On the path of gradual recovery

Damien Kitto, CEO of Adelaide Convention Bureau, talks about how staying nimble is crucial when organising events in this new environment, and stresses the need for associations to come together for one unified voice when speaking to the government

Adelaide hosted Australia’s first destination showcase for national delegates this year in February. Why was it important to do it despite the risks of sudden Covid-sensitive interstate border closures?
The challenge has been to showcase what’s new in Adelaide and demonstrate our ability to host events safely. On the day before the start of Destination South Australia (DSA), our borders were closed at midnight to Victoria because of new cases at the time. We love our Melburnian colleagues, but that’s the fragility of the environment and this is where you need to be nimble, flexible and ready for anything. The planning of DSA was months in the making and there were so many contingency plans in place for the unexpected, and that showed on the eve of the event. Fortunately, our Melbourne guests came when they did but yeah, that could have all been different 24 hours later (when South Australia temporarily shut the borders to Victoria).

What did Adelaide want to show delegates?
Our supply chain has increased in recent years so the infrastructure and investment along the Adelaide riverbank by the state government has been significant. Also, private investment is now starting to take place.

In the last four months or so we’ve had a new Crowne Plaza open, EOS by SkyCity which is very upmarket – part of a A$300 million (US$231.5 million) redevelopment through the SkyCity casino makeover which is well suited to the Asian market – and we’ve also got the Adelaide Oval Hotel that is the first and only hotel aligned to a sporting stadium in Australia, and one of only a handful in the world.

Looking ahead, there’s a new Sofitel that will open in the next six months, a new Hyatt, and a Westin. So the infrastructure growth has been quite significant and the key driver behind that is business travel, but behind these, business events. And being a small city that’s open, clean, green and free to move around is going to be really important. I think we’re really well-positioned for the future that will see the rise of boutique cities to grow and secure a lot more business events in the future.

The uncertainties with sudden border closures though have repeatedly thrown a spanner in the recovery plans. What has the last year been like for you?
The way that Adelaide Convention Bureau (ACB) has approached it hasn’t been about one person but it’s been about a team and I’m very proud of how this team has adapted to be more flexible and nimble. Our approach was very tailored and made personal to our members, clients and event planners, both domestically and internationally. We pulled back in other ways, in advertising or implementing big campaigns because of resource constraints. But it was all about helping, supporting and trying to do as much as we could.

We’re really proud of the effort, which resulted in a postponement of 85 per cent of the business that was due to take place in 2020 to 21 through to 23. That’s an incredibly high postponement rate and some other destinations are probably half of that. Again, I think it’s as simple as being really personalised and understanding of the environment, helping and caring. At the end of the day, we’re all in the game of business events, and unless we support one another and work together, it’s going to be really difficult to reboot the industry.

What other measures have you adopted to encourage business events returning to Adelaide?
Back in June, we developed a Safe SA campaign. We brought together around 10 of our members and created an end-to-end solution. When you arrive at the airport, you would get into your transport, go to your hotel, and a venue such as the Adelaide Convention Centre. (But regardless of which step of the journey you are at) everyone would be operating to the same processes and procedures.

In October, we ran a pilot Covid event to instil confidence and show that if you can do the three things of tracing, hygiene and social distancing, there’s no reason why business events can’t be presented. Healthy and safe events are critically important because it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the biggest convention centre or the biggest hotel in the world, unless you operate in a healthy and safe way, that means nothing.

With that, we feel that we’re in a really good position for Adelaide to move forward and secure business but that’s come with a lot of hard work and we feel incredibly for our members because the economic impact has been significant.

But DSA was all about rebooting business events in Adelaide and on behalf of Australia, as it was the first business exchange event of the year in the country. There may not have been as many people on the floor (because of travel difficulties) but we had a few joining online using hybrid technology and the word on the street is that there’s pent-up demand and enthusiasm from buyers. We believe the industry is now at a point of being very cautious but cautiously optimistic. People can’t continue to hold off making their decisions. It wouldn’t surprise me if we converted more business than ever.

In many cities, the events and tourism industry has been at odds with the state government over meeting rules and border restrictions. Has that also been the case in Adelaide?
We’ve developed a very close relationship with the (state’s) health department. They attended our pilot event in October, and looked at our exhibition and plenary setup. That was a pinnacle moment for us at ACB. They quickly saw that when you do have a controlled gathering of professional people, all those three practices of tracing, hygiene and social distancing can easily take place. I think one of the challenges for the Australian event industry, and particularly business events, is that we’ve been (categorised together with) festival events and major events. They are completely different operations compared to what a business is.

We’re now working with Health SA to develop a guideline or template for the business events sector to work towards. That’s coming from the top of government and their support to get the economic (recovery) process back up and running and can only be applauded. We’re hoping that within a couple of weeks or months, we’ll be able to share a new package of information that is endorsed by the state government’s health authority.

In terms of leadership at an innovation point, no one else in Australia has been able to develop that with their authority. So we’re really pleased with where that will potentially end up, to be able to basically guarantee a healthy and safe event.

What would it mean to you to have the international borders open?
International borders are critically important when the environment’s right and I think the federal government is approaching that very sensibly at the moment. We’re expecting the reopening of borders won’t happen until early 2022. We were due to host 15 or 18 international events this year including some corporate incentives out of Asia. Fortunately, we’ve been able to postpone. It’s critically important for economic recovery for Adelaide that those international events do take place.

We’ve been working very closely with the Department of Premier and Cabinet. And we’ve strategically aligned our bidding opportunities and strategy if you like, to the state government’s economic priorities, which also overlap and are consistent with the City of Adelaide as well. It’s not just a case of visitors coming into the destination and spending money. While that’s absolutely critically important for economics, we’re working and focusing more and more on the economic tail.

You’ve only got to look at the legacy that evolved from our hosting the International Astronautical Congress in 2017. That led to the development of the Australian Space Agency and a Research CRC programme, developing a mission control and an ecosystem of industry around that which has been critically important. It’s about local leaders mixing with global leaders. That’s how trade and investment, and transactions take place. And that’s why we’re desperate for international business to come back.

Has your strategy, to attract the Asian market back into Australia when the borders do re-open, changed?
The strategy has changed because everyone’s changed, because of the impacts of Covid. We were very fortunate to have success in the Chinese corporate incentive market. We were working very closely with Business Events Australia and secured two very large groups .. one was 3,000, the other 5,000. Unfortunately, they didn’t materialise because they were due to take place last year. And with international travel down those events were cancelled.

I think the opportunity, particularly for corporate incentives for Adelaide is that we are a new and fresh destination, there are new products and experiences. But again, our Covid record is going to be critically important. From 2022 to 2023 onwards I think we would see, small, more frequent waves of corporate incentive guests coming from China or across Asia as an absolute high probability. Large events in the short- to medium-term probably aren’t going to take place.

It sounds like you’re very optimistic about the Chinese market when some have been wondering about the relationship between China and Australia, which has become a little challenging of late. Your reading is that there will be no impact for business events here?
It’s difficult and not right for me to talk about the politics of the relationship but I certainly see the intent of the federal government to improve relations and China as an economic trade partner is critically important to Australia. Certainly, our individual engagements with clients and meeting planners in China are very positive and warm, and welcoming. So, yeah, we’re aware of that in the backdrop, but it’s out of our control.

Again, we focus on very strong, personalised communication to promote the incredible things you can do here in Adelaide as part of an Australian experience. It is what the clients are looking to hear about. The (lack of five-star hotels) has probably been a challenging point for Adelaide in the past but with the new and refurbished stock coming online, I think we’re in a really good position.

Those groups will stay in the city and they’re only an hour from the Barossa Valley and (a short distance to) the seafood capitals of Australia. So for all of those benefits, we’ve got a lot to offer. And everyone knows the Asian market is resilient, it bounces back very quickly and moves very quickly. So we’re ready for that and I’m hoping we can host a lot of groups from 2022 onwards.

This industry has always been super competitive. Do you expect competition between destinations in the new environment will get easier or harder?
Absolutely, without a doubt, harder. Competition was already increasing between destinations, not only within Australia but around the world for the last decade or so, recognising the value of business events, high-yield, high-spending visitors, and also the economic tail that I spoke of from hosting a business event.

So destinations were already cashed up. There’s incredible infrastructure across Asia and the Middle East, in particular, (has been) winning a lot of international business that was already tough to win. With international events not existing for two years, that competition is will absolutely go through the roof. Those destinations that already had a big kitbag of resources are probably going to double or triple that to ensure that they can win their business back really quickly and swiftly.

From an Australian perspective, we’re in a great position because of our Covid safety record and we’re a very unique product with a lot of great growth industries that the world can learn from. I’m sure we’ll win business but that competition will be so much more challenging and difficult moving forward. For each jurisdiction in Australia, it’s going to be critically important that they secure even more support from their state governments through their city councils.

Because unless the resources are available in a bid funding and infrastructure supply sense, it’s going to be really challenging for Adelaide and Australia as a whole to do business. I look at the domestic market and my colleagues that have in the past, totally focused on international business. They’ve of course had to pivot back to the domestic market because international business just doesn’t exist. Even in the domestic market, the competition has increased significantly as well. But again, Adelaide is a proud destination with a lot to offer and we’re up for the challenge.

When you said you’ve changed your strategy for Asia, how will it be different? Normally you would be in-market, travelling overseas to be part of exhibitions and fairs. Many people have more or less Zoomed out as well, so there are not that many options.
You raise a really good point. It’s incredibly challenging. We don’t have in-market resources in Asia or China. We were about to, before Covid struck and we’ve obviously pulled back. I’m going to give credit to Business Events Australia that (are helping) destinations like us that don’t have resources in-market. They’ve tried to keep us linked to the local market in China and across Asia, to keep that communication going and keep Adelaide and South Australia top of mind. But again, I think the opportunity will bounce back and we’ll certainly make the most of that.

But that bounce-back will be gradual and won’t be a 100 per cent recovery in 2022. All the research, particularly through the aviation sector, says it could be as far away as 2024. Which is a long way away for a return to full economic impact and benefit for a destination. We don’t (even) know what’s happening tomorrow or the next week or the next month. You’ve just got to take it with baby steps and do the very best that you can with what you’ve got in front of you.

What else is on your mind?
(Also on my mind is that) the next pinnacle point for our industry is the end of JobKeeper (Australia’s Covid wage support scheme which ended March 31), which could be a challenge.

I think we’re at a point as an industry that we need to present one voice (to the federal government). We have the Business Events Council of Australia and I’m on the board of the Association of Australian Convention Bureaux. We also have Meetings and Events Australia (and others) but I think all of these associations need to come together from a strategic sense, to communicate with and brief the government, rather than the sort of ad hoc random approach that’s happening at the moment.

I think the time is right as members, the industry, products and suppliers are probably fed up with paying four or five different subscriptions. We need to come together as one organisation because we need the support from government especially with the end of JobKeeper – putting many of our products and suppliers at risk – and we can only achieve that through one voice. And if Australia can’t present a full supply of products and services, it’s going to be really difficult to win that international business back.

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