Exclusive: Tourism minister says business events will play “vital role” in reopening economy
The tourism minister Nigel Huddleston has told Conference News that the Government’s new Tourism Recovery Plan is a “good indication of the kind of things we want to do”.
In an exclusive interview, minister Huddleston said business events will play a vital role in the reopening of the economy, and that the new measures announced in the plan will encourage greater domestic event attendance.
A core aim of the plan is to recover domestic tourism overnight trip volume and spend to 2019 levels by the end of 2022, and inbound visitor numbers and spend by the end of 2023 – both at least a year faster than independent forecasts predict. Business travel and events will play a crucial role in this, the minister said.
“The UK is placed fifth in ICCA’s country rankings for business events, behind the US, Germany, France and Spain, which are first to fourth respectively,” the minister acknowledged.
“The new Tourism Recovery Plan is a good indication of the kind of things we want to do. We are effectively subsidising attendees, physically, to the tune of £30 per person, up to £15,000 for an individual event.
“So those are the kinds of things that we are doing, and we'll be monitoring the progress with how it works. We want to be able to try and encourage domestic events. So, let’s get the bookings, let’s get people going to these events.
“We do have a focus on a lot of the international events too, of course, and they are really important because they bring in the inbound visitors, who then go on to spend money on all sorts of other things, as well as spending money on hotels, in pubs, bars and at the best restaurants while they're there. It underlines just how important the sector is.”
When asked if the economic importance of the events industry is now realised in Westminster, minister Huddleston was heartfelt in his response that yes, the pandemic has raised both its profile and its challenges.
“The sector is getting even greater prominence and awareness now. I can absolutely assure you, even if you don't see it, if the sector doesn't see it, be assured that in my meetings within government, with other ministers, with officials and so on across department, the business events sector does get talked about a lot.
“I think one of the challenges is, and you're right, is that it's very difficult to define, it's really difficult to categorise in terms of assessing economic statistics because it crosses so many different industries."
Minister Huddleston went on to acknowledge that the Standardised Industrial Classification (SIC) code issue – the set of codes which determine a company’s primary activities with Companies House – is something that keeps coming up.
The Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) has been leading a project to reorganise the codes so that they better reflect the scale of the entire events industry mix.
“One of the problems is the fragmented nature of the sector, and the difficulty in assessing data, which is true across the entire tourism and hospitality industries. One of the things that we've got in the new plan is the need to gather data more accurately and then use it more effectively.
“I'd be more than happy to look into this, because the SIC code definition keeps coming up again and again as a problem. And when it comes to making the case within government, or indeed elsewhere, gathering the data, providing the evidence, talking to the Treasury with hard numbers always helps. If you can't do that, it makes the case more difficult.”
Minister Huddleston concluded that he knows the industry is desperate to get back to business, and rather be allowed to trade fully once more than seek Government handouts. “There is genuinely a vested interest on all sides to make sure that we get this sector, which adds billions of pounds to the UK economy every year, up and running again. So, we want to do that as soon as possible. But we want to do so as safe as possible. And that does mean that we've got an air of caution around us.”
What the plan says about business events
113. For the tourism sector as a whole to recover, and in order to deliver our overall framework for the sector, the business events sub-sector has to be firing on all cylinders. Currently, the UK is placed number five in ICCA’s country rankings for business events, just behind the US, Germany, France and Spain at numbers 1 to 4 respectively.
114. The government wants to improve the attractiveness of the UK’s already strong offer and become the World’s Meeting Place, continuing to host set piece global events such as the annual World Travel Market which will next take place in London in November 2021. Events can play a major role in asserting Britain’s international trading strength, highlighting components of its industrial strategy, its creativity and its commercial inventiveness, and bringing the country together to present its intrinsic values. As well as the economic impacts of both business and leisure events, there is now much wider recognition of the many other benefits to accrue from hosting and staging conferences and other business events: research sharing, knowledge transfer, professional development, networking and relationship building, and the attraction of inward investment opportunities are among such benefits.
115. Before Covid-19, the government was making good progress on delivering the UK government’s International Business Events Action Plan, working closely with the Events Industry Board, which advises the government on business events policy. For example, in 2019-2020, VisitBritain’s Business Events Growth Programme achieved an estimated return on investment of 27:1 on the grants it issued to grow international business events held in the UK.107 Event bidders were making use of Ministerial advocacy to enhance their bids, and VisitBritain were ensuring the UK had a strong, internationally competitive offer in all 4 nations.
116. In its 6th year, VisitBritain’s Business Events Growth Programme aims to attract international business events to the UK, and to grow the international profile of business events regularly held here through increased attendance and campaign activity. The objectives of the programme this year are to boost the UK’s winning potential, showcasing that the UK is ready to meet again, as well as to encourage greater international trade and investment potential for the UK, and to increase economic benefits through additional international visitor spend – while adapting to new ways of meeting in a Covid-19 secure environment. Government advocacy support and financial support will both be available to add value and strengthen the UK business events industry. The government will consider the case for expanding the Programme, to allow for more workshops, bigger and better marketing campaigns, greater presence at international trade shows, larger grants to event organisers and the potential for seed-funding the creation of new events with great potential.
117. This year, VisitBritain has established from within their budget allocation a UK-wide domestic fund for business events. This new fund will provide financial support to kick start the return of business events attended by largely domestic audiences. The value of the fund is £100,000 in the financial year 2021-22 and it will be open for applications until 30 November 2021.
118. The government is continuing to invest in events infrastructure. For example, earlier this year, the government ran the latest Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport UK-wide competition to improve broadband connectivity in event venues. Subject to an ongoing assurance process, the successful venues will receive a share of £200,000 to install full fibre access. This improved digital infrastructure will enable event venues to produce stronger bids to secure future international business events. Furthermore, a new first class, all-weather events venue will be developed in Southport, a beneficiary of £37.5m from the government’s Towns Fund. Plymouth City Council has also received £12m in funding from the government’s Future High Streets Fund to create a new conference centre and linked events venue at the Civic Centre and Guildhall in Plymouth city centre.
119. The UK government will also enhance its Ministerial advocacy programme. The Events Industry Board notes that advocacy is critical to winning international business events. As such, UK government Ministers will commit to delivering keynote speeches on a regular basis at international business events held in the UK. The government will also work with GREAT and VisitBritain to designate sector-specific UK-wide events ambassadors, who will promote the UK as a location for, and advocate for, events in key industries and sectors. These ambassadors will be pre-eminent and high profile in their field, helping the UK win, grow or retain events that showcase the UK on a global stage and drive growth in strategically important industries. To drive forward these commitments, the government has created a cross-Whitehall group of senior officials in key government departments with an interest in growth and business events. This group will be tasked with developing a target list of international business events for the government to focus on bringing to – and retaining in – the UK, and developing a plan to host them here.
120. Covid-19 may alter the way in which business events are conducted. Though trends are ultimately difficult to predict, there may be long lasting effects from the pandemic, such as a greater number of online only, or ‘hybrid’ events combining in-person meetings with virtual gatherings. The UK government wants to ensure our business events sector is fit for the future. As such the government will work with the industry to:
- Produce a strategy for sustainable business events, including a blueprint for how to hold more sustainable, low carbon international business events. With the UK hosting COP26 later this year, now is the ideal time for the business events industry to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability and reducing carbon emissions. The government will also work with the sector to encourage delivery of fringe events around COP26 where UK industry will showcase its ambition to be one of the world’s most sustainable locations for hosting business events.
- Assess gaps in business events venue provision, both in terms of regional ‘cold spots’ and whether the UK has the right variety of venues to support its international competitiveness in hosting 21st century business events. More widely, the government will also work with the Events Industry Board to consider how the competitiveness of existing venues can be increased, as well as identify and implement improvements to venue accessibility. As part of this work, the government will also explore opportunities to advocate for increased accessibility in associated infrastructure in other areas, such as transport and hospitality.
- Identify the skills and capacity gaps that have emerged as a result of both the pandemic’s impact on the workforce, and of structural changes to the industry. The government will also work with industry leaders to understand emergent opportunities, such as encouraging diverse young people to enter a career in the events industry.
121. The government will work closely with industry to deliver this Plan. Since 2015, the industry-led Events Industry Board has supported the government in delivering its international business events policies and acts as a point of dialogue between the industry and Ministers. The challenges of Covid-19 have also necessitated more frequent and flexible modes of engagement with the sector, however, which will continue as this Plan’s proposals are implemented and, at the same time, ensure the sector is reopened in a safe and sustainable way. To achieve this, government will work with the newly constituted Business Events Recovery Working Group, as well as other key industry leaders, in order to continue to get the right advice at the right time.