It’s now been 20 months that the meetings and events industry has struggled to survive through the COVID-19 pandemic. We have become experts in force majeure clauses, postponements, and contract cancellations. Businesses at all levels within the sector’s supply chain have navigated a new world of lobbying for support, applying for government subsidies, scaling back to skeleton teams, furloughing staff, terminating leases, selling off assets and closing offices.
Some have found new ways of doing business by shifting to virtual, (which we can all agree is not nearly as effective as in-person engagement). We have adapted in creative ways to apply specific talents and skills differently, all in an effort to drive enough revenues to keep the lights on. In some cases, the best business plan to weather this storm has been to shut down completely, at least until restrictions have lifted and demand returns in a meaningful way.
Regardless of the path taken, there is no question that the meetings and events industry is among the “hardest hit” sectors. Significant barriers remain, preventing businesses from taking the first critical steps toward recovery.
Restrictions have been slowly lifting, which is allowing a gradual and controlled return to operations in many regions of B.C. and throughout Canada. Despite the growing interest in clients to bring events to our province and other destination across Canada, the high level of uncertainty is wreaking havoc on the ability to restart. The sector is experiencing a clear reluctance among clients to commit through signed contracts. Many are taking a hard line approach to negotiations in order to mitigate their perceived risk against unforeseen events.
On the flip side, suppliers are struggling to decide when and how to rebuild. With clients skittish in their commitment and the fear of another shut down, confidence to invest in infrastructure and re-hiring of talent is still absent in many cases. On the support services side, businesses, like DMCs, production companies and event organizers, are beginning to re-emerge, cautiously keeping committed resources at a minimum until demand returns.
The mass exodus of workers from the tourism and hospitality sector to more stable industries is clearly having an impact on service levels and capacities. Restaurants and hotels are operating at reduced levels because they are simply unable to staff adequately to deliver at capacity. We are seeing this resonate throughout the entire meetings and events supply chain.
This situation will inevitably lead to imbalance between supply and demand once the flow of business events begins to return. There is absolute confidence that meetings and events will indeed return in a significant way. However, in order to meet this demand, the framework must be in place for a manageable and sustainable recovery.
Much of the initial work has begun through advocacy groups actively raising awareness from coast to coast across Canada and around the world of the powerful impact that business events have on domestic economies, highlighting their importance in driving revenues and employment to host destinations, while at the same time, supporting innovation and culture. These awareness campaigns are critical to gain government support to invest in the survival of this sector, ensuring that infrastructure is in place to sustain a viable recovery.
Many hard-working advocacy groups in British Columbia, such as TIABC, the BC Hotel Association and the BC Meetings & Events Industry Working Group, along with supporting DMOs and national organizations, including TIAC and Meetings Mean Business Canada, have been advocating for much-needed government subsidy programs. Through this process, we have seen the creation of joint industry-government task forces working to identify the obstacles to recovery and develop strategic tourism and hospitality recovery plans. The meetings and events industry has realized a seat at the table in conversations with government, more than ever before.
In B.C. for example, the BC Tourism Ministry established a recovery task force and round-table of industry leaders to collaborate on recovery strategies. Most recently, a tourism and hospitality Labour Recovery Task Force was created to develop a labour framework proposal for the B.C. government. The BC Meetings & Events Industry Working Group has been actively involved in these initiatives as the voice of meetings and events. In addition, the BC M&EI Working Group has collaborated with the PHO, WorkSafeBC and the Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery & Innovation to focus on lifting barriers and driving momentum toward restart. (See www.bcmeetingsandevents.ca for more information on advocacy in B.C. including the BC Meetings & Events Industry’s Covid-19 Safe Restart Guidelines and Safe Restart Plan.)
Recovery will take time. Persistent uncertainty around the virus, health and boarder restrictions, labour shortages, and unprecedented weather disasters will continue to test the resilience of the industry as we continue to weather the storm into 2022. Our job ahead is to rally with the strength of our partnerships to find ways to rebuild consumer confidence and a sustainable infrastructure that will support a healthy return to business. I have no doubt that 2022 will be volatile and clunky. This sector must further our strides through continued advocacy and maintain the foothold that has been established with all levels of government, thereby amplifying the voice and value of our industry.
We are a resilient, dedicated, and adaptable industry of world-class businesses and professionals. In time, our sector will re-emerge anew and get back to creating unforgettable, authentically Canadian experiences for meeting and event clients from around the world.
Joanne Burns Millar is CEO, of Pacific Destination Services, and chair of the BC Meetings & Events Industry Working Group. She also sits on the board or directors, Destination Vancouver and Business Events Advisory Committee, Destination Canada.