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Journey to change

Martin Fullard talks to Neil Brownlee, head of business events at VisitScotland, about the nation’s latest campaign to drive event legacy.

COP26 is arguably the biggest global event the UK has seen in a generation. There are many ways in which this conference can be appraised, but there really is nothing more important than its legacy. It must be made clear that COP26 is a UK Government event, not a Scottish one, but as it so happens, it is taking place in Glasgow and therefore forms the perfect platform to discuss VisitScotland’s latest campaign: Journey to Change.

Martin Fullard: You launched Journey to Change in March. Tell us more about that campaign, so our readers understand how it has positioned Scotland in the domestic and international MICE markets.

Neil Brownlee: Journey to Change is the title of a campaign that is an articulation of our Policy Driven Model. By describing it as a ‘Policy Driven Model’, it sounds quite governmental and quite heavyweight, and it must be treated as such. But like a lot of other trends in the business sector, before the pandemic hit things were under way, whether it’s how business or trade shows might change or the sustainable debate.

But in the business events world, it’s more about what is the role of business events: are they more than breakfasts and room nights? Because that is what most governments understand them to be and because it’s the easiest bit to measure. Before the pandemic, I came up with something called the Policy Driven Model and that was about aligning Scotland’s ambitions with the pursuit of business events into Scotland, with Scotland’s ambitions at a national level. Like other countries and cities, we tinkered around at the sector level.

I decided we can tie this into the delivery of Scottish Government policy and the first worrying thing was where is it written down? But Scotland, happily, like most countries and even at local authority level, have their national objectives or national outcomes that would be 13 or 14 very broad-brush things – for example, giving every child the best start in life or reducing our contribution to global warming. Then they were underpinned by nearly 100 national indicators and that’s much more granular; it’s everything
from mental health down to transportation issues for elderly people. We can target anything we pursued via those built-in Scottish Government lists, which I can’t emphasise enough, every single country has one somewhere.

Added to that are the United Nations sustainable development goals, which dovetail beautifully with policy connections. I decided that the Policy Driven Model was the way forward for the national VisitScotland remit for business events. When you have huge convention bureaux or bureaux looking after cities such as Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, they do the heavy lifting in terms of selling and representing their country/their city. So, the national remit must be slightly more heavyweight in terms of adding value because it’s not our job to go and duplicate what the sales team of Hilton are doing, it’s not our job to step on the toes of the city convention bureaux etc. That’s where we have to work closely with Aileen Crawford in Glasgow and Laurie Scott in Aberdeen, because trust is everything.

The Policy Driven Model is a higher-level strategic pursuit of adding value. We realised early on it’s quite dry and we needed the campaign to replace Legends, which was the first thing we did about four years ago based on the slightly stretched convention, but not untrue, that Scotland invented everything. So, we have taken Journey to Change in a different direction. Journey to Change emphasises how business events can create social and economic progress. Progress is a good word because it’s never-ending. Change is what we need to declare business events to do. Now I think the challenge for the sector is to somehow follow through and prove how they do that.

MF: What can other destinations learn from Scotland in this campaign?

NB: I think what we have done and what other countries can learn from us, is just to be very clear about the distinction between convention bureaux at a city level and at a national remit level. When we add in Journey to Change and the Policy Driven Model, they could open a whole raft of opportunities that hotels and venues didn’t know existed. There are all sorts of ways that corporations could achieve their corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s about demonstrating the opportunity to people within the sector. 

Right when we went into the pandemic, as a sector, nobody truly understood what we went through or what we did. We were part of an obscured, misunderstood sector called events. We were the least visible part because nobody could understand where we began and ended. As a sector, we must emerge and say we are not just a big conference. We are bringing desirable tourism; we are not just a contributor to over-tourism. As a sector, not just in Scotland, we need to pull together once and for all.

MF: What does it mean for Scotland to host COP26?

NB: COP26 has the ability to put Glasgow the map. I think for Scotland, the ultimate objective for Journey to Change, is being seen at the centre of where important discussions happen.

Now of course, the host of the event is the UK Government, it’s not the Scottish Government. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that the bits we are in control of work well. So, we need to ensure seamless delivery, logistically sound hotels and venues, confidence and the ability to do an excellent job.

What happens in the discussion halls, is less in our control. But it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Glasgow and it’s the biggest business event ever to come to the United Kingdom. 

MF: What should event organisers be looking to learn from the legacy of COP26?

NB: There are two types of legacy from COP26. One is that COP26 truly shows what legacy can come from a business event. It’s that sense of civic pride that we saw in London nine years ago at the Olympics. If something comes out of COP26 like a Glasgow paper or Glasgow agreement, I think that would be a brilliant opportunity to show that business events can be part of policy delivery. It’s the ultimate chance to demonstrate this is a conference, look at what it does. It’s people meeting face to face, even Greta Thunberg is an advocate of in-person meetings.

From an operational point of view, it demonstrates to Scottish people that we host events very well. From a sustainable point of view, we feel strongly that it’s not about ‘we travelled to business events’, it is ‘how’ we travel. I think the discussions at COP26 have to be at that high level. It’s about elevating the discussion and not just about doing the little things.

MF: What does the events sector look like in Scotland, now restrictions are being lifted? How does the domestic market compare to the international market in terms of what you are seeing today and how you expect that to evolve over the next 12 months?

NB: Like the rest of the UK, the Scottish market is gradually emerging. In the past few weeks, we have hosted some big association congresses. I think we are almost parallel with England’s restrictions, there are very few signs of lockdown. But I think the business events sector must tread carefully. We have been talking for 18 months about how professional we are and how we have a compliant audience, and I think we are at the stage now where we must prove it and show that business events can be part of the solution and that they are not part of the problem.

There’s also still the debate in Scotland about the vaccine passport. The Scottish Government is proceeding with it but, of course, it’s not an event vaccine passport, it’s proof of vaccination for all circumstances. Business events are exempt, but we are going through discussions about some of the standard elements where there are over 500 people. It’s all a degree of caution. I think if the app works as a QR code and can read QR codes from other countries, it’s going to be fine. Nearly every country is using the same app and the same technology, and it’s one download which lasts a year, so it isn’t hugely onerous.

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