‘More puerile scaremongering’? – piecing together the impact of Brexit on conferences (Emily F. Henderson)

Will Brexit have an impact on conferences? This post sets out to show that yes, there will be an impact – and why.  

Brexit conference table


I wrote this piece before the COVID-19 global health crisis broke. This brings a different slant to the question, as there is no doubt that the pandemic (and the measures put in place to contain it) is having a massive impact on conferencing (see our COVID-19 Response for the blog). I would add to the argument of the piece that we no longer know what conferencing looks like, and clearly the impact of the virus will far outweigh the impact of Brexit. However, and this is an important point, the recovery of the events sector and its future configurations will be impacted by Brexit, as the UK’s reconstruction of the events industry will occur in the post-Brexit era – only time will tell how this will unfold.


In March 2019, I contributed my thoughts and opinions to an article on conferences and Brexit written by Harriet Swain for the UK newspaper The Guardian. In addition to noting that bidding to host a conference is a competitive process, my quoted contribution to the article was that

The UK has changed status to potentially a riskier place to go. Academics and higher education institutions are quite risk-averse, so as soon as there’s something – even if it’s quite a metaphorical obstacle – it feeds into decisions.

I also referred to a study by Campos, Leon and McQuillin which studied the impact of a conference that was cancelled due to a hurricane on publications in that field, and had found that an incident of this kind did indeed impact productivity, in part due to the missed opportunity to present and/or find new collaborators. My argument for the Guardian article was that every conference which is not held in the UK due to a country with a more stable political climate winning the bid to host, every delegate who does not travel to or from the UK for a conference out of concerns about Brexit, is a potential loss of knowledge production and collaboration – and economic contribution – for the UK.

As is usually the case with media comment, my arguments were abridged and simplified for the purposes of the article, and furthermore the time that has lapsed since contributing to that article has permitted me to develop the case for why conferences will be impacted by Brexit. The article received 149 comments. I address some of these comments in this post, as well as giving a fuller answer to the question of how Brexit will impact conferences. I am indebted to the commenter who inspired the title for this post! The gist of the comments was:

  1. That we don’t have enough evidence to know if Brexit will affect conferences (e.g. ‘More puerile scaremongering’);
  2. That Brexit will affect conferences due to the uncertainty caused by instability, and the impact on research funding and collaboration of withdrawing from the EU (e.g. ‘It isn’t [‘puerile scaremongering’] actually. Brexit is already causing havoc in European funded Erasmus research projects’);
  3. That Brexit will not affect conferences, given that other countries also require visas and people still travel there, and indeed there were conferences before the EU existed. (e.g. ‘Absolute garbage. Most [non-US nationals] require visas to attend US Conferences. Do you suppose they are off limits too?’)

There is some evidence for the latter argument, such as this article on popular business and events tourism destinations, where London retained its top spot, at least for 2018 (but with the possibility raised of Paris scooping up some of the business depending on the border policy changes).

It is true that we have limited evidence about the specific ways in which Brexit will affect conferences, but there is much we can infer from other sources and examples to show that Brexit will have an impact. If we make inferences from studies of academic travel, yes we do have an idea that Brexit will have an impact on knowledge production and collaboration. Some of this impact may be temporary, some of it may be lasting; some of the impact may be negative, some may be neutral and there may even be a positive impact in terms of the necessity of the UK taking research partnerships with other regions more seriously.

A comment on the Guardian article stated that ‘there is no evidence in the piece that academics “are avoiding” UK conferences, just that people are “worried” this might happen’. In a data-driven era, Brexit is confounding indeed for the evidence buffs. As with the threat posed by the Millennium Bug, there are now posters plastered in railway stations, above motorways and on TV encouraging us in the UK to ‘check’ we are ready for the effects of Brexit. Unfortunately, there is no real sense of what we should be checking for, or what will happen as Brexit unfolds (for the variety of issues involved, see e.g. this advice page). As another commenter noted, taking up a position as ‘n=1’ in this debate, their university had asked academics to not travel outside of the UK in April 2019 (a previous deadline for Brexit), and they had had to ‘withdraw a paper from a conference in Belgium, pissing off the organiser’. In another anecdote, I met an Indian scholar in Delhi who had withdrawn a paper from a conference in the UK out of concerns about the impact of Brexit on border controls. N=2. The issue with Brexit is that we do not have the evidence to hand, but we can compile anecdotal accounts until they form a bona fide evidence base.

OR Tambo departures

We can also look to other sources of evidence with which we can compare the Brexit case. In her 2014 field-defining book on conferences and conventions (see also 2019 Conference Inference post), Judith Mair helpfully collated a number of studies which investigated the impact of various world events on the conference industry. These include an article which notes the extent of the impact of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) on the meeting industry in Asia due to cancellations and postponements, and the consequent destination image damage. Terrorism-related incidents are known to affect tourism (see e.g. an article on 9/11, and another), including business tourism, with the knock-on effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks incorporating damage to the conference industry in major US cities. Since we know that major incidents have an impact on the attractiveness of a destination – particularly in relation to attendees’ perceptions of safety and risk (see e.g. this article and this paper), it is not a large leap to surmise that a major move such as leaving the EU would have an impact on how the UK is perceived as a destination for conferences.

Even if the fall-out for the tourism industry from Brexit is minimised through free movement policies, there is likely to be some impact where the UK is still seen as a risky location to choose for a conference, particularly in the case of international conferences which rotate between destinations, and for which cities make bids to host in a competitive process. These conferences are prime events for the business tourism industry, with ripple effects for local economies – a study found that delegates spend £165.60 per day (excluding conference fees) attending international rotating conferences located in Glasgow. Bids for these conferences that may have been lost during the uncertain phase/s, and that may in future be lost on the basis of risk assessment (including subjective risk assessment), also have knock-on effects for the economy – as well as for the image of the UK as a hub of international knowledge production.

Value of confs (currencies)

Indeed there are also questions to be asked about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s image as an international player in research collaboration, when Brexit acts as an extension of the hostile environment that is already in place, for example turning away academics’ visa applications. International academics are already unsure of the reception they will receive at the UK border, given the uncertainty surrounding who gets recognised as a ‘genuine’ academic. While the UK government is attempting to reignite ties with Commonwealth nations and beyond in terms of research collaboration (arguably as a means of maintaining international research calibre in the wake of Brexit), this drive is on shaky ground when these partnerships are put in jeopardy by border politics. As noted by the comments on the Guardian article, yes it is true that there were conferences before the EU, but the EU has facilitated freedom of travel and has directly funded collaboration with the UK – changes in these matters will surely impact upon the geography of academic conference travel and indeed research collaboration in future years.

In short, I argue in this post that there is no way that Brexit can avoid having an impact on conferences – on where they are held, who attends them and what their long-term, indirect benefits for knowledge production, individuals’ academic careers and the national economy will be.

Emily F. Henderson is Co-Editor of Conference Inference and Tweets as @EmilyFrascatore

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