Business events can drive social change – Paul Szomoru

Paul Szomoru is director of tourism and business events at the NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI). As part of English Tourism Week, Paul has penned a comment piece on the relationship with business events and corporate social responsibility

It’s natural to associate the word ‘business’ with pound signs. We may think of profitability and commerce when we talk about business. So, when we talk about the impact of bringing business events into the region, our default position is to consider the economic impact – the jobs created and the conference delegates who stay overnight and spend time and money visiting our city.

But the impact of business events can be far greater than this.

The concept of CSR (corporate social responsibility) is nothing new. Businesses have been delivering CSR programmes for a long time now, whether that be through directly funding a charity or allowing staff to spend a paid day volunteering in the local community.

I’d argue that the concept of CSR as part of business events, however, is still largely untapped.

Perhaps this is because it’s not immediately obvious how this can work in practice.

What I’m not talking about here is encouraging conference organisers to incorporate a random community volunteering session into their event itineraries (although to be fair, it could be quite a good delegate experience!)

The ways in which conference organisers can drive social change is by thinking about what impact their event could have on the local community. What’s the content and overall purpose of the event? Who are the speakers and audience that might be coming here from across the world? And how can we make the most of this influential audience?

Take the recent BIM Show Live (Building Information Modelling) event that was held at Newcastle’s Boiler Shop venue in February. The primary aim was to create a space for thought leaders and the digital construction industry to come together and share news, trends and best practice.

This alone is great for the industry, but what about wider legacy and impact?

Instead of bringing an industry-exclusive conference to the region, organisers collaborated with educational partners and industry leaders to deliver interactive workshops for school children from six schools in the region.

Activities such as this have many benefits. Firstly, it’s looking at a very serious challenge that exists in the industry – a skills shortage that is predicted to grow.

Therefore activity like this is aiming to safeguard the industry’s future. But it also creates impactful educational opportunities for the region’s young people, and is seeking to inspire the next generation.

With international speakers and industry-leading collaborators, the children taking part were able to access an experience that they simply couldn’t get in the classroom. And whether that inspires them to forge a career in the industry or not, it certainly reignites a passion for learning.

Similarly, in September 2018, the 5th UK Congress on Obesity (UKCO), which took place at Newcastle University, brought with it a public engagement event, inviting the general public to learn about the links between obesity and cancer, with the aim of encouraging behaviour change and wellbeing. It brought leading expertise from within the world of academia directly to local people.

So where do we start on our mission to create meaningful societal impact through business events?

Firstly, I’d urge all businesses to think about out-of-sector partnerships and networking. Engaging with educational and community organisations won’t just make you feel good, it will bring business benefits too. There may be common ground and shared problems, and fresh ideas are likely to grow. Northumbria University’s MDI (multi-disciplinary innovation) students, for example, work hand in hand with industry to apply fresh thinking to problem solving.

It’s from these collaborative approaches that truly exciting conference programmes can take shape. After all, who wants to travel to a business event that’s entirely inward-looking and promotional?

It’s also worth considering the region’s strengths – as this will increase the size and scope of local collaboration potential. In NewcastleGateshead, for example, we have a thriving tech sector; world-leading expertise in sustainability and medical science, a hub of offshore and marine skills and a wealth of successful professional services businesses. So, if you’re working in these sectors, ambitious partners won’t be hard to find!

Once you’ve got the outline for a successful event, open it up. Perhaps you can create a number of complimentary delegate passes for local university or college students to learn from the sector’s stars?

What about capturing key note speeches digitally to enable start-ups or fledgling businesses that can’t attend the full programme to access content?

You might incorporate a small percentage of charitable funding from delegate income and invest it into a local charity or community cause?

Or, as the UKCO did, you might produce an accessible strand to the conference and invite the public to a free wellbeing or educational event.

However you do it, opening your event up to a wider audience brings too many benefits to ignore. But if you’re still feeling cynical about it, just think about all the great PR you’ll get from investing in more CSR.

At the NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau, part of NewcastleGateshead Initiative, we want to work with conference organisers to maximise the impact their event can have on our city and region. We are in a fantastic position, given our diverse partner community, to enable collaboration and spark engagement.

NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau’s Conference Ambassador Programme is here to help academics, professionals, researchers and business figures create a successful bid and stage an inspiring and rewarding conference in NewcastleGateshead.