After a decade in exhibitions, Doug is now CFO at Scalabrini, a NFP organisation that manages six aged care villages in NSW
Like many I am no longer working in the Events and Exhibitions space having left an Industry I loved and was passionate about since I was lucky enough to get a job in it in 2010. Events and Exhibitions have a way of infecting the soul with a passion for delivering customer service. However since January 2020 it has been another infection that has set the agenda for Events and Exhibitions.
On March 15th 2020 Australia had 250 active COVID cases and effectively shut the borders and cancelled an Industry. Nearly 2 years later on 6th January 2022 we were at 72,121 COVID cases when PCR was the measure and not a home test kit.
I was going to write an article about looking forward to 2022. Given Events and Exhibitions featured on national news in November, and even had a Minister opening an event, I was disappointed that what should have been a celebration was missed.
I thought therefore I would highlight what lessons I have learnt from outside the industry on how other sectors are approaching COVID.
Vaccinations work and boosters work even better. Reviewing the statistics and talking to colleagues the best COVID protection is science based upon facts. The evidence I have seen in outbreaks is that those who have protection are far better than those who haven’t. In Aged Care the planning and support for staff and residents to get vaccinated, and then boosters, has saved lives and helped control infections. We owe it to others to not just be protected ourselves but to be protected for them.
Success is built on the strength of connection. Aged Care has had a tough time and been rightly held to account for some failures. What COVID has brought to the forefront is the strength of our connection to the residents, families and various external bodies.
Connection is built on trust. It is earned. It also needs to be nurtured. When you lock down a facility you effectively put in a hard wall and sit the facility behind it. This means that families are cut off and have to rely on what they read in the press, what they tell each other, what they see on facetime and what they are told by the facility. Communication and transparency is key. Trust is built upon good communication and the best way to communicate is early and often.We have just finished a briefing where nearly 75% of the families joined a mass Zoom meeting. The questions were thoughtful and sometimes hard but the families respected the fact we didn’t hide behind emails but were face to face. We were supported by various government bodies and answered the questions we could and were also honest about where things had been tough.
Brand Values are a culture– I have a great board who throughout the challenges have kept asking how does that relate to our mission and values. The “brand” culture drives how we treat everyone we interact with. As we made tough decisions people could base it on the culture and reference it back to the culture. As Events and Exhibitions start up what is the brand culture that customers, staff and suppliers associate with an organisation and how strong is the trust and connection to it?
Staff are the critical point of success and conversely also failure. A crisis truly brings out that “you will reap what you have sown in how you respect and reward your workforce”. I work with amazing people who, as the outbreaks started to escalate stepped forward not back. Our risk management planning and involvement of staff in developing the plans meant that there were clear staff expectations of who will do what, when and how. Having the right culture where we supported our staff as part of business as normal meant that when the crunch came they supported us and put their hands up to help. People cancelled holidays to cover gaps in shifts or Head Office staff worked on reception answering calls to free up other staff.
Leadership matters and is key to building confidence of your customers, suppliers and staff – I remember going to one event pre COIVD (when still in the event industry) and saw the MD of the organising company clearing plates away to make more seats at a table, the person I was with pointed and said it was a failure to put on enough staff. However, I saw someone who was doing what it takes to make sure the paying customer got a good experience and showing his staff that everyone was responsible for customer service. We were both right in our way. At times a leader must not get dragged into the day to day but at other times people want their leaders to show they are not remote and are there for the hard stuff and not offsite behind a mobile. COVID has taught me that having situational awareness by walking the floor more often than not adds to the decision making process as well as the respect from staff.
Understand the practical considerations and finding ways to solve them. It is often not the obvious that was the challenge of the day. Understanding and empowering staff to speak up was critical for managing risk. In aged care where an average of 10 sets of gowns, face shields, gloves and facemasks are used per worker per day the clinical waste quickly became an issue. This was exacerbated by the waste company losing over 40% of their staff to a close COVID contact isolation. It was not the supply of PPE that was the issue but the practical process of getting rid of it.
Working with several external bodies in Outbreak Management Team meetings has allowed me to see an Industry that works together towards a common goal. Events and Exhibitions have seen it also. People start with different agendas and what COVID has done is make us understand that we share a common goal. Collaboration around delivering the best outcome in rapidly changing circumstances literally protects lives in our case, and jobs and events in the Event and Exhibition sector. Everyone should be celebrating any success there is to get back collaboration and confidence in the sector.
Your suppliers matter and the relationships and trust built with them is reflected in how they respond to you in times of need.Whilst we were fortunate and planned ahead in terms of holding inventory of PPE etc. with nearly 500 Aged Care facilities in lockdown it was critical to maintain supply as many providers placed 3-4 months’ worth of normal usage of orders within a 3-week period. We found that multiple lines, including toilet rolls, that we take for granted were impacted and suppliers rightly prioritised those where there was a strong mutual trust and relationship. Placing three months’ worth of orders meant credit limits etc for many providers became an issue as critical orders triggered “holds”. As with staff you reap what you have sown and those who had a relationship built upon nailing down prices or had a history of changing order quantities on short notice struggled.
COVID has changed expectations and expanded horizons – it is an opportunity as well as a problem. Change is inevitable and good organisations are flexible and prepared for this. We worked with a well-known Event and Exhibition supplier to develop a registration system for visitors as part of our risk management. Pre-Covid I don’t think they would have thought they would have partnered on innovation in Aged Care. We now have a programmable registration system in each village that we could update within an hour with any new questions or guidance from the Government as we found many regulations and guidance notes did change from one day to the next.
The landscape has changed. My Industry had a wakeup call on service and delivery. With an aging population and over 50% of the Industry losing money each year the landscape continues to change. COVID has accelerated the change just as it has changed Events and Exhibitions.
My Industry has big players but the majority are small groups and this is similar to Events and Exhibitions. I am convinced independents will lead the Events and Exhibitions industry back. Some events have lost three annual editions and exhibitors have found new ways to trade. I looked at one national event that listed around 270 Exhibitors and remember it use to be nearly 500. The big are not as big and this impacts financial sustainability across everyone. I looked at one big organiser who used to run 30 plus events and are now showing 13, including co-locations, and another who is showing only three now in 2022. The balance has changed as seen when looking at two non-NSW independents who are now running seven and nine events respectively.
The challenge for independents whose business was based on selling is that the appetite to buy their events may be significantly less in the Australian market. They have to work out how to change structure to running events that they are not gearing up to sell and the smart ones realised this early in the COVID crisis and started to pivot.
This rise of the independents and the change in the mix has implications for venues and suppliers with the prioritisation of the independents and their needs against the traditional cash cows.
Some of the shows that have been dropped by the big players are now being run by the new breed of “Eventpreneurs”. These are those industry identities who lost their job but have retained the relationships. They are enjoying the flexibility of not being within a corporate and exhibitors are enjoying lower prices because they are not funding corporate overheads and have a closer focus on delivering customer service. Events that were struggling due to a high cost base are now looking, from the floorplans on the websites, like they are thriving under these Eventpreneurs.
The landscape has changed, and just as in Aged Care, the innovative, customer centric, nimble and trusted have the opportunity to seize the future.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is the one I was taught by many in the first 2-3 months when I started in Events and Exhibitions. It holds just as true in Aged Care – It starts with people and ends with people and treating them with respect and saying thank you matters. I work with amazing people everyday in Aged Care and COVID has made this even clearer and the relationships stronger. How we treated people during early COVID has helped us face Omicron and the massive challenges it posed for staff, suppliers and families. We got back what we gave out and actually got back even more goodwill than we should ever have expected.
Whilst there are egos in the Events and Exhibitions Industry, and any simple article search will show that there are perhaps still too many disagreements, there are people who care and work to help each other and the friendships formed on the floor, at AIME or at the SCG remain strong……
I look forward to coming to some of the Aged Care and Facility events and conferences this year and enjoying them a consumer and wish the Industry well as it faces the new COVID normal.