5 minutes with BECA chair Dr Vanessa Findlay on the road to recovery

As the Business Events Council of Australia (BECA) finalises its COVID-19 Business Events Response & Recovery framework, newly appointed independent chair Dr Vanessa Findlay spoke exclusively with CIM about what a recovery strategy for the business event sector looks like.

What was your first priority when taking on the role? It was really clear that we needed to have a very good handle on the value of the industry. You could describe it as a canary in the coalmine around business confidence. Not only on its value to the economy, but also because of its catalytic nature of bringing knowledge transfer and acting as a market place for buyers and sellers.

How is access to the Federal Government? We have weekly meetings with the Minister [Simon Birmingham] and weekly meetings with policy leads such as Austrade and Tourism Australia. The Minister and lead agencies have been incredibly generous with their access and keeping us up to date with their thinking and development in regard to what government can provide.

It is about working very closely in partnership to understand what a good environment looks like to sustain this industry through this difficult time, and also help it rebound the other side as well.

How important was the government’s JobKeeper announcement? The JobKeeper package was pivotal for the industry because that was the first thing we needed to address. How do we keep our core capacity and capability in place for the post Covid-19 environment? One thing we observed was even before government formally put in place their restrictions, corporate, associations and businesses were making the decision that the risk was too high for their employees to be travelling even as early as January.

The impact on the business events sector happened much sooner and ramped up much more quickly, so there were businesses that were in trouble then as cash flow went from normal to zero within a couple of weeks.

What is the current situation across the sector? We don’t have a single event booked in the industry at the moment for 2020. What we have now with 96 per cent of cancellations or postponements, the 4 per cent were the events that happened in January or early February for those that took a risk.

Those businesses that lost business early on and couldn’t see a way forward prior to the government announcement of a second round of stimulus with JobKeeper, hopefully some of them will now be able to come back online and access it.

But for those that don’t one of the central drivers in our response plan is our incentives program. It’s about getting people booking events in 2021 and having the confidence to do so because we have a government program that provides some extra financial support.

The goal of that is that deposits can be paid, the industry can start booking the service component of an event and we can start seeing cash flow through the supply chain again.

Hopefully that will help businesses at least sustain themselves through this really difficult time and we can start to rebound and grow again out of the other side.

What is the recovery timeline? The government is actually saying we are ahead of where we thought we would be in response to Covid-19. If we can create an incentive [for events] to keep their bookings or make a booking for 2021, Australia is looking really good.

We know the early response stage of business events is going to be domestically focused. We are not even thinking about how to bring international events back online. We have ideas but that is very clearly phase two.

What other support is being considered? One of things we are thinking about as a backup is a cancellation relief fund, so if in 2021 we need to go to plan B a cancellation relief fund then provides another mechanism to make sure companies, associations and corporates could be reimbursed or rebook for later on.

We haven’t ruled out compensation [for events that cancelled this year] but I really think now we are in the territory of the government having established a really good mechanism for sustaining the majority of businesses through this tough phase. They will be focusing their attention and resources left on rebuilding the economy.

Of course the business events sector is in such a good position to assist that not only because of the direct contribution that it makes through revenue but also that additional value add through knowledge creation, bringing buyers and sellers together and regional dispersion.

Any increase in Tourism Australia’s Bid Fund program? We are hoping so. It definitely needs to be reshaped and it needs to take into account the fact we are not in anywhere close to a normal environment when the bid fund was set up.

It was set up around attracting events that Australia otherwise would not have been competitive to bid for. So in a Covid-19 environment that needs to be reshaped for at least two to three years to get any event back into Australia.

We have been realistic in thinking through the realities of when the Australian border is going to be opened up to international visitors again and 2020 is looking likely that isn’t going to be the year.

We are really focused at the moment on how we enhance the domestic offering because we have to go through that phasing of intrastate borders being lifted, interstate borders being lifted and then we have the regional and metro play as well.