The road to recovery for events and exhibitions

114

Exactly two years after the declaration of a State of Disaster effectively brought the South African events and exhibitions industries to a standstill, and under the shadow of its extension; the SA Events Council’s Road to Recovery Webinar sparked robust debate around the way forward for this devastated sector.

Mediated by Projeni Pather, Chair of the Association of African Exhibition Organisers, representatives of the various event types came together to discuss the industry’s challenges and the path to recovery.

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 at 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 as they came in. Gavin Burgess of Technology Partners generously sponsored this important webinar.

As capacity restrictions start to relax, international travel resumes, and the fourth wave of the pandemic subsides in South Africa, events are opening up across the broader industry. While confidence is building due to the uptick in bookings, it is not quite as simple as picking up where we left off! 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.

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.

Capacity Restrictions

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

Wide-spread 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 we 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.

Infrastructure

We 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. How do we recapitalise the industry?

Lead times

The ongoing uncertainty around 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. We are earning less and paying more than we did in 2019. How do we bridge this gap?

SOLUTIONS

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. So these are vital areas for us to rectify.  

Extending our Influence

Perhaps the most critical obstacle we face 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.

Flexibility and Capacity Building

In the interim, however, we need to remain flexible and rebuild organisational capacity to accommodate our clients as they struggle with commitment and budget. We need to be adaptable around financial constraints and negotiate a way forward with our 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, we cannot move forward. Health and Safety regulations around communicable diseases are here to stay, and unless we work together to resume event-related activities responsibly and safely, we are damaging our own credibility. We will continue to work towards enforcing a standard set of regulations consistently across all segments of our Industry.

Focus on Skills Building

In the absence of many of the experienced event professionals we 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. Our 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. We have suffered reputational damage to both our industry and country. Now we must take control of our own narrative, let people know that we are safely open for business and give clarity on travel requirements. We need to rely on each other, assist one another, share our resources and collaborate towards a common goal, using our “collective IQ” to come up with innovative solutions. We cannot leave it up to a couple of entities to market South Africa as a safe destination with world-class locations and facilities. Every single one of us can echo the messaging, and between us, we also have access to a vast international network that can raise their voices with us.

We are now in a trial-and-error phase of operation with the opportunity to resume successfully, but to achieve this; we need to pull together with a shared vision and a clear, united voice as we travel the long and rocky road to recovery. Onwards and upwards, as always!