On the 30th August New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that after 18 weary days of level 3 lockdown, restrictions in Auckland would be lifted to, not level 2 but what she self described as “level 2.5” – As if the rules on restrictions are not confusing enough, this bewildering announcement left many scratching their heads as they wondered how to manage their daily lives for the foreseeable future.
Just two days later the New Zealand Health Minister Chris Hipkins took it upon himself to publicly state that he “wasn’t comfortable” with Aucklanders travelling to conferences in Queenstown. This is despite the acknowledgement that business events are not termed as “gatherings” and have been given to all clear to take place for up to 100 people.
Here is an account from Lisa Hopkins, CEO at Conventions & Incentives New Zealand, of the consequences of the PM’s unclear communication and seemingly unscripted comments of the New Zealand Health Minister, for the New Zealand business events community.
”Up until a couple of weeks ago, New Zealand was making a domestic business events industry work. It certainly didn’t come close to the size and scale of what we were used to with Australian and international events, but it ensured we retained some staff, kept the industry ticking over and engaging with customers for the future. That mattered, ensuring we had a pipeline gave us optimism. Yet in the blink of an eye, that was taken away when Auckland, the economic powerhouse of New Zealand was forced into a lockdown due to community transmission of COVID-19 within one family. What followed took the industry by surprise and affected us on multiple fronts.
The virus did spread amongst the contacts of the family, quickly, silently, but thankfully, not deadly. In its wake is New Zealand’s largest cluster to date. Fortunately, due to the actions of the family and the contact tracing process, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health were able to respond with equal voracity, putting in place new processes not used before. But the damage was done and the Prime Minister announced that Auckland was closed, you couldn’t get in unless you were a resident or with special permission. For two and a half weeks, Auckland sat stagnant as the rest of the country wondered what had hit them. Where were the Tourists? Where were the business travellers? Where were the business events bookings?
Finally, at 1 minute before midnight, on Sunday, 30th August, Auckland moved to Level 2.5, while the rest of the country stayed at Level 2. This is when lines started to blur. What exactly is Level 2.5?
While it was a clear request to wear a mask when travelling on public transport, somehow the message around business events got very muddy. The term “gathering” seemed to take on a new life and many, particularly customers, assumed gathering referred to “mass gathering”, a term the Prime Minister used with frequency in the earlier days of the pandemic. In fact, the term gathering applies to a private or social gathering and in Auckland, the restriction is a maximum of 10 people. This “gathering” could be a birthday party or wedding. The exception was for funerals where numbers increased to 50. However, for events in a controlled environment, such as conference venues, the limit is 100, with physical distancing.
This week, we have seen three alterations to the COVID-19 website on Event Facilities, albeit all saying the same thing but with a change of format . What you can and can’t do is getting clearer, the repercussions around lack of clarity have been dire. The inability for officials to explain in the most simplistic of terms, the difference between a “Gathering” and the use of an “Event Facility”, including a conference venue has created a maelstrom of cancellations and postponements. The industry now needs to try and rebuild itself again in a much tougher more tenuous climate. What’s needed now is clear leadership, communication and consultation with the Business Events community to give us an opportunity to rebuild again with a degree of confidence.
After all, confidence is the diet of choice that feeds our industry.
Ngā mihi nui