ExCel’s Birtles: ‘Building relationships needs physical contact’

Michele Birtles

Given that this year’s Watercooler Event on 25th and 26th April is taking place at ExCel, London, we thought this would be a good time to speak to the conference venue’s Director of People & Culture Michele Birtles about her approach to workplace wellbeing – especially as at this year’s event we are launching ‘The Office’ a brand new event for organisations rethinking their approach to workplace design and experience.

Do you feel events are back to usual, as it was pre-Covid?

If anything, we are seeing a stronger appetite for face to face events than before Covid.

And what we found – since 2022 – was that organisers, exhibitors and visitors were coming to the venue very excited about the possibility of being physically together again. That created more energy and excitement about the face to face experience. It is a great feeling to witness people engaging with their community, be that amongst their fellow professionals or because they have a shared passion such as motor sport or musical theatre.

Do you feel that excitement has continued?

Yes, that’s continued, we are welcoming more people to the venue and they are spending more time during their visit. Of course, the opening of the Elizabeth tube line has made travel so much easier so that is definitely a factor as people are staying longer at their event. 

We need in-person social interaction. During the pandemic we were able to have contact remotely, but it is so different to seeing people face to face. And, of course, you don’t get those serendipitous moments on Teams, Zoom or Google Meet.

Do you really believe that building relationships needs that physical contact?

Yes, we definitely think so.

It’s important for employees to feel the excitement of being together. Face to face engagement is essential for building company culture and engagement with staff. It helps to reinforce our shared aims, it builds on collaboration and the opportunities to learn from each other in a ‘live’ environment.

What would you say is a key issue in events now?

The number one priority for our, and every other industry, is finding ways to reduce the negative impact of our activities on our planet. The events industry has a special role to play in tackling climate change. We provide the meeting spaces and market-places to work on solutions to the climate crisis. At the same time we have a responsibility to minimise our impact on climate change. We are signed up to the Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge and have communicated our roadmap to net zero last year.

A very close second is putting diversity and inclusion at the heart of every event. We witness the importance of this every day. Creating the opportunity for people to share their experience and then act on that feedback creates a cycle of continuous improvement.

Have you noticed anyone more nervous about in-person events now?

Any environment is representative of the population at large. The return to the office and in-person events affected everyone differently. We recognised that some people might need support and during one of our first quarterly ‘Town Hall’ meetings we invited a guest speaker to talk about mental health and the importance of being conscious of others’ mental health. We also trained eight volunteers to be Mental Health First Aiders.

Overall, employees want to spend time together, at social activities celebrating our successes together. Since our return we have focused on celebrating more with family and friends, so staff receive tickets for some of our consumer events, where they can showcase their hard work to their families.

How has having Mental Health First Aiders helped?

It’s raised people’s consciousness about mental health. They’re very active in the business, so if employees are having challenges and concerns they have a choice of colleagues to talk to.

People can also access counselling as part of our Employee Assistance Programme, which is provided through a number of companies including our life insurance company, our pension scheme provider and other benefits.

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We have worked with a broker for 20 years who fully understands and business and employee needs, so they help us to shape our benefits offering. They are also able to ensure that we obtain the best benefits in the most cost effective way. By doing that, we can provide a wider range of benefits.

You’re currently building a new HR System and one of your team is handling the benefits provision. Any advice on that process?

Yes, we’ve created a grid that displays all of the benefits available from all of our providers, as they each have about four of five different/add on benefits available. So, this makes clear to employees their choices and how they can access the benefits at the click of a link. 

Would you advise having a broker? What’s the advantage of that?

They’ve got buying power in the market, so they can ensure that we have reach with a number of providers, which results in competitive quotations.

They can look at our data and ask the right questions of providers. And they’re in contact with a range of suppliers so can recommend the right one for each brief.

It would be very difficult for one person in an HR team to go out to multiple providers to ask about just one benefit. We wouldn’t manage if we had to source five quotations for each benefit ourselves. That’s a huge amount of administration and you don’t have any buying power. Having that buying power means that we can offer premium level benefits.

Any other advice on choosing a provider?

Make sure that you’ve got the range of provision. Until you start going out and looking, you don’t realise what’s available and how extensive the market offerings are. It’s just really important you understand them. Our team also all went along to the Benefits Live show at ExCeL so that we could explore what is available in the market and then approach our Broker to do more detailed research for us.

Given you are an events venue, does that mean many of your roles are face to face, so working from home is more challenging?

We have quite a range of people working for us and some can have more flexibility in where they work than others. 

For instance, if you’re in the traffic office or the cleaning department, you have to be in the office five of your seven days. But what we’ve tried to do is make sure we pay fairly so that everyone knows we’re looking after them in terms of pay and benefits. We are accredited as a London Living Wage employer which we’ve extended to all of our third party suppliers for our flexible workforce. 

These basic principles have a big effect on wellbeing generally.

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Launch of new event The Office alongside The Watercooler Event and SME XPO


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