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Venue view: Tobacco Dock can weather the storm, but industry needs more help

Martin Fullard talks to Jonathan Read, commercial director at East London venue Tobacco Dock, about the impact of Covid-19 on the business, what extended measures are needed to keep the events industry afloat, and a historical anomaly that means only one of their 57 spaces has so far qualified for rates relief.

How has Tobacco Dock been impacted by Covid-19; what actions have you taken?

The world of events has taken an enormous hit, and like the rest of the industry, this has meant we have had to be flexible.

Prior to the lockdown announcement, we modelled three potential scenarios on the impact of a lockdown, the ban on ‘mass gatherings’ and social distancing measures. These were communicated to our senior management team and then the plans for communicating with the whole team, clients, supply partners and other stakeholders were put in place. Clear and open communication with our clients and suppliers has been an important focus for us.

Thankfully our systems were set up for remote working and it was fairly straightforward to migrate the team to home working. We then prepared for closing down and securing the venue and implementing protocols for safe checking and monitoring.

All our event bookings for the April-July period have been moved to either the mid-September-January period or equivalent dates in 2021. At the time of writing we are waiting for the government’s post-lockdown guidance which will determine the feasibility of hosting events prior to a vaccine being available.

Many of the events we host have lead generation, networking and hands on demonstration at their core and if these objectives cannot be met clients will look to digital solutions until they can be. Digital cannot replace live communication and experiences, but it can certainly support it and we’re working on ways in which we can incorporate further elements into our offering.

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Tobacco Dock's Courtyard | Image supplied

 

Have you applied for CBILS or local authority grants?

Tobacco Dock has a strong balance sheet and sufficient working capital to survive the pandemic. Regarding business rate grants, we have an anomaly at Tobacco Dock that each of our 57 spaces is assessed separately. We have received just one grant so far, but it is a slow process.

Are you getting enquiries?

We are still receiving enquiries, in the main for 2021 or later, though at only 10% of the usual level. During this time away from the venue, the sales team are conducting virtual site visits in record numbers and keeping in touch with all our key clients. However, we desperately need the government post-lockdown guidance so that we and our clients know what we can plan for. Until then event buyers are just not going to commit.

Do you think the government should offer extended measures to the events industry?

Certainly. The UK events industry is a world leader with a direct spend of over £70bn, supporting over 700,000 jobs and responsible for generating over £165bn in trade facilitated through events. The various industry associations such as the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP), Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO), Events Industry Alliance (EIA), International Convention Centre Association (ICCA) and the Event and Visual Communications Association (EVCOM), supported through the trade press, are doing an excellent job in lobbying government so that our value is recognised. This value and the unique nature of the industry should mean that we are treated differently to other industries and I sincerely hope will result in the right measures to avoid a complete bloodbath.

We need a sensible extension of the furlough scheme until business approaches decent trading levels. I think it is perfectly reasonable for the percentage support, the cap level and length of the furlough period to be varied according to industry sector. The events and hospitality sectors were the first to be impacted and will be one of the last to emerge from the lockdown and recover.

The government also needs to support the #NationalTimeOut initiative led by Hospitality Union. This calls for a 9-month rent free period for tenants and landlords supported by having capital and interest repayments frozen for the same period. The rent/repayment free periods are simply added on to the term of the lease or loan secured on the asset, so it costs the government and the banks nothing.

Lastly, the chancellor should look closely at reducing the rate of VAT on food and beverage sales to stimulate growth as we come out of lockdown.

Tech giants are saying they won’t host live events for another year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try ideas. How can you help with a digital strategy for clients, and what is the power of live?

In my opinion a live audience is vital, there is no such thing as a virtual event, but a hybrid could work – think of a TV studio audience as part of a live broadcast – without one it is just a flat experience. Along with our in-house AV team, TDAV, we’re assessing a number of hybrid platforms for delivering a combination of a live experience for smaller audiences while reaching many more online.

As well as assessing the platforms which enable many of the key requirements of a live experience (networking, bespoke stream-based content, expo areas, buyers matched with suppliers, you can even select who you have lunch with) we are planning and designing how many of our spaces could become studios for these interim hybrid events. We’re building teams for professional facilitation, filming, webcasting, virtual environmental design and all aspects of making a hybrid event almost as compelling as a totally live experience.

However, direct human contact remains the most powerful communications medium available anywhere ever. A face-to-face experience is engaging, individual and memorable – not least because it engages all the human senses. Instinctively we put a premium on personal, live experiences over ‘recorded life’.

Studio/Audience - by Tobacco Dock in partnership with TDAV

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