April 6 2021

By Bronwen Largier

So often when I hear the business events and wider events industry being discussed outside of itself, it’s bundled in as part of the tourism industry. And indeed, in many ways it is part of the tourism industry, insofar as its role in providing a massive boost to accommodation providers, restaurants, tour operators and the like, particularly – in the case of business events – during the week where these operators typically have lower occupancy. But in terms of recovery from the pandemic, the events industry is categorically out on its own in a boat in the middle of a rough sea.

If we must draw comparisons, rather than being recognised as our own distinctly skilled industry, the simple fact is, the leisure tourism industry can recover a lot more quickly in both the short term and the long term than the public and business events industry.

You only have to look at the news from the past few days to see the stark difference.

Yesterday The Australian reported a boom in flight bookings for both Virgin and Qantas following the launch of half price flights as part of the Federal Government’s $1.2 billion tourism support package post-JobKeeper. Virgin sold a record 71,000 sale fares on Thursday while Qantas told the paper that the quantity of domestic tickets sold was almost back to where we were at Easter in 2019.

Meanwhile, the big news in the business events industry last week was that just $8 million of the Federal Government’s $50 million Business Events Grants Program has been earmarked for distribution, six months into the program’s operation.

And, on Thursday last week, the NSW Government mandated the last-minute cancellation of Byron Bay Bluesfest, at a reported wider economic loss of $10 million.

Without meaning to diminish the recovery struggles of those serving the leisure travel market, many of whom have done it incredibly tough during the pandemic, what the general public and, in particular, the State and Federal Governments need to understand is the fundamental differences between the leisure tourism industry and the full gamut of the events industry, which delivers returns for all the other industries and businesses which shape our economy and our way of life.

Leisure travel can have shorter lead times. You can decide a week out that now’s a good time for a weekend getaway. You can book your trip in a matter of minutes – or hours, depending on the desired level of intricacy for your escape from the daily grind. Hell, you may have even decided to go away for the night tonight when you woke up this morning. Ironically, the most likely thing to prevent you from doing this at the moment is accommodation being booked out.

And, if COVID cases hit your travel plans, many accommodation providers and tour operators are likely to be flexible in the current conditions. You can rebook. It might only take you a couple of minutes, or, if intricacy is your thing, maybe it’ll take you an hour or two.

When COVID hits leisure tourism, the largest impact is on the days which movement is restricted, say, during a snap lockdown. And tourism operators, by and large, prepare for doing business with their customers each day in the same way.

A case in point: the writer of this very piece was booked for a trip to Melbourne with a flight landing two hours before Melbourne’s last strict lockdown ended in February. I didn’t cancel my trip – I rebooked my flight for the following morning and had a lovely time down south which included – not two days after said lockdown had concluded – a visit to the busiest bar I have been in since pandemic restrictions were implemented in March last year.

On the other hand, the lead time for domestic business and leisure events could be up to a year or more. Events don’t just happen. There’s a reason why so many in our industry are called event planners – because we are an industry that is arguably more about planning than event day delivery.  Not to sell short the expertise involved in the delivery of the event itself, but its success is often predicated on the weeks, months or years of planning that precedes it, by experts across many different parts of the industry supply chain. Just look at Fyre Festival – the planning was fatally flawed so the delivery never stood a chance.

In their cancellation statement, Bluesfest organisers pointed out that the team “has worked day and night for a year” to ensure a COVIDSafe event. Most of those costs can’t be recouped.

You can’t ask the event team to hand back their wages for the last year because the event has been cancelled.

And much of the meticulous planning, the negotiations with stakeholders and the marketing to stallholders and potential attendees will need to be done again for a rescheduled event. With Bluesfest owning their event site, that doesn’t even include a significant cost and resource drain for most public and business events – availability and price negotiation on the venue front.

Varying levels of Government need to understand that when any kind of event is forced to cancel due to the unpredictability of current circumstances – whether it is a single COVID case, a snap lockdown or sudden interstate border closures – up to a year or more of preparation, resources and investment is entirely written off.

For events like Bluesfest, where a single event underpins the whole of their business – you’ve essentially had the majority of the organisation’s work over the past year come to nothing. Bluesfest organisers calling the event’s 2021 cancellation “catastrophic” is bang on. Without further support, it has the potential to make the delivery of any further iterations of an event that has spent the best part of three decades building up its commercial and cultural offering – not to mention its status on the local and global festival scene – unviable.

Paula Leishman of Leishman Associates says her company has just eight of their usual 35 events on their books for 2021.

And for those in the business events industry, where the majority of yearly income might depend on a few handfuls of event delivery days, the impact of snap lockdowns and the residual longer tail of uncertainty they trail in their wake, which also has consequences for event go/no-go decisions in progress, makes it impossible for the industry to snap back the way other industries can. And, as Paula Leishman’s interview last week highlights, with fewer events on the books this year due to lower confidence, the events industry has its proverbial eggs in fewer baskets than usual, so each potential cancellation carries a higher risk and more consequences than ever.

As Matt Pearce of AIME organiser Talk2 Media and Events told us in March about the cancellation of the region’s largest business events trade show, “Emotionally and practically, our visitors and exhibitors needed to commit months out – book hotels, book meetings, incur costs.”

For trade events where there are commercial imperatives for return on investment for those who’ve bought space at an event, the current unpredictability of whether event participants will be able to attend on the days of the event is a killer for the viability of exhibitions until circumstances settle.

And even in the corporate space, where expected returns are softer – building morale, company culture, sharing ideas, reconnecting, discussing strategy and so on – the investment on behalf of the corporate is deemed worthy only if they can be reasonably confident the event can go ahead with its participants intact and in person.

Again, the personnel resources given over to organising successful events like these cannot be refunded like hotel rooms or venue hire fees. There is so much more that goes into organising business events.

Trade events like AIME, which cancelled its 2021 show in March are suffering due to lack of confidence from buyers and sellers amid pandemic-related uncertainty.

In terms of decision-making, during a pandemic, events have a perception of being higher-risk undertakings than leisure travel. We were the first industry to be shut down and we’ll be the last industry to be fully free of restrictions. Even if risk levels were comparable, those responsible for determining whether business events, in particular, go ahead are likely to be more conservative due to lower amounts of risk being acceptable on an organisational level as well as catering to the full range of attitudes towards risk and gathering that may exist amongst staff or stakeholders.

Sometimes I think the other issue is that our industry is an invisible industry. The best events – whether for business or pleasure – will be delivered almost like magic; the intention is that you don’t see whoever is pulling the strings to make one moment roll seamlessly into the next. It can be hard for Governments to empathise with those they can’t see.

So, where does this leave us?

Call me crazy, but I don’t think anyone in the events industry is chomping at the bit to be the organiser of an event that causes an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Australia.

We are an industry obsessed with safety and risk minimisation. What is at issue in the industry currently is not so much that events may or not be able to go ahead, it’s that if the industry has to live with a level of uncertainty which presents an existential threat to our existence – and continue to deliver as much as we can alongside it – there must be additional support available.

The cancellation of Bluesfest may have brought this very issue to much needed attention. In the morning before signing the order which put paid to Byron Bay Bluesfest’s triumphant return last week, the NSW Health Minister called the festival’s situation “difficult” and lamented that “It would have been better if the Bluesfest had been perhaps in another few months instead of right now.” If you interpret this statement to mean that live events of that calibre are too risky right now, then where is the support for an industry the Government is essentially suggesting remains closed for months after the end of JobKeeper?

Despite us so often being bundled in with tourism, it wasn’t in the Federal Government’s latest $1.2 billion offering – the only element of the package which touched directly on the events industry was an extension to the Business Events Grants Program – but no more funds committed to it, please note – by three months.

But some states are coming to the party. The Tasmanian Government is offering a $1.5 million business events fund; the NSW Government has just committed $5.5 million in funding which will go directly to event organisers – and Bluesfest is hinting at a rescue package in their latest communication – and the Brisbane EDA is offering a subvention fund of up to $50 per delegate for events until December 2022.

Possibly what is needed is a Federal initiative to provide event insurance over the next few months to mitigate the significant risks the events industry bears just to operate during recovery from a pandemic. Perhaps they could look at repurposing some of the funding that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast from the Business Events Grants Program.

Top image: A past Byron Bay Bluesfest | Photo: Tourism Australia