Light at the end of the tunnel

Conference News editor Martin Fullard takes stock of the current situation regarding Covid-19, and says the industry must band together to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

News is moving fast; today’s facts are tomorrow’s chip wrapper. 

Make no mistake - this is a deeply concerning time for the events industry and the 700,000 UK workers it feeds. While larger organisations will – hopefully – be able to weather the Covid-19 storm, there are countless small and medium size businesses which may not be in such a fortunate position. 

Here at Mash Media, we will continue to hound national press and broadcasters to ensure your voice is heard. Certainly, all of the editors across Mash Media’s publications are speaking to all industry stakeholders on a daily basis. There is no magic wand, but we will strive to support you all however we can, through resource and reason. The true scale of the damage to the industry will become clear in the coming months.

The UK government’s Budget, at the outset at least, looks positive, insofar that there were measures to soften the economic blow to not just the events industry, but the national economy as well.

Freelancers and the self-employed, however, need more help. A delay to the implementation of the much-loathed IR35 legislation (due to commence 6 April 2020) would ease the burden, although many would rather it was abolished completely. Chancellor Sunak, take note.

I loathe to patronise, but it doesn’t matter if you work with conferences, exhibitions, festivals, or anywhere along the supply chain, we must stick together. 

Wherever possible, we should attempt to postpone rather than outright cancel. Sadly, this is out of our hands in many cases. I know agencies up and down the land are losing events every day, a result of travel bans, spooked audiences, and board-level decisions, often made by those who don’t understand the value of events. £70bn in the UK alone, if you wanted to know. That gives you an idea as what the incalculable global figure might be... 

Let us maintain perspective: this pandemic has cost lives and, tragically, will cost more. Weighting the balance sheet against a human life is in poor taste, but that does not mean we cannot discuss the financial impact. It is important to remain calm in the face of crisis, and rational decision-making has never been so vital.  

The advice from the UK government has now changed. You can read that for yourselves here, but, as of 13 March, the UK government had not called for the ‘banning of gatherings’, which has become the deferential way of saying ‘cancelling events’. Scotland, however, has advised banning gatherings of 500 people or more to reduce the burden on emergency services. Organising bodies will elect to walk their own paths, I suspect.

A cursory glance at the internet tells me the wider public would rather all events were cancelled right now, but we can’t have mob rule. Would imposing a ban from now until the end of the month make a difference? Frustratingly, only the history books will be able to tell us if the government got it right.

The peak of the pandemic in the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson says, is 14 weeks away (mid-June). 

 

Signs of recovery in Singapore

However, what sort of trade press servants would we be if we did not identify positive signs? The dark clouds of the Covid-19 crisis appear to be starting to lift in parts of Asia. The epicentre, China, is reporting fewer and fewer cases each day, so too is South Korea.

Our sister publication Conference & Meetings World and Exhibition World editor Paul Colston this week met Chee Pey Chang, assistant chief executive of the International Group at the Singapore Tourism Board, who said: “Things in Singapore are relatively back to normal… Singapore handled the coronavirus well.” Chang noted a lot of events have now been pushed back to the second half of year, and his Tourist Board have made it their mission to help smooth that diary however they can. It is worth pointing out that there is no confirmed number of events cancelled. 

This is the issue the UK will have to face at some point. Exhibition News editor Saul Leese will be looking into this. It is all well and good us calling for the postponement of events, but how do we deal with the backlog? Venues with high occupancy rates won’t be able to fit them all in, and agencies with limited resources simply won’t be able to cope with the intensive workload. And don’t get me started on the complexities of the supply chain. I don’t have an answer for you now, I'm afraid.

In the world of exhibitions, an organiser can go a long way to instilling confidence in its exhibitors, visitors and suppliers. Look at IMEX Frankfurt. You only have to read the heartfelt and dignified statement released, reluctantly, by Ray Bloom and Carina Bauer (the show’s organisers). Messe Frankfurt have done all they can to support them, as have the local convention bureau, but the rug was pulled from beneath them. They go again. There are some feel-good stories already starting to shine through the thick fog, in terms relative to the crisis, of course. A long way remains, and the uncertainty makes the Brexit process over the last few years look almost regimented.

For now, you cannot do much. I ask that you bark the value of the industry (£70bn in the UK) and how many people rely on it (700,000) to everyone you meet. The louder the voice, the stronger the message.

What about we all get together – as many of you as possible – at some point in June (or whenever we are allowed) for a casual, impromptu and free-to-attend conference? Some content, some understanding of responsibilities, some swapping of business cards and, from our side, some big favours. Maybe a few sandwiches, too. If we are going to rebuild this industry, and learn from the lessons of this crisis, let’s do it from the same starting block, together.  

Let us know if you would be interested.

 

You can sign the petition for the UK government to provide economic support during the coronavirus pandemic here.

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