How has the UK’s capital city become the home of technology events?
Shane Hannam, Portfolio Director of IBTM Events, sat down with Tracy Halliwell, MBE, the Director of Tourism, Conventions and Major Events for London & Partners, to discuss her life, her work and the events industry.
Discover everything from where London’s tech focus began to Tracy’s favourite restaurant in the capital in the first interview of our brand new IBTM Meets series.
Also, if you would prefer to read the interview instead of watch it, you can do so here:
Hello everyone and welcome to IBTM Meets: a series of interviews with people from across our industry sector.
My name is Shane Hannam, Portfolio Director for IBTM Events, and I’m joined here today with Tracy Halliwell MBE who is the Director of Tourism, Conventions and Major Events at London and & Partners.
Shane: Tracy, welcome and hello. It’s great to have you here. so much for joining us today albeit virtually.
Obviously, the aim of today is that we’re looking to catch up with you and just have an informal chat around things like your career to date, how you arrived at London & Partners, maybe some thoughts around the industry – how we emerge from the crisis we’re currently in – and potentially looking forward to what the future may hold.
So, we have a series of questions we’ve prepared and, if it’s okay with you, we’ll kick off. So, firstly, tell us about your career journey and how you arrived where you are.
Tracy: I decided to do a degree in hotel and catering management because I thought it sounded like a really fun thing to do. I got rejected for a number of psychology courses so I couldn’t do those, so ended up in the hotel world and it’s been 20 years in hotels. I had a fabulous time traveling the world, or with sales and marketing, but always touching on hospitality and meetings and events.
It was only when I had my first child that I thought, actually, I don’t want to go back and do ridiculous hours in the hotel world anymore, I’d like to do something different. This opportunity came along to go into destination sales and who wouldn’t want to do that? So, I joined London & Partners back in 2006 and haven’t looked back since.
I’ve loved it and I don’t think I ever want to go back to anything else in terms of hotels or hospitality. I love the industry but working on a destination side is just so much fun because you get to see all sides of the business, particularly on the MICE side. It’s been good fun journey to get here but always in hospitality, always hotels, always meetings and events and latterly, as I said, a destination.
Shane: Great, that sounds fantastic and I think, like most of us, we stumble across this industry – the business events or MICE industry, and indeed travel and tourism – and I think we kind of fall into it and we love it so much. It’s almost a bit of an addiction and people end up spending so much time in the industry so it’s glad to see you’re in that boat as well. I know I certainly am!
Okay, now maybe a bit more about the destination itself. How did London carve its niche to be known as what really is the home of technology events?
Tracy: That’s quite a long but interesting story. I suppose, if I think about it, we really started back in 2008-9 when you had a bunch of really smart, really clever people who were coming out of the corporate world and starting to set up their own digital companies or tech companies.
They’d all started to find this cheap office space around the Old Truman Brewery in London, which later became known as the Silicon Roundabout, and all of that startup community really got going kind of 2008-2009.
That was followed up by David Cameron actually; when he was a prime minister, he came along and said “I love this whole burgeoning sector we’ve got here” and he created an umbrella around it which was really Tech City. He created a lot of areas of policy and taxation issues just to push that whole innovation economy.
Some amazing companies came out of that – Skype and Mind Candy and Unruly – some big names of companies. That tech sector has continued to grow and grow and grow in London and I think at the last count we had somewhere in the region of 240,000 people employed in tech. So, suddenly you’ve got this huge sectoral expertise.
Back in 2012 probably, we just had the Olympics and we were starting to understand how events can really underpin economic growth in a city and the leverage of events and the fact that everything they leave behind can be quite amazing.
So, we took a look at that the tech sector and this is just an amazing story. Events tell stories and they create reasons for people to come to study, to invest, to grow, and to hold meetings. We figured that, actually, tech and digital is a really great space to be and where better to do it with all of the expertise we had: we had the delegates, we had everything else.
So, we had this idea to create our own festival of tech events. I think, at the time, it was also quite difficult for a destination to keep continuously winning bids and London has never been a city that has subvention funding. It’s not the cheapest destination in the world so, rather than keep bidding for things, we thought we would create our own.
In 2014, the first London Tech Week was born. We worked with UBM initially. We’re not event producers but we could facilitate and we could bring the right people to the table. So, with UBM we created London Tech Week 2014 and I think, in that first year, we had something like 200 events. We attracted about 20-30,000 people and over the years it’s gradually grown.
Last year was amazing. We had 58,000 delegates coming to one event or another. There were over 300 events across the city and they were everything from fireside chats to big investor conferences. Then throughout the year on an average year, London, outside of London Tech Week, we will do probably somewhere the reason of 150 odd other tech or digital meetings because people are coming because of their expertise and knowledge. They’re coming to learn from their peers, they’re coming because they’ve got a delegate base already here. Also, there is a huge population of students that are studying relevant courses so there’s this whole ecosystem that really works.
People come to London and they have a tech event or they attend a tech event and they always take something away with them, which then helps to grow. So, on the back of an event, we’ve also been able to grow London’s expertise and reputation as well as the tech centre of the world which is phenomenal.
Shane: Well, that’s a great story indeed. for sharing that and, continuing that theme with the destination, what makes London an ideal host city to bring in major events and conventions?
Tracy: I think it comes down to connectivity. It’s so easy to get to London from anywhere in the world with direct flights coming from so many different worldwide destinations. It’s always been seen as the springboard to Europe so, for the long-haul destinations who want to come and experience the European side of it.
Language: I think the fact that English is the language of business. If we speak English here, any delegate doesn’t have to worry about two or three different languages when they’re coming in.
We’ve also got the ecosystem in terms of 140,000 hotel bedrooms in London, which is probably one of the biggest hotel offerings outside of Las Vegas. We’ve also got venues; we’ve got 3,500 venue spaces in London from small to big – we’ve got the Excel Centre which has got the big ICC there – we’ve got everything of all sizes.
I think the fact that we’ve got 8 million people that live in and around London or in Greater London, that means you’ve got a pull of people who are going to attend exhibitions. They’re going to attend conferences and, because London is a global business city, it’s one of those places that people will come to an event because they can do other business when they’re in town as well.
We find that any big global meeting that happens in London, we always get a delegate uplift on the previous year and we always tend to have a higher proportion of Asian attendees, I think because they feel comfortable in London and it’s a place where they’re doing other business. So, companies do find that the draw of people from all over the world is very high when you bring an event to London.
A combination of all of those things makes it a good global city for meetings and events.
Shane: I have to say, having called London home for over 20 years, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a wonderful place to work and live, that’s for sure. I hear those some potentially exciting news regarding even further innovation in London with a new event concept which is coming soon. What can you tell us about this?
Tracy: I can’t tell you too much otherwise have to shoot you! What I can say is: we always thought after the success of London Tech Week – and there are some amazing things that are showcased at Tech Week – how could you bring that into the consumer world? How could you share some of that great content with a consumer audience?
We’d always had that at the back of our mind. Then that little thing called Brexit starts to happen and we started to think about how we could make sure that London was still relevant in the world.
One of the big expertises that London and the rest of the UK has is this amazing innovative event sector. We are home to some of the most innovative companies in terms of AI and VR and data technology and security and health tech. There’s so much happening in that data and digital world. All of the things that humans worry about or get excited about, a lot of that stuff is being thought about and created and envisioned in London.
So, we then put those two together and thought ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to do a big consumer festival that starts to think about what it is to be a human?’ and how could London play in that? So, using London as a playground to showcase some amazing stuff. So, think about a kind of an urban Burning Man, I suppose, is a vision!
We’ve been working on this for a while now but our hope is that we could launch that next year. So, fingers crossed, depending on what’s happening in the world and whether people are willing to travel to events and festivals, that will be coming so keep your eyes open for that one.
Shane: Great, I can’t wait to hear that. Keep us posted for sure and maybe that’s another conversation for IBTM meets further down the road! Sounds very very exciting. Okay, we’re going to change tack slightly now and we would like to know a little bit about your thoughts around London so what’s special to you. What’s your favourite restaurant in London?
Tracy: Well I did have an answer for that one but, sadly, it’s not there anymore. My favourite restaurant in London always was a fabulous restaurant called Les Trois Garcons which was over in East London. It was just the most amazing… it was more the ambience and it was run by three men who were interior designers and fashionistas and the whole restaurant was full of curiosities and you just couldn’t get through there without being amazed by all the stuff that was around you and the food was also very good.
Sadly, that one’s no longer there so I’m gonna plump for a different avenue altogether. So, one of the other things that London is really quite cool at is things like Secret Cinema and immersive experiences and all that stuff and we’ve got an amazing one called the Chamber of Flavours.
Every year, they come out with a new series of the Chamber of Flavours and it’s a secret dining experience so you don’t know until the day before where you’re gonna go. But, you book your experience in advance and you get given instructions the day before about when you’re supposed to be there and you get told what to wear and where to turn up and you go through this… All I can say is that it’s like theatrical dining. They do lunch and dinner and you go through this experience having your different courses in a different environment, let’s put it that way, so I’ve done that two or three times now and that is quite amazing.
Shane: Sounds fantastic! One I need to add to my list quite clearly. Just another question: if we were arriving in London for the first time, never visited the city before, what’s one activity would you encourage us to undertake?
Tracy: I always answer this one by telling people to get on the river. If you take just a trip on a clipper, or if you do a bateau dining experience, or you can do paddle boarding, you can do a rib tour but you see so much more of London from the river in a fairly short space of time. I think it’s only then that you really get to experience the vastness that is London and the different elements of London. I think it’s a great way of doing it so I will say, whatever it is, just go on the river and experience it from there. You can even tour ships on the river – you can do all sorts of things!
Shane: Absolutely, I’ve done that many times myself while living very near the river. I think the other thing is that it’s probably the quickest way to get around sometimes within the city so that’s another advantage of using the boats for sure.
Now let’s talk maybe a little bit about the MBE. What was it like when you heard about the MBE and how did you find out?
Tracy: I just literally got home one day and there was a letter with a big ER written on the front and my first thought was ‘oh my god I’ve been summoned to court for something’ and I open this letter and it just said that ‘you can’t tell anybody but would you like to accept the Member of the British Empire’. I was so taken aback I couldn’t speak for a few minutes, not that I was allowed to tell anybody anyway!
It was in 2014. You have to sit on it for a good three or four months and you can’t tell anybody. So, of course, I said yes, I’d like to have it. My investiture was at Windsor Castle and it was actually with Prince William, so that was amazing and I was able to take my whole family. My daughters at the time were quite young, they were probably 10 and 12 or maybe a bit younger, so it was a great time for them to be there as well.
As I got to Prince William, he did – and there were around 60-70 people at this investiture – and he speaks to each and every one of them; he has a conversation with you. And he said: ‘oh I understand that you’re responsible for bringing thirty thousand heart specialists’ and he was talking about the European Society of Cardiology meeting, and my mouth just dropped open and I went: ‘how did you know that?’ and he said: ‘oh, I mean, I’ve done my homework’. So it was amazing for each and every one of us; he knew a little bit about who we were and what we done.
Then we just had a conversation about tourism in London and I apologized for clogging up Kensington Palace and all the rest of it and that was it. Then we did a tour of the castle and my daughter at the time – she was the little one and I think she was about eight – we were in the throne room and she took one look at it and said ‘can I?’ and I said “no, no, no, you can’t do that’ and one of the guards in the palace just said ‘go on then, quick’. She ran down to the front to sit on the Queen’s throne and we weren’t allowed to take pictures anything else but that was amazing. She’ll remember it forevermore, the day she was able to sit on the Queen’s throne at Windsor Castle. I think that was better than the badge I got, actually!
Shane: Sounds like a very unforgettable experience for not just you but the family as well, that’s great. Just finally, one more question I think we have time for. What do you think potentially the future holds for both your perspective and that of the destination and London & Partners?
Tracy: We’ve obviously changed our business planning quite dramatically. One of the first things we did was we London Virtually. We created a Virtually London website, which is actually a lot of fun because you can visit London and spend time with us without actually leaving your front room.
You can feed some animals at the zoo, you can go behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum, and you can take in a concert at the Opera House, all of those great things. We’ve now morphed that into a Virtually on the Convention Bureau website so any of our partners who have got virtual footage we’re showcasing on there. I think that’s something we should have had anyway. This fast-tracked a lot of the digital expertise that we need to use so I think we’ll be a lot more digital in the future.
We’ve all learned to cope so well with videoconferencing and zooming and all the rest of it that, again, it was going to come anyway so what we’ve done is we’ve just fast-tracked a lot of stuff that would have come.
I think a lot of companies were starting to think about their carbon footprints and everything so it’s just made us rethink who we are and what we do. A lot of our venues are starting to make sure they’ve got video conferencing facilities, that they’ve got all that stuff, and they’re also upping all of the hygiene and the safety and thermal imaging scanning machines. All of this stuff is all now being looked at.
I think I think the future is going to be brighter than we perhaps think it is going to be now.
I think hybrid meetings will definitely be a thing of the future but I think, for London, my hope is that we’re still a global event city. We’ll be one of the hybrid meeting venues, even if you now do something in London, Paris and in New York, instead of all in London or all in Paris. I think you’ll find a lot more of that where we link up different audiences around the world.
I think we’re a resilient bunch in the meetings industry, and particularly in London, it’s such a huge part of who we are and what we do. I can’t see it ever going away. I think we’ll just have to get cleverer and more innovative and more creative about how we do things.
There are now things like drive-in cinemas and Pub-in-a-Box – all sorts of really fun things that are coming out of it. I think a lot of that will stay and we’ll use it and morph it into the future.
For London & Partners, we’ll have much more of a focus on the domestic local market for a little bit. We haven’t really done much of that; we’ve been very internationally focused. I think now the time is right to concentrate on London and Londoners first, so we’re working on programs about how we can get Londoners to get out and back spending money in the economy which is then going to help to show the world that London is back up and running.
We’re still not taking our eye off the ball of international business and we are taking inquiries. There are inquiries coming through both for the back end of this year and into next year and beyond so I think the future is fine.
I think it’s just this short term: how do we change our business models and react to things? We have some great partners and some great innovative event companies in London who are working on exactly that.
Shane: Okay, thank you very much for sharing that Tracy, great insight indeed.
Well, that concludes the interview today. So, again, Tracy, a massive thank you for joining us. That was really good fun and some really great insightful answers into both your journey and also that of the destination.
I look forward to meeting you again very soon, hopefully face to face. So, thank you and good bye.
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