The spread of COVID-19 saw the rapid shutdown of business events across Australia, including many of those run by integrated media brands and publishers. But there are signs that business events may return as early as August, with major event venues creating operating frameworks to safely reopen. NPN takes a look at the path to recovery for Australia’s $35 billion business events sector.
Australia’s business events industry – including exhibitions, conferences, and business meetings – contributes $35 billion to the national economy. Over 430,000 business events are run in Australia annually, and over 229,000 people are employed to service the sector.
But the spread of COVID-19 has seen the rapid shutdown of business events across Australia, including many of those run by integrated media brands and publishers.
According to the Business Events Council of Australia (BECA), 96 per cent of business events scheduled for 2020 in Australia have been either canceled or postponed. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that, in April, Australia had no short-term overseas arrivals whose main reason for travel was to attend a convention or conference.
BECA which is an umbrella organisation for peak industry bodies supporting the event industry, is engaging with the government – largely through Austrade and Tourism Australia – and the industry to ensure the industry is supported while navigating the changing environment for running business events.
So what’s happening to get Australia’s business events back on track?
COVID-19 event restrictions expected to ease in July
The Australian Government recently announced that the 100-person cap on indoor gatherings will be lifted as part of its stage 3 plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions, which is expected to be rolled out in July, pending the decision by individual state and territory governments.
Instead of limiting the number of people in attendance at events, a ‘square metre’ rule will apply, which:
- allows one person per 4 square metres; and,
- outlines that people should stay 1.5 metres away from each other wherever possible.
For small premises, the Government has requested further advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on the ‘one person per four square metre’ density rule and application.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the ABC that events would require “a large, open area. There would need to be seats at the appropriate distance,” with venues expected to be able to seat about 25 per cent of their capacity.
Developing public health and safety guidelines for business events
BECA has formed a Safety and Hygiene Subcommittee to work with the government to develop public health and safety guidelines in managing exhibitions, conferences, meetings, and events.
Representatives from each of BECA’s industry association members form the Safety and Hygiene Subcommittee:
- Association of Australian Convention Bureaux
- Australian Convention Centres Group
- Exhibition & Event Association of Australasia
- Meetings & Events Australia
- Professional Conference Organisers Association
The development of BECA’s COVIDSafe Guidelines for Business Events will support “stringent public health measures” to manage exhibitions, conferences, meetings and events and ensure exhibitors, speakers, attendees, customers and venue/contractor employees are safe.
The guidelines focus on five key areas, providing advice on managing a business event during the planning phase, the event itself, and following the event.
The COVIDSafe Guidelines for Business Events will:
- Ensure personnel and personal safety
- Enable physical distancing
- Increase health and safety measures
- Implement maximum gathering controls
- Encourage and enforce measures.
BECA said that the guidelines will be applied, adapted and implemented in a fit-for-purpose way across the business events industry to ensure the highest levels of COVID-19 safety. They will remain a “living document” to be updated and reviewed as knowledge of the virus grows, health advice develops and the industry gains experience in best-practice safety and hygiene regimes.
BECA Chair Dr Vanessa Findlay said “Clear industry guidelines for hygiene and safety will provide the government with the confidence to lift restrictions and for organisers to rebook and hold events as soon as possible. We’re also working with individual state and territory jurisdictions to ensure clarity and consistency across the country so that delegates can travel interstate to attend business events.”
Subcommittee member EEAA Chief Executive Claudia Sagripanti said it was vitally important that government, at both the federal and state level, understood that the business events industry can operate under a controlled set of ‘bio-safe’ principles and should not be subject to the ‘mass gathering’ restrictions that apply to other large scale public events such as sporting fixtures, festivals large-scale consumer events.
“The business events industry run highly organised events where we can trace every one of our visitors, delegates, speakers and exhibitors as well as monitor, track and put in place a range of measures that can ensure these events comply with Government measures on hygiene and physical distancing.”Claudia Sagripanti, Chief Executive, EEAA
Setting a timetable for conferences and exhibitions to restart
The EEAA has recommended that governments provide a clear timetable on when the business events industry can restart.
“The sector needs support now with a clear timetable on when we can run events – August/September and the last quarter of 2020 is vital to recovery, but the industry needs a confirmed date to commence planning,” said Sagripanti.
“An August restart allows government and the health authorities further time to ensure the states’ COVID-19 numbers continue to decrease and stabilise, and to enable an agreed bio-safe environment for our controlled and organised events where the business community comes to do business.”
While EEAA is targeting the state governments and their Chief Medical Officers to negotiate the terms of restarting exhibitions and business events, BECA has lobbied the Federal Government to ensure a “consistent and clear message regarding the distinction between business events and mass gatherings” is achieved nationally.
Major venues developing operating frameworks signaling readiness to return to business
Major event venues are also working on their own operating frameworks to ensure they can return to running in-person events as soon as possible.
The International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney) launched its EventSafe Operating Framework – a set of operating principles that will enable the venue to safely reopen and run events in a COVID-19-transformed operating environment.
The launch signals the readiness of the convention, exhibition and entertainment centre to recommence running events – pending the further rollback of Federal and State restrictions.
The framework spans 16 key areas of event management, including the customer journey, environmental hygiene, food service, technology and equipment, employees and public awareness, and covers meetings, conferences, exhibitions, live events, and internal operations.
It integrates best practice from parent group ASM Global’s soon to be launched VenueShield – a program of the most advanced hygienic safeguards, informed by public health authorities, medical and industry experts – which will be deployed in ASM Global’s 325 worldwide facilities.
The framework also operates within the safety protocols of Safe Work Australia’s Codes of Practice, which underpins how ICC Sydney works under the Work Health Safety law and, more recently, the COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles.
ICC said that the plan draws on its work with national and international industry bodies, to develop industry-wide protocols in response to COVID-19. These have been evolved into a venue-specific framework, which responds to the need of clients for a level of detail that will allow them to confidently start planning future events.
ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy said the framework has been meticulously developed to safeguard clients, visitors, contractors and team members against the risk of COVID-19 and reinstall confidence in events.
Establishing ties with neighbouring business event industry bodies
On 10 June, BECA announced a joint agreement with Conventions & Incentives New Zealand (CINZ) to collaborate on issues that are mutually affecting their markets.
Dr Findlay and CINZ CEO Lisa Hopkins also believe the agreement will be beneficial in leveraging Government advocacy.
“The Australian Government publicly acknowledged the difference between controlled gatherings (e.g business events) and mass gatherings when they released their three-step COVIDSafe Roadmap, whereas the New Zealand Government enabled events of up to 100 to go ahead five weeks ago,” said Hopkins. “We would have liked to have seen our Government follow their Australian counterparts and I am sure, vice versa.”
With New Zealand now functioning under Alert Level 1, events are now able to operate without any restriction, and both Hopkins and Dr Findlay believe keeping an eye on the future is critical.
“Australia and New Zealand are leading the way in managing the pandemic and have shown strong leadership,” said Findlay. “Working together, both markets can now solidify their position as being safe, trusted destinations for business events.”
Are Australians ready?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a Household Impacts of COVID-19 survey at the end of May when plans to relax COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in all states and territories.
The survey found that, while the majority Australians were looking forward to larger gatherings of family and friends and dining out, more than three in four (76 per cent) were uncomfortable about attending large public events, and 66 per cent were wary about attending indoor gatherings of over 100 people.