March 31 2021

By Joyce DiMascio

Paula Leishman calls it as it is. She’s been running her business as a professional conference organiser for 21 years and has a clear handle on the current state-of-play in the business events market. Her company, Leishman Associates, is based in Tasmania and operates nationally. Her business is built on long-term repeat clients.

She says the long-term picture looks solid but in the short term there are still a lot of “blockers” obstructing business confidence for events.

“I want to present a positive picture, but we are not there yet,” she says.

“Within associations, there is a lot of anxiety about the short-term though everyone is buoyant about the vaccine,” she says.

“The snap lockdowns don’t do us any favours. The reduced capacity at venues adds costs to running an event and then with international borders still closed everything compounds to make things in the short-term difficult.”

At present Leishman Associates has eight events on its books for this year, instead of 35. Leishman says some of these clients have events booked for December 2021 and they are still not confident and want to push them out further.

While her business does not handle a lot of corporate events, she is hearing from the convention bureaux that there are a lot of leads coming from this sector.

“We are a long way from where we used to be. There is a reluctance to travel and companies have not yet changed their COVID travel policies. Even the PCOs are nervous about getting stuck if border restrictions are activated at short notice.”

Community transmission, like the current cases in Brisbane, are exactly the sort of outbreaks that are barriers to the short-term rebound as there is a feeling in the industry that borders could be shut at any moment, she says.

As a Board Member of the Professional Conference Organisers Association (PCOA), Leishman has a helicopter view of the industry.

Asked whether all PCOs will survive with JobKeeper ended, she indicated that it depended on the size of the business.

“Some may not survive,” she says.

Apart from being a conference organiser, Leishman Associates is also an Association Management company and this has helped to keep the company afloat during the pandemic.

“This has given us enough money to pay our bills. Without this diversification of our business, it would have been very difficult. For companies that have to dig into their equity or those that are carrying debt, the future prospects would be very tricky,” Leishman says.

But she is very upbeat about the opportunity presented by hybrid events, especially for associations. She says the hybrid format allows associations to grow their communities.

She believes those considering the hybrid model for the future will be looking at ways to monetise the format, including whether to charge for the content and education.

She is careful to point out that the hybrid model needs to be developed in its own right and not be simply a replica of live events in virtual formats.

“I don’t think you can really pick a three-day virtual meeting
and expect it would work as a hybrid.”

She says the industry may well be developing ways to deliver more “on-demand” content, subscription models, or even more post-production of packages of conference content that is sponsor branded. These are all areas that PCOs and event organisers are currently exploring. She also suggests that conferences could well become like Netflix, with users choosing their content on-demand and for a fee. It’s all up for consideration.

Leishman is excited about the opportunities ahead and the innovation that will evolve from this period of major disruption.

She’s also sure that the event managers of the future will need a very different skills set.

For now, she says it’s good to see events returning and more enquiries. But we’re not out of the woods, not yet she reaffirms. The period ahead requires continued Government support and the industry working together. There are signs confidence is returning but there is still a fragility in the market which is afraid of the consequences of sudden lockdowns and border closures.

Leishman is grateful to the Tasmanian Government for its $1.5 million support package for business events in Tasmania.

From the Federal Government, she would like to see an extension of support similar to that granted to Qantas staff.

“For me it would be amazing to get more help to the end of October. That would really get me over the line.”