2021… the year that was meant to be… but isn’t

Last year as COVID hit and began impacting on our health and our businesses, we collectively looked to 2021 as the year of fresh starts. New vaccines were on the horizon and all we had to do was batten down our collective hatches until the supplies hit our shores. 2021 was supposed to be a page turn, but the ugly COVID chapter continues.

While our optimism wasn’t completely misplaced, a sluggish vaccine rollout combined with ever emerging variants has continued to plague our industry with uncertainty. In events, where the planning phases stretch for months, uncertainty is often fatal.  Now, as we stare down a pretty bleak second half of 2021, filled with rolling lockdowns and tight restrictions, I have been thinking about where the business of running events fits into a COVID dominated world. 

The events industry is broad in its nature and diverse in terms of the type of events which make it up. But, in live events, whether it be sport, participation, music, arts or business, there is far more that is common, and uniting, than there is that is different, and dividing. It relies on assembling people around experiences, mass gatherings, of various sizes. 

Many of us have learnt more than we ever thought we would, about epidemiology and infectious diseases. From a public health perspective, our health experts advising our government leaders advocate for reduced movement, and restricted gatherings. It is part of their toolkit, to mitigate risk and limit the extent to which community transmission of the virus is taking place. For most of us that work in events, we live and breathe risk management as a core element of what we do as event professionals. In this case, we understand the necessity of public health orders, which place restrictions on the population, reducing people movement and ultimately, reducing the spread of the virus.

It does mean however, that the objective of event managers, and the objectives of medics who specialise in infection prevention and control, are in direct conflict. One promotes getting people together and one promotes keeping people apart. It was going to be a tough time. It still is. With the evolution of the coronavirus and the presence of what are now even more virulent strains of the disease, the future prospects for mass gatherings and participation based events in the short to medium term, appear grave.

It is the realisation that our core business is, more than ever, in direct conflict with the business of managing a pandemic.

From an Australian perspective it is very difficult to discuss the current situation that we are faced with, without pointing fingers. In the early to middle part of 2020 Australia’s governments and health authorities performed well. COVID zero strategy was developed and committed to, and as a community, we bought into it with a sense of collective purpose. Globally, the world’s hospitals resembled warzones, as the front line health workers grappled with the trauma and carnage, created by COVID-19. Here, we maintained low case numbers, largely off the back of closed borders and therefore minimal inbound international passengers. 

Instead of capitalising on this enviable position, our Federal government has squandered the opportunity. Now, deep into 2021, most first world nations, and even many parts of the third world, are able to enjoy high vaccination rates. Meanwhile, less than 1 in 5 Australians are fully vaccinated, and so whilst much of the world seizes the control that is created by achieving a level of herd immunity, we are forced to live a life of restriction, in lockdown, forced to wait patiently for our vaccination rates to climb. With more than 12 months to act, it is simply unfathomable that we are where we are. You didn’t need to be anything near an expert to forecast how crucial the vaccination rollout would be. 

And so we are faced with ongoing uncertainty about what the future holds. 

We can be sure that governments will not only remain conservative around permitting events, but will be even more nervous, perceived or otherwise, than they have before. Based on the latest coronavirus Delta strain, it is reported to be 1000 times more transmissible than early strains, and examples of outdoor transmission, for the first time, have begun to appear. Unfortunately, that sounds like ‘event kryptonite’ to me. 

If there is a ‘poppy in the field’ then I would say that 2021’s debacle will be a catalyst for a brighter 2022. The events scene in 2022 will undoubtedly benefit from the government’s ultimate realisation that, in fact, the vaccination rollout has been a race. We were late to the start line and everyone was well away by the time we got there. But we are now gaining some ground. 

If we are able to emerge from living lockdown to lockdown in 2021, then mass gatherings will be slow returning, until vaccination rates climb. The remainder of 2021 without decent sized events seems certain, and a continued interruption to events in 2022 remains likely. How many event organisers, suppliers and staff will survive in the industry? It remains to be seen. 

Look out for an upcoming post which describes how it feels to be managing a business, specifically, at the moment.

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