By Brad Foster

COVID-19 reared its head in Australia just before the start of the Northern Territory’s packed events season. Its arrival has seen the team at the NT’s largest events company busier than ever as they take on new roles and adapt to a changing landscape.

It’s been a strange year for many, and the Northern Territory Major Events Company (NTMEC) is no exception. Usually by now they’ve thrilled thousands at Parrtjima – A Festival in Light in Alice Springs; they’ve wowed crowds at the BASSINTHEGRASS music festival in Darwin; and they are busy organising concert and fireworks extravaganzas for Territory Day while knee-deep in planning the BetEasy Darwin Triple Crown Supercars in Darwin and the Red CentreNATS in Alice Springs.

This year was also the ‘on’ year for the Alice Springs Masters Games, held in the Red Centre every second year. The Masters had a new event manager and the team was busy revamping the much-loved sporting festival. In short, things were progressing nicely – until COVID-19 came along.

The NTMEC’s chief executive officer, Tim Watsford, remembers Friday, March 13, as the day all their carefully laid plans began to come undone.

“We were closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation, but this was such an unprecedented set of circumstances that, from that fateful Friday, the situation was changing by the hour. It was all hands on deck,” he said.

“Just the day before, on March 12, we’d been celebrating the addition of an outreach program to Parrtjima this year, and hearing from local businesses how our Bruce Munro: Tropical Light exhibition had benefited them.

“Then the Federal Government advised against non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people and, in that single moment, all our planning went out the window.”

The NTMEC team knew they had to act quickly. With a window of around seven months to hold all their events due to the Territory’s often extreme weather, on March 18, just five days after COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings were declared, they announced Parrtjima had been moved from April to September, and BASSINTHEGRASS from May to October.

“The Territory is a unique place with unique weather. Here, probably more than anywhere in Australia, the climate dictates our events calendar,” Mr Watsford said.

“Events are a huge part of life, both for locals and visitors. We didn’t want to just cancel everything, so we made the decision to reschedule instead. We were prepared to do whatever it took to deliver our events where possible.”

NTMEC not only leads the NT’s events sector by holding several of its biggest gatherings, it also, through Northern Territory Government funding, provides grants to other event organisers, contributing to a jam-packed calendar of happenings. Since Friday, March 13, the team has been a source of knowledge, support and advice for event organisers, and has worked tirelessly to help others navigate their way through unknown COVID-19 waters.

“We provide funding to a range of events. They include well-known cultural events such as Darwin Festival, to more locally focused gatherings such as the Beer Can Regatta. We also have partnerships with the AFL and NRL that see teams play fixtures in Darwin and Alice Springs.”

During the developing COVID-19 situation, the NTMEC team fielded calls not just from their event partners, but also from across the Territory’s events sector.

“As the largest event organiser in the Territory, people naturally turned to us for advice. The Territory is a tight-knit community and we all know each other. These weren’t simply industry people calling up for help. They were also friends. Our whole industry had been decimated almost overnight, and it was up to us to advise them as best we could with the knowledge we had.”

The NTMEC team quickly developed resources to help event organisers through the rapidly changing landscape, including messaging for media releases and social media, information on government help available and an FAQ. They also organised two Business Continuity Workshops to help businesses and organisers survive, which reached more than 1000 people in two weeks.

In addition, the team was enlisted to staff the NT Government’s Gatherings and Events helpline seven days a week, fielding hundreds of calls from anxious organisers and suppliers. But it didn’t stop there.

“The Gatherings and Events helpline morphed into a general enquiries helpline, so the team had to get up-to-speed about all things COVID-19,” Mr Watsford said.

“Queries varied wildly, and covered everything from the requirements for weddings and funerals to questions about hairdressing, travel, health treatments, restaurants, borders, sport competitions, gyms, backyard barbecues, hand sanitiser, swimming pools, national parks, house inspections, construction sites, COVID-19 Safety Plans and much more.

“The range of queries was astonishing and showed just how extensively COVID-19 has affected every area of life.”

Back to industry, and NTMEC has worked closely with suppliers to navigate through contract variations in the hope of helping them survive these uncertain times.

“With the events industry effectively closed at the start of its busiest time of year, many suppliers were facing a bleak future,” Mr Watsford said.

“To support them, and ensure they were still in business when events kick off again, we renegotiated our contracts rather than cancel them, and changed our payment terms from 30 days to seven.”

With zero COVID-19 cases in the Territory, Territorians are now enjoying some of the most relaxed restrictions in the world. But where does these leave events, and the NTMEC team?

“I’ve had people ask me what we’ve been doing for the last few months with ‘no events’. It makes me smile because instead of planning for one event, we’ve been planning for several versions of the same event. Take Supercars. We had to plan what Supercars might look like with crowds, without crowds and with limited crowds. And Red CentreNATS – we’ve planned for a locals-only event and one with interstaters.

“It’s a similar situation for Parrtjima. The festival was fully planned and locked in for April when COVID-19 restrictions hit. All that was left to do was print the program. Now it has been rescheduled we’ve had to reimagine the whole thing, with physical distancing and border restrictions in mind.”

Not knowing when those border restrictions might be lifted was a particular problem for NTMEC, which generates more than half its ticket sales from interstate attendees. In response, the team had to undertake a full financial review to ensure their events were financially viable for a local crowd, should border restrictions remain in place.

“Rather than leave us twiddling our thumbs, COVID-19 has demanded we rethink everything we’ve ever done as we come up with innovative new ways to hold events – and much of this was done while the team was split up working from home,” Mr Watsford said.

“At the same time, we’ve also used the past few weeks to finalise and launch our new brand, and work on our business processes, including our sponsorship strategy, charity policy, proactive PR planning, asset library, integrated content marketing, brand personas and stakeholder engagement.

“The future is still uncertain when it comes to COVID-19, but what is certain is the NTMEC team will continue to rise to the challenge and deliver for Territorians and, once the borders open, visitors too.”