April 15 2021

By Bronwen Largier

The pain and the glory and the complexity of the events industry was on display at the first day of Victoria’s inquiry into the impact of the pandemic on the tourism and events industry. At times it was difficult to watch.

Simon Thewlis of the Save Victorian Events collective, Tiny Good, Director of rigging company Show Tech and Howard Freeman, Founding Director of CrewCare were the first on the schedule to give evidence and were followed by Harry the hirer CEO Gab Robinson, Lawrie Videky, and Peter Marko from Phaseshift Productions and Rocky Bruzzano, CFO of ExpoNext, with a few others in between.

Evidence given laid bare the stark losses faced by the industry and the lack of understanding that an industry that contributes $12 billion in direct spend to Victoria in a normal year even exists.

In his opening address Thewlis pointed to the struggle to be recognised in Victoria, even as the state prides itself on being the events capital of Australia.

“There have been countless roundtables where we were talked at or talked down to by people with no real knowledge of our industry. Often treating us like idiots. For so long, nothing happened.

“At one large roundtable in mid-November, on asking why the event industry had received no financial support, the deputy secretary simply said that ‘the event industry hasn’t received any financial support because the event industry is not an industry’.

“On asking soon after why there were still no published guidelines for business events we were told that business events aren’t really a type of events.

“Despite being one of the very hardest hit industries, it took us eight months – so until February – to get a meeting to talk about financial support. It was only for 30 minutes and nothing has happened since.”

Thewlis said five things needed to happen – recognition of the industry, understanding of the industry and its value by government, establishment of a government agency dedicated to events, financial support put in place to help industry businesses survive until events return more fully, and the underwriting of COVID-19 event cancellation insurance by the government.

In their addresses both Good and Freeman pointed out the contribution the events industry makes to support society as a whole.

“ShowTech has also been part of pretty much every major disaster response since 1990. We were part of responding to the Black Saturday bushfires, we were part of the concerts for floods and fire relief and everything else that’s happened since 1990,” said Good, adding that his team had driven into central Victoria to delivery care packages to fire fighters and emergency services during bush fire season.

“We put our hand up to everything that happens in society,” said Freeman. “One event in this country for the bushfires that Michael Gudinski organised raised $150 million that went back to society. Have we seen that amount of money back to us? Not a chance.”

Evidence given throughout the day highlighted the millions of dollars worth of specialised equipment held by the industry and the costs associated with that while there was no money coming in.

Concerns over the longer-term impact of talent exiting the industry were also raised several times.

“People like us are the ones who are training the younger people who are coming into [the industry] and wanting to learn and be part of it,” said Marko, who is PhaseShift’s Head Repair Technician. “So you need the people with the experience who have been there and got the hands on experience over the years to train the young people to do the job. And without us there – if we all go off and find other jobs because we’ve got to pay our mortgage or support our family, then there’s no one left to do it.”

Good became visibly emotional when discussing having to let staff go because he could not pay them.

“We trust our lives to these people,” he said.

The sheer financial impact was laid bare throughout the day as was the need for businesses to simply survive until business picked up again.

“Just as a quick snapshot, in the three months following COVID, we’re a business that was meant to generate around $30 million – we generated less than a million dollars,” said Robinson.

“That’s…how quickly this happened – it wasn’t a reduction of revenues – it was an industry shutdown.

“All we can do is keep [offering] up suggestions as to how we can reopen our industry. Should that not be acceptable, please fund us. Give us targeted support. Not forever. As I say, it’s only from now until September so we can survive, if Victoria as a state puts a value on our industry.

“If Victoria doesn’t put a value on our industry then do nothing.”

Bruzzano said ExpoNet had only six people currently working in Victoria to prepare for the return of exhibitions, with 61 staff still stood down. The company is hoping they might return to 40 percent of pre-COVID annual sales next financial year.

“Companies like us – we just can’t wait around forever for that to occur. We’ve already been waiting for the last 13 months, we’ve used all our cash, and decisions need to be made,” he said.

“We know the work’s going to be there in the future but we would like to be there in the future and one way to do that is unfortunately – I know Governments don’t like it – but we need some support financially.

“We need something to steady the ship as it were.”

Complex approval processes and lack of communication in Victoria were also highlighted as were actions that demonstrated a lack of understanding of the industry by Government, such as granting events approval only weeks before they take place. The impact of border closures on the industry were also detailed with real world examples.

Good says he lost tens of thousands when the last Melbourne lockdown coincided with Show Tech’s commitment to deliver a show as part of the Adelaide Festival.

“We delivered the event because that’s what we do.

“We lost $38,000 straight out of our account and thank you very much to the government, we got $2,500 back. That’s the reality of what border closures and lockdowns and circuit-breakers are to our industry,” he said.

But the day also provided a glimpse to Government of what makes the industry great.

“I believe that I learnt my conduct, my ethics and my work practices from being part of the events industry,” said Good.

“The discipline that you learn, the planning you learn, the life skills and other skills that you learn as being part of the events industry.

“We are taught in this industry to rely on each other, to problem solve, to think on our feet and to not just give up the moment it starts getting hard.

“If we gave up the moment it starts getting hard, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“Working for someone else outside our industry I’ve gained a realisation of how special and niche our industry actually is,” said Videky, owner of Phaseshift Productions, who repurposed some of the company’s activities to subcontracting for logistics companies during the pandemic.

“I think we’ve very privileged to be in an industry where people are passionate about their job, love the environment and have a common goal about making the show happen.”