What the Edinburgh International Festival can teach us about adding value to business events

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Neil Brownlee, Head of Business Events, VisitScotland

By Neil Brownlee, Head of Business Events, VisitScotland

Festival fever

The eyes of the world are on Scotland this month as Scotland’s capital city puts on a show like no other – the world-renowned Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This unparalleled celebration of music, theatre, opera and dance attracts audiences and performers from across the world and showcases Scotland’s strength as a hub for the creative industries.

The festival will this year be helmed by Nicola Benedetti in her first year as Festival Director, and her carefully chosen themes of ‘community over chaos’, ‘hope in the face of adversity’, and ‘a perspective that’s not one’s own’ will I believe inspire and connect with audiences both at home and across the world. 

As Nicola says: “Here, in Edinburgh each August, we come to re-establish connections. We all need to feel a part of something much larger than ourselves.”

This is what events are all about, isn’t it? Carving a community out of likeminded people with shared goals and values, coming together to tackle challenges, discuss new ideas, and step out of our daily lives and jobs to focus on the bigger picture. And all of this got me thinking about how we can apply the festival’s themes to business events…

Community over chaos

The festival’s community over chaos theme feels particularly relevant at the moment. Although we live in an age where the traditional idea of community has largely dissipated, humans are social beings at heart and we long for connection and to feel that we are part of a tribe. And with the increasing isolation of our personal and working lives, and much of our time spent online, establishing a sense of community around an event is arguably more important than ever, to engender a sense of belonging and loyalty and offer delegates real value in return for attending.

And the wonderful thing about events is that not only can they create mini communities of their own, they can also strengthen the communities in which they take place. Visit Scotland’s Transformation Protocol enables event organisers to easily reach out to the community in which their events are taking place to add local flavour, expertise and attractions and in doing so, feed economic value back into the local community in the form of jobs, income and positive brand building.

Hope in the face of adversity

There’s no denying that we are living in hugely challenging times, and events which work hard to shine a light on the positive will do well. How can we provide delegates with an antidote to the doom and gloom news cycle? What can we do to make their lives that little bit better, and brighter, while they are with us?

Equally, how can our events themselves provide hope by attempting to solve some of the most pressing issues of our day? From conversations around climate change at COP 26 in Glasgow in 2021, to a medical conference sharing the latest life-saving therapies, or a smaller-scale event incorporating a local homeless charity, for example our own fabulous Invisible Cities. Events can change lives when they gather people around a common cause and set the challenge of answering difficult questions.

A perspective that’s not one’s own

We know that people attend business events to be challenged and stimulated with new ideas and fresh perspectives, and many events deliberately choose speakers from outside their own industries to encourage lateral thinking. This approach has the added benefit of removing us from our own echo chambers – potentially leading to the growth of interesting new ideas.

Encouraging diversity and inclusion more widely is something that we at Visit Scotland Business Events care deeply about, both for the value it can bring to events and the important role it plays in ensuring that different groups are represented and included. We set up our Journey to Change programme to make sure that event organisers can connect with local Scottish partners who share their aims around the importance of sustainability, of which diversity and inclusion forms a major pillar.

If you’re lucky enough to be coming to the Edinburgh Festival or Festival Fringe this year, I hope you have a wonderful time, and I’d love to hear about other ways that business events could learn from large-scale international festivals such as this. Right, I’m off to take my seat!

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