The £30bn industry shut down then forgotten by media and government


The business events industry doesn’t exist. At least, not in the eyes of the government. At an estimated value of £30bn, there is no denying the industry’s significance, only that’s exactly what the government and media are doing. 

From BBC reports on struggling small-business owners to damning analyses of the economy as a whole, the media has been only too keen to relay the doom and gloom of a stagnant market. And yet, through all the clamoring over financial turmoil, hardly a word has been uttered about the £30bn industry that makes up almost half of the UK events industry in total. 

Nail salons (the beating heart of the UK economy) have received extensive coverage. Hotels have remained at the forefront of our attention. The events industry at large has been a hotbed of discussion, as one of those hit worst by restrictions. But as all of these industries cried out and caught public attention, one sat still, quietly sinking. 

You don’t need a masters in sociology to know that there’s a difference between a business event and your average Soho club night. But evidently, a few extra classes are needed by officials at Downing Street who fail to see any such distinction. Perhaps the work meetings these politicians are attending look more like deleted scenes from The Wolf of Wall Street, but for the vast majority of people, work events are exactly that — work. You’re there with your bosses and colleagues. You’re not drinking. Interactions are professional and distance is maintained between individuals. Ross Pike of Black Robin Exhibits writes, ‘Business events are essentially an extension of work life. But the word ‘event’ tends to trump the word ‘business’, and we get lumped in with the rest of leisure event organizer’s’. 

So why has the government neglected to make this distinction? Why haven’t business events been reintroduced, say in a test form to assess risk levels? Why haven’t officials recognized that the controlled setting of the work event is the perfect platform to begin tentatively reviving the events industry? 

At this very moment, hundreds of thousands of people working in the business events industry are sitting at home reorganizing their wardrobes for the 19th time, examining the intricacies of their bedroom wallpaper. These people could be back at work, scheduling and planning business events for clients, revitalizing a sluggish economy. Instead, they have to wait for nightclubs to reopen before organizing the next medical conference, which as we all know is bound to deteriorate into a scene of depraved promiscuity. 

Part of the problem is that business events occupy a logistical limbo. If you asked most people, they would tell you that work events are simply a subbranch of the larger, £70bn events industry — not according to the British government. If a hotel hosts a business conference, the revenue is attributed to the business events industry, right? Wrong — it goes under ‘hotels and similar accommodation’. If a sports club or stadium holds small events as a secondary income stream, the money would be counted as events capital, right? Wrong again — the UK government lumps that into ‘operations of sports facilities. 

What we have is a £30bn industry masquerading as pittance. An elephant in sheep’s clothing. 

The consequence of this categorization is that business events are just ‘events’. Rather than being viewed as an extension of office work, an extracurricular, off-location business meetings, they are treated in the same manner as night clubs and indoor parties. The UK government has focused primarily on the inside/outside distinction when making its rulings on restrictions. Outside = circulation of air, reduced risk. Inside = lesser airflow, increased threat of transmission. But business events are by far the most controllable of all events. Attendees can be easily tracked, as they have to sign in and out. There is no loud music — people can hear each other without breaking social distancing. 

While this decision is an oversight on the government’s part, it is in some way understandable. The media and government give attention primarily to what consumers care about, and the reality is that most business events hold little relevance for consumers. Sure, there is overlap for industries like automotive and tech, but for B2B events, it’s a fairly self-contained bubble of interest. As such, they are more easily overlooked and lumped over with the rest of the events. Alan Jenkins of exhibition contractor Quadrant2Design comments, ‘As a market sector we have often been set aside, belonging in part to the events industry and in part to the industry of the client we’re contracting for.’ But while this fractured identity may have been fairly harmless in the past, it’s now hindering businesses’ ability to recover. The media and government need to acknowledge the singular case of the business event and allow organizers to at least experiment with highly controlled, regulated events. They represent an opportunity to safely reintroduce economic growth at a time when such opportunities are few and far between. 


Theo Reilly is an independent writer and multilingual translator whose goal is to counteract stale writing in business blogs. Theo has particular interest in business and marketing-related matters surrounding the online world, web design, exhibitions and events.


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