Business tourism in the West Midlands represents a quarter of all domestic visits to the region – and accounts for almost half of all international visitors. The government’s confirmation that pilots at meetings venues can now take place, ahead of a resumption of full conferences and exhibitions from 1 October, gives the sector much-needed clarity and time to prepare, says Stephanie Mynett from the West Midlands Convention Bureau.

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From the Lunar Society’s informal, yet hugely influential 18th century get-togethers to present-day, life-changing life sciences congresses, the West Midlands has made its mark as a meetings powerhouse.

Such is the area’s reputation as a conferencing capital that Birmingham consistently features as the top regional destination in leading industry rankings such as the British Meetings & Events Industry Survey (BMEIS). Coventry, Stratford-upon-Avon and Wolverhampton also received positive endorsements in this year’s listing. 

In short, the business tourism sector is big business for the West Midlands.

Not only does our region’s connectivity, breadth of venues and abundance of bed spaces help us to attract the highest proportion of business visits of all UK areas, the sector contributes significantly to our £12.6 billion visitor economy. 

So you don’t have to be Matthew Boulton or Erasmus Darwin to appreciate the huge challenges presented by the global coronavirus pandemic for our industry. For the first time in the West Midlands Convention Bureau’s near 40-year history, it has halted the way we travel, meet people and host events.

I lead a small team of born and bred West Midlanders at the Bureau. Together, we love shouting about the region and working as a trusted partner alongside accommodation, venue and transport suppliers to put on memorable events.

I couldn’t be prouder of our region’s efforts to step up and react to the virus since March.

Prominent event spaces including the NEC and Edgbaston Stadium have shown their versatility to become an NHS Nightingale hospital and drive-through NHS staff-testing centre. Others, including the Birmingham REP and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, have supported the community by creating and donating PPE.

During the height of the virus, we have used different methods to reach our audiences, such as virtual, worldwide exhibitions with VisitEngland and tourism roundtables with industry leaders. We continue to share relevant insights and updates with our partners via our newsletters and digital channels.

The Prime Minister’s announcement last week to confirm conferences and exhibitions can recommence from 1 October was heartening news for a sector desperately needing clarity. Providing the infection rate stays at a manageable level, it gives our venues a date to work towards. Some are already able to host events for up to 30 people following an update to visitor economy guidance released by the Government, and others will work with DCMS to host pilot events to test social distancing practices. This is an important milestone in the resumption of a sector which is worth nearly £33 billion to the UK each year.

As Boris Johnson acknowledged, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and – together with my Bureau colleagues – I have been out and about across the West Midlands to show support for our partner venues. Throughout my meetings so far, I have witnessed the enthusiasm, innovation and resilience of our partners in rising to the challenge and adapting to new ways of working. Head to our web and social media channels for images, videos and vox pops showing some of the changes made by our events spaces.

Nearly 1,000 of our hospitality businesses have also signed up to VisitEngland’s ‘We’re Good to Go’ consumer mark. It shows their commitment to visitors’ health and wellbeing and gives organisers and delegates the confidence that they have the correct protocols in place.

As well as maintaining our existing relationships, we continue to work on bids to host events next year and beyond, as the West Midlands approaches an exciting time in its history.

We are ready to tell our story to the world, with major international milestones on the horizon including the UK City of Culture in Coventry and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Together with the Conservative Party’s decision to return to Birmingham in 2022, 2024 and 2026 and infrastructure projects such as HS2 picking up speed, they put us in a strong position to lead the UK’s economic recovery.

The battle against the coronavirus is far from over, and it is imperative that our industry continues to receive financial support from government to ensure our business tourism organisations and staff can thrive in challenging times.

When 1 October arrives, we look forward to welcoming the world back to the West Midlands with a new, innovative way of working, just as the world welcomed the innovation of our Lunar Society luminaries more than 200 years ago.