All in it together

Geoff Donaghy, CEO of ICC Sydney and deputy chair of Business Events Council of Australia, speaks candidly about the bleak situation that Australia's MICE sector is facing, as well as his trust in the government to help the industry out of its doldrums

These are very challenging times for the business events sector. In Australia, lockdown restrictions have just seen ICC Sydney shut its doors to the public. How would you describe the impact recent events have had on the venue?
Along with the rest of the industry – not just in Australia but all around the world – the impact has been catastrophic. We’ve never faced a set of conditions like this of what is now a pandemic combined with a serious economic downturn. Its management has been virtually not a day-by-day but an hour-by-hour basis, and our federal and state governments have been announcing new policies and new procedures. We’re just waiting to see what the next status change for the Australian and Sydney communities is.

Financially we have no events or revenue. That cannot be overestimated. At this stage, we are retaining our full-time staff but we obviously have no ability to roster or pay casual staff, so they’ve had to fall back on the safety net provisions that the federal government has put in place but those systems are sort of clogged and almost overloaded. We would expect that to be addressed over the coming days but at this stage and stressing at this stage only, we’re retaining our full-time staff while winding down things like (annual) leave and leave loading.

These meetings could also be using any tech company to meet their current needs and many are using webinars services. What benefit would meetings gain from meeting virtually through a convention centre like ICC Sydney?
There are many service providers and apps like FaceTime or Zoom. But what we’re providing is a full studio-quality where we can record messages and also service live messages from remote locations which can be re-transmitted as well. It’s just part of the mix of the solutions available to clients.

You’re also group director of ASM Global (Asia Pacific) which operates seven convention centres. Are they in a similar position where they can retain full-time staff?
No, each situation is different and depends on the structure of their ownership arrangements as well, both within our network and across other Australian venues. We’re endeavouring to take a collective industry group approach to the federal government through our peak body Business Events Council of Australia and we’re getting a very good hearing there in terms of being part of the recovery programme, as well as addressing issues like keeping staff that have been made unemployed.

Are you hearing of job losses within convention centres around Australia?
Absolutely. Everyone is different as I stressed. Some have had to let their full-time staff go, some have reduced staff hours. Everyone has a different financial structure and a different contractual structure with their ownership regimes.

You’ve nevertheless been able to use technology to still serve some clients who are happy to meet remotely. What size are these meetings and how are they being conducted?
In the very early stages, some of the larger events decided they didn’t want to travel even before travel bans started. A small number of those then looked at providing online, broadcast and telecast facilities to still get their agendas out to their audiences. Salesforce was one of those, for example, but what we’ve done in the meantime is set up virtual AV studios in one or two of our meeting rooms to provide that facility. We’ve had a number (of clients) that have taken us up on that and a few more that are interested, but that’s really just more as a fallback service. We don’t see that as a financial income stream.

In the meantime, it is difficult to be optimistic when we’re hearing about tourism businesses closing and many staff layoffs. How are you trying to keep morale up?
Morale would be at an all-time low, obviously. I mean people are suffering to extents that our community and communities around the world have never experienced before, certainly not in living memory. So really, the only effective and long-term strategy is to keep communicating with people, providing information on support services to our teams, counselling services, financial advice services, where to go to access either government support programmes or even charity programmes. And when we start to recover and can begin to re-employ, to keep them well-advised in advance.

In Australia, the lockdown could go on for six months. What impact or consequences do you see for the industry?
Part of the uncertainty at the moment is that the formal notice for events that can’t be held is actually issued under state government jurisdiction and in ICC Sydney’s case, that advice has been to (shut) through end June. But the prime minister’s statements in a general sense have said that these conditions could continue for up to six months. So the formal advice is three months but I think, to be perfectly honest, the answer is probably closer to six months.

Even when the lockdowns are lifted, there may be a fear of people going back to the norms for awhile. Is that something you’re preparing for, or do you believe there will be pent-up demand?
Probably both factors will apply. We are already starting to exercise our minds and develop our recovery programme, and other things we need to do once this ends. And these things do end, I think we need to stress that. So when there’s a clear end in sight, we will have a time and costed recovery programme with a whole range of initiatives and activities ready to go, probably from four to six weeks out.

But there will be some reticence for people to travel. There will be some inability because of the enormous financial and economic toll that this will take, but there will also be pent-up demand and a desire in associations and corporations to get their audiences together to meet face-to-face as well. I will be endeavouring to assist with that process as much as we can.

The federal government has announced A$83 billion (US$50 billion) in two stimulus packages, and I believe we are expecting more. How positive are you that the sector will get the help that you’re calling for?
We’re getting very well heard within government circles and the federal tourism department. So again, we’re very, very comfortable with the relationships and the response that we’re getting. The government is limited to the fact that it’s got to support all business sectors, and you know it has a relative limit on those funds that they can apply as well.

But we’re quite satisfied with what’s been put in place so far although more will be needed and some will need to be invested in the recovery programmes.

Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, the Australian government has announced a third stimulus package, adding a further A$130 billion to support employment conditions.

It looks like the road ahead will be long. How long do you think it’ll take for the industry to recover?
I wouldn’t even begin to guess that. I think as the rate of infection plateaus, declines and then finally stops, and we’re watching that very closely, we will have a better idea of how we then sort of superimpose our recovery programmes and recovery timetable on that. But we’ll be feeling the effects of this well into next year, obviously.

However, business events is one very good opportunity for governments to get the economy flying again because what comes into convention centres and venues is also shared across hotels, restaurants, retail, shopping, tours, and all the other aspects that make up a convention package and a delegate’s experience. I believe we’ve got a good understanding within the government that getting business events back has got a multiplier impact across the community and economy.

Finally, if there was a message you could give to the business events sector at the moment, what would that be?
To stay strong, to support people to the extent we can even if it is only with information about all the (support) services available and referrals to those services, and also to be ready to be part of the recovery programme when this terrible epidemic and pandemic finishes, as they inevitably do.

Sponsored Post