Bruce Keebaugh is the owner of the Big Group. He lives in Melbourne, which is the most severely COVID-19 restricted city in the western world. In this second of a three-part interview Event Organisers picks up on Bruce’s comments on the need for government to understand the difference between the hospitality sector and the event industry, and the key issues we should be collectively fighting for to get us back to work.
“There’s no question that the hospitality sector has had a hard hit, but once they open their doors and the workforce is back in the CBD, their trade will come back. Our sector will have another hit for at least another 6 to 12 months because of the planning and scheduling timing required for major events, special occasions & corporate events. That’s one of the most important things to try and express at the moment, that our industry is different.
That difference also comes with a good opportunity to work with government. We have the ability with our natural observations of protocols, to be able to track, trace and isolate, and honour the six principles of COVID. This is like us bolting on, let’s call it health security, and it’s no different to the the security protocols we bolted on after 9-11. Our planning for fire, terrorism or any untoward scene is just a natural part of eventing. The event industry is the most able to support the guidance required to provide COVID safety.
State government – understanding the difference with events
I’m not going to, at my scale, be able to make big picture changes, and I’ve got my own personal outlook on COVID and the way it’s been handled, but my personal opinion does no service to the broader business. The way I see it is let’s pick off the small things that can make an impact and get us back to doing what we do.
I believe the first issue is for state government to understand the critical differences between hospitality retail, and the events sector. That’s number one. Once we get that recognition from them we can open up the conversation to large scale events having the opportunity to go ahead in a COVID safe manner. The problem with all of this is about contact tracing – there is no other big issue bar contact tracing. Once the [state] government has their own contact tracing in order – which is an issue – once that becomes managed, it will become a [straight forward] user operator experience. We are the best industry for tracing and isolating, using either tech or just by using our standard operating procedures.
That then opens the door to how many people you can have at an event. Outdoor is 20 times safer than indoors, that’s a global fact. So, what we’d want from government is a number, and that’s what we’re fighting for at the moment – that outdoor density quotient, so we can work out what the numbers are for the spring summer season of outdoor events. That’s what we’re pushing government for. Once we get that – and I hope we should see some answers on that soon – it then leads to the indoor density quotient, which will allow for versions of business events and social occasions to go ahead. There’s an amazing amount of revenue sitting on event companies’ books for weddings. We have to solve that issue for weddings because, they unfortunately are considered the superspreaders for COVID at the moment. We’ve currently got 8 to 12 months of bridal work that hasn’t gone anywhere. So, next year 2021 will be just stacked with so much work.
Common rules for COVID between states? – That train has left the station
If I’ve learnt anything over this period of time it’s that the variance of politics between the states has caused a huge amount of double handling. I initially had no understanding that each state was running its own individual COVID address. I would have thought that a state of disaster in any part of Australia should be federally overseen. This should have been an aligned Australian approach, not an individual state decision. Everyone who has a national business has now got seven codes to work to, which makes no sense. I think it’s been a huge waste of resources having done it seven times, rather than just once and done well.
Federal government aid – JobKeeper and banks
The broader issue for industry that we should be fighting for as a collective, is for JobKeeper to be extended at the same rate, and then extended beyond March for the events industry – not for retail because as I said earlier that will bounce back. The events sector is going to hurt for a long time, so there will be a massive group of people who will be out of work, post March, due to the force majeure of COVID.
Over and above JobKeeper, the amount of funding that has been made open to banks [for lending] has been incredible. But the banks then making that funding open to business has been the problem. There’s a multi-billion dollar fund sitting there on offer from Reserve Bank, but it’s not being handed out by the banks, because the rates are so low and the profitability on those loans is not as generous.
They don’t want to lend money out at .25% return for a guaranteed loan from the Reserve Bank. It’s supposed to be there as a stimulus, not a commercial opportunity for banks. The funding has been moving very slowly and a push on that would help.”
NEXT TIME – Bruce Keebaugh – What next? Opportunities for events as we come out of COVID