The Big Interview: Leigh Cowlishaw
Martin Fullard speaks to Leigh Cowlishaw, managing partner at Black Box Partnerships, and former HBAA chair, on the pressure faced by event professionals.
How did you find yourself working in the events industry, and what is your current role?
I started at the age of 14 as a pot washer in a pub, became a waitress, and then moved into college after my GCSEs. I soon found myself working in a creative agency which really opened my eyes to other aspects of the industry. Previously I’d been involved with venue-finding and accommodation, so the creative side was much more ‘high touch’.
My current role is at Black Box Partnerships. We are a consultative agency that inspires change for travel management companies, associations, hotels, venues and looking at the meetings and events industry in its totality.
What would you say has been the biggest change you have seen in the industry?
I think mental health and wellbeing. It’s always been there but is absolutely more prevalent now in how we approach our events and teams.
Event budgets have also changed. As they were cut after the recession, we must now work smarter and harder at being more creative, making that pound go even further. Giving people a positive event experience is obviously even more difficult with less money and less funds to be able to do so, but it is the reality.
You have been very active with the HBAA for a number of years. Do you think the value of the trade association is still strong, and what does its future look like?
I think people will be looking to the HBAA even more. The reason for that is that they want one strong voice to help and represent them. Whichever the subjects are, I think people are stronger together and therefore the expectations on any association are a lot higher. I think the associations need to become better at working together in collaboration and to drive stronger voices to make differences that are fundamentally going to impact the events industry.
It’s fair to say that the HBAA is strong at leading on certain topics. Could you explain the reasoning behind the mental health first aid scheme? What’s the take up been like and what does it mean for event professionals?
Last year I became a mental health first aider in my former role. After I left the course I realised that I needed to make some changes in my career in terms of my own wellbeing. Being on the board of the HBAA, I felt it was a necessity for us to be able to elevate the issue, not just for ourselves but for our businesses and associations.
We went from the top down; we trained our board and then the executive committee to become mental health first aiders.
What is missing still is the commitment and the buy-in from business owners to be able to send people on these courses and to be able to build wellbeing strategies. Not just looking at themselves and their teams, which are their biggest assets, but when they’re organising events and meetings for customers, they’re actually bringing mental health and wellbeing to be part of the agenda.
The pressure that is on event professionals is huge. How has it changed in recent years, and what new pressures are on eventprofs that weren’t 20 years ago?
On a national level, one in four people deal with mental health issues, yet in the events industry it is one in three. The reason for that is simple: as you get closer to delivering an event your blood pressure is on the increase in terms of timelines, trying to get things done, always wanting to deliver better than the last event.
I think we as an industry need to recognise that this is a high-pressured industry, it is often very last-minute. We need to offer support because people become tired when they are working to tight deadlines and long hours. The pay in our industry isn’t that fantastic, so sometimes people are doing other jobs to substitute for mortgage and rental costs and that can add to the struggle.
In years gone by you would have noticed January, June, August and December were quieter months: not any more. We used to say, “we’re coming up to August, we can take the foot off the gas a little bit”, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Corporates are getting more savvy in terms of hotel and venue costs. They are a little bit cheaper in those periods and therefore you can’t take your foot of the gas. It’s just unbelievable, its relentless.
On the topic of ROI: it is going to be much easier to demonstrate to clients if your staff is not mentally drained and burned out. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. People don’t necessarily see that your talent is your biggest asset, so you will get a shiny new building, company cars, but actually your talent and your teams need to feel appreciated.
Everyone will have their limits, and as an employer you need to make sure you’re not pushing and overloading your staff. So, when people are putting a red flag up to say “I’m feeling overloaded”, that for me is sometimes too late.
You need to be monitoring workload, you need to be understanding what’s coming down the tracks and understanding your management style as well. If you are somebody who is running at 100mph, not everybody is going to be at the same pace. You should be looking at the expectations you put on others and should ensure that you are fair to your teams and give them a platform to speak out.
I want to touch on the agency model. In September, former EVCOM CEO Jennifer Jenkins revealed that agencies in some cases are being forced to accept appalling terms and conditions, such as 90-day payment terms, and many rely on one key client. This model is not sustainable, is it?
No, it is not. Having all your eggs in one basket is not sustainable. Some agencies will work with customers that are not contracted, where they are relying on relationships and again, that is just not sustainable. Yes, relationships and partnerships will help and aid business, but there is a risk that there could be a corporate who could change that overnight, and so the relationship is gone. You have a commitment to your staff.
Payment terms are something over the past few years that have increased in duration. When a piece of business moves from agency to agency, the new one may promise things that become the norm, and that corporate will take it to another agency. Again, we need to have a united voice because ultimately 90-day payment terms could put a business under.
We should be looking out for each other in terms of having an expectation of what is acceptable when it comes to payment terms, or at least because that puts pressure on the supply chain.
You should be given upfront funds to be able to draw down and pay out, so if you need to pay deposits to secure suppliers then you have the funds to be able to do that. Ultimately, pressure on cash flow will not help mental health.
Is it okay for an agency to reject business?
It is okay to walk away from business; we are not always going to accept every piece of business which is set for us. Another company may pick it up, but if it’s not right for you and it’s not right for your business model then so be it.
That’s not being unkind, or being rude, it’s understanding your business, understanding your limitations, and why you put yourself under undue pressure by accepting things that are just not succinct to your business model.