By Brad Foster and Laura Bradley

  • Tourism Australia monitors, launches strategy
  • Some meetings and incentives postponed nationally
  • AIME 2020 set for launch likely without mainland China delegates
  • Pivot in marketing promotions
  • New Zealand/Tasmania report minimal impact
  • Australia’s forward bookings shaky?

Coronavirus could cost the Australian business event sector hundreds of millions of dollars, with a snapshot from major players in the industry this week confirming meetings and incentives already postponed and delegate numbers down.

Some convention bureaux and centres are claiming the Federal Government’s decision last week to stop Chinese tourists entering Australia makes it too early to predict what could happen. Their comments have not been included here.

Others are being far more open, confirming conference postponements and delegate wash.

Like the tourism sector, Australia’s reliance on the Chinese market in business events has increased dramatically since the SARS outbreak in 2002-3. In tourism terms, in 2002 there were 190,000 short-term visitor arrivals to Australia from China. In 2018 the number was 1.42 million.

Because a large number of international meetings held in Australia now have a significant representation of delegates from China, delegate numbers at many major conferences are expected to be down across the board.

Exacerbating this could be travel concerns from delegates from other countries, particularly Europe and the US, who are planning to attend international meetings in Australia and elsewhere.

As ICMS Australasia GM, Emma Bowyer, told us: enquiries about safety concerns are coming from delegates from countries other than China.

Also concerning is Australia’s successes in recent years of winning multi-million dollar Chinese incentives. Some of those, due to be held this year, could now be postponed.

On January 22 this year, the Melbourne Convention Bureau sent a press release saying it had secured two new incentive groups arriving in February and had nine groups already confirmed to visit this quarter. Our queries to them and their response to us made no mention of the status of these events.

The situation in Asia is far worse already. The IT&CM China exhibition in Shanghai that was due to run in March has been moved to August. UFI, the global association of the exhibition industry, has cancelled its March annual meeting in Macau.

The silver lining could be a switch by Australian corporates to hold their meetings at home, with regional Australian destinations affected by bushfires clearly in their sights.

If this does occur this business will help the industry as a whole but it won’t save what will undoubtedly be significant losses.

Tourism Australia monitors, launches strategy

Penny Lion, executive general manager events, Tourism Australia:

From a business events perspective, given the longer lead times we won’t see the impact straight away but there is the potential for a reduction in business longer term. Currently, we are monitoring the situation to assess any potential impact on the sector in terms of bookings being temporarily postponed or rescheduled or if there is a reduction in delegate numbers. Given the timing, our focus is on what events are coming up and how we can minimise the effects. However, without knowing how long the current measures to contain the virus are likely to remain in place, it’s impossible to predict the full tourism impact.

In the meantime, we will continue to work with our partners in the industry to monitor possible impacts. We are currently talking to our industry partners here in Australia and in China to better understand the full ramifications, as well as how we recalibrate our global business events marketing activities to minimise the impact, both in the short and longer term. It is also important to remember that it is not just Australia being impacted but all destinations with business from China.

As we work our way through all this, it’s more important than ever that we also remind businesses in Australia that the best way they can support our tourism industry through this challenging period is to ‘Event Here This Year’, which is articulated through our recently launched business events tourism recovery campaign.

Tourism Australia already applies a ‘balanced portfolio’ approach towards its international marketing activities for business events. Whilst China is our largest inbound market, we are also active in a number of other international markets.

Our new domestic business events campaign, Event Here This Year, continues to be rolled out across the country with initial industry, media and consumer response having been positive.

Some meetings and incentives postponed nationally

Emma Bowyer, managing director, ICMS Australasia:

As I write this the current known scenarios of the coronavirus are not fully realised. What is certain is that there is genuine fear amongst people, and governments around the world are imposing travel restrictions on both Chinese and foreign nationals who have recently visited China.  The business events industry thrives on the relaxed movement of people so a tightening of this norm will absolutely reduce the ability for travellers to come to Australia.  We cannot avoid the risk of the coronavirus but try to find means and ways of managing and reducing its impact.

We have two international events within the next three weeks, with 1500 international delegates between them.  Whilst only a small number of our delegations at these events are Chinese (a dozen per event), the travel restrictions have not only increased the cancellation question from the broader delegation, but also impacted our ability to draw an increased number.  The trend in recent years is for many delegates (sometimes up to 10 per cent of our final numbers) to register within the last 30 days of an event.  There is a real opportunity loss at stake here too.

Actions being undertaken include hotels enacting force majeure clauses in contracts, investigation of web streaming services to overcome non-travelling speakers and video recordings of sessions to send to delegates unable to attend but who have paid registration fees.

As for continued marketing, we’re working even harder to ensure event messaging conveys the on-site measures to ensure delegate safety by following WHO guidelines as well as promoting destination and science that attempts to overcome risk concerns.

One of our upcoming events is called Global Health Security – an event which investigates global public health crises and attracts nearly 1000 world health leaders.  We’re anticipating an increased interest in this event. Silver lining perhaps?

Nataline Simmons, global general manager, cievents:

While it’s too early to know exactly how much impact the coronavirus will have, global general manager of cievents, Natalie Simmons, said that clients are closely monitoring developments for conferences and events planned in 2020.

“Some groups travelling to Hong Kong have now been cancelled, and some domestic events are being postponed or cancelled as they are affected by inbound delegates and speakers from Asia, who are currently not able to fly in.”

Gary Bender, MD, World Corporate Travel:

WCT is experiencing some delegate cancellations attending an IT conference to Europe in two weeks. Our corporate base clients have postponed international travel particularly into Asia.

Nicole Walker, COO, Arinex:

Arinex has noticed some impact to our operations from the coronavirus outbreak. A major concern is the effect on delegate numbers for international events expecting a contingency from China. For a client’s incentive in March, about 30 per cent of attendees are from China and so we are, together with our client, closely monitoring the situation as we are aware it could change at any stage.

Another area we are monitoring is the delay or cancellation of material coming from Chinese suppliers. We have been told some of these manufacturers are in lockdown until mid-February, which may impact the arrival of items such as satchels, lanyards, delegate or speaker gifts as well as the freighted goods from Chinese exhibitors. If items are freighted from China, they may still require quarantine for a number of days or weeks, which will impact timelines. In some cases, for events that are happening in the coming weeks, some items may miss arrival deadlines altogether. We are working with these suppliers to monitor the situation and to manage things on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, when confronted with a major international health crisis such as this, it is unavoidable to be impacted in some way. However, it has always been our standard approach to strongly recommend that all participants and exhibitors take out relevant insurance cover in the case of emergencies such as this, meaning that they should not be financially impacted.

Geoff Donaghy, CEO, International Convention Centre Sydney:

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney has received minimal enquiries from clients regarding upcoming bookings.  At this stage, we have had a small number of events postponed or cancelled. We are working with these clients to find the best possible solution to their situations and are continuing to monitor the situation closely both at ICC Sydney and across the ASM Global group.

We are following all guidance from the Australian Government Department of Health with regards to preventing the spread of the virus, and communicating this to team members.

The safety and wellbeing of all team members, guests and clients is of paramount importance to us and remains our top priority.

Annaliese Battista, CEO, Destination Gold Coast:

As Australia’s third most popular destination for Chinese visitors, the Gold Coast is closely monitoring the impact of the decision by the Chinese government to suspend group travel in efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

We estimate the immediate impact to our tourism economy will be a loss of approximately $40 million. This could increase significantly, depending on how and when the coronavirus is contained, and the threat removed.

Destination Gold Coast recognises the serious implications that the coronavirus is likely to have on our industry, particularly visitation from China and Greater China. To mitigate the immediate impact, Destination Gold Coast will be dialling-up domestic marketing with an imminent campaign launching as well as an upcoming brand campaign in New Zealand.

Bob O’Keeffe, GM, Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre:

We are continuing to monitor the situation daily with state and federal health authorities. We are taking the same precautions as the rest of the community to ensure a safe environment for our guests and staff members.

We have had the cancellation of two small events, and are having discussions with organisers of upcoming conferences in regard to the potential delegate numbers being reduced. More will be known in this regard in a week or two.

AIME 2020 set for launch without Chinese

From Talk2Media, organisers of AIME:

On Saturday, February 1 travel restrictions were imposed by the Australian Federal Government in response to the novel coronavirus. Currently, travellers arriving from mainland China (who are not Australian citizens or permanent residents) from this date are unable to travel to Australia.

Unfortunately as a result this may impact a small number of hosted buyers, exhibitors or visitors from mainland China travelling to the Asia Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event (AIME) in Melbourne this month.

The restrictions being enforced may impact a small percentage of the show’s total buyers and exhibitors and AIME will continue as planned from February 17 to 19 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

As a representation of the Asia-Pacific region, AIME 2020 will see more than 330 exhibitors, 270 hosted buyers and an expected visitor attendance in excess of 2000.

We are monitoring the situation closely and will work to ensure appointments are filled for the event.

We have seen a year-on-year increase in AIME visitor registration, which highlights the opportunity the event presents to offset some of the impact of both the bushfires and recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus. This further emphasises the resilience and desire to get on with business by the industry.

While some of our Chinese community may be unable to attend in 2020, we wish them the best and we are looking forward to welcoming them to AIME in 2021.

Pivot in marketing promotions

Penny Lion, executive general manager events, Tourism Australia:

Tourism Australia is continuing to regularly review its activities in light of the bushfires and coronavirus situation, with a focus on spreading the message to Australians and the world that Australia is open for business and that the best way people can support tourism recovery is to visit. What we are reviewing at the moment is the timing of this activity.

Where appropriate and practical, we will recalibrate our marketing activities to make sure our marketing dollars are maximised fully to help the industry get through this challenging period.

Our new domestic business events campaign, Event Here This Year, continues to be rolled out across the country with initial industry, media and consumer response having been positive. We are also maximising the opportunities through our international networks to share the message that Australia remains open for business and continues to deliver world-class business event experiences to the world.

Julian Swanson, CEO, Melbourne Convention Bureau:

We understand the importance of Chinese groups and the MCB is already putting plans in place to mitigate any potential impacts from travel measures to restrict all travellers from any parts of mainland China from entering Australia.

Already we have issued recommendations to upcoming corporate meeting and incentive (CMI) groups that are unable to travel, to reschedule their plans rather than cancel. MCB works across all markets, with CMI group travel from China making up less than 10 per cent of our business mix. In the meantime, our focus is on securing CMI groups from unaffected regions such as South East Asia. Our efforts have secured another large group this week with more in the pipeline.

Annaliese Battista, CEO, Destination Gold Coast:

To mitigate the immediate impact, Destination Gold Coast will be dialling-up domestic marketing with an imminent campaign launching as well as an upcoming brand campaign in New Zealand.

New Zealand/Tasmania report minimal impact

Lisa Hopkins, CEO, Conventions & Incentives New Zealand:

Newly-appointed CEO of Convention & Incentives New Zealand, Lisa Hopkins, reports at the time of going to press there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in New Zealand to date.

The risk of an ongoing outbreak in New Zealand remains low, but the Ministry of Health is monitoring the situation closely and following guidance from the World Health Organization.

To reduce transmission of the coronavirus, the New Zealand government has, like Australia and some other countries, made the decision to place temporary entry restrictions on all foreign nationals travelling from, or transiting through, mainland China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has also raised its travel advice for mainland China to ‘do not travel’.

The restrictions took effect from Monday, February 3, and will be in place for up to 14 days, with a review every 48 hours. Any foreign travellers who leave or transit through mainland China are being refused entry to New Zealand during this time.

CINZ and Tourism New Zealand are continuing to monitor the impact on the sector and keep industry updated as the situation evolves. We are aware that globally, organisations are reviewing their travel and business event policies, from both a safety and fiscal perspective, and that this may have a knock-on effect for the industry in New Zealand.

Hosting a meeting domestically should therefore be considered as a high quality and reliable alternative, and supports the sector during this difficult time.

Marnie Craig, CEO, Business Events Tasmania:

Whilst we are working with Business Events Australia and Tourism Tasmania to keep abreast of all relevant information and ensure any impact on the business events industry is documented, Chinese visitors make up only three per cent of total visitors to Tasmania.

We are in the fortunate position to experience less of a shock than our mainland counterparts and have, so far, not noted any significant impacts on business events in Tasmania.

Australia’s forward bookings shaky?

CEO of the AACB, Andrew Hiebl, can’t say what the effects of the coronavirus will be on international meetings in Australia but he does know the figures.

Andrew Hiebl, CEO, AACB:

As with the bushfires, the scale of risk pertaining to international business events won for Australia remains the same. AACB’s research indicates that the forward calendar consistently has in excess of 400 international business events on it, secured by convention bureaux, at any time. The direct risk goes to the potential for conventions and incentives groups to cancel in the short term, or delegate numbers to wash. As at July 2019, the 401 international business events confirmed for Australia through to 2026 were expected to attract 315,000 international delegates (475k total delegates).

On the other hand, the coronavirus is a global threat. While bushfires in some parts of Australia may have had an impact on the decisions of organisations and individual travel based upon perception and damage to Brand Australia, governments around the world will react to the coronavirus outbreak by enforcing limits to international travel as we are seeing today. This reduces the opportunity for choice in many instances.

As we move out of summer into business events season, coronavirus will have an immediate impact until a vaccine is discovered and travel restrictions are relaxed and overturned.

There are approximately 250 international bids in play where a host destination has not yet been selected. Given the long-term nature of the business events industry, it is too early to tell the impact of coronavirus on these decisions. However, AACB will be monitoring withdrawn and lost bids closely, as well as cancelled events and the materialisation of delegate numbers across 2020.

Major gateways with direct flights from China will feel the immediate impacts of travel restrictions. From a business events perspective, the corporate incentive sector out of China will be hardest hit. Convention bureaux will be working with their government and industry stakeholders to downgrade bid win targets for this market in calendar year 2020.

Concerns re face-to-face:

  • The business events industry relies upon the face-to-face nature of how we meet and do business. Any threat to this basic principle and restrictions placed upon it will have a devastating impact on our industry. Over and above delegate travel, it will have a negative impact on the movement of global experts, knowledge exchange, trade and investment decisions, research collaboration and innovation.
  • International business events are forums and market places for buyers and sellers to meet from around the world. Human nature will build levels of anxiety around contracting the virus and concern raised when interacting with delegates of nations severely impacted. This anxiety also exists within the tourism supply chain that services business events, such as event managers, hospitality, hotels and venues, travel and tour operators (staff). To overcome this concern, it is critical that the advice of Australia’s medical experts advising the government be communicated clearly with the industry in order to minimise any risk – eg. Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health. Fact sheets produced for tourism and hospitality operators including hotel staff and hotel guests is part of this essential communication process to overcome misinformation.
  • The tourism industry more broadly is concerned of racism creeping into the community, especially against those of Chinese appearance, due to the fears of contracting coronavirus in public spaces.
  • It should be noted that Australia has strong public health safeguards and that no human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus has been confirmed in Australia.

“The strength of the China-Australia relationship is critical in the recovery phase of getting back to business. Any reactions spurred by fear is a threat to the recovery phase that will impact the business events industry and jobs in the long term – an industry that otherwise supports 193,000 jobs.

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