Brexit was a hot topic at C&IT’s debut State of the Industry MDs dinner, held in partnership with Cvent at The Savoy London on Wednesday night (29 June), with leaders from 20 agencies in attendance.
MDs and directors from agencies including Capita Travel & Events, AddingValue, First Protocol, Absolute Corporate Events, Top Banana, Crown, drp, Smyle, BCD Meetings & Events, TRO, Grass Roots Meetings & Events, Worldspan and The fresh Group, BI Worldwide, Worldspan, Green & Pleasant, The Appointment Group, Banks Sadler and cievents, took part in three roundtable debates over dinner.
Crown MD Nicky Havelaar predicted: "There will be a period of uncertainty where clients will postpone events or simply not invest in them."
Others are already seeing an impact. First Protocol MD Mark Riches said the agency’s US office had seen several pieces of business postpone since the leave vote. "In New York, we've seen $100,000 of business postponed. Some of it was into London and some of it was activity on the East Coast and I think what's driving that is expenditure. Do we need to spend this $100,000 now or shall we just put a pause on that so we can see what happens next?"
Meanwhile, Absolute Corporate Events MD Chris Parnham said he has had two clients based on both sides the channel change their plans due to concern that they will not feel welcome.
"We have a UK group that was planning to go to Europe but have changed their mind as a result of the vote. We also have another European client that was planning to come to the UK but are now looking elsewhere in Europe, despite the favourable exchange rates meaning lower prices over here," he commented.
On the flip side, Smyle MD Rick Stainton said: "One of our clients said they want to host more events as a result in order to get in front of their staff and clients to reassure them live, rather than doing it digitally."
Riches said the agency had already delivered a client event on Brexit. "Since friday, we had an event confirmed in our clients offices and it took place yesterday. They decided to do an event for their top clients on Brexit."
Business as usual
The agency bosses agreed that as no-one knows what the future holds, it’s very much business as usual at the moment, and although some events will be postponed, there may be an increased need for companies to engage their staff with live events.
TRO MD Michael Wyrley-Birch said: "There has never been a more urgent time to show leadership and direction. Incentives have become more important than ever, post-Brexit."
Grass Roots Meetings & Events director Giselle Ripken added: "We believe that face-to-face is the thing that solves problems and yes, budgets will be cut, but what clients will do is focus the right people coming together to solve whatever their business needs are.
"They have got to continue to do business, so its how we focus ourselves and we have to stay close to our clients and adapt. It won't be the same events that we've been used to – they will be quite serious, and our responses will probably be a little less flamboyant as a result."
Many of the MDs said they had taken the time to talk to and reassure their own staff but could not make any guarantees about the long-term as the leave vote and lack of clarity about what's next and when the UK actually leave the EU is making it virtually impossible to forecast.
"As leaders, we need to demonstrate a level head as flapping won’t help. The challenge for us is also to recognise where the opportunities might lie. Yes, we need to steady the ship, but we need to be alert and can’t be afraid to capitalise on opportunities as they arise," said The fresh Group MD Patrick Howells. "We all employ people who are essentially relying on us for their livelihood and thats what keeps us awake at night, so don't get left behind."
Several agencies with global bases talked about the emotions of shifting HQ. For those with European offices within the EU, discussions were already underway regarding repositioning the other office as the HQ rather than the one back in Britain.
In terms of sectors, agencies agreed that while much of the focus has been on the impact on financial services, construction is one that is likely to suffer in the short term.
"Construction involves big investment decisions, so that sector is really worried," said Parnham. "I think what's changed since last week is that any serious investment decisions will be put on hold because the future is now cloudy and people don't invest serious money unless they can predict the future. It's like a veil has been dropped, and we now don't know whats going to happen tomorrow, next week, or next year."
Stainton believes the sector has learned important lessons from the recession, which could help ride out the storm ahead.
"We prepared over time to have a balance of clients in a balance of sectors in order to be nimble and now we are best prepared to deal with a changing market. Most agencies have done this since the recession," he said.
"The recession is similar in some ways to Brexit because there is the question about confidence across business and consumer spend. If you’ve prepared for this the same way as post-recession then you should be better placed to ride the disruption and evolving landscape."
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