Getting government backing

Government support is critical to growing the business events industry on an international stage. But do the current incumbents do enough? Clare Gascoigne investigates

When England was bidding to host the 2018 World Cup, much was made of the deployment of the “Three Lions” Prince William, the Prime Minister and David Beckham to champion the soccer bid. The presence of royalty, the backing of the highest office in government and a sprinkling of celebrity stardust, lent England’s bid a certain glamour. It was a prime example of the political muscle that is available when UK plc puts its mind to it – albeit unsuccessful on that occasion.

But it was also a sadly rare event, according to Nick de Bois, MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Events (APPG). “When it comes to the big sporting events, everyone understands what to do. But when it comes to lesser events, compared to many international governments, I have always felt the UK government didn’t quite get it,” he says.

He is not alone. Jeff Hunter, managing director of training company Events Business Academy, says: “Historically we didn’t seem to understand some of the economic benefit and feel-good factor in events. People didn’t understand that events have the ability to change the landscape.” Mr Hunter believes much has improved, but there is still work to be done.

Mr de Bois, who set up a conference and event company in 1990 before his election to parliament in 2010, was a prime mover behind the establishment of the APPG, which he hopes will help government recognise business events as an industry that contributes a lot to the national economy. “This is not about going cap in hand for money, which is not the answer,” he says. “It’s about getting events recognised as an industry, demonstrating support.”

Events have the ability to change the landscape

Liz Lee-Kelley, senior lecturer in programme and project management at Cranfield School of Management, agrees. “The government’s role is in marketing the country,” says Dr Lee-Kelly. And by government, she includes the Royal Family as well. “I have accompanied trade missions to the Middle East and invariably your access to the highest decision-makers is limited without them,” she says. Of course, cost may be an issue when it comes to trade delegations, though Dr Lee-Kelley argues that the government’s role is more one of raising the profile of events, making them sufficiently visible for the corporate world to want to step in with sponsorship.

Michael Hirst, chairman of the Business Visits and Events Partnership, a lobby group for the industry, believes government doesn’t show enough support. “It could be anything from writing a letter to shaking the hands of the decision-making committee,” he says. “Our competitors do it, but we don’t go out and make the case for Britain enough; we need to make people feel special, to feel welcomed.”

Prime Minister David Cameron might disagree, pointing to the multi-million-pound campaign Britain is GREAT, which he launched last autumn, saying: “While there are contracts to be won, jobs to be created, markets to be defended, I will be there.” But he has also presided over the closure of the Central Office of Information as part of an overhaul of government communications, a move that some within the industry believe will lead to a lack of event expertise in government.

No one disputes the government’s abilities when it comes to the big-ticket events; Lord Coe, head of the London bid to host the 2012 Olympics, has said that the bid succeeded because of the political support it received. But less-glamorous events frequently receive less help though the economic impact might still be significant. “It’s about government and business coming together to make the UK the destination of choice for international events,” says Mr de Bois. “We should be focused on the net win for Britain.”