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Mayor snubs big chance to put capital case for events sector

Mayor Sadiq Khan and City Hall were conspicuous by their absence at a key session in Parliament, 10 September, at which MPs from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Events took evidence from industry leaders on what support was needed to help grow the UK events sector.

Three panels were convened, with three London venue leaders first up to give their view.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of London for international events? was the opening question to panellists from James Heappey, MP, who chaired the sessions.

Simon Hughes, QEII Centre board member and a former government event organiser, made a first point of the competition to London (for events) investing in infrastructure “quite heavily” and he contrasted that with the often complex experience of travelling from London’s airport to the major venues.

Jeremy Rees, ExCeL London CEO, told MPs London’s venues were “competing with  hands tied behind our backs” when bidding against leading European venues and destinations. “Other cities have an advantage in the support they get from government,” he added.

When pressed on what he meant exactly, Rees gave examples of the bigger budgets and ability of competitor venues and destinations to roll out the red carpet for visiting organisers and delegates.

He underlined he was asking for government support and advocacy, rather than subvention and claimed there was a great opportunity to double the value of some existing major events.

Olympia London MD Nigel Nathan said he thought demand for exhibitions in London was “flat” and did not feel more capacity was an urgent requirement. He added that the UK’s organisers were the best in the world, so there was much to be proud of and he pointed to world class education and research institutions. “There is clearly an affordability piece about London,” said Nathan, when asked about the capital’s weaknesses for events. He also said the uncertainty around Brexit was not helping the industry plan.

Hughes asked MPs to push for someone in government to be given the concrete task of looking after the events industry. “Make it somebody’s job,” he said, and he contrasted the support given in Scotland to business events at ministerial level and through higher budgets and more ambitious marketing.

Hughes also urged the MPs to inform government how it could better use some of its own buildings for events and said the uncertainty around the QEII Centre’s own future, with the mooted decant of the House of Lords to the venue possible by 2025, not helping its long-term business case.

Hughes and Rees came under fire, however, from Barry Sheerman MP for Huddersfield, who called for more statistics and evidence and less “whingeing”.

“I can see where government can support you more. But you haven’t given us any facts,” he told Hughes.

The venue panellists missed the chance to press the MPs more forcibly on key transport issues around Crossrail and the Queen Elizabeth Line delay, although Nathan did call for the restoration of regular tube services at Olympia.

For the second session, Tracey Halliwell, director of tourism, conventions and major events at the capital’s convention bureau London & Partners, was certainly well equipped with facts and statistics, reminding the MPs of the industry’s £41bn value to the economy, both nationally and in the capital. She gave good insights into how her agency’s strategy had changed to concentrate on pushing the knowledge economy and initiatives such as London Tech Week, as well as giving examples of how London worked with provincial destinations to feed visitors and events around the UK. She said L&P had been able to learn from world best practice and Sydney’s approach to destination marketing for events as one example.

Unfortunately, Halliwell was left to sit alone to face the MPs in the face of the no-show from City Hall.

Under Secretary for Arts, Heritage and Tourism Michael Ellis MP also faced the APPG alone for the third session and gave his best ‘Yes, Minister’ answers to MPs.

When pressed on who could be responsible for coordinating the events industry’s demands and for lobbying within government, he did put his hand up for the role, saying, “I am the link”, although when Tom King asked for a copy of Ellis’ declared project to compile a map of all UK venues with capacity for over 400 delegates, it turned out the ‘map’ was very much a work in progress one that may even prove to be too complex to achieve.

The minister did report having written letters to heads of government departments whose sectors were connected to major event bids, in which he said he had urged them to write to the organisers and lobby for London and the UK as hosts.

James Heappey, in conclusion, urged the industry to keep at the task of helping the APPG present its case for further support to government in the future.

CN approached the Mayor's Office for comment on why no City Hall representatives were present and received the following response from a spokesperson for the Mayor of London: “London has a global reputation for successfully hosting the biggest and most high-profile events, and the Mayor works hard to support the industry and promote our city across the world. He was disappointed not to be able to attend the meeting, but pleased that his official promotional agency London & Partners were able to attend and outline the important work they carry out on his behalf to support the industry and bring thousands of events to the capital.”

The spokesperson added that apologies were sent to the APPG and that the Mayor is making a written representation.