Debbie Howarth, head of commercial enterprise at Royal Bath and West of England Society, and Bath and West Showground, talks candidly about the impact of coronavirus on the venue

Who would have thought it… at the Bath and West Showground in Somerset we were just about three months into another busy events year. Already with a stack of one or two day public interest events, and numerous corporate meetings taken place, we had the wheels in motion for a full calendar right up to the Christmas party season. Plans for our annual Royal Bath and Show in May, one of the largest agricultural shows in the country were full steam ahead. A fellow colleague and I had just finished putting the final touches to an ambitious new strategy plan for the development of the showground. We were both excited about the proposals to strengthen our position as the leading events and exhibition venue in the South West of the country and ready to roll out our vision to the board for approval. Everything was good.

Then it arrived… coronavirus. Never in modern peace times has the UK faced such a challenge from a crisis that would affect each and every one of us, not just in our events industry but across all sectors and in every country and continent on a global level.

In the week commencing March 16, normality as we knew it was transformed and the country thrown into turmoil. This week will be engrained on my mind for a very long time. It was brutal. Our staff took a barrage of calls and emails from worried traders and event organisers concerned whether they could run their events or postpone versus cancellation. What revised date could we give them? Could they have a refund? Where do we stand with force majeure clauses on insurance policies? Many many questions and more. Over night we became the go-to helpline for our valued clients and extended Bath and West family, who in normal circumstances we would welcome onto the site for their events, engage in our regular lighthearted banter, enquire how everyone was since the last time we met up, assist them to ensure all ran smoothly, helped with any problems, and then shook hands, hugged in some cases and waved them off when their event was done and put to bed until the next one. Strong resilient individuals, who know their game, were suddenly reduced to tears, anger and disbelief. No one had experienced this before, we were all in unchartered territory.

Where then does this pandemic take our industry? Many within will agree the events industry does not really attract acknowledgement of its contribution to the UK economy even in prosperous times. Tell someone you are in events and you will probably be met with “that’s nice, what fun – so you organise weddings, parties and fetes”. Rarely even the mention of exhibitions, conferences, trade shows and the like, which contribute greatly to a whole host of commercial sectors.

I have been fortunate over the years to work with some highly influential individuals and PR gurus who continually taught me time and time again to always make positive from the negative and as such, this is proving a point with some major UK venues turning their facilities over to temporary hospitals and distribution hubs to assist society during our time of national crisis. Event contractors have a remarkable skill. Able to be flexible, adapt and overcome. They are fitting out these multifunctional sites to suit new requirements. So when the crisis is over, let us hope the general public will remember these venues and support them accordingly.

Here in the picturesque setting of Somerset we are no exception to this and with our own site being the largest of its kind in the region we are currently offering space for a distribution hub or anything else that can be useful to local authorities. Two of our contractors based on site have offered their equipment to assist – Trust Event Stages, with almost all bookings cancelled from a busy festival season have thrown in heavy duty forklift machinery and Spotless Event Hire offering a whole facility full of tables and chairs. Now, in reality and following quick adaptions by our own team, we find ourselves in a world where meetings are conducted via Zoom and we are all doing what we can – working from home, homeschooling the kids, running the household, ensuring we stay exercised and above all keeping sane. Whatever we started to plan, report on today or tomorrow will most definitely be out of date by the end of the week and again after the Easter break.

One thing that is certain, normality will not return overnight, and in our own industry, things will look different. Some of the smaller event companies, agencies, freelancers and suppliers will be gone .There will be a great deal of public confidence and faith required to get us up and running again.

Whilst we are remaining positive that we can host some events towards the later part of the year, 2021 could look very different. Whoever has the crystal ball, please can I book some time to borrow this from you very soon, although I am sure there is a long list to join!