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Trainspotting for delegates

Martin Fullard analyses the state of Britain’s railways and speaks to major venues on how they rate the impact

How delegates get around is as important to them as the event itself. Despite its often bad press, the truth is that the UK is actually very well connected, by both road and rail. 

However, rail travel is often an easy target for the mildly inconvenienced. If there is a points failure, the public’s ire is directed towards the franchise operator, which isn’t fair as the tracks are managed by publicly- owned Network Rail. But do you care; probably not.

So how about getting a seat on an intercity service? Nothing will put your delegates in a worse mood than having to stand from Kings Cross to Edinburgh. Virgin Trains, which has essentially lost its franchise, in April suggested making seat reservations compulsory on long-distance services, saying it would reduce overcrowding and guarantee seats for all.

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A ‘reservation-only’ system would mean season ticket holders and those with flexible tickets would need to book a seat before travelling.

The price would be based on demand, meaning the ticket cost would rise as the train filled up, much like the airline model. Passengers would still be able to buy tickets on the day at the station, but only if there were still available seats on their chosen train. Sound good? No, it doesn’t.

What if you need to travel at short notice for a meeting? You would be unable to board the next train as you won’t have had time to reserve.

On top of that, most intercity services become regional stopping service trains at particular points in their routes. So those moving around a locality will be forced to book in advance too. It’s just too unworkable.

When Britain’s railway industry took off in the late 1830s, railways were all owned by private companies. The problem was they were all competing with each other, shaping the land and expanding   towns and cities. The current SouthEastern network began life as two competing lines, and today there remains mind- boggling duplication of stations across Kent. There was no government plan, and as a result no structure to our railways. 

This brings us to Crossrail, officially known as the Elizabeth Line. Originally due to open in December 2018, the line linking west to east London has been plagued with delays. In April it was announced that the line would be opening between October 2020 and March 2021, with the exception of Bond Street station. There’s little point going into the technical reasons, but there has been a notable indifference to the hold up. The big fish on the Elizabeth Line is ExCeL London.  Jeremy Rees, the venue’s CEO, maintains that current rail infrastructure isn’t hampering the draw of events. He told CN: “Every year, we host over 4m people, from every corner of the globe, all of whom are able to reach us with ease using the current transport infrastructure. While we are looking forward to the opening of the Elizabeth Line, it is not changing our strategy or plans for future development.”

There’s no doubt that when it’s open, the events industry will be one of the main beneficiaries, with central London a mere 20 minutes from Heathrow airport. We wait with baited breath…

Of course, it’s not all about London (well, ok, it is), and that brings us to HS2 (pictured below). Right from the beginning in the 1830s, no railway started from scratch has ever made money. The only way to turn a profit was to pick up the assets for a shilling. 

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This may serve as a warning to HS2. Already mooted to be £50bn over budget (total £100bn), it is hard to see how this cost can ever be recovered. There’s no doubt that it will bring some benefits to venues like the NEC, insofar that day trippers from London may be enticed to travel on the grounds of time, but it’s likely higher rail fares could counter that.

The NEC is already well- connected with London and Manchester little over two hours away.  

So, how important is HS2 to the growth plans of the NEC, and if it’s axed will it have much of an impact on the venue? Gary Masters, NEC Campus general manager, is keen to see the suggested economic benefits. He says of the connectivity: “It’s one of the NEC’s greatest USPs. Located at the heart of the UK road and rail network, plus neighbouring Birmingham International Airport, we attract over 7m people annually. 

“However, the NEC supports HS2 because of the further opportunities it would bring, and connecting the venue to London in just 38 minutes.” Masters adds that while it isn’t integral, axing it would have a negative impact.

“HS2 isn’t integral to, but does support, our ambitious plans to transform the NEC from a venue into an entertainment destination.  Axing it at this stage would be felt by us, as it presents an opportunity to drive economic growth, but the impact on transportation plans for the wider region would be greater.”

There remains little public support for HS2. Many believe that the UK would be better off connecting northern cities together, but right now it’s unlikely our incumbent Transport Secretary will pay attention.

What the events industry should be doing, specifically destinations, is trying to form partnerships with regional rail franchises to offer discounted tickets to delegates. This is something that has already been tried in places like York (LNER) and Torquay (GWR) and
it’s a good start. There is, though, an amusing example of such a deal hitting the buffers. A DMC I know was due to meet a rail boss to discuss such a partnership,
but the meeting couldn’t take place because the train was cancelled. That, I think, probably says it all. 

On the road

Event tech company Aventri has launched a new partnership with Uber for Business, which will offer customers the opportunity to use Uber vouchers.

The web-based tool allows organisers to give attendees event vouchers, which are redeemable in Uber taxis. It aims to cut down logistics and time spent transporting attendees for organisers.

The partnership is part of the company’s new platform Aventri Marketplace, which it bills as ‘a one-stop shop for events’. It gives customers access to transportation, event promotion, budget management, staffing, payment processing and more.

Michael Burns, global head of sales and marketing at Aventri, commented: “Aventri technology assists planners throughout the event lifecycle. Marketplace builds on our promise to customers.”