So, people have spoken

by JJ Jackson, Performing Artistes

About 18 months ago, in the lead up to the Scottish Referendum, it struck me that within a short period of time Scotland could become independent and the rest of the UK could then leave the EU. The Scots of course rejected independence andm following the election result last year, I genuinely believed we were entering a period of stability which is of course good for business.
Yes, there was the spectre of the EU referendum, and yes it was likely to be closer than many were predicting, but certainly judging by polls and opinions of the event industry, if it was at all representative of the country as a whole, Cameron would pull it off.

We held a business breakfast back in December where the subject of the referendum featured heavily. Our panel was made up of Tony Anderson, formerly of easyJet, Charlie McMurdie senior cyber crime advisor at PWC, Philip Coggan of The Economist and Matthew Goodwin, senior visiting fellow at Chatham House.

The striking thing for me that morning was that Matthew Goodwin was a lone voice in his belief that Brexit could become a reality. In strident, yet good humoured exchanges, both Philip and Tony seemed to see Matthew’s analysis as very bearish and while acknowledging that what he said could indeed play out, their consensus was that the Remain camp would prevail.

One fascinating aspect was that of demographics. It was genuinely agreed that younger people were much more pro EU than the older ones and Matthew conceded that if this referendum didn’t result in Brexit, the public were likely to become more pro EU in coming years, as the generation who have only ever known the EU start to become the majority.

Well, as it turned out, their analysis was right. It was incredibly tight, and it was older generations who tipped it. The most striking thing from last week was that while nigh on 75% of young people voted to Remain, only 25% of their age group actually bothered to turn out to vote…as for the anecdotes of people voting to leave, but who didn’t actually think it would happen, be careful of what you wish for! Glib comments aside, there was clearly a communications failure on the nature of referendums: they are binary, and unlike a general election, there are no safe seats, every vote really does count.

So where does it leave the event industry? Well in theory, no change yet. Article 50 which is the mechanism for us to the leave the EU will not be triggered until the autumn so for the time being we can carry on as before.

But of course, that’s a detail, in reality everything has changed. The Prime Minister has resigned and will go in the Autumn, so is little more than a caretaker now, while at time of writing, the opposition are in complete disarray with a leader unloved and unsupported by his own cabinet or MPs.

My initial reaction is that this feels a bit like when Lehman’s went down. We know it’s big, we know it’s going to have long lasting effects, but we don’t yet know how big or what effects. In theory a whole skill set, long since lost in the event industry is going to have to be re-learnt, that of carnets and visas. Younger members of the industry probably don’t even recognise that first item, carnet! You haven’t missed much…

As a company we supply people around the world, not just inside the EU, so these are not completely alien concepts to us. We regularly have to arrange visas for far flung places, while other countries like the States have online procedures such as the ESTAs which we have to sort out. In terms of taxation, we already have to fill out double taxation forms etc – and sometimes even for EU countries (Germany a particular offender) – so again, it is stuff we already do. In short, a worse case scenario is that our bureaucracy will just increase.

However, that’s for the medium term, as I say Article 50 won’t be activated until the Autumn, and it will be another couple of years minimum before we actually leave. Our most pressing issue is the here and now.

After Lehman’s, our experience was that events all booked up for the following few months carried on as planned. There were a couple of high profile cancellations, but at such short notice cancellation fees came into play, so the pain of constrained budgets and a new world order was only really felt in the following year.

Lehman’s went down in mid September, so it was the following year it really hit home, although started to show up in our forward bookings almost immediately. We typically book 2-3 months in advance, so the bulk of bookings in the last quarter are for the year ahead.

This vote has of course occurred in late June, so we are about to embark on a quarter when we would typically be booking for the last part of the year when things are traditionally manic. How will it play out? We don’t know, all we can do is just carry on as usual – be as quick and responsive as ever, and ensure we deliver the very best service and value for our clients.

It is of course the same for everyone, and at times like this it does well to look back at history. We have had shocks before, and while this is truly historic/momentous, it’s scale is not so very different to other shocks.

I’ve been in the industry for almost 25 years. When I came into it, the industry was mired in a deep recession which was keenly felt in the industry (not least due to the over exuberance of the late 80s/early 90s). We then had Black Wednesday when the UK fell out of the ERM. Come the turn of the century there was the dot.com boom and then bust, and of course who could forget 9/11?

We got through those before, and we will again. Will there be casualties along the way? Yes, sadly there will, but that is the nature of capitalism, but there will of course be opportunities as well. Am I concerned about how things are going to play out? Yes, and I have concerns beyond the nitty gritty of economics, for society as a whole, but those are issues I can’t directly affect, and as many of the motivational/keynote speakers we supply often point out, you have to focus on what you can change/influence and ignore the issues you can’t.

Salient advice.

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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Paul Colston

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Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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