A difficult trek back to normalcy

David Beirman, senior lecturer in tourism, University of Technology Sydney and specialist in tourism risk, crisis and recovery management, identifies factors hindering the restart of the Australian business event industry and predicts a long road to recovery.

With lockdowns easing, Australia’s business events industry is eager for restrictions to be completely lifted on corporate events and meetings as they’ve done in New Zealand. When will that happen?
The problem…in Australia is that we have six states and two territories. At the moment in the Northern Territory, it’s pretty much open but in other states like New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, there are quite a few restrictions not only on travel and tourism but on events, with social distancing a big factor.

There is no one story that you can actually tell about Australia; there are actually eight stories and they’re all very, very different. With the uncertainty over the next few months, I wouldn’t want to put a date on when we’re going to (open) for conferences and conventions.

(Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, Queensland has indicated it may re-open its borders on July 10, subject to Covid-19 case numbers, and South Australia has announced it will re-open its borders on July 20. Western Australia will remain shut until Victoria and New South Wales show no community transmission of the coronavirus for four weeks.)

The months of December through February is traditionally quiet for business events and we might just lose a lot of momentum if we don’t start soon. Any thoughts on that?
I know the industry desperately wants to get events going again and understandably so. But I think what we’ve got are two competing interests here, of the business interests of travel and tourism versus the health and safety interests of both federal and state governments.

Unfortunately, business cannot operate in a vacuum separate from health interests. In the weekly Tourism Australia briefings, we often have a very big input from the deputy health officer of the country. Health does take precedence.

There’s been much talk about the trans-Tasman travel bubble, with calls for it to start in July. Are you optimistic that the arrangement would kickstart the travel industry?
I don’t think it’s going to happen in July. I’ll be happy if I’m wrong. The New Zealand prime minister said that and so has (Australian prime minister) Scott Morrison in so many words, that you can’t really have the trans-Tasman bubble until you have (a single) health and quarantine policy and border protection policy throughout the whole of Australia. My gut feeling is it probably will start happening around September.

The fact that we don’t have a unified approach across the states and territories has been a big barrier for us to get travel bubbles going. Many countries have approached Australia for a travel bubble but the inconsistency that we have across the country with regards to border access, quarantine, etc, is proving to be a very, very big barrier. From the travel industry’s point of view, that is a huge irritant.

How much can we rely on the Australian Tourism Restart Taskforce’s timeline for the reopening of tourism?
We can’t. It’s an aspirational timeline. In fact, it’s been made very clear by the executive chair of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, John Hart himself, when he was interviewed by the media, that it’s an aspiration.

I think it’s fair to say that Australia has done a pretty amazing job in limiting the spread of coronavirus and the regulations have generally worked very, very well, by global standards. It’s a fairly common attitude throughout the tourism industry (to think that) it is definitely time to relax the restrictions. The authorities (need to) allow that, and we have some states, Queensland and Western Australia in particular, that have been very resistant to opening up their borders to people from the rest of Australia, let alone the rest of the world.

Shouldn’t business events be treated differently from other mass events and allowed to meet in its usual larger numbers because participants can be monitored and they are in a much more controlled environment?
I totally agree with you but that may not be necessarily how our state governments or federal government actually see it. The same thing with tour groups as tour companies can control the number of people and how they might fit into the transport they’re using.

I guess it’s a matter of consistency. If you can’t have crowds going to a football match, art gallery or a museum, why would you then say corporate events are in a different area? So you need a certain level of consistency and I think what’s going to start happening with a lot of events, at least initially, is that they probably won’t be able to attract the numbers that they usually would.

There are also other issues when it comes to many events, particularly for catering which have traditionally had buffet-style food service. The way in which events are run are going to have to change quite a bit.

The projection is that Australia’s international borders won’t reopen till December or January. That would be almost a year of locking out international visitors for business events. What key changes do you think the sector needs to be prepared for?
As an interim measure it’s certainly moving to running as many events online as possible. That’s not going to be as financially viable as having people come and visit.

But I can give you a classic example where I’m involved with the Council of Australasian University Tourism and Hospitality Educators. We have a conference every year. When we ran it in February in Auckland, we had nearly 300 delegates and it was fantastic. The plan for next year was to have it in Perth in February but we’ve decided now to do it online even though restrictions on face-to-face conferences could lift sooner, because of the uncertainty and difficulties for planning.

So until you have certainty in those lead times that you can actually run a proper face-to-face conference, it’s probably the stop-gap method or fallback position to do some of these online. That’s not as satisfying in any way, shape or form as doing them face-to-face but at least it is a means by which people can actually get together and discuss the issues they need to discuss. And if it’s done in a really professional manner you can still charge money for it.

That will affect the venues that specialise in business events though.
Absolutely it will. What you could do in some areas is run exhibitions sooner than you can actually run conference events. And that is because you can actually guarantee or ensure social distancing in an exhibition framework.

But when it comes to events, particularly if you’re trying to attract thousands of people to a convention, obviously you just cannot have them under current regulations, packed in like sardines. This whole coronavirus has actually been a major paradigm change to every single sector of the tourism and hospitality industry, including events.

(Another thing to think about is that) the cost of events may, on a per capita basis, go up somewhat as well because of the fact that numbers might be restricted. So we’re looking at a very complicated future for business events.

Eventually, it will probably go back to the way it was because people are hungry for loosening themselves from the constraints that they’ve been under. But it will be a fairly lengthy transition period between the way that we are now and the way we were before.

What can Australia expect from China in the current climate?
We have a number of factors at play with China. Firstly, we don’t have tourists coming in from China and it was our biggest market, certainly in 2019. So we’ve gone from basically 1.5 million Chinese visiting Australia to next to zero. Secondly, we have fairly testy political relations between the two countries at the moment.

As you know, we’ve played for a long time on our reputation of being a preferred destination for China since about 1997, when we were the first non-Asian country to get that status. But recent events have made the political relationship a little frosty. I wouldn’t assume that Australia would be, for Chinese conventions and business meetings, the number one choice destination.

A lot of Chinese or Chinese businesses are aligned in one way or another with the government and if the government says we don’t like Australia very much, they’ll probably try and run those events in other places. The relationship with China on a tourism and business basis is going to be a little bit complicated for quite a few months or even years to come.

And that will definitely have an impact on business events in Australia.
Oh, I think it will. We have to face the reality that we’ve been very reliant on China. We really need to diversify our source market. We can’t assume that China is going to go back to the way it was, however desirable that would be. We’re already starting to look at diversifying our trade with the prime minister having talks with the prime minister of India.

It’s been the same with our universities, in that we’ve been so reliant on China for international students that we kind of forgot about the rest of the world. And that has come back to bite our sector very heavily, I can assure you.

Sponsored Post