Business conferences and trade events are crucial cogs in the turning wheels of the North East’s economy. However, with the impact of COVID-19 dramatically skewing the traditional meetings landscape, operators have had to adapt. But what does this new world look like and how can the region maintain its strong position in the lucrative commercial conferencing environment to ensure personal connectivity remains strong, skill development continues, and businesses and industry sectors maintain their momentum? Steven Hugill speaks to Paul Szomoru, director of business events at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, to find out more

NewcastleGateshead Initiative

Perhaps it was an omen.

As the final seconds of 2019 gave way to the colour and optimism of 2020, London’s expensive New Year fireworks display – broadcast to millions across the country – was a somewhat inauspicious affair.

With heavy smoke obscuring the pyrotechnics’ vibrancy, onlookers were treated to a rather indistinct start to the year for a country seeking much-needed political clarity.

The capital’s skies cleared quickly enough, but the hazy feeling has never really left.

Back in January, the fug felt like an ironic metaphor for Brexit confusion.

Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic hanging heavy in the air, the miasma almost appeared like a forewarning to the blurred world heading our way.

Usually, it’s New Year resolutions that fail to make it past March.

This time, however, it was our entire way of life.

Back in those early hours of 2020, Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls were still relatively small vehicles in the everyday communication highway, with the home-working and home- schooling domains occupied by the comparative few.

Theatres, music venues and cinemas were still honeypots for joyous gatherings and celebrations, and sporting arenas echoed to the beats of boisterous spectators.

Business conferences, forums, trade shows, exhibitions and networking events remained with tradition too, with their various platforms offering individuals face-to-face interaction.

Today, though, the environment is altogether different.

With tactility having given way to virtual connectivity, the need for strong lines of communication has perhaps never been so important.

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the world of business and commerce, a sphere built upon personal relationships that catalyse new deals, develop innovative thinking, create knowledge clusters and bolster skills.

But with COVID-19 having substantially changed the landscape around conventional and digital contact, how can the industry maintain its momentum?

The answer, says Paul Szomoru, director of business events at destination marketing organisation NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI), will be an amalgam of the two.

“I’ve seen and heard large corporate companies say they’re not going to have any face-to-face meetings until June next year at the earliest,” he says, “but associations have a strong desire to want to meet again to deliver knowledge exchange and to work successfully going forward.

“In the medium-term, I think we’re going to see a hybrid model become very prominent, wherein you will have a live event that also has online virtual content for those that can’t attend.

“We’ll also see networks of local hubs that allow people to come together and meet in a room – you could have a speaker live in Newcastle for part of an event, and another live in Liverpool for the other part, for example.

“In turn, they will be linked digitally to hubs around the country, or around the world if it is an international event,” continues Paul.

“It won’t be possible for people to travel globally ‘as normal’ for some time, so I think the hub network will become very important for international collaboration and business.

“It will be a blend of the best of both worlds.”

For Paul, finding a workable solution to the connectivity conundrum sits at the heart of NGI’s work.

A non-profit, public and private partnership, NGI champions Newcastle and Gateshead – and the wider North East – to national and global audiences.

Focused on driving economic development, it works with 170 partners – from large companies to SMEs – to promote the area as a place to live, learn, invest, work and visit, with attracting business conventions and conferences one of its key areas of activity.

“Business events are worth around £150 million a year in direct expenditure to Newcastle and Gateshead alone, and they attract around one million people a year,” reveals Paul.

“Our team has a lot of knowledge and expertise around things such as venues, hotels and service providers, which are crucial elements in bringing an event to the region.

“We work closely with Visit Britain and international networks to identify business events we want to bring here that align with the key sector strengths of the region, such as offshore wind, ageing, medical science, digital and automotive.

“If we attract national and international audiences of key influential people from these sectors, and they have a wonderful and successful time and see what we offer first- hand, that leads to increased trade, inward investment, sales, collaboration and partnerships.

“The benefits are huge.”

So vital in showcasing the area’s innovative culture to new audiences, business meetings and conventions also bolster the financial health of accommodation providers, restaurants, pubs and artistic venues, which says Paul, given the impact of COVID-19, ascribes importance to their delivery like never before.

A crucial element in ensuring their continuation, he adds, will be NGI’s Conference Ambassador Programme.

Administered via the organisation’s Convention Bureau – which offers impartial advice and support to help key academics, professionals, researchers and business figures bid for, and deliver, major events across Newcastle and Gateshead – the programme actively feeds connectivity.

Going forward, Paul says its significance is only going to intensify.

“These people are leaders in their respective fields,” he says, “they are shining stars and we work with them to bring events here, which boosts the profile and reputation of the city and region.

“In any occupation, people who work in the same sectors like to talk to each other – to grow networks, share knowledge, debate and challenge developments – that is how professions get better.

“By having events and conferences where leaders can come together, we can overcome barriers to professional development. “They help boost skills and understanding, which only benefits companies across our region.

Paul continues: “By attending these events, people are experiencing things first-hand and are inspired by those in the same room as them; it is so much better when you can talk to each other and engage in the content live, rather than watching a presentation two days later on your computer.

“They also have a major impact on emerging talent, particularly students across further and higher education. If the event is here, on your doorstep, it’s so much more affordable and accessible.”

If the Convention Bureau bring events to the area and fuses together like-minded individuals, then Paul says another development is primed to deliver an “epic game-changer” moment for the region’s reputation.

The £260 million Gateshead Quays development – set for land overlooking the River Tyne between the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Sage Gateshead – is planned to open in 2023.

Billed as an international conference and exhibition centre – and projected to pump £85 million into the region’s economy every year by attracting an extra 390,000 visitors annually – bosses say it will include a 12,500-capacity arena, two hotels, bars, restaurants and other public spaces.

Furthermore, they say it will have capacity to host up to 2000 delegates, with 6300 sq metres of exhibition space and various flexible meeting spaces – designed to cater for a myriad of events – complemented by 1350 sq metres of outdoor space.

“We have a massive ace up our sleeves with Gateshead Quays,” enthuses Paul.

“We are going to be able to host events and conferences in a completely different way and on a completely different scale.

“It is going to get us noticed globally, and what is also extremely important with Gateshead Quays is that it is being developed for a post-COVID-19 world,” he adds.

“The partnership bringing it to fruition are examining the technologies we are so good at in this region, to ensure the development corresponds to our changing lives.”

However, while Gateshead Quays symbolises the long-term potential for the region’s live events sector, the market’s present- day situation – owing to COVID-19 – remains precarious, a position, Paul says, that NGI is working tirelessly to remedy.

Spotlighting the huge financial boon delivered by conferences and business meetings, he highlights #ItsTyneToMeetAgain, a campaign launched by NGI in early October to re- stoke the fires of the events space.

“The impact events have on the economy is massive – a large conference needs multiple venues, which means you could, for example, hold your main event at St James’ Park, a welcome reception at the Baltic and a formal dinner at the Discovery Museum,” says Paul.

“But the world of live events is on a cliff-edge and we are having to adapt on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

“To help us do that, we are running #ItsTyneToMeetAgain, a campaign created by the business events community here, with content captured on smart phones by frontline people working in the sector.

“We’ve had a phenomenal response from national bodies and clients to the videos and content we’ve captured in partnership with our brilliant hotels, venues and service providers in the city region.

“Uncertainty is the biggest danger to the live events sector, so it is vital we work together to build business confidence and show confidence as a region.

“Live events are something that can be held very safely,” adds Paul.

“We can cap attendance numbers, monitor when people arrive and leave, and know where they are coming from – there are already teams of qualified professionals who can do that job very well.

“During these times, operators need reassurance more than ever.”

Paul’s last point chimes with another of NGI’s key focus areas in the COVID-19 landscape: help for SMEs afflicted by the pandemic’s impact on trade.

To this end, the organisation is backing Citylife Business Support.

Funded via £1.5 million Capacity Fund cash from the North of Tyne Combined Authority, the free scheme allows SMEs to tap into regional business leaders’ knowledge and expertise to increase resilience and innovation.

“People are fighting for their futures in the business events sector,” says Paul.

“It is heart-breaking to see because there are people that have given their lives to building very successful businesses who are now in jeopardy through no fault of their own.

“We are working hard with Newcastle and Gateshead councils to help businesses through this, and Citylife – which is also supported by Business &
IP Centre Newcastle, the EU Regional Development Fund and the Great Exhibition of the North GX Project – sign-posts information, generates intelligence and lobbies Government.

“The days of live conferences and events are not consigned to history, but we need to do more to help operators, and that includes Government support.

“Anything that is going to help is really important because if we start to lose talent and skills in this region, there is a real risk that they could never return.”