Bushfires to coronavirus: An Australian perspective on the challenges of 2020

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Bushfires to coronavirus: An Australian perspective on the challenges of 2020

By Penny Lion, Executive General Manager Events at Tourism Australia

It has been a challenging start to the year for the Australian business events industry, first with the bushfires and now with the coronavirus pandemic unfolding around the world.

It’s at times like these, especially, that national tourism organisations, like the team at Tourism Australia, are here to support our industry and, in particular, to support recovery when events and travel resume globally. Even as I write, with the Covid-19 crisis around the world continuing to deepen, softening the impacts is becoming more and more difficult. However, we continue to plan for when business events are able to re-emerge, so Australia’s industry can do so with strength.

Event agencies, alongside tourism, venue and hotel operators and other industry suppliers – in essence those who ensure Australia’s business events industry remains among the most creative, effective and sought-after in the world – all benefit from our ability to provide an international and national perspective, to gather insights from across the industry and provide a platform for the industry to unite with one voice to endure these difficult times and emerge on the other side.

Unlike the unfolding global coronavirus situation, Australia was alone in kicking off the year with a bushfire crisis which devastated a number of communities (and popular local summer holiday spots) in parts of the country including in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

During the bushfire crisis, a critical aspect of our response was to dispel the myths created within the vast coverage of the fires across news outlets and social media platforms around the world.

From an international perspective, perhaps the most significant myth was the perception that the whole of Australia was on fire, when in fact most tourism operators and business events offerings were not directly affected by the fires and remained open for business. This needed to be dispelled quickly to avoid knock-on effects for destinations not in bushfire-affected areas. Australia’s vastness and diversity is a major asset but to really understand our size can be difficult for those in more compact countries with higher population densities.

Tourism Australia acted swiftly to dispel the myths and reframe perceptions, working with state tourism organisations around the country to create a regularly updated interactive map on Australia.com showing which destinations were and weren’t impacted by bushfires, making it immediately clear that most of Australia was indeed open for business. This became a valuable tool for our stakeholders and worldwide media to communicate quickly the real scale of the bushfires in Australia, providing a counterpoint to the various inaccuracies circling the web. Our strong relationships with media around the world also helped us to spread this information to our customers.

Tourism Australia’s interactive map made it immediately clear that most of Australia was indeed open for business during the 2019/2020 summer. See the live map here.

The international business events side of our business was less impacted than leisure travel during the bushfire crisis, due to the longer lead time for incentives and conferences. Tourism Australia was quick to instigate a communications strategy to offset this impact to leisure travel – alongside appropriate assets – which was sensitive in its time and tone. Communications balanced acknowledgement of the bushfire tragedy with a call to visit regions which were open for business so as not to compound issues for affected operators who had already recovered and those who were never directly impacted.

We also acted quickly to deliver domestic campaigns calling for Australians to ‘Holiday Here This Year’ and ‘Event Here This Year’ rather than going abroad. Backed by the Australian Government’s National Bushfire Recovery Fund, the campaigns’ leverage Australian visitation and spend to support communities and help offset the economic impact of the bushfires. Here again we are lucky – Australia has such a vast and varied landscape that suggesting Australians should explore their home instead of heading abroad is still to recommend discovery of new territory for most of us.

As Australia began to emerge from the bushfires, it was pleasing to see the events industry playing an important role in the recovery of affected regional destinations. Our Event Here This Year campaign has highlighted the significant boost business events provide the economy and we’ve seen several corporates choose regional destinations for their meetings. In major venues, many have made a purposeful shift to sourcing produce from affected areas, thereby creating an even more Australian experience for international delegates.

Equally as heart-warming as the international outpouring of support for Australia during the bushfires, was the way our industry united in the face of adversity. Now with Covid-19 bringing even greater uncertainty to those in the business of delivering events, at least we are in practice.

And so, having weathered the bushfires, Australia, along with many other countries across the globe, is feeling the impacts of the coronavirus and its devastating impact on travel, tourism and events. We are now united with the rest of the global industry in facing an unprecedented pause to business for an unquantifiable period.

As with the bushfires, time and tone remains so important to us as we balance the real and informed need to not hold mass gatherings to slow the spread of the virus, with the significant and immediate impact to the many businesses, small and large, which make up our industry and all those who work in them. Alongside this, too, is the need to plan for the return phase so we can position Australia accordingly.

 

Penny Lion, Executive General Manager Events at Tourism Australia

Penny Lion, Executive General Manager Events at Tourism Australia

To maintain this delicate balancing act, now, more than ever, it serves us well to come back to what we know and where we know we excel.

We know the current situation with the coronavirus won’t last forever. And if anything, coronavirus is demonstrating how much we all collectively value the inimitable connection of face-to-face, not to mention the huge economic impact of events on our communities.

We know Australia has a lot to offer the global knowledge economy, which is important for Australia as an association conference destination. The coronavirus pandemic is proving this – the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne was the first to grow the virus from an Australian patient outside China and the first globally to share this knowledge with the World Health Organisation (WHO). Scientists at the Institute have since discovered how the body’s immune system responds to the virus – a step towards being able to predict which cases might become severe and finding new treatments by ascertaining what’s lacking from the immune response in those patients.

For now, it’s a case of reassessing and adapting our strategy to ensure Australia’s offering and industry get noticed in what will be a hugely crowded marketplace when the global events industry re-emerges following the conclusion of the coronavirus pandemic.

But as we help our industry to get through the shutdown, rest assured, we are also planning for the spectacular rebirth of our events industry post-coronavirus.