Simon Thewlis is the managing director of Melbourne based events business Event Pty Ltd. For the past few decades he has produced major public events through to a variety of business events for well-known brands. He is one of the founders of Save Victorian Events, a group that has been set up to give a voice to business events in Victoria and those who work within it, particularly small businesses and individuals. To get involved and add your voice, go to www.savevictorianevents.com.au. Here are Simon’s thoughts on why we each need to play our part in getting us back to the business of events again.
“Business events are at their most effective and valuable, during times of challenge and change. They bring people together as teams, which help them overcome those challenges and embrace the changes.
We’ve seen this first-hand in our work: using events to change the cultures of organisations, getting staff to embrace new strategies and bringing everyone working together to achieve common goals. Sometimes, it’s as simple as using an event to let staff understand that they are important and a key part of a much bigger team.
Events are also used to change political & public opinion, to bring communities together, reward achievements and share messages in a compelling manner. They can be a lot of fun too!
This is what drives me and is why I’ve enjoyed producing events for a few decades.
For most organisations, there has never been a more challenging time of change than the present. So, it is a time when events have never been more needed and can have more impact. Paradoxically, it is also a time when there have never been more barriers to holding events.
All business events in Victoria were banned on 13 March and currently most types of virtual events are not even allowed.
As we all are painfully aware, this has had a devastating impact on the businesses and vast numbers of people involved on our industry. Most have not earned any income for six months and the stories we keep hearing are heart breaking.
Save Victorian Events
This is what caused some of us to get together to start the Save Victorian Events campaign. We strongly believe in the value of events and in the important role they should be playing in rebuilding our businesses, our community, and our country. Yet, we could see that nothing was happening to get events happening again or to let our industry survive.
Save Victorian Events has a strong focus on small businesses and freelancers – the people who are responsible for most economic activity in the event industry. They are also the people who are doing it toughest.
Our first focus has been to get recognition for events as the large and sophisticated industry that it is, and that it should be a key part of Victoria’s recovery.
It has been quite staggering to discover that so many in government don’t even have the most basic understanding of the event industry: who is in it, what is does, how it works, its economic model and that the event industry really is an industry, and not just something tacked onto tourism. Our economic model is different to that of the tourism industry.
Our second focus is trying to get some financial support for the event industry.
Apart from JobKeeper, many small businesses have not been eligible for federal or state government support. And JobKeeper won’t work for many, especially with the new lower rates.
Our third focus is to get our industry reopened and working again as soon as possible. Business events in Victoria seem to have been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ by the state government.
One of our first actions was getting 1,150 members of the event industry from more than 450 individual business to send emails to the Victorian Minister for Tourism and Major Events, and ask for support for our industry. We than managed to get another 470 members of the event industry to send emails to their local members of parliament seeking their support. There have been positive responses from across parliament.
There has been an extraordinary number of long phone conversations, briefing documents and detailed emails to explain our industry and what it needs to survive, to countless people. Not to mention the work we’ve done with trade and representative organisations involved with the event industry.
We are now part of the conversation and have (quite vocally) participated in the Victorian government’s industry roundtables, never missing an opportunity to advocate for business events and our industry. But while we’ve made some progress and caused some change, it is not enough or soon enough, as some businesses have already gone and many other are struggling to survive.
There is still no confirmed roadmap in Victoria for reopening our industry.
Re-imagining what events can be
At the same time, we need to be re-imagine what events can be.
Many people are thinking in terms of either doing things as they have always done, or simply producing a livestream experience instead. But this misses the point about what makes events so special and powerful.
At its heart, an event is a shared experience. Whether the experience is shared with five people, five hundred or five thousand people, it doesn’t really matter. It is the fact that it is an experience that’s shared with other people.
It is possible to share information with people who are sitting at home by themselves and at their computers, but this will never be a shared experience, it will never be an event. It doesn’t have the warmth, energy or the emotional contagion that you get when you are physically together with other people – it doesn’t have the bonding or the lasting impact of an event.
It might be a while before we can get everyone together [in large groups] again in one big room. In the meantime, we can still think of creative ways to get smaller groups of people together and then make them part of one large event.
It could for example, be taking what I call a ‘hub & spoke’ approach (what some will call hybrid) – bringing small groups of people together for events in their local area, to be part of a central hub event, with main presenters whose sessions can be broadcast to those smaller events. And the hub events would certainly have a small audience, because presenters do their best when they interact with, and feed off live audiences.
With this approach an event can be a combination of presentations being broadcast from the hub, whilst having more workshop-like activities for people to do locally. And you could add in local elements, such as food and gifts – to give a sense of occasion.
In some ways, the concept is no different to when some of us had Melrose Place nights in the 90s. The main content was coming from one location, but we were all having our own events across the country, to share it. And with modern technology there can now be much more two-way interaction.
We each need to play our part
There’s a long road ahead to get events happening again. It is not going to be quick or easy.
– We need governments to allow events to happen.
– Our clients need to feel confident that it is considered acceptable to hold events again.
– Our audiences and our delegates need to feel confident that events are safe to attend.
It is easy to believe that someone else, or an industry body will get this all sorted out for us. The simple reality though, is that won’t be the case. We each need to play our part.
Democracy is a numbers game, so governments need to see that the community wants events to be happening and supported. A critical part of this is showing the overall benefits of events to the community. The real benefits of business events are still neither widely understood nor appreciated.
We certainly need to get the Victorian government to understand the role that events can play in bringing our communities back together, in rebuilding confidence and in restoring Victoria’s reputation.
We can show our clients all the different approaches that can be taken for their events, so they can understand how they can be staged in innovative ways that will be safe and effective.
We need the public to see events being done in a safe and careful manner, to build their confidence – to give us social licence to operate them – and to then to be willing to attend events themselves.
We create & organise events and we are good at re-imagining what events could look like. We understand the huge benefits that can be gained from holding events. And we are good at communicating these sorts of messages to broad groups of stakeholders. It is what we do.
So, it’s up to each one of us. We all need to play a role in rebuilding our industry and to have an events led recovery.