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It’s a time to hold one’s nerve…

It’s a time to hold one’s nerve – says our Chief Executive and industry veteran Ernest Vincent. There is a promising future ahead.

I joined the meetings, exhibitions and events industry at the time of the last ‘big’ financial upset in the mid 1970s. It was as tough then as it is now. But then – as will certainly be the case again – we succeeded in filling our venues and creating new events of all descriptions. During the 1980s I worked with the NEC in Birmingham; the marketplace was difficult but occupancy of the massive halls grew; new halls were built and a huge part of Birmingham’s economic regeneration was due in no small part to the creation of the NEC and the ICC, backed by the clear vision, foresight and determination of a very supportive city council and chamber of commerce. Exciting times indeed!

Experiencing the miracle of the Asian Tigers first hand was enlightening! As one of the founding directors of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the venue opened to world wide acclaim in 1988. It became a success almost overnight. Behind that success was a clear intention on the part of Hong Kong to attract more business tourists than it had done in the past.

My final stint abroad was with the City of Toronto and SMG (the US facility management group) at Exhibition Place in Toronto, a multi functional 200 acre site for trade shows conferences sport and entertainment. Over 4.5 million visitors attend events there every year.

Both Hong Kong and Toronto, and the other cities in which I worked abroad, were then, and are still now, absolutely dedicated to and supportive of business tourism as a means to generate economic well-being.

Since 2003 I have been managing The Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster – a smaller venue to others I have managed before but packed each year with between 300 – 400 very high profile events. And yes, recently we have felt the effect of recent changes within the UK economy.

The banking crisis and the commitment by the coalition government to reduce debt has altered the nature of public events and the impact has been felt, not only by us but by many others too. In spite of this our business remains viable and in one of the most challenging years since we opened in 1986, we will still record a trading surplus. Such is the resilience of our industry! Our business will grow again strongly and my money is on it improving significantly from 2012.
Now is not a time to discount heavily and undersell the brand. It’s not a time to drop service levels or cut corners. It’s a time to hold nerve and have complete confidence in the product we sell and resist the temptation to offer silly prices to gain occupancy. Because, put simply, there is a promising future ahead.

We now have enough venue capacity for the time being – the investment in infrastructure has already been made. There is clearly a greater understanding now, that has been the case before, of the value of business tourism to the economy. The argument has been articulated. Tourism brings into the UK about £115 billion. Business Tourism accounts for about £35 billion of that. The business tourism sector also accounts for over half a million jobs. An investment now needs to be made in promoting all sectors of the business tourism industry to attract major conferences, exhibitions, sport and events to come to our isles. We must and we can get a larger share of the business tourism market. Yes, it rains a lot in the UK and the skies can be grey, but that’s not a reason why business tourists won’t come. They will come if we have enough resource devoted to an effective marketing campaign. None of us can do this alone – a joined up effort is required.

In the late seventies and throughout the eighties it was about building the conference and exhibition infrastructure. Times have changed: it’s now about putting investment into marketing and promotion (dare I say subvention?) to attract international exhibitions, conventions and events that will fill our venues to capacity and earn a significant amount of money for our cities.

What a wonderful prospect there is ahead for us all!

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