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What operational and legal challenges will the events industry face in 2021 as we emerge from the pandemic?

‘A plan is nothing. Planning is everything’. So said the former US president and great wartime general Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower. At the beginning of 2020 most responsible event organisations would have had some kind of risk register and plans which included a pandemic or outbreak of infectious disease. It is a fair bet that none of these plans were dusted off last March because they were almost certainly out of date or irrelevant from day one. As is often said in military circles – no plan survives contact with the enemy. Ike’s point is that the key to dealing with a crisis is the ability to plan and not the plan itself. Vaccines notwithstanding, the events industry is nowhere near out of the woods yet, the pandemic and 2021 is bound to throw up surprises that were not in the script. There are now a number of well-established briefings and platforms where event professionals can keep themselves up to date not least from the trade associations. More useful perhaps is the commentary from the thousands of event professionals both in work and sadly now redundant, who post their personal commentary on platforms like LinkedIn. This provides a very useful sounding board. A positive point that consistently arises with any commentary on last year is the positivity and willingness to work across sectors and normal competitive boundaries that the events industry has shown in face of the challenge of the pandemic. 2020 stress tested the events business as never before. We are going to need to use that collective approach to face not only the aftermath of the pandemic but new regulatory, technical, and social challenges and opportunities that await us in the coming year.

Engaging with National and Local Government

The trade associations have been rightly praised for their relentless lobbying of governement particularly the Event Industry Alliance group of associations. We must be realistic however at what has been achieved. It is notable that elite sports, ‘the arts’ and some entertainment sectors have fared better in terms of engaging with the government and achieving financial support and permission to run some events. This is because they had the advantage of existing links such as sport’s engagement with the DCMS via the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA). It also helps if your event sector is packed with celebrities with massive followings on social media able to threaten the government with negative publicity. Event sectors such as the exhibitions industry has traditionally produced huge economic activity without the need for government assistance, external funding or any regulatory oversight outside the normal provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act. The question now is do we return to that or press for an established vehicle for engaging more effectively with government in future? The exhibitions industry should be careful what it wishes for in this regard. It does not want to get stuck with an engagement body with powers to regulate the industry as a quid pro quo. This is not far-fetched. The findings from the Martyn’s law enquiry are already throwing up signs that the government feels that the events industry requires more regulation. Item one on the ‘to do list’ at industry level for 2021 is to review what worked and what did not and to begin to reshape regulatory engagement with national government for the benefit of the industry in each sector.

Government engagement at local level is also going to be potentially problematic. As the last minute cancellation of the Southampton Boat Show by the city authorities demonstrated it is no use having agreement at national level if local authorities are empowered to act unilaterally. This was not an isolated incident and many other events were cancelled by local authorities. Item two should therefore be to press for a repeal of the so called Covid laws and in particular the Local authority powers to impose restrictions: Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No.3) 2020. Those with global portfolios need to start monitoring the direction of travel with these laws in host countries and whether they will remain on statute books beyond the pandemic. Even with vaccinations, Corona virus is certain to stay endemic to the global population like any other flu and there will be flare ups and clusters of cases. The events industry needs the confidence that local authorities with powers over events will not be spooked into cancelling events at the last minute unilaterally unless it is a genuinely serious threat to public health.

Martyn’s Law

The extent and scope of the planned new 'Martyn's Law' counter-terrorism legislation for all public venues and places in the UK was revealed at the public inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing last year. Ministers announced new 'Protect Duty' legislation in February 2020, although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed a period of public consultation. The legislation would be 'primary legislation’ (i.e with the same force as the Health and Safety at Work Act) to impose a duty upon those who ought to be responsible for the safety of the public when they are in a ‘publicly accessible location'. The inquiry was told a duty would be placed on the owners or operators of venues, or public places, to consider terror threats and methodologies, assess the impact attacks could have on them and put in place plans. Anything from small businesses to 'bridges in town centres' would be covered. It is salutary that a senior counter-terror police chief, deputy assistant commissioner Lucy D'Orsi, is quoted as saying that legislation would be 'transformational for the UK' and 'as impactive to protective security as GDPR has been for data handling'. Presumably she intended that to be a ringing endorsement but many will be alarmed by that comparison given GDPR’s associations with overreaching bureaucracy and cost. The big difference between safety and security duties is that safety risk can be entirely owned and managed by the event organisation as it is internal. Having a legal duty in criminal law to mitigate an external threat with no ownership of the external assets, like the Police, is an entirely different matter. It is unlikely, given the normal timetable for new law, that anything will become enacted in 2021 but this should be a priority for event industry engagement this year given that this could herald the biggest increase in duties on the event industry generally since the 1974 Act.

Review of Fire Safety Law

The Grenfell enquiry is currently paused due to the pandemic but the Government has already acted to publish the draft Building Safety Bill, which sets out a stringent new fire safety regime for higher risk residential buildings, backed by a powerful new Building Safety Regulator. As part of the package of reviews the call for evidence on the review of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) which regulates fire safety at work including venues and events has been completed. It is thus reasonable to assume that there will be developments in 2021. There was a high input from the enforcement community and fire safety professionals so quite predictably the summary of evidence published calls for a tightening of the law. Event companies may want to take particular note of the proposal to tighten the accountability and the competence requirements of the ‘Responsible Person’*. The law requires the nomination of such a person for each premises and by extension for events. It is reasonable to assume that compliance requirements and associated costs will rise but whilst this may become clear in 2021 it is unlikely to come into force this year. Notwithstanding, the events industry needs to engage with this process. The fire safety industry understands buildings but does not understand events. We need to ensure that draft new law does not impose impractical and unnecessarily burdensome regulations on an already struggling industry. Senior event professionals should also note that the combination of Martyn’s law and the ramping up of accountabilities of the ‘Responsible Person’ collectively place a considerable additional burden of accountability on senior event staff.

Erosion of the Contractor Base

Whilst it is event organisers and venues that are the more visible side of the industry, events can only be built and run with the support of a vast army of contactors and freelance labour. In the current financial climate, contractors cannot afford to continue to underwrite part of the organiser’s risk by being paid in arrears and risk not being paid if the event is cancelled. During the pandemic, many have found alternative income streams and many individuals who worked as freelancers have found full time jobs and will not be in a hurry to put their livelihoods at the mercy of market forces in the short term, if ever again. Although in theory the contractor base is still there, it is heavily reliant on self-employed freelancers who, whilst they might still be on the books, may be unwilling or unable to show up once the call goes out. The problem may be exacerbated by double counting with single freelancers being on the books of many different contractors. It is going to be very hard to determine exactly what the state of play is until it comes to actually placing contracts since contractors or freelancers will all (understandably) state they are ready, willing and able in principle up to the point when contractual commitments need to be made.

This reality has already hit home for the summer festivals sector that needs to be planning events and placing contracts now. Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS committee has written to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, urging him to extend government-backed insurance schemes to festivals and live music events or face them disappearing for good. This followed a presentation by the Association of Independent Festivals to the DCMS select committee that pointed out that with the commercial insurance market not expected to offer Covid-related insurance until 2022, a government-backed scheme is required for festivals to start planning their events and signing contracts with artists and suppliers.

The problem may be particularly acute in the event safety sector. Safety qualified professionals have easily transferable skills and many have already moved away from events and taken fulltime or contracted roles in other industries such as TV, film and construction work. Some have ‘crossed to the dark side’ to work in enforcement. As the industry is allowed back, it is likely to be under increased scrutiny from the regulatory authorities so we will need our safety teams. One way organisers can alleviate this issue is by getting their own staff qualified. Many may be surprised to learn how many employees have done so by paying out of their own pocket during the lockdown.

New and Emerging Technology

Much has been speculated about the ‘new normal’ post pandemic, usually centred around working from home and the increase of virtual forms of communication. It may transpire, however, that having destruction tested the work from home concept, sociology not technology will dominate and the shift to the virtual may not be as dramatic as many suppose. In the case of events, more people working from home either permanently or part time, will surely drive the need for more live events when they can meet in person. This may be particularly so in the B2B sector where the loss of office society and the chance to network will drive the demand for business events and perhaps even increase it. We should harness our new found collective nous begin to look beyond the pandemic at what new emerging technologies can offer. Far from replacing events it is quite possible that on line event activity will enhance and even grow certain event sectors.

Welfare and Mental Wellbeing

The events industry was already burning the candle at both ends with event operations staff and this issue was building to a head before the pandemic. A consistent strand of dialogue throughout the lockdown has been the recognition that the industry needs to change its ways regarding the welfare and mental wellbeing of its employees and freelance workforce. It would be tempting to speculate that with event jobs in short supply right now, that the industry will be overwhelmed with applicants and freelancers when events return, but will it? A great deal of confidence has been lost in the events industry being able to provide a living and a viable career and the point will not be lost on students who might have thought of the industry as a potential career. How many potential university applicants this year will be ticking event management next to their choice of degree? Add stress, long hours, long breaks from home and let’s face it relatively poor pay at junior level and the glitz and glamour that many students believe awaits them does not look so bright. Once the jobs have been created event companies need to have proper safeguards in place particularly for operations staff with regard to day to day welfare and pay far more attention the welfare of the freelancers on whom they rely.

And in conclusion:

The war against the pandemic is out of our hands. It will be won; it is just a question of when. But like all wars, between the fighting and peace lies post conflict reconstruction and that is the tricky part. It is often the part that the victors fail to plan for and plan we must. COVID-19 and, presumably, a string of future mutations is with us to stay and that will cause numerous and unpredictable outbreaks of hostilities against the virus before it lives quietly among the general population. A combination of a wary public and jittery government agencies will mean that that even when mass herd immunity through vaccination has been achieved the risk will need to be managed for the rest of this year and the years to come. Employees and former employees will need to be persuaded that there is a future for them in events. The trade associations have done an excellent job in providing platforms for discussion but these need to be more than an echo chamber for a currently diminishing work force. The industry needs to reach out well beyond the large companies and the trade associations to the growing army of disenfranchised event professionals who have no formal voice but are making their feelings very clear on social media platforms and in the less established discussion forums. Going forwards we need robust engagement with governments to show that we understand how to manage risk at events so that we are allowed to get on with it without impractical and unnecessary burdensome regulation getting in the way. We also need a vision of how to use new and emerging technologies to enhance our events.

The benefits of live events are obvious not just in sports and entertainment but in trade exhibitions where the return on investment remains higher that almost any other platform for a swiftly expanding sales pipeline. Live events are happening in countries such as China, Japan, Singapore Russia and Turkey. In conclusion, it is worth quoting Phil Soar, chairman of CloserStill Group and 19 Events for this rallying cry in recently published in EN:

The first trade shows were run in Frankfurt and Leipzig in 1240, when those cities received charters from the Holy Roman Emperor to run annual fairs. They have run ever since, and the fundamental principles of trade shows have never changed. They have survived wars, pestilences showers of frogs, floods, the Black Death, Spanish Flu and even Brexit. They were not replaced by Guttenberg’s printing press, not radio, nor TV not social media and they will continue as they have for eight centuries.

Showers of frogs may seem a little fanciful but remember Ike’s wise words and do not entirely discount it!

*There is no Responsible Person per se in Scottish fire safety law as fire safely law is devolved and differs from the RRO.