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UK's pavilion at the postponed Expo 2020 Dubai 2021

Exploring the UK Experience Economy with DIT’s Richard Parry

Head of Experience Economy at the DIT, Richard Parry helps companies in the UK experience sector do business globally.

Richard Parry Department for International Trade UK experience economy
Richard Parry

Richard Parry is Head of Experience Economy at the Department for International Trade (DIT), an international economic department responsible for breaking down barriers to trade and helping businesses in the UK experience sector succeed through bringing together policy, promotion and financial expertise, among other responsibilities.

As Head of Experience Economy, Richard Parry helps UK companies which provide experiential products and services succeed internationally

His original ambition was to be keyboard player in a progressive rock band:

“But I didn’t have any talent, so I abandoned that,” he says. “Then I thought about being a freelance journalist, which I was, for a bit, before deciding to get a proper job. In 1974, I thought I’d do a year or so in the civil service to get my finances straight and get some sort of semblance of normality. I’m still doing much the same, years later”

Early career

Parry has worked in a number of countries and sectors over the years.

“Strangely, I spent quite a lot of time working with the railway industry,” he says. “Trying to sell an underground railway system to the city of Guangzhou in China, unsuccessfully, as it turned out. We came second.”

Camel train Saudi Arabia Richard Parry Department for International Trade

He then spent some time working with the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf States.

“One of the things we boast about is that we managed to sell camels, sand, oil and palm trees to the Arabs.”

He adds:

“There is an asterisk by some of those, but, essentially, it’s all true. In fact, camel breeding is quite big in the UK; we’re quite good at it. Then, apparently, the sand they have there is no good for construction. They need specialist construction sand. We’re very good at growing palm tree varieties. And their oil is a mixture of different types of crude, so we really can boast that.”

Richard Parry and the UK experience sector

experience economy book cover

Parry then wound up working in the creative industries team in the Department for International Trade:

“We had been supporting mainstream creative industries like film, TV, publishing, fashion, design for forever and a day,” he says. “But it gradually dawned on us that we were missing something in the creative world that we didn’t quite understand. I was asked to try to figure out what it was.”

He read Joe Pine’s book on the Experience Economy, which revealed that what was missing was to do with the creation of experiences:

“Even then, that didn’t get me all that far,” he says. “Because it’s such a wide-ranging set of disciplines. It wasn’t easy to corral the people and companies who were in the UK experience sector. But we worked away at it, starting with the attractions industry. Because we thought that was where the most obvious experience base was, where people go and have a nice time at a theme park or a museum.

“We have tended to stick with that. The bulk of the companies we work with are in the attractions or cultural attractions industries. Increasingly we’re also moving into retail and brand support. As the UK experience sector develops, so we’re widening our reach.”

The experience economy

“It has been quite interesting. Five or six years ago, I think people used to look at this bloke sitting in the corner ‘doing’ the experience economy, thinking, ‘we’ll just humour him. We don’t know what he’s talking about, but presumably, he’s busy, so we’ll let him get on with it.’

Joe Pine Experience Economy
Joe Pine, author of the Experience Economy

“But now I find that my colleagues, both in the UK and around the world, will blithely talk about the experience economy as if they’ve been doing it all their lives. I suppose it reflects the fact that we’ve always been in the experience economy; we just didn’t know.”

The experience economy has been taking centre stage as retail changes, and people’s focus shifts.

The Department for International trade and COVID-19

Commenting on the effect of the pandemic, Parry says:

“I’ve been giving this quite a bit of thought. The glib response is that the whole sector is pretty much collapsed, because of the collapse in tourism and in footfall. But actually, we have been looking at what has been happening globally over the last few months. For instance, places like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have continued to be quite fruitful areas for our companies in this sphere.”

uk pavilion expo 2020 dubai UK experience economy
UK Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai

“Obviously, Dubai, because of Expo, to some extent, is still building its tourism infrastructure; and Saudi Arabia, because of Vision 2030, is just ploughing on.”

Both those countries seem to have the pandemic under control in a way other places haven’t.

“They have dealt with it pretty well, and as a result of that, business is happening. In fact, a couple of days ago we were involved in a physical design exhibition in Dubai. This was almost a novelty; we have come to regard online as the norm for now”.

Market research

Department for International Trade Richard Parry

“But for all three, from a narrow Department for International Trade perspective, most of the reaction to the collapse of the sector has been handled through the Treasury, through the furlough scheme and through various other support mechanisms. And from the DCMS’s [The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] 1.5 billion pound fund for the cultural sector.

“Our role, which is a much narrower one, has been to try to help take the temperature of the UK experience sector and find out what the pinch-points were, and what are companies were trying to do, which was to survive, and try to use that time as wisely as we could for the day when there was a degree of normality.

“And so we’ve been doing loads of market research. We’ve been trying to refresh all our collateral about how the UK experience sector is so good. So that when we do get some kind of restart, which, thanks to the vaccine, appears to be on the horizon, the provision of timely information and accurate information about the demand side should be a useful weapon in our armoury. That’s really where we’ve been concentrating our efforts.”

Virtual vs. physical experiences

A lot of people have moved to stopgap online models throughout the pandemic. In the long term, however, there is a limit to what the sector can do with that. People do want to go and have physical experiences.

“I thought blooloop’s V-Expo was about as good as an example as you can get of this kind of virtual exercise,” says Parry. “It’s interesting that it was conceived before COVID, largely looking at the clean growth agenda or the no-carbon approach to this sort of thing.”

This is an area that is coming into sharp focus for Parry:

COP26 Glasgow

“Not least as I’m the lead for the creative industries in the COP planning.

The conference will take place in November, in Glasgow.

“It will be quite interesting to see if there is a move towards a hybrid approach for tradeshows and conferences.”

It will also be interesting to see how quickly footfall re-emerges:

“Different people have different views. But I guess there will be a kind of demographic split between the kind of people who rushed to Bournemouth Beach in the summer, and those who stayed cowering in the cellar. And so maybe there will be a need for attractions and operators to think more about market segmentation.

“Then there is the whole hygiene question. We are used to a high hygiene regime at the moment, but will that wear off? In 12 months, who knows what the world will look like? We may laugh at the things we’re thinking now.”

Authenticity and sustainability

Before the pandemic, a number of trends, including authenticity and sustainability, were emerging and gaining ground. Parry feels there are likely to be opportunities in such areas, depending on how seriously the world takes this subject:

“I’m not absolutely sure that the world is taking it terribly seriously, in truth,” he says. “But authenticity is certainly a trend. I don’t know whether it’s stretching a point to say that people have become more localised since all this happened. But I feel perhaps they are starting to look at a slightly nearer horizon for their interests, their food, their experiences. That may continue, as a trend; we just don’t know.

Authenticity is certainly a trend…people are starting to look at a slightly nearer horizon for their interests, their food, their experiences

“I keep looking at Joe Pine’s blogs to see if there are any clues from the great man. Essentially, we’re all just peering into crystal balls, looking hopefully into the future.”

Richard Parry on the UK experience economy

The experience economy, Parry contends, is something at which the UK shines:

“This is going to sound a bit of a cliche, but we are really good at this stuff. The UK creative industries across the board are seen as exemplars of innovation and imagination and all those great words. Clearly, companies like Holovis and Simworx are leaders in their field. On the cultural and museum side there is Cultural Innovations and Haley Sharpe.”

Holovis V-Expo Department for International Trade Richard Parry UK experience economy

Something Parry discovered relatively recently is the world of installations and installation art.

“In terms of public art experiences, there are so many UK companies out there who are brilliant at this stuff. It would be invidious to name names because there are so many of them, and I’d inevitably offend by omission. It strikes me as an area that may revive itself, post-COVID, as we get into placemaking, and we see a maybe more localized interest within cities.”

UK creatives

“I’m building up to a story, which is why I’m being a bit obtuse,” Parry continues. “Well, two stories, really. One is that I went down to Exeter, a year or so ago, slightly half-heartedly, to attend a meeting that one of my regional colleagues had called. It was with a  dozen or so locally created companies, none of which I’d heard of.”

Exeter City Department for International Trade Richard Parry
Exeter, UK

“We went around the table to start the meeting, telling everybody what we all did. I was just amazed by what these people were up to. In the middle of nowhere, they were producing all this truly amazing stuff. From the smaller, crafty end of things to quite big ideas and projects at the other end. And I thought, well if that’s happening in Exeter on this dull Thursday afternoon, goodness knows what’s happening in the rest of the country.

“From a government and Department for International Trade perspective, we probably only see the tip of the iceberg. It’s a constant amazement to come across a company that you’ve never heard of, and to think, ‘Why haven’t I heard of them?’ Maybe something about the visibility of this sector isn’t all it might be.”

The Department for International Trade bridges supply and demand

“The story I’m coming around to is an example of supply and demand, and the way in which the Department for International Trade can bridge that.

“I was in Hong Kong last year talking to the Hong Kong Design Center in the build-up to a big event called Business of Design Week, which is quite a big deal for us. We finished the meeting and were having another cup of coffee, and I was asked: ‘Do you happen to know anyone who can decorate an underground railway station in an interesting way?’”

Department for International Trade Richard Parry This is Wan Chai
This is Wan Chai

As it happened, he did:

“I knew of a UK company who specialised in place-making;  in using art, photography and design to do just that, for public transit spaces. To cut a long story short, they eventually got a contract to completely revamp this station in Hong Kong. They used photography of the local area, transposing it with classical ballet and contemporary dance themes. The project is called ‘This is Wan Chai.’

“And it’s a really nice example of where we were able to connect supply and demand in a precise way. It is something that would not have happened in the same way if we hadn’t been able to intervene.”

In terms of trends, Parry feels the pandemic might result in an evolution of the UK experience sector, where some developing trends are accelerated, while others turn out to be dead ends.

“We’re almost starting again, it seems to me,” he says. “What will people value as a result of this? Will they value being able to experience things in isolation, because they’re afraid of contact? Or will they be rushing to hug each other in shared spaces? I don’t think anyone really knows. A bit of both, I suppose.”

This is Wan Chai Department for International Trade Richard Parry
This is Wan Chai

It might hang on whether we make changes in the way we treat the environment; on whether this pandemic is an isolated event or the first of many:

“It may be that there is a shift about to happen. On the other hand, you can’t help feel that old habits die hard. If the vaccine is effective, in a years time will we all think, ‘What was that about?’, and go back to exactly the same life as before.”

The evolution of the office

That brings Parry to something that occurred to him recently: the office environment:

“There is an awful lot of real estate lying empty at the moment,” he points out. How can people be enticed back to their desks? Is creating a completely new ecosystem within office an opportunity?

“I was talking to a company called The Gorgeous Group. They are really trying to think hard about what the office of the future might look like.

“I know that that a number of big property companies like Swire Properties, for instance, to go back to Hong Kong, are thinking about how to create not just office environments, but mixed-use residential environments. Places that are sympathetic to what people want. Rather than just sticking a giant piece of sculpture in a courtyard somewhere.”

Cultural sensitivities

Identifying an area where UK companies excel, Parry says:

“One of the things that we talk about quite a bit is the way that our companies, when they’re working internationally, seem to be culturally more sympathetic to their clients than perhaps some of their competitors are.”

He qualifies the statement:

“This may be a lie, at worst, or a cliché. But it does seem to me, talking from the Arab world perspective, which I know a bit about, that when British designers and British experiential people go to Saudi Arabia, maybe not so much now, but a few years ago, they were deeply conscious of cultural sensitivities; maybe more so than some of their international competitors who would just go in and offer a cookie-cutter solution.

harry potter film cast UK experience economy

 I was also thinking a bit about the Harry Potter franchise,” he adds:

“And the way in which, largely through UK companies and individuals, the books have become so much more than just the books. There is quite a vivid example of that. In the days when I used to go to the office, every morning I would walk up to our building and, off to the right-hand side, there would be a group of people staring at the back wall of our office.

“For a week or two, I didn’t know why they were doing this. But it turns out that in one in the Harry Potter film franchise, the back end of our building is the Ministry of Magic. So from a woman writing in a notebook in Edinburgh x-number of years ago, we get a group of people staring at a brick wall in London. It struck me as being a causality.”

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 was postponed, and will, COVID permitting, take place in 2021.

“The UK pavilion is an absolute shrine to the UK experience economy. It is purely an experiential thing – not, as many pavilions are, a warehouse for products and services. It just a very imaginative visitor experience on a colossal scale,” says Richard Parry.

uk pavilion expo 2020 dubai UK experience economy
UK Pavilion, Expo 2020 Dubai

“I think it’s a nice way to end, by saying that in 2021, all being equal, people will be able to go there and rediscover the experience economy for themselves. And that is something that makes a post-COVID future look a bit brighter.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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