In the pre-covid era, the Event Industry Alliance (EIA) was already making some strides in building relationships with the government.

The EIA, together with representatives from allied sectors, had attended successive meetings with ministers, but as Association of Event Organisers (AEO) CEO Chris Skeith explained, the relationship didn’t run deep.

Skeith said, “Before the pandemic, few in Government really understood the sector, the differentiation that exists within it or the value the sector brings to the UK economy. We were hidden under the Department of Culture Media & Sport (DCMS,) with no direct relationships with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Treasury or senior government advisors. That’s not to say that relationships with Government weren’t good, but they were mostly limited to tactical activities, very much in tune with the needs of a sector which was very successful without much government intervention or support.”

By March 2020 the event industry had become yet another badly affected economic sector facing extreme hardship. The Chancellor was quick to respond with furlough schemes and grants, but businesses and people were slipping through his nets - particularly in the historically intertwined worlds of events, entertainment, hospitality and travel, where trade was quickly grinding to a halt.

Terrible circumstances and challenges were thrown up in the faces of event industry businesses, and the three constituent associations of the EIA - the Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA), the Association of Event Venues (AEV), and the Association of Event Organisers (AEO) - had to meet them head-on. Each association's members' experiences of the pandemic were wildly divergent, and as this industry has discovered before, what exactly constitutes "the event industry" can be a tricky definition. A well defined and unified response was needed that embodied the needs of all the members.

The event industry was hardly alone in having the financial taps suddenly turned off. Nor was it alone in agitating for financial support. The EIA, whilst mindful of the financial damage being wreaked on the industry and its supply chain, understood that one more voice calling for sector-specific support, essentially competing for attention with other industries, was an uphill struggle - when every other sector was shouting louder and jumping higher. Without diluting its efforts in that direction the EIA began reiterating the pivotal importance of events and exhibitions to kick-starting the economy when the time finally comes to do so. This approach was first epitomised by the All Secure Standard which combined efforts on all fronts to define a plausible, covid-safe, route back to events.
Rachel Parker, AEV director, said, "Our great advantage, when charged with devising the All Secure Standard, was our well-established working group culture, particularly the cross-association and industry-wide groups. The groups, including the newly created Events Reopen Group for senior venue directors, examined the needs of an All Secure Standard from every aspect, and were able to address every point, query and issue raised."

EIA Chair Lou Kiwanuka added, "We worked with the government very closely on creating the All Secure Standard, gained sign off for our pilot events, provided copious amounts of feedback on the current situation within our sector, and garnered the support of many constituency MPs."

It worked. The All Secure Standard culminated in the All Secure Expo Pilot event at the BDC, London, on Sept 2, 2020, which clearly demonstrated that a return to live events during the Covid-pandemic was perfectly plausible - at the time.

As Andrew Harrison, ESSA director explained, the importance of the success of this event seemed critical at the time, saying, "The All Secure Expo Pilot was the event industry at its best - hundreds of people from every sector worked tirelessly to show the government, and the world, that we could deliver Covid-secure events."

The EIA, and more importantly, its combined association members, had conceived, designed, built, and delivered a business expo event in central London, during the pandemic - in only a few weeks from start to finish. This astonishing achievement was emblematic of the EIA's strategy - to work with the government and authorities to bring events back as quickly as possible, but only when truly safe to do so.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The retraction of the industry's "go date" by the government was a disappointment after such a concerted effort, but there was no alternative course of action but to lock the country down. It was a hammer blow to many businesses, especially in the supplier sector where SMEs dominate, and the pain and anger were evident.

There was naturally a certain tension between an industry that relies on bringing thousands of people together in close proximity, and a national requirement to do exactly the opposite. The EIA understood that sector-specific support was essential, and the individual associations were able to represent the needs of their members, but the EIA needed to make the case for the industry in a different light. Lobbying for earlier reopening, or earlier lockdown relaxations would have contradicted the EIA's commitment to a constructive and positive relationship with the government.

EIA board member Max Bull summed it up, "If we maintain collaboration in a polite, pragmatic and practical way, we will return and we must be seen as the "enabler" that can help switch on and support the more visible sectors such as hospitality."

With the second lockdown in effect, the EIA once again began planning with the government for a new go date, but the R rate remained steadfastly high. After Christmas, any hopes of an early go date were dashed with a further national lockdown.

It's a fact that governments of every persuasion understand and act on specificity - a clear and narrow focus when making requests or recommendations. The combined membership of the EIA, in spite of historical enlargements of scope and membership of its constituent associations, is still in a tight orbit around exhibitions. While this might be seen as a weakness, it is the EIA's strongest suit - trade and consumer exhibitions can, and will, form part of the essential post-covid, post-Brexit economic turbocharging that's going to be required.

So, as the country gets vaccinated and awaits the four steps to freedom from the pandemic, the EIA is once again working with the government to bring the event industry back. The industry has shown, twice, that it is ready and able to hit the ground running when the pandemic permits, but this needs to be part of a wider collaboration with the government and a new relationship that recognises the event industries role in restarting other industries.

Simon Parker, EIA Board member, explained, "We need a relationship that is underpinned by a real sense that the government understands what we do and what contribution we make to UK plc. We are global leaders in events and that position can only be enhanced by Government support."

The EIA contends that the financial support to the sector has not been sufficiently timely, specific or generous and has raised awareness of this. In a recent EIA campaign, every local authority in England was sent an FOI request which revealed extreme disparities in the dispensation of the Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG), intended to help businesses affected, but not forced to close, by the pandemic. The responses suggest that over 80% of the funds have yet to be allocated to businesses in need.

Britain will be looming large on the world stage this year, with the G7 Summit of world leaders in Cornwall, and the COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Organising, hosting and building these global events will be the responsibility of the UK event industry, and the government knows this.

As Simon Parker put it, "It is important to look forward and build on the momentum we have created. I think there is now a far greater awareness of what we do - the key is to build on that."

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