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Business tourism ‘on its knees’ as COVID-19 casts long shadow over events

Victoria’s multibillion-dollar business tourism sector is bracing for prolonged economic pain amid a wave of event cancellations in the first half of the year.

The holiday tourism industry enjoyed a boost from a busy summer, but the exhibition and conference sector’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has lagged far behind.

The Flower and Garden Show at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens in 2017. The event, which was scheduled for March, has been cancelled this year. Credit:Paul Jeffers

While some events are beginning to return, particularly smaller functions and those planned for late in the year, regional Victoria has been hit hard by cancellations and there are fears that regional venues may have to compete with Melbourne in the absence of big corporate bookings from abroad.

Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said the state’s business events sector was worth about $12.85 billion a year and supported more than 84,000 jobs across the state.

Business tourism, which draws visitors to exhibitions and conferences, previously provided a reliable income stream for regional economies outside peak holiday periods, she said.

Late last month Ms Mariani said the business events sector was “on its knees” with few remaining resources to withstand “continual setbacks”.

“Business events are a really important fillip in our downtime in regional Victoria,” she said.

“Regional centres of Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat are really reliant on business events travelling out to these areas.”

The Asia Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event, Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show and Arnold Sports Festival are just a few of the larger events cancelled in March.

Regional venues have reported business from conferences is down significantly compared to 2019.

The regional centre of Geelong has been hit hard by the cancellation of business tourism events. Credit:Justin McManus

Ms Mariani said the sudden closure of state borders during the summer break had rocked the confidence of many businesses that would usually send employees to events across Australia.

Cancellations have far-reaching consequences for other businesses supplying goods and services to the sector.

Harry the hirer chief executive Gab Robinson said his events equipment hire company employed 1200 people before the pandemic but that had now fallen to about 50.

“It’s heartbreaking. They work tirelessly for you. They’re the most loyal and committed people, but unfortunately there was no other option,” he said.

The company is highly reliant on conferences and exhibitions in addition to weddings, major events and other functions.

The looming expiry of JobKeeper, which is set to end in March, poses a major challenge to the sector, with some businesses forced to survive with almost no income beyond government support.

“JobKeeper was designed for 30 per cent loss of revenue. It certainly wasn’t designed for 100 per cent loss of revenue,” Mr Robinson said.

Many parts of the economy derived huge benefits from business events, he said.

Crowds at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show.Credit:Eddie Jim

“It fills up the hotels and bars. It drives visitation to the regions.”

Mr Robinson said some businesses dependent on corporate events may not survive the coming months.

“It’s becoming quite perilous.”

Business Geelong’s convention bureau manager Mark Day said state border closures were having a major impact on national business events.

He said the business events sector contributed $173 million in direct expenditure in Greater Geelong during 2018-19, which included 897,000 delegates spending 457,000 room nights and making up 16 per cent of the region’s visitation.

Mr Day said major national business events were unlikely to resume until 2022, making it critical the state government provided urgent support for the sector.

“The impacts of COVID-19 can be felt across the entire supply chain with some of regional Victoria’s largest conferencing hotels still operating in a limited capacity,” he said.

City of Greater Bendigo tourism and major events manager Terry Karamaloudis said business travel was the most profitable of all visitor categories.

Business events had been an important source of tourism income for Bendigo before the pandemic. Credit:Paul Rovere

“Greater Bendigo has experienced a significant downturn in all event categories, including the very important and lucrative business events sector, simply because such events have not been permitted to run during 2020,” he said.

Mercure Ballarat Hotel and Convention Centre managing director Iain Gunn said business was still down about 70 per cent compared to recent pre-pandemic years.

“If we could close the year out with over half of what we would normally do that would be a win,” he said.

The convention centre can hold about 800 conference delegates and provides accommodation for about 200 people.

But Mr Gunn said competition from venues in Melbourne had become a new threat.

“We’ll be under pressure from metropolitan venues that have their international conferences on hold.”

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