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H&E North explores the nation’s most ambitious transport infrastructure upgrade: HS2’s impact on the northern events industry.

The largest (and perhaps most controversial) single public infrastructure project of modern times, HS2 rail is capable of the highest speeds in the world and aims to connect eight of Britain’s 10 largest cities: London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. But the question on every event planner’s lips is: will the investment bridge the north-south divide that still looms large over the industry? While northern venues will be waiting with bated breath in the hope the scheme will attract more events to their doors, there’s widespread fear it could just as easily draw existing business down south. In this article, H&E North talks to industry experts, exploring HS2’s impact on the northern events industry.

The scheme was due to roll out in phases, with the final sections from Leeds to Birmingham and Manchester to Crewe completed by 2033. However, recent assessments have suggested the project won’t be up and running until as late as 2040, while projected costs have risen by £26 billion to £88 billion before a single metre of track has been laid.

Gary Masters, NEC Campus General Manager, has pledged his support to the project which will see the Birmingham venue, attracting over seven million delegates annually, accessible from London in just 38 minutes: “HS2 isn’t integral to, but does support our ambitious plans to transform the NEC from a venue into an entertainment destination. Axing it at this stage would be felt by us, as it presents an opportunity to drive economic growth, but the impact on transportation plans for the wider region would be greater.”

Liz Taylor, CEO of Taylor Lynn Corporation, is positive about the potential impact for northern event planners: “If it does come to fruition, then the more efficient and speedy service, combined with the unique venues we offer, should encourage more events to take place here. If nothing else – it will place us on a more level playing field and ensure that it is a far more attractive option for event planners. If HS2 flies the flag for a better, more modern rail service, ensuring that companies think seriously about holding more events outside of the capital, then a growth in events will follow.”

Although based in Manchester, like many planners and suppliers, Liz’s work takes her across the whole of the UK, proving the north-south connection a vital network for transporting both event goods and delegates. But just as crucial a factor, is the lack of transport infrastructure within the north itself.

Thousands of rail commuters endure unreliable services prone to delays and cancellations on a daily basis. Last summer, a timetabling debacle plunged Northern Rail into chaos, all the while passengers were forced to contend with weekly strikes. An unreliable and underfunded rail network undoubtedly disincentivises planners from taking advantage of the wealth of northern event spaces, while attendance numbers inevitably take a hit from the reluctance of delegates to travel further than their nearest major city.

For Liz, this current lack of connectivity coupled with skyrocketing fares affects where she recommends events should take place: “Transport from London to the north tends to be reasonably good, however the poor state of local trains doesn’t help when attracting clients to hold their events past Birmingham.

“We want everyone attending the events to be able to get to their destination as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible. At the moment, the rail infrastructure is riddled with problems – not least the cost of travel and the journey times. When companies are scrutinising event budgets, offering a transport option that is both cost effective but also time efficient is crucial.”

The Conservative general election manifesto pledged £39 billion to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), serving the eight million commuters within the M62 corridor. The primary stages of the scheme will implement a high-speed line running between Leeds and Manchester, before focusing on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle.

Henri Murison, Director of Northern Powerhouse Partnership, is keen to emphasise the knock-on effects NPR will have on education and skills, which he believes will prove the key to unlocking untapped northern potential: “The main issue faced by businesses in key high growth sectors is recruiting people with experience and high-level skills. As long as we’re not taking advantage of talent on our doorstep, there is significant room for growth in our economy we’re not exploiting, which disadvantages businesses as much as communities.”

With news that 20% of hospitality and events employers report their current staff do not have sufficient skills to meet their needs, NPR and HS2 could go a long way to ameliorating the skills shortage faced by the sector. As Brexit uncertainty exacerbates the issue, improving the commutes of our events workforce is more crucial than ever to help the industry attract the best and brightest from a wider pool of homegrown talent.

Most importantly, at a time when events professionals are increasingly being asked by clients to make their events more environmentally-friendly, a public transport infrastructure that can offer a cheaper, more reliable alternative to a fleet of private vehicles is the key to our industry setting the bar for sustainable credentials.

Perhaps the best argument in favour of the controversial HS2 plans, Liz highlights that investment in rail infrastructure will not only benefit the events industry. In addition to HS2’s impact on the northern events industry, the positive repercussions will be felt across the wider economy: “Every hotel, taxi company, restaurant and event supplier will have the opportunity to increase trade from a growth in events in the north of the country – strong rail infrastructure benefits all.”

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