By Adrienne Readings, GCCEC General Manager and Destination Gold Coast Chairperson
As an industry built on travel and human interaction, the business events sector has faced its greatest challenge yet in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. But with the easing of vaccination requirements, and borders reopening, it’s time for business events delegates to reconnect in person – and for the industry to look towards a brighter future.
There’s no denying the importance of the business events sector, which includes conventions, exhibitions, meetings and incentives, to the Australian economy. In 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, the business events sector directly contributed $35.7 billion to the Australian economy. That’s more than half the amount directly contributed by the entire tourism industry in the same period, partly because business events travellers spend, on average, twice as much per person as tourists who travel for leisure.
The Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre (GCCEC) alone has brought millions of visitors to the Gold Coast over the past 18 years, injecting $300-500 million annually into the local economy. It’s vitally important, then, that the business events industry continues to drive the economy in a post-COVID landscape – and I believe it will.
Investment in technology is essential…
Over the last two years, there’s been a shift towards virtual and hybrid events in order to help bridge the barriers imposed by COVID-19. And though those barriers have largely been lifted, I expect most conferences moving forward will continue to incorporate hybrid elements to accommodate delegates who can’t be there in person for whatever reason.
Of course, a virtual event can’t offer the same experience as attending a conference in person, because a successful business event isn’t just about listening to keynote addresses – it’s about networking and interaction, too. But adding online components to an event has now been proven to be an effective way to increase reach and accessibility, so we should expect them to be built into future offerings.
The key is to do it well. Everybody has no doubt attended a virtual event in the last two years that they’ve been tempted to switch off, because the digital experience hasn’t delivered. And if the technology at your conference lets your attendees down, then your conference can be seen as a major failure.
The rise of hybrid events means that event spaces are becoming, in essence, broadcasting studios, which makes investment in high-speed internet and high-quality cameras, microphones, screens and lighting essential.
At GCCEC, we’ve been able to seamlessly deliver hybrid experiences for our clients. That’s because we have consistently invested in technology over the last decade and a half, and have world-class equipment and a dedicated team of in-house audio-visual and information technology experts at our disposal.
We’ve also developed GCCEC+, a toolkit for virtual site inspections that allows event planners and guests to visit the Centre from anywhere in the world using extended reality technology and immersive 360-degree video content.
In a post-pandemic world, these types of innovations are no longer nice-to-haves – they’re must-haves for event venues that wish to remain competitive.
…But you can’t beat face-to-face interaction
Innovation and investment in technology is important, but no amount of digital ingenuity can replace the benefits of in-person interaction, which is why I’m ultimately so confident about the future of the business events sector.
Human beings are inherently social, and we’re hard-wired to connect. Attending a convention in person enables you to ask questions and interact with speakers; take part in a free-flowing exchange of ideas; and connect with like-minded people.
It’s far easier and faster to build trust and form a rapport in person than it is via a virtual conferencing platform, where the person you’re speaking to is likely to be distracted by emails, kids, pets and the minutiae of everyday life.
It’s one thing to listen to a keynote address online, but it’s another to be able to take the keynote speaker aside afterwards and have a conversation with them. I also believe exhibitions are vital components of successful conventions, and it’s impossible to recreate the demonstrations and conversations that take place on the exhibition floor in a virtual environment.
It’s these sorts of face-to-face interactions that allow relationships to develop and networks to be built. And at the end of the day, the relationships that form at these events are often the most important thing that attendees take with them.
The travel experience itself is another highlight for attendees that can’t be recreated online. Location is certainly a major factor in our clients’ decision to return to GCCEC year after year. A convention on the Gold Coast is a destination event, and attendees are always excited about coming here.
Information can be shared virtually, but travelling to an event and meeting people face-to-face is how you make memories – and in my experience, every organiser wants their event to be memorable.
Health and safety remains the top priority
The key to a certain future, of course, is safety.
Australia’s high vaccination rates – as I write this, 95 per cent of Australians aged 16 and older have received at least their first dose of the vaccine – make it a safe place to travel and do business. But COVID-19 remains a risk, and the ‘new normal’ of the last two years has left its mark on all of our psyches.
You can be sure, then, that cleanliness and social distancing will be top-of-mind for clients and their delegates. When people attend an event at a venue, their expectation has always been that there’s a strong workplace health and safety framework in place – and hygiene is now inextricably part of that framework.
The protocols themselves may change and specific mandates may come and go, but it will be of the utmost importance for venue operators to continue to ensure best practices are followed by all employees and visitors on site.
Ultimately, as we move beyond the uncertainty of the past two years, nobody knows exactly what the future holds. But what I am sure of is that the business events industry will continue to play an important role in Australia’s economy; that the innovations necessitated by COVID will serve us well as we move forward; that people are ready and willing to reconnect in person – and that there are brighter days ahead.