Peter Jones looks at the whiteboard in his North Melbourne office that — ironically, now — he put up just a couple of months ago to visualise his frantic year ahead.
“Olympic dinner, gone. Committee for Melbourne event, gone. Starry Night … gone,” he says as he places a cross against his list of cancellations.
A stalwart of the major events industry, Mr Jones says the pandemic has been “the worst thing you could ever imagine in your wildest dreams for the events industry as a whole”.
Until now, the authorities’ focus has been on reuniting households and allowing small gatherings.
But Australia’s iconic major events and functions are, at this stage, on hold indefinitely, with no federal guidelines as to how they will be able to return.
Industry insiders fear it will be early next year before the multi-billion-dollar industry can start to revive.
It’s estimated cancellations of both major events and business events will account for a $35 billion loss to the economy in 12 months and more than 92,000 jobs.
Crowd events likely lost for a year
Mr Jones considers the fate of the AFL parade he’s organised for 24 years.
“You’re talking about an event that takes about eight months to plan, has about two and a half thousand people that are involved in putting it together, the hiring, all of the infrastructure that goes into it, it’s broadcast on TV … you can’t say, well, we’re going to do half of that,” he says.
Mr Jones says when he recently asked the City of Melbourne for a permit for the parade, “I think they laughed at me”.
“I was only half joking, knowing what the response would be. They’re not in a position to [give a permit].”
He says it could be months before those sort of events can happen.
“New Year’s Eve for councils would have to be a big issue,” he says.
He fears many smaller operators in the industry will not be able to ride out the crisis.
“We will never ever go back to what we were. And as an industry, we need to adapt.”
The moment the Grand Prix pulled the pin
Andrew Westacott was in the unenviable position of presiding over the first major event in Australia to be sucked into the pandemic’s vortex: the complex multinational behemoth that is the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Over a number of days before the March event, it was mired in confusion and controversy as drivers wondered aloud why the race was going ahead.
Some pulled the pin and flew out, hours before angry fans were eventually told of the cancellation as they gathered outside Albert Park gates on Friday, March 13 (Mr Westacott remembers the date with a slight raise of his eyebrows), just two days ahead of the race.
“We were unaware that several of the drivers had caught early morning flights out of Australia,” Mr Westacott says in his first on-camera interview since that time.
“The decision actually hadn’t been officially made by the FAA in Formula One and ourselves until early that morning.
Mr Westacott had been juggling his international bosses, commercial rightsholders, state and federal health authorities and Australian Border Force.
“There were a lot of inputs,” he says.
Still, weeks later, he says the decision-making was sound.
“I actually don’t think anything went wrong … [but] I still send our apologies to the fans who had travelled so, so many distances,” he says.
“I think we made the right decision at the right time.”
He’s upbeat that next year’s event will go ahead in some form.
“With an open-air park on a very, very large footprint, we actually probably have a lot of benefits over some enclosed spaces,” he says.
“But there are also some challenges when it comes to temporary infrastructure.”
Mr Westacott says they extended the bump-out of the event for the contractors who were doing it tough, and are still working their way through refunds and credits for disappointed fans.
When asked if he would, like his counterparts at the Australian Open, consider a scenario inviting New Zealand fans over if the “travel bubble” with Australia proceeds, he laughs: “I don’t disagree with that sort of principle. One of the things I’ve always said is that we steal shamelessly.”
‘We have no baseline’ on tackling the crisis
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley watched the unfolding mess at the Grand Prix, knowing he had avoided the viral bullet by mere weeks.
“I spoke to Andrew [Westacott] following it. And we felt for Formula One and the organisation, because no one knew,” he says.
“They were just trying to do what they felt was the best thing at that point in time, not knowing how quickly this thing was moving.
“It was heavily criticised for it, but … it totally turned out to be the right decision.”
Mr Tiley says there are lessons from the Grand Prix’s perfect storm of misfortune.
“One of the learnings that we have taken from that, and we did this with our organisation, is we’ve tried to make a decision as early as possible,” he says.
“And not really knowing if it’s the right decision, but making sure that is the best decision for that moment in time.”
Mr Tiley believes his team was in a better position to handle uncontrollable situations than it might have been, having had its own brush with a natural disaster — choking smoke from bushfires at January’s event.
Still, he says: “We have no baseline, and no sport and no government has a baseline, on how to manage [these crises].”
Tennis Australia is lucky too, to have made the relatively uncommon investment in pandemic insurance, although that runs out in July.
The Grand Prix showed the high stakes of a mishandled cancellation and the risks to public confidence and health if a restart is bungled are immense.
Mr Tiley says the key will be establishing trust through honest communication with the public.
“It has to be authentic, has to be transparent,” he says.
“I think that’s really important, not just for sport, but for everyone to do, because from a leadership point of view, the moment you don’t become believable, then you can’t get anything done.”
Call for support from government for business events
While Mr Tiley says professional sports are sharing their strategies about how to navigate the murky months ahead, event planner Peter Jones says the wider industry needs to do more.
“The industry has actually got to get together for the first time like it probably hasn’t [before], and be able to go out with a set of guidelines saying this is the way we will operate,” he says.
“And that’s then going to be communicated to the general public.”
Anne Jamieson, vice-president of the Victorian Tourism Industry Council, says governments also need to come to the party more when it comes to business events.
They are the large conferences, gala dinners, charity events, that are a similarly huge economic driver as major events — bringing in $3.4 billion in Victoria alone, versus $2.5 billion by major events — but without the public profile.
“We’d probably like to see a little bit more support come from government,” Ms Jamieson says.
“I think that we need to be careful that [the sector] doesn’t get left behind.”
Expect your public events to change forever
And coming back, she says, won’t be straightforward.
“Somebody’s going to have to take the step to actually run an event and test everything that needs to be done from a health and safety perspective, from how they’re going to manage delegates, how they’re going to manage registrations, et cetera,” she says.
“They’re probably going to have to have an action plan in place for every single event from a health and safety perspective, and actually have a ground crew running every day to make sure that they’re mitigating and managing people that are potentially not complying to what they actually need to comply to.”
Ms Jamieson and Mr Jones fear for the future of networking events, where no streaming platform can replace the buzz and connection that comes with pre-COVID-19 mingling.
Mr Jones says to get ready for public events to change forever.
“I can still see in years to come, people being checked for health.
“People can check for names, where they’ve been, maybe there is going to be an app that says, ‘I’ve been to the football, I’ve been here’ … that will happen, because we will never ever go back to what we were.”