Coronavirus: Conference sector struggling with on-off lockdowns

The SkyCity Convention Centre
The SkyCity Convention Centre fire didn't help matters either. Photo credit: Newshub.

By Amy Williams for RNZ

Billions of dollars have been wiped off the events calendar due to the mass cancellation of conferences and conventions.

In a normal year there are more than 5000 business events nationwide, with almost a third held in Auckland.

The sector is typically estimated to be worth $5 billion a year but the on-off limit on gatherings since March has pushed the events industry into survival mode.

Some of the Government's almost $10m domestic event fund will go towards business conferences but the industry wants more support.

Conventions and Incentives NZ chief executive Lisa Hopkins said the impact has been "catastrophic".

"From the members of our association that I've spoken to they've gone down to zero events in many cases, everything's been cancelled or postponed. It's huge."

Official figures show there were 5300 conferences and conventions in the year ending June 2019, of which a third were held in Auckland. But all that has come to a grinding halt.

"February was the last normal month we had, you could almost write the entire [$5 billion] amount off," Hopkins said.

"It feels like the confidence levels have been ripped out of the market. They don't know whether or not to invest in holding a conference or an event."

However, not all this year's conferences are cancelled.

Events management company Uno Loco has switched from organising live events, to creating virtual events - or a mix of both - for its corporate clients.

Its client services director Craig Muller said this means people in one region will gather together while those from outside the region attend via a livestream.

"A lot of businesses are going 'should we be flying everyone into one location whether it be Auckland or otherwise or should we be trying to communicate with your audience in a different way?'," he said.

He said one company was due to bring 400 people to Auckland for a multi-day conference, but is now taking a roadshow to the regions to meet in smaller groups.

Muller said other companies are taking their conferences online.

"We've been briefed on a project that is usually a large trade show and a multi-day event, clearly they don't feel confident enough by mid October to be able to get 600 people to gather in a room."

The Auckland Convention Bureau attracts conferences and conventions to the city, but its calendar for this year now looks blank.

Its head, Anna Hayward, said events are often planned years ahead, and the bureau already has 78 events worth $59 million locked in until 2028.

Hayward said business events are important for economic recovery, bringing visitors and expertise to different regions.

But she is clear that this year's cancellations have led to a $70 million hole in cashflow.

"It's quite devastating when you actually start to look at the numbers."

Te Pae Convention Centre in Christchurch.
Te Pae Convention Centre in Christchurch. Photo credit: Ōtākaro/RNZ

Hayward said not all cancellations are due to COVID-19, with some because of a delayed opening to the fire-damaged International Convention Centre.

The lack of business events this year has a ripple effect with companies struggling to retain staff and fewer people travelling domestically.

The managing director of The Conference Company, Jan Tonkin, wants more done to retain skilled workers in the sector and is calling for targeted government support.

She said the sector is bleeding talent.

"I have seen experienced people leave the sector and that's the underlying concern for us because once they're engaged with another sector bringing them back in is never a sure thing."

Lisa Hopkins said it's important the sector is saved.

"We are the sector that redistributes revenue into regions, we're the reason why investment is put into building convention centres, hotels, creating jobs."