a cliff. They could have added that we’d taken the pound with us, with sterling reaching a 31 year low against the dollar. Bad news if you’ve not yet got your holiday money sorted out but in the mid-term it does make the ‘Open for Business’ line very attractive for business tourism. There are obviously many other considerations in this equation but we need to play to the positives in these circumstances. An unintended outcome might be the increased costs of going abroad drives more MICE activity into the domestic market – if our customers are prepared to spend money rather than take a cautious and risk adverse approach to discretionary expenditure.

Based on some of the recent business surveys and bitter experience of previous downturns making the case for investing in live communications in all its variety will need to be done in a compelling and consistent manner – a task that all the BVEP partners will need to be taking on over the next few months to support and protect the interest of their members. More importantly it will be the conversations with clients and partners in the supply chain that will help identify where support is required and what challenges and opportunities need to be dealt with.

Facing up to trade offs

There is no doubt that as a consequence of the referendum trade is going to be affected. Reduced economic performance is widely predicted and the Chancellor has indicated that it is highly likely that we will see further cuts in public expenditure as well as rises in taxation. We also have the rather tricky process of establishing trade arrangements with the world’s biggest single market. So it was slightly alarming to hear Sir Bob Kerslake, former head of the UK Civil Service, point out that due to the recent cuts to resource he doubted if there were no more than a dozen expert international trade negotiators left in Whitehall. This compounded by the fact that all such negotiations for the last several decades have been carried out by Brussels on our behalf. So we need to find people that can negotiate trade deals and support the stretching targets for export growth that have been established. It is here that the collaboration between the industry and government must manifest itself in helping us win business for UK plc. Once again I truly believe that as an industry recently described as “a UK economic powerhouse” we will need to use the skills and knowledge we bring to delivering complex projects to help create resilient solutions that enable us to trade effectively in the global marketplace. Our skill sets in areas such as negotiation, contracts and collaboration across often complex supply chains, stakeholder management and communication will all be required in the months and years ahead.

The 5 million people question

We also have the longer term challenges of the 3 million EU citizens that live, work and study in the UK and the 2 million UK citizens that do the same in the EU. From an industry perspective this is a particularly challenging issue – according to Oxford University think tank Migration Observatory there are 442,000 European migrants currently working in the hospitality sector and more than 90 per cent of them would not qualify if they had to clear the current visa hurdles required for other foreign workers planning to work in the UK. If we examine this in the context of the extended supply chain that we operate in these figures become even more problematic – 96 per cent of the EU nationals working on Britain’s farms would also fail to meet existing visa entry requirements for foreign workers. These are really challenging and complex issues that will require a huge amount of work and effort to untangle satisfactorily. Longer term the question that remains is what will this do to our international reputation as a nation that embraces diversity and has always been seen as a tolerant and open society?

The Challenge of Leadership

As we currently don’t appear to have any political leaders in place that have developed a clear vision for the future it will be incumbent on us as a sector to ensure that our views and voices are heard in the months of challenging change and continued uncertainty that face all of us. I was very struck by the comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the recent 100th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme. As he looked at the memorial to the dead he thought of the “catastrophic political failure” that had led to the slaughter on the battlefield. He added that “The people in 1914 miscalculated across Europe and in the UK and the result was 600,000 names on this memorial.”

It would be invidious to compare that level of loss and horror with the situation that we now find ourselves in, but many people are clearly suffering from a fundamental shock that is akin to the stages of mourning as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross back in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”. If we frame what has happened as the loss of a close relationship we can see how these stages have manifested themselves – denial and isolation, anger, bargaining (as in the need to try and regain some sense of control), depression, and finally acceptance. (Worth noting that not everyone gets to this final stage and right now I’m wondering how Boris is feeling.)

We need to remember that the common thread of hope is what helps us deal with mourning – As long as there is life there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life. There is a long way to go and much to endure on the journey – but by sharing insights, collaborating to secure opportunities and being open to the challenge of change the brilliantly creative UK events industry does have a key role to play in shaping our future in the global market.