August 31, 2021 | By Suzanne Hart | Image above: My DA team running our first IBM gig in 2018

I owned and operated SHE (Suzanne Hart Events) from 2002 – 2017. My core business was delivering roadshows, product launches, conferences and special events for corporate clients in Australia and overseas.

I am fortunate to have worked in many different areas of the industry: beginning in hospitality in Perth, moving to Melbourne to help manage corporate conferences, on to one of Australia’s largest PCOs, and then to travel and incentive management. If I’d mapped out my career on a whiteboard 27 years ago, it would have gone exactly like this.

In 2017 I was offered the “dream job”: heading up the MICE team at Destination Asia Indonesia based in Bali.  I packed up my house and my life in Melbourne Australia and moved to Bali in May that year.

My team of eight wonderful Indonesians had many years of industry experience between them that included roles in hotels, in sales and operations, at other DMCs on the island, and other event companies. From my perspective, I saw we had the foundations to build the strongest MICE team on the island, to lead our competitors, to deliver the best programs and experiences for our clients from all over the world.

As a former client of Destination Asia, and specifically of the Bali team, I understood some of the strengths and many areas we could work together to improve. I had been set the challenge of building the team that was at the time, fractured.  I was excited by the challenge of my new role, by the chance to live and work on the island I had loved to visit for so many years. I had the chance to share my experience from the years of designing and delivering world class programs, and the great joy of working with the team to create unique activities and programs that were true to our incredible destination.  One of the highlights of my time was to lead the team and assist in delivering the largest program in the company’s history – The Best of IBM – that saw two waves of 2,500 people over a week visit the island in May 2019.

This time, from 2017 to early 2020, was to be amongst my greatest professional achievements, and a role I am most proud of.

Fast forward to early 2020 and the world was taking notice of COVID-19.  At the end of 2019, we had forecast the busiest and most successful six months for the coming year in my time in the role. We had back-to-back groups coming to Bali, some overlapping, many averaging 400+ people for average stays on the island of five days. These were full service events and programs involving transport, guides, events, tours and activities. We were ramping up for a record six months, and I had decided it was time to plan my ‘retirement’ post June 2020.

The business was cancelled of course, over the next few months. We all went into damage control – some kept their jobs, most didn’t, DA did what they could to look after the 100+ employees, guides and contractors but we could soon see the writing on the wall. It was devastating.

I finished earlier than planned, at the end of April 2020. I was fortunate to have made my decision to move on with my life prior to COVID – I had mapped out 2020 and my surfing safari. As an expat in an Indonesian company, we are a financial burden in times when it can least be afforded. My early departure meant most of my Indonesian team could remain employed, at least for the short term.

During 2020 life was pretty good. I lived in a lovely villa with every comfort in Sanur. I had everything I needed: access to fresh food and produce, a tight group of friends who gave each other the support to get through the challenges and changes the year brought. And waves: I surfed as much as possible, out in the sunshine and the ocean whenever I could. COVID couldn’t get me there.

The main road through Kuta outside Beachwalk. It remained this way from July 2020 until I left

I chose to stay through that year. The Australian Embassy posted messages on social media in August 2020 advising Australians living in Indonesia to consider booking flights to get home. At that time, I felt relatively safe and secure in my Bali home and community. We were faring quite well on the island, our numbers weren’t close to the predictions and doom and gloom we were seeing in other countries (aside from Australia and NZ of course). I was happy to wait it out. Not believing or realising that we hadn’t see anywhere near the worst of it.

Numbers increased as we headed toward Christmas. The Bali Governor put last-minute, strict travel requirements in place for the many domestic tourists planning on spending their December/January holidays in Bali. A mandatory PCR test to board a flight to Bali (at a cost of approximately $90 per test) saw many cancel their plans. Despite this, we saw a huge spike in cases by the middle of January 2021.

Good news was around the corner in April 2021 with the arrival of vaccines through the COVAX agreement. Indonesia received both AstraZeneca and Sinovac – the Chinese vaccine we know as Coronavac. A proposed ‘green zone’ of Ubud, Sanur and Nusa Dua was planned for future international travel and tourism, and residents of these areas were given access to mass vaccination facilities that popped up all around our local area. I received my first jab of Coronavac in April this year, with my second a month later in May. The aim was to have 80 percent of the population vaccinated toward the end of 2021 to facilitate opening to international tourism. That strategy was problematic and flawed, however it did ensure that the vaccine was widely available for us all. Ironically, I was vaccinated before most of my family and friends at home in Australia had had their first jab.

I think we all started to relax a little with this rollout. People felt they could ‘get back to normal’ now that they’d received full vaccination. A similar story from many countries it seems.

Our next case spike happened post Ramadan, after the end of May. It was widely predicted and unfortunately realised. The government had said “no” to the annual Mudik tradition, the exodus of millions of Indonesians who travel home to their villages and islands to celebrate this special time with their families. Many ignored travel restrictions and blatantly sidestepped the barriers to move around the country. COVID cases skyrocketed a few weeks later. Indonesia is only just coming through that all these months later, to see daily cases decrease, and deaths finally start to decline.

Kuta Beach during PPKM restrictions

It was around this time I began to feel a lot more vulnerable than I had in the previous year. We were all living through what is known as PPKM: restrictions to limit movement, reduce groups in public places, restrict numbers at ceremonies. In Indonesia, and Bali, we had never, and still have not, experienced a full lockdown as Australia and other countries had implemented. There are so many reasons for this, not the least being that Indonesians mostly live from day to day, buying food each morning for the day, without the luxury of western style kitchens, the space or facilities for storage. Or the disposable income to plan and prepare. “I earn money today, I eat today”.  It’s a tricky recipe for disaster to completely lock down the country.

I had begun looking at flights in May this year to return to Australia for Christmas; at that time, Garuda was still flying to Perth, Sydney and Brisbane weekly, despite incurring massive financial losses flying planes with less than 50 percent capacity. Singapore Airlines was flying from Jakarta to Australia. Flights were expensive (averaging $1500 one way economy) but it was possible. The only available flight options continued to be departing Jakarta to Australia; Bali International Airport has been closed to international flights since July 2020.

As cases skyrocketed the situation became dire. Java (the main island of Indonesia and the nextdoor neighbour to Bali) was the centre of the escalation in cases; on July 25 Indonesia recorded 54,000 new cases.  Health care workers were catching COVID despite being vaccinated, many nurses and doctors were dying. Hospitals were full, oxygen was in short supply, people were dying at home and in the streets as there were no hospital beds. Cases spiked in Bali as movement between the islands continued. And I got scared.

Part 2 coming tomorrow: An anxious wait and the journey home