ScoMo’s meeting with the business events industry – Meet the man who set it up

It was topical news for the business events sector that a public meeting between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and industry leaders was successfully organised and took place in July. The meeting covered big problems in the meetings industry that were caused by COVID and possible solutions to aid recovery. The fact that it was a private business that made a proactive decision to make it all happen was left out. So, I decided to contact DisplayWise & Creative Hire offices—where the meeting took place—to find out more.

“I didn’t do it for the recognition, and I certainly didn’t realise how much of a workload I was getting myself in for by trying to do the right thing,” says Dylan Retif CEO of DisplayWise and co-owner of Creative Hire along with his business partner Tim Russell & Jason Cachia.

DisplayWise is a custom display builder for the exhibition & event industry, of which Dylan has been CEO since 2005. Creative Hire is the hire arm business and also sets up shell scheme and is lead by business partner Tim Russell

I ask Dylan to give me some background to the business in the lead-up to COVID. “My business partner Jason saw this first. He’s a bit more worldly. And he alluded ‘Hey this COVID thing could be a problem’ at the start of February, through an email that I still have. And my optimistic view was ‘Well, perhaps this could be an opportunity to get some manufacturing work’—because once in a while we compete with China—’so this could actually be a good thing’…”

“Well I was wrong,” he said with a depreciating laugh. “I just didn’t see—like a lot of people—the major signs and I don’t think any of us could see just how devastating it would be to the wider economy.”

“Just prior to COVID in Sydney we secured the premises next door to us and went from 4000m2 to almost 9000m2 internally. And in our Melbourne office we did something similar. We went from 1100m2 to 3000m2.”

I point out that 9000m2 is a good-sized exhibition. Dylan agrees and explains that the Melbourne lease was signed in November and Sydney’s in January.

By the time March came along and with a lock-down looming, the business had 50 employees and recently almost tripled its floor space (and therefore rent), so some significant decisions needed to be made. “We did two things,” says Dylan. “One was to mitigate our risk as much as possible. Fortunately, we were able to negotiate some good things with our landlord and some of our other business expenses, to get relief from our overhead payments. And once we’d reduced our overheads, we got a 6-month plan together.”

“Then we turned to our employees and said ‘We’ve got two options. We can either be a business that goes into hibernation, or we can stand up, innovate, and try and use this experience to create and build new products and get through it’. And that’s what we did.”

“I said to everyone ‘We are a business that designs and innovates, and we can’t do that separately and at home. It requires collaboration to come up with these new ideas and do it.’ So, we went through the business and created a COVID safe business. We did all things from the government [advice regarding distancing etc]. And we set about using JobKeeper to help us innovate new product lines and help us to pay more than JobKeeper.”

“We are paying more than JobKeeper for most of the staff—and most importantly, everyone is working.”

“We have never worked so hard (as shareholders and business owners) for no money,” he laughed. “But in that time, we’ve been able to create two businesses from it. One being ‘Pop Up Desks’ and the other ‘Bare Hygiene’—a hand sanitiser product.”

“We have one goal. We will keep doing whatever we need to do, to get through to the other side.”

A discussion about the big problems for the meetings industry caused by COVID and possible solutions to aid recovery

So, what prompted you to put together a meeting with The PM and industry leaders and how did you put that together?

“BECA [Business Events Council of Australia] has been great. They are doing a great job approaching government—approaching government in the channels they should, they have a detailed plan and have considered a load of stuff. BECA is doing a good job.”

“But what I did see in the industry, social media, and whatnot, is that people inside our industry were starting to lose hope. They were starting to feel like we were the forgotten industry—an industry that has closed first and likely will open last. And they didn’t feel that a message of hope was being given to the broader industry.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know Scott Morrison, who is now the PM, for 5 plus years. I met him as our local member for Cook, I met when he was Treasurer at a business function and then at some breakfast events. And I’ve had the privilege of being able to know the Prime Minister on a few different levels. When I saw people starting to lose hope, I thought I have an opportunity to do something and I should do something. Ultimately though, I’ve done this for my own staff. My business is my staff and I want them to know that I’ve done absolutely everything that I could during this period to give them and us the best outcome that I could. Be that creating different revenue streams through different products, or even bringing the Prime Minister into our business to have a conversation.”

“So, I reached out to the Prime Minister and asked for a public meeting. It was about pulling together a group of industry bodies to have their say directly to the Prime Minister around the effects COVID has had on our industry and what he at a federal level could do to help.”

Dylan managed to bring in Geoff Donaghy CEO of the ICC Sydney representing BECA, Robyn Johnston of Meetings & Events Australia, and Claudia Sagripanti of Exhibition & Events Association of Australia to the meeting. So, did they have anything to say that made the PM stand-up?

“Friday was the notice period I was given (that the PM would meet) and I had to inform everyone that there was a meeting on the Monday.  I was limited as to who I could invite and how, and it was very last minute. But as a group we were able to collectively come together and create some messages and as a body we managed to bring these to his attention effectively.

I’ve now connected with BECA, which has regular contact with Simon Birmingham’s offices [Minister for Trade, Tourism, & Investment], and some conversations have started that we hope will contribute to a positive outcome.

We’ve put forward suggested solutions we think will help the industry to move more confidently again. One of the biggest things the group has identified is exhibitors’ lack of confidence to invest back into an event.”

I mention that my weekly shop in Aldi was crowded, with anyone and everyone handling the fruit & veg, picking up tins of beans and placing items back on the shelves. And the amount of social distancing compared to the last business event I attended back in February is at the other end of the scale.

“One of the key messages that we as an industry group want to get out there is that business events are safe to attend,” stresses Dylan. “Our industry is designed to coordinate people around a space. We do this far better than going to Woolworths, Bunnings, or Westfield. We would like to be considered an essential service to help reboot the economy.”

 

I highlight that Scott Morrison’s message in the video after the meeting is positive and suggests that he understands the industry and had listened to what the group had to say.

“I think the PM really understands that investment into our industry and that our ability to become an economic multiplier helps other industries. Exhibitions & business events are at the forefront and aid the launch of many innovations & new product lines. That’s generally the start of an industry creating [business and wealth] and I think he gets the importance of that, he really does.”

“There was a lot of work to organise Monday’s meeting and there’s a lot more to do in the background to keep pushing. The tangible outcomes will happen after.”

I ask the question, if you could wave a magic wand and say, “You do this, you do that,” to help the recovery process for business events, what would it be?

“I don’t have all the answers and I’m trying to be a voice for the collective group. But I think one of the main things is around the lack of confidence for exhibitors to invest in an event and for attendees to go to an event.”

“But you can’t just go and ask someone to instil confidence into something. So, the way I see it is that at an organiser level & exhibitor level, confidence is directly linked to mitigating risk with a return on investment. It becomes financial and what we can do is try to alleviate financial risk to give confidence for an organiser to hold an event, and secondly [for a business] to invest to be part of that event.

And to get the attendee to turn up to that event, it may be the business sending them is considering the health & safety of that person attending that event. So, for the attendee and their business it comes down to health and safety.”

Dylan Retif “It was about pulling together a group of industry bodies to have their say directly to the Prime Minister”

There have been some well-publicised recent legal cases where the directors of businesses that have fallen short in their responsibilities have personally been prosecuted. Will this influence a director’s decision to authorise attendance of their employees to business events post COVID?

“There’s always a fear around being first. We need to instil confidence to businesses that use events and exhibitions that we can do these events and we can do them well—hold an event that is COVID safe, that falls under clear guidelines and venues that get a COVID safe tick of approval. The PM specifically said in our meeting, ‘I know the industry can hold COVID safe events—this is the safest meeting that I’ve been in in the last three months’.”

Building confidence is hard when mainstream media focusses almost exclusively on the bad news & headlines—something that even the business events press can sometimes be guilty of. I suggest that are too many good stories for people not to be encouraged.

Dylan agrees, “It’s certainly better than the cliff most people are looking at. This meeting was only the start and there is a lot more to be done. I’m trying to create a positive outcome for our industry—that’s all I’m trying to do. Because on the other side is what I think is a really big rebound.”

As we come to the end of the interview, we talk about non-industry issues and I ask Dylan what his father used to do for a living.  “My dad was a one-man-band vending machine business, he worked really hard and I got taught a very good work ethic. I did a lot of work for nothing so that’s stood me in good stead for today,” he laughed.