It is generally agreed that the major ingredient lacking during the various lockdowns and restrictions is the business/social get togethers commonly called ‘networking’.

Our railway expert, Andrew Sharp of the International Air/Rail organisation (IARO), says that enterprises have to sharpen up if they are to attract visitors back.  He took the train to meet people and discuss the industry.

“I went to the Railtech and Infrarail exhibitions at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) at Birmingham last week. The exhibitions were good: the NEC experience was much less so.

The NEC is big, with lots of halls and several simultaneous exhibitions.

The two I went to were in Halls 11 and 12 – about as far from Birmingham International Station as it was possible to be.

Given the nature of the exhibitions, one might expect many people to come by rail! OK, I didn’t hurry (and got involved in an argument with security staff – see below) but it took almost exactly 20min from leaving the train to clocking in at Hall 11.

As I walked from the station, there was a long wide corridor with a central barrier dividing it. The left-hand side had a big queue: the right-hand side was clearly marked ‘Railtech’ so I followed that. Then I was stopped by security staff: everyone had to queue to go in – to have bags searched and vaccination status checked. I had no problem with either of those: my problem was with the inaccurate signage and lack of information! On queuing and showing a vaccination certificate I was given a thin strip of yellow paper: I didn’t manage to work out how to fix this as a wrist band (as I was supposed to) until I got home! It certainly wasn’t obvious or intuitive, and the staff weren’t in help mode.

The lunchtime snack at Starbucks inside NEC was also unsatisfactory. I got no Starbucks App perks “because we’re a franchise”. My drink came fairly quickly, but the toastie took longer. The person taking orders writes your name on the cellophane wrapper in felt-tip: the wrapper is removed and your food is heated, transferred to a paper bag and taken, with the cellophane wrapper, to the serving point where your name is called out. When they are busy, this is done in batches of up to a dozen bags. It does happen that in the process the name gets blurred or obliterated and the wrapper gets separated from the bag: it also no doubt happens that people in a hurry just grab something that sounds like their meal!

There is much sympathy for Covid precautions: however systems do need to be properly communicated, signed and explained. And the franchise at NEC did the Starbucks brand no favours at all."