While business travel and events confidence is building due to the uptick in bookings, it is not quite as simple as picking up where the industry left off pre-COVID. The long-term effects of the pandemic and its subsequent devastation will take years to repair, and the industry will never be quite the same again.
This was highlighted during a Road to Recovery webinar held by the SA Events Council earlier this month.
The panel discussion and debate about the road to recovery for the sector was mediated by Projeni Pather, Chair of the Association of African Exhibition Organisers.
Panellists, Tes Proos (President the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence), Glenton De Kock (Chair of the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry), Justin Hawes (Treasurer of the Event Greening Forum), Justin Van Wyk (South African Live Performance Association), Ellen Oosthuizen (Chair of the Professional Conference Organisers’ Alliance Network), Kevan Jones (Executive Director of the Southern African Communications Industries’ Association), Tiisetso Tau (Managing Director of Synergy Business Events), Charles Wilson, (Chief Executive Officer of Gallagher Convention Centre) and Raylene Johnson (Chair of the SA Events Council), brought forward topics of concern and dealt with questions from the virtual attendees.
Despite the fundamental differences across the various venues, services, live events, conference and exhibition organisers, incentive travel and destination management companies attending the webinar, common threads emerged across the different discussions.
These were the key take-outs from the event:
It is still not economically viable to run at even 50% capacity for some types of events. When audience capacities include support staff like catering, security, front-of-house and performers, it becomes impossible to generate sufficient turnover to pay all involved with adequate profit to stay afloat. However, we are slowly gaining ground and the latest regulations are another step forward.
Health and safety protocols
Although clear-cut protocols exist for events, they are interpreted differently between municipalities, and their application varies between organisations and events, making touring or multi-city events very difficult. Implementing protocols that are subsequently disregarded or inadequately enforced on show day, is simply a waste of effort and budget. It is equally counter-intuitive to put audiences and staff at risk by circumventing measures meant to keep them safe.
Skills gaps and staffing
Widespread furloughs and company closures resulted in many events-sector professionals and semi-skilled staff moving to the Middle East or elsewhere, to work. Of those who remain, some are eager to get back to work, while others are reluctant to relinquish the new careers they have forged. The resultant skills gaps across our industry will take months of training to resolve and, even then, will not be anywhere close to the skills levels at which the sector previously operated.
For those further up the supply chain, the loss of trusted suppliers has set back their ability to plan and provide events of the same calibre as before.
Operators in the business travel and events space have had to sacrifice valuable infrastructure both individually and as an industry (the sale of the TicketPro Dome). The events sector is classified as high-risk, so it isn’t easy to obtain loans to rebuy assets or refinance premises. One of the key questions is: “How do we recapitalise the industry?”
The ongoing uncertainty about whether events can go ahead, at what capacities and under which regulations, has resulted in rapidly contracting lead times. When clients hold off on confirmation until the last minute, for fear of cancellation, the knock-on effect puts enormous pressure on the organisers, venues and suppliers who are left to fulfil the brief with minimal planning and less build time.
Pricing and affordability
Affordability is exacerbated by staff who, in light of the skills gap, demand higher salaries or even increases, and clients who are unable to provide budgets in line with pre-pandemic expenditure. Currently, the sector is earning less and paying more than it did in 2019. The question is, “How do we bridge this gap?”.
Participants were automatically transferred to breakaway discussions to discuss segment-specific concerns, exchange ideas and brainstorm potential solutions before returning to the main room to share their insights with the floor.
As an industry that “sells an experience”, the inability to properly fulfil the objective, whether due to insufficient time, overly constrained budgets, skills shortages or safety lapses, translates to a lost client. These are vital areas for the sector to rectify.
Perhaps the most critical obstacle is the prevailing uncertainty around events. The government urgently needs to provide a clearly defined plan for our industry to open up effectively and implement support mechanisms to protect people’s livelihoods. We also need the banking sector to make low-cost funding packages available for the reinvestment our sector requires to restart.
During lockdown, the SA Events Council established various engagement platforms with governmental and financial entities and opened channels of communication. “Our work does not end here; we must continue to occupy an area within a variety of government spaces, to maintain awareness and extend the influence of our sector,” said a spokesperson for the SA Events Council.
Flexibility and capacity building
In the interim, however, the sector needs to remain flexible and rebuild organisational capacity to accommodate clients as they struggle with commitment and budget. The sector needs to be adaptable around financial constraints and negotiate a way forward with clients, suppliers, and partners to ensure that «the show goes on».
Health and safety regulations are key
As long as stakeholders interpret the Health and Safety regulations to suit their own commercial agendas, the sector cannot move forward. Health and Safety regulations for communicable diseases are here to stay, and unless all stakeholders work together to resume event-related activities responsibly and safely, the events sector is damaging its own credibility.
Focus on skills building
In the absence of many of the experienced event professionals the sector knew and trusted, piloting staff contracts on an “as and when basis” and employing interns with a view to full-time employment, is one way to move forward.
The focus should be on retaining, attracting and developing talent within the industry. Bringing new people into the industry is a very positive step, and while it will necessitate time spent on training, we will have a pool of reasonably skilled people again after a transition period. How quickly and to what levels we can upskill them, depends entirely on their level of commitment and our collective efforts!
Collaboration and communication
Not only have events suffered the stigma of being labelled as dangerous super-spreaders, but the announcement of the Omicron variant relegated South Africa to ‘red lists’ worldwide.
Both the sector and the country have suffered reputational damage. It is time to take control of the narrative and let people know that South African events are safely open for business and give clarity on travel requirements.