February 17, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier | Image credit: Oneill Photographics

Five hundred buyers and 180 exhibitors gathered at ICC Sydney on Tuesday and Wednesday this week as the business events industry got behind the sector’s first Australian trade show in two years.

The event was opened on Tuesday afternoon by the Managing Director of Tourism Australia, Phillipa Harrison, who was greeted with cheers and applause when she highlighted Monday’s international border reopening.

“I just wanted to acknowledge to this room and to the whole industry that this has just been the most challenging time that you could have ever possibly faced, and I’ve been blown away by your resilience, by your innovation and by the fact that you’re all here and you’re all still standing,” she told attendees.

She discussed the need to “defend Australia’s position as a great place to hold an event” during the nearly two years that Australia’s international border has been closed, and said with the opening imminent, “we’re looking at how can we fast track recovery.”

Plans include investing in bringing as many international trade and media representatives to Australia as possible.

Harrison said the Business Events Australia team was hearing from international customers that managing risk would be important, as was providing flexibility.

“The risk side of things…we’ve seen that there has been a real doubling down on that. More control over the itineraries, less free time…trying to…segregate delegates so that there’s less exposure opportunities, so buyouts of hotels and restaurants…and direct flights.

“Risk has always been an important part of planning an event but it’s doubly important at the moment.”

She said some businesses were really rising to the request for flexibility but there was opportunity to improve.

Harrison confirmed there was significant demand for face to face events but that the majority of international business was being booked for 2023 onwards.

“We’ve been really focussing on making sure that the industry and [customers] know that we’re open, we’re ready, we’re still taking business.

“It’s been incredible to see international bookings coming back in force from about 2023, so there is a little bit of a gap right now, which is where the local side fits in, but there is a huge demand for ‘23 and beyond.”

She also highlighted the achievements of Tourism Australia’s subvention fund, which was seen the majority of its success during the pandemic. Of the 59 events – worth an estimated $461 million to Australia’s economy – won with Business Events Bid Fund support, 35 have been secured in the COVID era.

Tourism Australia’s Managing Director Phillipa Harrison speaking at Get Local | Credit: Oneill Photographics

The ABC’s COVID-celebrity health expert and reporter Dr Norman Swan headlined day two of Get Local’s education program, providing both a sobering view of the staying power of the pandemic and actionable insights for the business events industry to make events a less likely location of COVID-19 transmission.

“It’ll probably take anything up to a decade for this to all stabilise,” said Swan, in reference to the pandemic, which prompted something of a collective intake of breath from assembled industry.

But he said it was not a knife edge situation and that lockdowns and border closures were unlikely from now on.

“We’re walking along a reasonable pathway, which is quite hard to fall off because we’re so well vaccinated.”

He repeated assertions made to micenet in late 2021 about the importance of ventilation as well as offering some warnings on rapid testing.

“We should be much more aware of ventilation. So as event managers, you need to ask difficult questions of the venues,” he said.

“Convention centres tend to be much better because they’ve known for years if their ventilation rates aren’t high enough you get drowsy in the environment.

“High ceilings, lots of air exchanges – that’s what you’ve got to think about and venues all over the place are working that out.

“What they should be doing is actually measuring the CO2 levels when you’ve got a full room to see what they are.”

Longstanding American standards say carbon dioxide levels in office spaces should be maintained below 800 parts per million of carbon dioxide. As a reference point, outdoor levels are typically around 400 parts per million.

On rapid testing, Swan said repeated tests gave more accurate results and warned that the sensitivity of individual brands had not yet been independently verified.

“We actually are not too sure about the performance of individual brands.

“What’s going to emerge over the next couple of months as they are now doing independent testing on them, it will emerge which ones are the best ones.

“When you hear these stories of RAT inaccuracies, it’s got a lot to do with probably the brand itself and some are better than others.”

Swan said he was “reasonably optimistic, but very cautiously so”.

When asked what organisers should be doing to allay delegates’ unease about attending events due to COVID, Swan advised there were “some notes that you need to hit” around ventilation, density, monitoring CO2 levels, encouraging masking wearing and possibly mandating vaccination for attendance.

“In the world of Omicron, you’re on less certain ground with vaccine mandates because the vaccines no longer strongly protect against infection and the main reason for a vaccine mandate is actually to protect you against severe disease.

“If you do a bit of market research and work out what your audience wants, it may well be that you will only accept people who can show they’re…up to date with [their] vaccines,” he said.

Dr Norman Swan speaking at Get Local | Credit: Oneill Photographics

Amongst industry at the event, the atmosphere was jubilant, with the attitude perhaps best summed up by Doltone House’s CEO, Anna Cesarano, at the Tuesday night networking event at Doltone House Darling Island.

“Whilst today we might say Get Local, can we just say, ‘get on with it’ from tomorrow?” she said.

Buyers and exhibitors alike also expressed approval.

“I think it’s fantastic – especially connecting with everybody again,” said buyer Marjolein Chandler from Helmsbriscoe.

“It’s…a big buzz going on, because if this event wouldn’t have happened, how can we trust our clients to come back and do events?”

Exhibitor Allan Horne from Shangri-La the Marina, Cairns, was thinking along similar lines.

“It was good to be able to catch up with people – both ex-colleagues and clients and just to prove to ourselves and to prove to everybody that events can happen – there’s no reason to be scared of meeting face to face. You get your negative test to come in, people are wearing face masks, you can still meet. These events can happen.”

He said the event allowed him to meet people he had been communicating with via phone and email for the last six to eight months but had never met in person.

“To put a face to a name, it’ll definitely help me with conversion,” he said.

This Drunken Lamington + QLD Bundaberg Rum Chiller was part of the Destination Degustation at the Get Local welcome event at Doltone House Darling Island on Tuesday night | Credit: Oneill Photographics

As for Get Local’s founders, Donna Kessler and Gary Bender, it was all positive.

“Excited, elated, proud, energised,” were Kessler’s emotional descriptors at the drinks on show floor which closed the event.

Bender said he felt energised by the industry and he hoped the show had energised stakeholders in return.

On deciding to go ahead with the show in January – after two postponements in 2021 – at the peak of the NSW Omicron wave, Bender was matter of fact.

“Someone’s got to do it, and it might as well be us, to take the lead.”

Kessler said they did wonder if they were doing the right thing by going ahead but exhibitors and buyers helped seal the event’s fate – and date.

“We divvied up the list of exhibitors and buyers and we started going through them and ringing them and we were actually surprised because we thought they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re mad’. Everyone was like, ‘Do it, do it’. We put the phone down and went, ‘Wow, okay’.

“That was another reason why we pushed through.

“Gary and I firmly believe that as an industry if we didn’t walk the talk, then we would never recover,” said Kessler.

As for the future, there will be another event although between Get Local and Get Global, the show that started it all for the pair, anything is on the table.

“There will be another event. We will shape the next event based on the feedback,” said Kessler.

“It’s important for us that we keep [in] our lane…it’s a boutique show – we’re not trying to be other shows that are out there, we just want to focus on what we do and how we do it well and do it right.”