Optimism is the best vaccine

Lisa Hopkins takes control of Conventions & Incentives New Zealand (CINZ) as chief executive in challenging times, but she maintains an air of optimism, believing that there are pockets of opportunity the industry can leverage

How are you dealing with the situation?
I joined in February, so I have known little else in the role except this unprecedented situation.

Currently, New Zealand is in lockdown and that has been tough on everyone. While we see the necessity for it, the economic impact on our industry has been nothing short of savage. New Zealand was staring at an incredibly bright future with some truly exciting new infrastructure and investment, which would have catapulted our industry forward. Right now, that is at a stand-still and the most challenging part is not knowing when it can kick back into life.

The team and I have kept ourselves busy in several ways, staying connected with our members being the most important one, and thinking, talking and planning what CINZ can do to support recovery.

There is no doubt that CINZ will play an integral part in the post-pandemic world in New Zealand, especially during a time when New Zealand’s entire ecosystem is being reviewed. Business events are critical to the economic recovery of the industry and our job will be to maximise that opportunity for our members.

Before Covid-19 happened, what were your plans in your new role?
Plans haven’t been shelved as such, but some have been postponed or altered slightly. We are moving ahead with a couple of things including a new business events data project which will give us unprecedented insight into the business events sector, even at a time like now. It is important that we understand and measure the recovery phase and use pre-existing data to help with some of that. We know data will be even more important than ever, especially when it comes to investment, which will be crucial for our future.

In the more immediate term, we have been working on a Recovery Framework which will take priority for some time, and that includes some of the plans I had hoped to instigate when I arrived.

Despite what has happened, the New Zealand business events industry, although comparatively small on a global level, is still considered very mature and savvy. I had planned to maximise my international experience and connections to help support taking it to the next level, and those intentions haven’t changed, just the timing of them.

Aside from Be Reconnected, what else does CINZ have up its sleeve to stimulate business travel?
We will be working very closely with our partners, Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) on the reimagining of our tourism strategies for domestic and international business, all of which will be designed to stimulate opportunities. This is a new way of working for TNZ, who have traditionally focused on international.

This is still very much in its development phase. The others are initiatives I’m not able to announce just yet as details are still being worked through, but I am excited about the possibilities and what it will mean for our sector.

Is the MICE sector getting help from the government to tide through this period?
All businesses are being given the same support, irrespective of industry and we have been encouraging everyone to maximise what relief is available.

However, I don’t believe it has gone far enough. We have members who have seen a 100 per cent drop in business, and despite many events being postponed and not cancelled, the way our industry works financially means many won’t see the revenue from postponed events for quite some time.

We have seen what other countries have done, with some acknowledging the critical economic importance of organisations that are reliant on business events to generate income, like PCOs and associations, by providing up to 75 per cent of revenue they have lost.

We are a small industry, but we pack a mighty punch. Business events typically generate over NZ$455 million (US$276.3 million) per annum and the flow-on effect culturally, socially, economically is paramount. We know that while New Zealand is an incredible country, for many visitors, it is often the pull of an event which brings them here initially. The added attraction of visiting other regions while here is what makes what we do so invaluable.

Businesses have shut their doors, or they have hibernated or reduced their staff count to the bare bones. These aren’t just SME businesses; it has affected some of our largest members as well, so the situation is not at all prejudiced to size or scale.

We continue to lobby hard to the government to support our industry, along with travel, tourism and hospitality. With one in every eight people employed in these sectors, the government can’t afford not to pay attention to the specific needs of the industry.

Do you think there will be pent-up demand once all restrictions are lifted and the world slowly goes back to normal?
Through the gloom, I think we can find opportunity. When the world goes back to whatever the new normal will be, I believe we will see a couple of things.

Firstly, if we, as an industry, country and world don’t learn from this, then everything we have endured and all who have sacrificed would have been for nothing. So, we must quickly figure out how we would respond when – not if – this happens again, and how we can stay resilient to the catastrophic impact on people and business. This must be industry-led, we can’t and shouldn’t be reliant on government support. We need to be able to manage our own destinies.

Secondly, we will see brand new sparkling opportunities lead the way to how we reconnect. Online, offline, hybrid, digital, social. We must be open to the new platforms that will give organisations new ways to reconnect. The trick will be to find clever means to monetise some of these platforms.

My fear is that investment will shrink for some time, so that will mean more collaboration and partnerships in areas of core strength and expertise. Those that make it through this will be less inclined to put money into new infrastructure, training or revenue streams. Instead, we will see an increase in savings (which will also impact cash rates and inflation), but there is a golden opportunity for some organisations to work together, in strong partnerships, helping each other grow.

New Zealand’s MICE sector was growing yearly at a constant clip, but this situation has brought everything to a halt. How long do you think the sector will take to recover?
There was no doubt New Zealand was riding high and had an incredibly bright outlook until Covid-19 literally knocked the stuffing out of all of us! The extraordinary amount of hard work, dedication and effort by many incredibly smart, passionate and creative people just came to a screaming halt.

The good news is we still have those people in New Zealand and around the world, and being a people-oriented industry, that means we have the talent to learn from this, weave them into revised or new business models and grow again.

The challenge both nationally and globally is that there are so many dependencies. Firstly, our industry lives or dies on being in a state of confidence. How quickly we respond is hugely dependent on that sense of optimism; it will influence our recovery economically, socially, culturally and environmentally.

Secondly, we need connectivity and that means putting the planes back in the sky. We will see many changes at the borders and there is talk of whether we will need to carry some sort of health guarantee to gain access into another country. But then again, we all experienced increased security post 9/11 and that has now become a normal state.

Lastly, we need to have a sustainable business events industry which can support the people and infrastructure who operate within it.

Unfortunately, what we don’t have is a guide to how long this will take, but we are hoping sooner rather than later.

What message would you like to share with the MICE sector at this point?
We have been using the Māori saying ‘He waka eke noa’ which loosely means ‘We are all in this together’. It’s a beautiful sentiment but when you watch your business dissolve, or let go staff or find that you yourself have been stood down from work, sentiment is not what you need.

What you need is some assurance that this is but a moment in time, and that better days will come. When we have some clarity on what the future will look like, I expect the brilliance of the industry will rise to the top and we will see businesses reinvent, repurpose or reposition themselves. There will be opportunity to start with a new slate, to make changes and demonstrate resolve.

I have 100 per cent belief and confidence in our industry, its resilience, the extraordinary knowledge and talent of the people who drive it, and the desire of both organisations and associations within New Zealand and around the world to be once again immersed in an event. In the meantime, our skies have become even cleaner, our birdsong is louder, our waters are bluer, our food tastier than it has ever been.

On behalf of everyone in the New Zealand events, tourism, travel and hospitality industry, I want to say to the world: we can’t wait to meet again, let’s work together ‘to carve a path forward into the future’ – ‘He para i te huarahi ki tua’.

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