The head of Business Events Australia (BEA) sat down recently with micenet’s Bronwen Largier to discuss almost everything facing the business events industry right now.

Full transparency before we dig into the perspective of one of the most influential people in the marketing of Australia’s business events industry internationally and, more recently, also on home soil. I spent the best part of the pandemic to date – up until March 2021 – working under Penny Lion as part of the Business Events Australia team. And I have yet to see a more considered and strategic approach to marketing our industry, from tone of voice to ensuring that everything produced seeds the kind of inspiration that’ll make decision makers and delegates consider flying thousands of kilometres to event in Australia.

A first major foray into domestic marketing

We ease into things with Business Events Australia’s domestic campaign, Event Here This Year. It’s new territory for Tourism Australia’s specialist business events unit but it’s going well.

“It’s the first time we’ve done mainstream media buy so it’s really exciting for us and obviously really important that we reach the target audience of the corporates or the exhibition decision makers or association decision makers,” says Lion.

So far, the campaign has reached approximately two million people in that target audience.

Research amongst corporate decision makers, as part of a wider project to chart evolving attitudes to restarting events, also shows that one in three decision makers have seen the campaign and 92 percent of those are more likely to host a business event because of it.

“That’s a really strong testament to the creative but also the creative having cut through and actually resonating with the target audience,” says Lion.

The point of the campaign is, of course, to spike appetite for business events domestically, to drive more business for the industry as soon as possible. And Lion says the industry can play a significant role in the success of the campaign.

“I always see our role as driving demand – our job is to do that broad marketing consideration and help increase the desire for business events and do a true call-to-action for the decision makers of the world.

“But where industry can really help, besides utilisation of the assets, is if they can actually help us break down the barriers that we see are an issue for conversion of business events at the moment: if they can help demonstrate safety within the pandemic [environment] – how they’re using all their protocols and how they’re running events; the flexibility around running events; the flexibility with contracts which we know is very difficult for industry, but will help with conversion.

“All those things are important, but also delivering a quality experience. That’s where industry can really help us out and help themselves out as well.”

An example of campaign artwork featured in mainstream media

The confidence issue

Lion acknowledges the difficult situation facing parts of the industry at the moment, but says the future is looking brighter.

“Overall, I would say I’m cautiously optimistic,” she says, adding that the BEA team are engaging strongly with industry to continually monitor how everyone is tracking.

“Anecdotally, everybody is saying that short term is certainly tough but the longer-term is looking really positive.

“With the research that we’ve been doing, the stats do speak to that as well.

“The latest wave that we did in February tells us only 35 percent of corporate decision makers are willing to hold an event in the next four to six months so I think it’s really an issue with short-term business confidence, due to the snap shutdowns of borders etc.

“But then the positive news is that when you look at 12-18 months and beyond, it goes from 66 up to 75 percent [of corporate decision makers planning to deliver events].”

“Some areas of Australia are doing really well…I was in Cairns recently and everything from incentive groups to large conferences, from 80 people to 500 delegates – they’re happening and happening for lots of different reasons – they’re either helping with getting sales or distribution teams together and connecting with customers or reigniting company culture.

“Then the industry has to service that short term conversion, and that’s hard.

She says regional Australia is seeing more of a boom of activity, with very short lead times – “to the point they might get a request today for something next week” – whereas the cities are “really struggling”.

“That’s where we also want our campaign to do a lot more work – how do we get people back into our cities and staying in our hotels and using our wonderful event infrastructure but at the same time including experiences as part of an event?

“That business confidence…is critical – how we get decision makers to feel okay and build that confidence is broken into two key parts.

“There’s the confidence that their people won’t get COVID, because the pandemic is still happening – COVID’s still out there, we’re still rolling out vaccinations, so they have that duty of care for their people and they’ve got to feel confident that they’ve got that in check.

“But the other part is, what happens if there is a snap border shutdown, how do they get people home safely so they don’t have to quarantine and what would the impact be to their business, so there’s so many considerations.”

And she’s aware too of the pressures on industry trying to restart while the pandemic is still in play, from balancing client requests against restrictions to staffing issues and getting financial commitment from clients.

“There’s so many little things that are tough enough in a normal world but for industry are even tougher still.

“But industry remains really positive and very determined and I really admire that. I think they’ll find their way through all these challenges, I really do.”

And Lion says the Business Events Australia team is passing as much feedback as possible from industry onto the Federal Tourism Minister Dan Tehan.

“We have his ear and we’ll continue to communicate with him.”

Converting international interest

Despite Australia’s international border remaining shut, Lion says international interest in Australia is there.

“We’re hearing via the Bid Fund Program, we’re hearing from industry, we’re hearing from our colleagues in market that there’s really good interest in the pipeline and we’re seeing those actual quotes come through.

“In the longer term, there is absolute appetite there and we want to try and get that converted as quickly as we can do.”

Tourism Australia’s Business Events Bid Fund Program, which was recently extended by 12 months until the end of the 2021/2022 financial year, has certainly been helping with that conversion.

Since the fund came into operation just shy of three years ago, the program has attracted a billion dollars of event enquiries and 40 events have been won with BFP support, contributing an estimated $409 million to Australia’s economy. Those figures do not include events that haven’t gone ahead due to the pandemic.

Recent research undertaken by Deloitte to understand the additionality of the Bid Fund – that is to say, looking beyond the direct economic impact of the program and understanding what can be solely attributed to the Bid Fund’s existence – also highlight how valuable it has been for the industry and for Australia.

Seventy-five percent of those 40 events won would have been lost to other countries without the Bid Fund and the program is solely responsible for bringing 138,000 international delegates to Australia.

With a return of $7.70 for every dollar invested in the Bid Fund, the initiative is also performing almost three times better than other government programs where the average ROI is $2.80 for each dollar invested.

SportAccord, held on the Gold Coast in 2019, was won with support from Tourism Australia’s Bid Fund Program

The one voice approach

When global travel does resume, Lion believes it’ll be fiercely competitive.

“It’ll be so interesting. Because we won’t be the first one to reopen our borders – what might that mean for us? Is Australia’s handling of the pandemic, which has been relatively successful, going to last us through to see the actual numbers and will it help drive visitation?”

She also suspects that there will be “a few destinations that will have money to put down” to tempt international events to their destinations through subvention. She says agility will be important to adapt to circumstances as they evolve and a “one voice” Australia-first philosophy will strengthen our ability to compete internationally.

“One voice is very much a Tourism Australia term but it came about because Australia’s a really hard destination to sell,” she says.

“Our geographic location means that it’s complicated, in that, most of the time, Australia’s a multi-destination solution.

“I always think about it from a customer perspective – they’d much rather see Australia altogether than see different states and territories, or different products and experiences. By us providing platforms, industry can be part of that and it becomes this very strong message and it makes it easier for the planners to understand what’s possible for a program.

“We think that when the borders open and we can return to our normal business development, that one voice approach will be really important because it’s going to be so saturated with competition,” says Lion.

The New Zealand travel bubble

Despite New Zealand being one of Australia’s strongest performing international markets for business events, Lion cautions that the recent opening of unrestricted travel between Australia and New Zealand is unlikely to bring much business to Australia in the short-term.

“The Kiwis have been operating in a very safe environment in New Zealand and so they’ve been running events and they’ve booked a lot of their activity in their own backyard.

“So short-term, no, I don’t think it’ll be a tremendous opportunity; longer-term, yes, and we’ve always had their support. They’ve been terrific – [they’ve] always been our number one for business events visitation in regards to numbers and they’ll continue to do that.

She says their business events approach is similar to planners here, they know Australia’s offering extremely well and that BEA’s marketing to New Zealand stakeholders has remained strong throughout the pandemic. 

As part of its marketing push in New Zealand, Business Events Australia has released several tailored editions of its inspiration magazine Australia Next to event planners in market during the pandemic.

The Business Events Grants Program

Lion is one of three on the industry advisory panel for the Business Events Grants Program which provides advice to Austrade, which is managing the program, on implementation of the initiative and the schedule of approved events, of which there are now over 350.

When I put to her the widely circulated figure of only $8 million of the $50 million of funds being earmarked for distribution, she says it isn’t the full story.

“That information isn’t correct …there’ll be a lot of data coming out about what’s been committed, what’s been dispensed, how many events are being positively impacted across what industries, across the country,” she says, adding more information should be shared with industry soon.

“All three of us [on the panel] were pleasantly surprised with the stats that Austrade shared with us.

“The commitment is there – they can spend all of that money times two.

“But it’s like our Bid Fund Program – I think there’s a very distinct difference that people are talking about, which is committed funds versus actually dispensed funds.

“The commitment and the ask is more than $90m – I think the appetite is there, that’s all been qualified.”

And she says the industry needs to keep looking forward.

“It’s more important potentially for industry to think about what’s next and I know BECA is doing that. What’s a longer-term solution for industry to consider, what do they need and they’re the conversations that I know BECA is having with the Minister.”