THERE was gin, gelato and more than a hint of glamour at the launch of the 2018 International Business Festival, which left guests with a royal message ringing in their ears.
“See you in June,” the Duke of Cambridge told the 200 or so figures from business, trade bodies and government at central London’s Lancaster House, as he announced his patronage of the event.
There was an air of expectation as guests arrived at the historic setting, where Winston Churchill hosted the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II for a coronation banquet in 1953, with Prince William’s presence having been announced in advance.
And as guests took in the venue’s sumptuous grand hall, with sweeping staircase, imposing pillars and gilded décor, enterprise might not have been the first thing on their minds.
But it was a fitting venue, given it was once owned by the renowned industrialist – and forefather of the multinational Unilever -Sir William Lever.
And there was no doubting that the long gallery, ceiling intricately painted by Italian artist Guercino, was a banqueting hall fit for a future King when the duke arrived to announce his patronage of the Festival.
The event takes place over nine days in Liverpool next June and the duke praised its reflection of the UK’s outlook on trade as a “means to prosperity, liberalisation of our society and raising the common good”.
“The International Business Festival celebrates this heritage and the Festival’s organising principle is that business can and should be a force for good,” said the duke. “As we look to the future, we will recognise just how important it will be as work to build connections with trading partners all around the world, strengthening links with old friends and creating new opportunities.”
The duke, who has represented the UK on foreign trade missions, said he was pleased the Festival was focusing on SMEs – the “backbone” of Britain’s economy – and praised the “ingenuity, drive and commitment” of entrepreneurs.
“The International Business Festival has a vital role to play in providing the support and connections they need to grow,” he added.
News that the duke would attend the Festival as patron was welcomed by the audience, with representatives of international trade bodies saying it would help attract overseas delegations.
Zhou Mi, executive director for the European economic, trade and investment office of Shenzhen Municipality, in China’s Guangdong province, said the duke’s presence at the Festival would be very attractive to the Chinese audience.
“We will have a delegation coming next year with the aim of bringing British companies back to China,” she said, adding that fintech and healthcare were important markets in the province. Up to a dozen delegations are expected from elsewhere in China.
Helen Girgenti, of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, said William was a “huge draw” for Italian audiences and a “big tick” for the Festival.
“We are already huge advocates of the Festival,” she said. “We’ve successfully brought Italian businesses across, from cabling suppliers to law firms and food-and-drink manufacturers.
“The Festival helps us to open the eyes of companies to areas beyond London, such as northwest England, Scotland and Wales, and the benefits in terms of great facilities for a much lower cost than in the capital.”
Abdul Quadir Hamza, of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, said the Festival was likely to benefit from delegations from Africa, south Asia and the Caribbean made aware of opportunities in the UK by next April’s Commonwealth Business Forum.
The forum coincides with the UK hosting a summit of all 52 Commonwealth heads of state for the first time since 1997. And Hamza said: “I’m talking to heads of companies about being part of delegations to the International Business Festival and the opportunities for British companies to partner with them are massive.”
After speeches from the duke, Festival chairman Max Steinberg and Conrad Bird, who heads up the British government’s export-focused GREAT campaign, a panel chaired by Festival creative director Jude Kelly discussed the opportunities and challenges businesses will face in the year ahead.
And there was time for some spirited networking afterwards, with the conversation flowing thanks to Liverpool Gin and kept sweet by Caffe Cream’s hand-crafted gelato. Both companies credit the International Business Festival with having a hand in their development.
Another Festival advocate, Northern Power Women founder Simone Roche, explained to the duke how she had set up the gender equality movement as a legacy of a Women Inspiring the Economy event she created for the 2014 Festival.
“He was really passionate about female entrepreneurship and supportive of the idea of better recognition of women business owners and role models,” she said.
Anton Hanley, of customer acquisition firm The Lead Agency, was also introduced to the duke, having featured in the Festival’s introductory video, which had started the event.
“Prince William was really interested in the company and asked whether we were using AI within our platform, so I explained about our chatbots we use to speak to customers online,” he said.
Hanley was one of three small business owners to speak about the challenges they have faced, their hopes and ambitions, on the promotional film.
“I wasn’t expecting any of the attention that’s come with being part of the Festival’s campaign so it was a surprise when I arrived here, picked up a leaflet about the Festival and saw myself on the front.
“It’s been a really good evening and it’s nice to be from a Liverpool business with ambitions to grow and being aligned with a major Liverpool event that also has ambitions overseas.”
And that feelgood factor lasted long after the duke’s departure. Business mentor John McDonald, of Liverpool app development company Reggie, which employs about 300 developers in the city’s Baltic Triangle digital hub, said: “I thought it was a fantastic event and I’m looking forward to next year’s Festival.
McDonald was business development director with Abbey Group, which makes Securablinds window blast protection products. “It went from £7.5m to £40m turnover in 18 months after attending the Festival and its products are around the world now,” he added.