18 Feb 2021

Experiences of 2020 highlight the need for industry consolidation

CANBERRA: The COVID-19 crisis has offered, and in most cases forced, an opportunity for the business events sector to adapt current models to build a resilient and more sustainable industry that will ensure the long-term viability of the sector. Advocating to the highest levels in Federal Government is a strategic imperative and will be best achieved through a consolidated approach from an industry that communicates through one voice.

The Association of Australian Convention Bureaux (AACB) is the peak Australian business events network driving economic prosperity for Australia and represents more than 1,800 tourism and events industry operators. With 2020 set to see 145,000 delegates gathering in Australia across 183 international business events, this was forecasted to contribute over $420 million to the visitor economy. Similarly, convention bureaux had secured almost 400 domestic business events for their respective destinations for the year, with an expected attendance of 170,000 delegates. 

COVID-19 drastically impacted convention bureaux short, medium, and long-term approaches to securing business events for Australia and its states and territories. Likewise, AACB pivoted its focus and resources throughout 2020 to directly assist the Business Events Council of Australia (BECA) deliver aligned priorities for the industry.

AACB CEO, Andrew Hiebl said, “Our successful collaboration has enabled the business events industry to speak with one voice and engage constructively with Government, which added weight to the importance of the JobKeeper extension and the Government’s $50 million business events support package”.

As we enter 2021, small outbreaks and the reactions to these by states and territories are having a detrimental impact on the business events industry. Internal border closures and gathering restrictions continue to hinder and frustrate our industry and the opportunity for in-person meetings. These actions feed uncertainty for both organisers and attendees of business events that typically require long-term planning, in favour of virtual activity that provides minimal economic benefit. The focus for the new year must be one of driving confidence if the industry is to recover, prevent further business closures and sustain jobs.

Hiebl said, “2021 will be a year of continued collaboration and consolidation to restart the industry, build confidence in demand, and support the supply chain, but wavering border restrictions will linger confidence and delay the return of business events”.

In capturing the impacts of the global pandemic, convention bureau leaders from across Australia have described their experiences of 2020 and industry needs for the future. Common themes included:

  • A strong desire for a collective and united industry voice, driven by a well-resourced and efficient peak body, that can effectively represent and deliver for industry operators.
  • Focus on retaining business already won.
  • Modifying priorities, service delivery models and bidding strategies to better serve industry partners, members and clients.
  • Promotion of COVID Safe hygiene practices to instil confidence and provide assurance that business events can safely restart in the new COVID normal environment.

Convention bureaux are in a good position to attract significant conventions and exhibitions to their destinations, however, business events are dependent on other parts of the visitor economy restarting to commence recovery. By supporting domestic travel, business events will drive jobs across the tourism and events supply chain and help aid the recovery of key industries beyond the visitor economy.

As an industry valued at almost $36 billion pre-COVID requires a peak body structured to effectively represent the sector. Michael Matthews, Canberra Convention Bureau CEO and AACB President said, There is much duplication in our industry bodies and we’re seeing choices being made by the supply chain as to the various national representative bodies and the effectiveness of these groups will be held to a higher standard. This crisis has made it clear that our combined energy requires one strong platform to voice the needs of our industry for a sustainable future”.

Whilst all bureaux have their own niche within the marketplace, the pandemic has highlighted the value and need of a collective industry voice. During the crisis, it was essential that on-the-ground operators were provided with one consistent and factual message, which can only be achieved through collaboration.

The federal government’s stimulus measures were critical in alleviating financial pressures driven by the pandemic. The swift introduction of government stimulus following the imposed shutdown, allowed the majority of business events businesses across the business event supply chain to stay afloat.

Julia Swanson, Melbourne Convention Bureau CEO said, “This has been and still is a challenging time for our clients, as their organisations grapple with their own financial challenges, travel restrictions, changing consumer sentiment, a new level of health and safety responsibilities and the need to quickly develop new ways of delivering events”.

Likewise, the priority for NT Business Events has been, and continues to be, supporting industry partners and the business events marketplace to navigate the changes in a COVID normal environment.

Rebecca McCaig, NT Business Events Director said, “The pandemic and resultant lockdown has had a profound impact on the Northern Territory’s business events industry causing the cancellation or postponement of business events scheduled to take place in 2020 and 2021 with business events postponed out as far as 2025”. 

The global pandemic dramatically impacted confirmed events as restrictions limited mass gatherings and social distancing alongside border closures which prevented events proceeding from late March. Shannon Thwaites is the Director of Business Events at Destination Gold Coast and said “With one in six jobs linked to tourism on the Gold Coast, the long-term implications will be felt for many years to come. Despite the challenges, of the 94 events that were confirmed by Destination Gold Coast for the 2020 calendar year, 55 per cent of events were postponed, 22 per cent were cancelled, 16 per cent were held and 5 percent remain unchanged”.

Similarly, Business Events in Cairns and Great Barrier Reef play a vital role in supporting off-peak and mid-week visitation to one of Australia’s top leisure destinations. In 2020 the region was unable to host more than thirty significant business events planned for the region, many of which are optimistic about proceeding in 2021. 

Mark Olsen, Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO said, “As confidence grows through increased air access and the removal of travel restrictions, Cairns is primed, and the businesses are ready for a strong 2021 recovery”.

In Western Australia the impact of COVID-19 on business events was swift and significant. Gareth Martin, Business Events Perth CEO said “Within a matter of days, every business event was affected and we worked quickly to postpone events rather than cancelling them as it was vital to our industry that they have promised future business. We’re really pleased to say that ultimately more than two thirds of events scheduled for 2020 were postponed rather than cancelled, which combined with the local events we’ve seen taking place around WA, has allowed for a swifter recovery with a 900pax business event held as early as July 2020”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a devastating impact in Queensland’s capital city with 70 major international and national events, worth nearly $80 million either postponed or cancelled in 2020. Brisbane EDA has worked closely with stakeholders to support the safe return of COVID Safe events and already are starting to see great results after hosting a string of high-profile sporting events that attracted thousands of visitors. Juliet Alabaster, Brisbane EDA General Manager – Tourism, Business & Major Events said “By quickly adapting to the ever-changing environment and thanks to digital innovation, we worked closely with members to develop a plan to host COVID Safe events and 10 major international and national events were able to be hosted in Brisbane in 2020”.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the business events industry, many convention bureaux provided free membership for existing and prospective members. Members were also provided with positive forums to discuss the challenges facing the sector and stakeholders were engaged to provide valued input and feedback to support recovery strategies.

To this effect, Business Events Sunshine Coast established an industry leadership group to identify and problem solve barriers to the local industry’s recovery and resurgence. Short to medium term collective strategies were developed to safeguard the Sunshine Coast’s market-share of business events.

“Like the rest of the world, we have had an opportunity to pause, reflect and truly define our business events’ offering. A key part of this is bringing to life the Sunshine Coast’s connection to nature, place, community, and wellness, and with an abundance of outdoor space available the region is the ideal business event and incentive program location for the times” said Maureen Brennan, Manager of Business Events Sunshine Coast.

Through this time, many across the business events supply chain used the opportunity to reimagine and reinvent their offering to deliver even greater value for clients. In adapting to the circumstances, Matthews said, “Business approaches varied from hibernation to a surge and decline approach, whereby members went from manufacturing gin to sanitiser, restaurants to home packaged contract free meals and accommodation to work-from-hotel room offices. Expectations shifted quickly from profitability to survival and hustle to adapt quickly, often daily”.

Businesses across Tasmania also adapted their service delivery models to survive the pandemic. “It was heartening to see how our members adapted quickly to challenging circumstances. For many, business models, product offering, and service delivery were changed almost overnight. From introducing new technologies with virtual service delivery, to using a famous whisky still to produce hand sanitiser, many of our members diversified and as a result have been able to remain trading and supporting staff” said Marnie Craig, Business Events Tasmania CEO.

With reduced sales and marketing activity, Australia’s convention bureaux also adapted, and due to COVID-19, used the opportunity to invest in customer journey projects and reposition their destinations, which overhauled bidding processes.Now, as restrictions continue to ease, convention bureaux are excited to welcome more business visitors back to their destinations. With hybrid events being the first opportunities for businesses to connect with members and clients.

During lockdown, convention bureaux continued to showcase their destinations through reimagined virtual famils. The return of targeted famil programs, however, will benefit local tourism operators through the direct economic contribution to accommodation, transport, and experience businesses at the famil stage, and then again with securing high yielding business events.

Craig said, “As an organisation that can adapt quickly to a changing environment and deliver programs within short timeframes, Business Events Tasmania will lead important components of Tasmania’s tourism recovery with the rollout of a comprehensive business events famil program commencing early 2021”.

Business Events Sunshine Coast has also identified the incentive market as a priority project to expand product development and add support to local tourism operators. “The impact COVID-19 has had on local venues, tourism operators and small business owners has been extraordinary and there has never been a more important time for the Sunshine Coast’s business events industry to stand united,” said Brennan.

In South Australia, a “Team Adelaide” approach concentrated efforts to postpone business events into 2021 and 2022 to ensure the strongest economic recovery for the state. Damien Kitto, Adelaide Convention Bureau CEO said, “ACB’s strategies have been highly successful with the ‘Team Adelaide’ strategy delivering SA FE to promote a COVID Safe stay in Adelaide which has been invaluable for instilling confidence in events returning to SA. To further instill confidence, a COVID Safe traffic light system for all venues will be rolled out jointly with Health SA to ensure health and safety for business event delegates”.

While history has taught us that the greatest challenges often have a silver lining, COVID is redefining the next normal. Amongst the silver linings, it has provided a catalyst to reimagine models for success. Recognising the need to work more efficiently with less resources and the need to adopt behaviours and practices that best suit the new reality.

Going forward, teams of cross-functional, specialist talent will come together and reform to address organisation and client needs, with total clarity on priorities and goals, nimble resource allocation, and fast, iterative feedback cycles. Lyn Lewis-Smith, BESydney CEO said, “I’ve always been an advocate for doing things differently and COVID-19 has certainly required leaders to respond with agility in regard to mindset, strategy and the fundamentals of how we work – and build back better”.

Continual innovation and reimagining what events can look like in a COVID-normal world will be key as it will be a very competitive landscape for destinations. As borders open, competition will be fierce as all cities vie for the lucrative business event dollar.

Swanson said, “MCB already has a presence in the national business event space, and while we continue business development for high-yield international events for the longer-term pipeline, there will be an elevated focus on driving short term business for 2021-2022 via national business events and when the time is right, across NZ and Asia Pacific markets, as travel restrictions ease. This is to acquire as much of this business as possible and funnel the economic impact from these events to MCB stakeholders and partners”.

If the bushfires and pandemic have taught us nothing else, collaboration and shared voice are key to the survival of our great industry. So much was able to be achieved during the pandemic through BECA’s industry representation by providing a voice in Canberra, to educate and guide government on the platform the business events industry provides for the economic and social advancement of Australia.

The pandemic has certainly delivered clarity for all sectors, not just business events, that a national sector-wide voice and joint strategic emphasis works best to influence Government decision-making. Kitto said, The business events sector would benefit greatly from having its strength enhanced through deeper collaboration. A stronger national body that worked cohesively would also give members more confidence in their future after a year that decimated them”.

Now is the perfect time to expand the collaborative approach under one combined new entity supporting all the needs of the entities within the business events sector, regardless of size, business segment, service type or place in the supply chain.

Lewis-Smith is in support of industry consolidation and said, “The industry employs 229,000 people – just imagine the possibilities and advantages of one body with a considered member value proposition. Industry investment could be consolidated into one powerful body providing professional development and training, data and insights, advocacy, and networking at the highest of standards. This one entity could also combine the strengths and expertise of all current industry bodies under one roof, governed by a strong, independent, and skills-based board, saving businesses money. This would also bring recognition for the business events industry for our role in helping Australia achieve its potential on the global stage”.

Now part-way through this crisis, business events has a hard-earned voice into government. With much duplication in our industry bodies the effectiveness of these groups will be held to a higher standard. This crisis has made it clear that our combined energy requires one strong platform to voice the needs of our industry for a sustainable future.

In summary, Lewis-Smith said, “The pandemic has certainly presented us all with a number of challenges but I’m proud to say that the business events industry has responded with strength, resilience and innovation. Whilst we’re not there yet, and the recovery is just beginning, I do believe that our ability to adapt and embrace the new opportunities that have been created will see us come out of this stronger. What may have seemed impossible, can be done”.

Despite the many challenges, destinations have started to see the return of some business events under strict new COVID Safe Plans. It is evident however that during these unprecedented times, the crisis has made it clear that our combined energy requires one strong platform to voice the needs of our industry for a sustainable future.



This article was featured in: 
- Spice News: Convention bureau leaders call for industry consolidation, 18 February 2021


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