When the COVID-19 crisis hit Australia in March 2020, gathering and travel restrictions “completely changed the operating environment for International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney and our clients,” said Geoff Donaghy, the center’s CEO. The convention center has taken steps to recover business through virtual and hybrid solutions and vaccine distribution began in February — so what’s next?
“Our immediate focus is on the return of the national conferences and exhibitions sector, building back up to pre-COVID-19 levels,” Donaghy said. “Taking a longer-term view, we are working with industry partners, [as well as] federal and state decision makers to support the safe return of international events to Australian shores in 2022.”
Donaghy spoke with Convene via email about how Australia is managing local industry hurdles, building back its knowledge economy, and more. Here’s what he had to say.
How is ICC Sydney is handling the pandemic and the road to recovery?
Since March 2020, we have continuously evolved our services in response to client needs and, thanks to our world-class team, have been able to quickly tackle any challenges head on. For example, following the initial shut down of all in-person events, ICC Sydney innovated to launch virtual events services which rapidly evolved into our industry-leading Hybrid Event Solutions, seamlessly merging technology with live experiences.
This has allowed clients to host attendees here on site whilst also live streaming to an unlimited number of remote attendees. We’ve had strong client uptake, delivering more than 200 hybrid and virtual events since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia.
We were making steady progress toward the end of last year. However, Australia experienced a knock to confidence in late December when part of our state, New South Wales, was declared a hotspot following an outbreak linked to 28 cases that grew to 144. As a result, gathering restrictions were tightened and events planned for early 2021 were pushed out to later in the year.
Thankfully, Australia has been able to contain the most recent outbreaks and restrictions have once again eased, allowing us to host a mix of in-person and hybrid national events with rigorous safety measures in place, including EventSafe Guide, which meets the current NSW Government restrictions and draws on ASM Global’s VenueShield — a program of hygienic safeguards, informed by public health authorities deployed in ASM Global’s 325 worldwide facilities.
ICC Sydney’s close engagement with clients and stakeholders has meant that we have remained open, adapting to the current health regulations throughout the pandemic. The team has proven we are ready to ramp up our services and resources to hold more and larger events, whether it is 100- percent in-person or in a hybrid format.
What have you learned from the last year dealing with the pandemic that you believe other event centers and leaders might find helpful?
The current climate has brought about a need to be ever more flexible and adjust to the variables that the pandemic presents. We are laser-focused on collaborating with clients to translate the latest regulations into event plans, helping to make adjustments to bookings or floorplans, and taking into consideration the needs of both in-person and remote audiences.
It is important to remain agile in these uncertain times and foster client confidence by demonstrating the safe hosting of events. Here, communication has been the cornerstone of our recovery. We keep our clients fully informed on the current state of affairs at ICC Sydney and our destination via regular updates, even if we don’t always have positive news to share.
You have talked about how “the knowledge economy” is the silent sufferer of COVID-19. Can you expand on this?
The financial impact of the pandemic on Australia’s economic health has been well documented. Specifically looking at our industry, the Business Council of Australia (BECA) reported a loss of $35 billion in direct expenditure to the Australian economy and over 230,000 jobs being affected as a result of the pandemic.
Protecting jobs has been the main focus of recovery so that the industry is ready to manage a comeback as restrictions ease and the vaccination program rolls out. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The long-term impact on the global knowledge economy which is silently suffering needs to be addressed.
Business events are where the brightest minds come together to solve the world’s problems – from health and medical breakthroughs, technology and ethics, engineering and development, to environmental sustainability and more.
Meeting in person allows for networking opportunities, business exchanges, recruitment efforts, and introductions. Some of the greatest business ideas, scientific developments, and technical innovations have been sparked during an event workshop or in the corridors outside of formal sessions. Connections are made and actions are taken, which otherwise may never have taken place.
We need to move beyond operating in survival mode and focus our recovery efforts on getting back to safely hosting face-to-face events so that the non-direct, consequential benefits of meetings start to flow again.
What are the local industry challenges that are ongoing in Australia due to the pandemic?
The major constraint we now face in Australia is the lack of state border clarity and consistency, which creates a lack of confidence among potential delegates about traveling interstate. Until there is a unified approach to the definition of hot spots and border management, the industry is very much hamstrung. Additionally, Australia currently has closed international borders. Widespread COVID-19 vaccines are an essential hurdle we must overcome before we will see the return of international events. It has been heartening to see the roll out of the first vaccinations in Australia in February.
Where do you see ICC Sydney this time next year?
Australia’s management of the coronavirus pandemic stands us in good stead for the safe resumption of events nationally, of which we are starting to see the beginnings of recovery. By early 2022, we hope to see the national conference and exhibition sector return to pre-pandemic levels and for more of our international events to go ahead in a hybrid format with local delegates attending in person and international delegates attending online via ICC Sydney Connect – our world class, in-house digital conferencing solution.
The meaningful return of international events isn’t expected until mid- to late-2022 as this is heavily reliant on the vaccination rollout globally and Australia’s borders reopening to the international community. We expect connecting with other markets through travel bubbles with federally agreed nations will come first.
This interview has been edited and condensed.