A charred industry is on fire again

A ban on mass gatherings is a hammer blow for the conventions industry and devastating for many sports and cultural events. David Williams reports

Last October, international arrivals for business events were up more than 17 percent on the year before.

That same month the $1 billion International Convention Centre in Auckland caught fire. And now things have gone from bad to worse.

With international travel restrictions and a ban on mass gatherings because of the coronavirus threat, the local conference industry’s short-term future seems to be in the hands of the Government, which will announce a multi-billion-dollar rescue package today.

“We want to be able to keep our people and pay their salaries,” says Conventions and Incentives NZ chief executive Lisa Hopkins.

While big business events for more than 500 people have to be cancelled because of yesterday’s decree delivered by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Hopkins says smaller events are also being postponed. With a recession looming, she’s picking many large corporates will be cost-cutting, and one of the first things to go will be travel, entertainment and corporate events.

This cluster of problems will have a significant financial effect on the industry, which is worth about $455 million a year. “Effectively a good chunk of the year has been postponed until either later in the year, the year after, or the year after that.”

The good news, Hopkins says, is the majority want are putting off events rather than cancelling. “The next issue’s going to be around how do we find the space for them.”

The WONCA Asia Pacific conference, organised by The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, was due to take place next month. It has been re-scheduled for November. Others might not be so lucky.

After the International Convention Centre fire, event inquiries spread to other Auckland venues, as well as Wellington and Christchurch – where the $475 million centre, Te Pae, is due to open in October. Hopkins says now a bulging calendar of events stacked up later this year, and she’s concerned conventions put off over the next three-to-five months might struggle to find venues.

“There’s this double whammy for our industry because we don’t have a massive depth of large venues,” she says. “It’s going to be a challenge and we’ve just got to find ways of working through this and being flexible and working together as an industry.”

Kiwis should support local businesses, ChristchurchNZ boss Joanna Norris says. Photo: David Williams

A cascade of events were cancelled or postponed yesterday. They included Auckland’s Polyfest, Wellington’s Homegrown music festival, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concerts, the national school rowing champs known as the Maadi Cup, and Whangamatā’s hot rod and rock 'n roll festival, Beach Hop.

Ardern said affected events would include festivals and fairs, as well as sporting, religious, and cultural events. Schools and universities are exempt, but officials are working with them to reduce the need for large gatherings. The government will issue further public guidance later this week.

ChristchurchNZ is that city council’s economic development, tourism and events arm. Chief executive Joanna Norris says between now and the end of September there were 113 events involving more than 1000 people planned for Christchurch alone. They included university and polytechnic graduations.

“We are fully supportive of the move,” Norris says of Ardern’s announcement. “This pandemic is growing exponentially around the world and containment will significantly lessen the economic impact.”

The containment measures will have a significant impact on the Christchurch, Canterbury and South Island economies, not only in the tourism and hospitality sectors, but also agriculture and manufacturing.

Norris says her organisation’s waiting for guidance before embarking on a marketing campaign in the North Island. “But we are encouraging people to continue to support their local businesses and to enjoy all of the amenity that we have in our local backyard. It is important that people support Kiwi businesses through what’s going to be an incredibly challenging time, throughout the winter period and beyond.”

Auckland Council’s events arm, ATEED, declined to comment yesterday. Newsroom was told before the PM’s announcement an ATEED spokesperson would contact us once it was able to respond “based on the known landscape”.

Auckland University of Technology’s head of tourism and event management, Claire Liu, says cancellations will cause immediate cashflow issues for event managers. To avoid financial devastation, she hopes the government measures will be temporary.

But she adds: “The most important thing is to be cautious, not go ahead with gatherings of large numbers of people. The consequence could be really, really huge, and that is not reversible.”

“I imagine a lot of people will also vote with their feet now and be thinking twice about being jammed into places with lots of other people.” – Michael Baker

The ban on mass gatherings has no expiry date, Ardern said yesterday, and while the cancellation of events will be hugely disappointing she says decisions have been made in the best interests of New Zealanders.

University of Otago’s professor of public health Michael Baker says physical distancing is crucial to containing a pandemic. That ranges from less disruptive moves, like businesses encouraging people to work from home, to banning non-essential mass gatherings. “Then it moves up to closing schools, stopping public transport, and actually shutting down cities – limiting travel between places.”

Government measures are aimed at keeping the virus out, stamping it out once it’s here, and dampening down transmissions. “If you do all those things well, the evidence is we can contain this virus because of the way it behaves,” Baker says. “Fortunately, so far we don’t have evidence of community transmission, but we can’t rule it out. So these measures are really important for dampening down transmission.”

The ‘keep it out’ component is working better, Baker says. The Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday of a 14-day stand-down for almost all international arrivals made the whole health sector breathe a huge sigh of relief, he says.

Now, authorities need to focus on ‘stamping it out’, including increased testing.

“The purpose of this is to increase social distance and so I imagine a lot of people will also vote with their feet now and be thinking twice about being jammed into places with lots of other people.”

The number of people in the country infected with coronavirus remained at eight yesterday. Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said much wider testing was already happening. “We also are doing and gearing up our surveillance of people presenting to GP clinics over coming months.”

There was nothing to suggest a hidden outbreak of community transmission, he said. “We’ve got really active case finding and contact tracing which is designed to stop that community outbreak.”

Cancellations by the dozen

Queenstown wedding companies are being over-run with inquiries from anxious couples.

Many people in the industry were anxiously awaiting the benchmark number for the ban on mass gatherings, Queenstown Wedding Association president Philippa Thomas says. It was rare to get a wedding with more than 500 guests, she says. But she’s hardly dancing in the aisles.

Travel restrictions announced on Saturday have led to dozens of cancellations and postponements. “It was almost like you could feel a collective burst into tears moment on Saturday evening when this announcement happened. One girl that I saw online was at her hen’s party during the announcement and realised that her wedding was no longer going to take place.”

Thomas, a wedding celebrant, says the real clincher for many couples who cancelled was Australia adopting the same restrictions as this country. “It was one thing for them to isolate for 14 days when they arrive, it’s another thing for them to isolate for 14 days when they go home as well.”

Some couples will be out of pocket by tens of thousands of dollars, she says.

“People aren’t going to ask their family and friends to travel again and lose the tickets they’ve booked and travel in a year. For a lot of people, it’s just coming down to just having to cancel the wedding – and some of them are literally just two weeks away. It’s heartbreaking.”

A very full calendar suddenly has big empty spaces, she says, but at least new inquiries are still being made. “The general feeling is that it’s uncertain and it’s a horrible situation for wedding vendors and for couples, but I think everyone is in agreement that it is also what needs to happen.”

Preparing for the worst

Funeral directors, meanwhile, have been preparing for government restrictions for some time.

“Our funeral homes all have their own individual plans in place and they’ve got supplies of hand sanitiser and there’s plenty of handwashing facilities, and looking to make sure that any risk is as low as possible,” Funeral Directors Association chief executive David Moger says.

All its members can livestream funerals – an option for people to be involved but physically at the funeral home. He adds: “Our members also have been fully briefed on the social distancing aspects as well. If, for example, a member has a chapel with a capacity of 200 then they’ll be talking to the family about how to maximise the space between those that have come to participate in the funeral.”

If that mass gathering number of 500 reduces, Moger says funeral homes can potentially limit the number of people in one chapel and livestream the service to another.

The less talked about aspect, perhaps, is what would happen if there was a sudden increase in coronavirus deaths. “Looking at where things are at at the moment, we do feel confident that we will be able to continue to be able to have that meaningful funeral process,” Moger says.

“The numbers would have to be quite frightening for us to have to move to that point [of restricting funerals]. But that is part of our planning as well, as part of the pandemic plan. The numbers can get quite frightening, and at that point we would have to respond appropriately.”

The country’s revised influenza pandemic plan, released three years ago, flagged that funerals and tangihanga wouldn’t be banned in a pandemic.

Noting the emergency powers available to health authorities to prohibit mass-gatherings, the Ministry of Health report said: “With any death it is important that relatives and friends have an opportunity to grieve. To restrict this would only create other health problems later on.”

It has to be wondered if the document’s authors – who, on the report’s second page, acknowledged Professor Geoffrey Rice’s invaluable research on the 1918 black flu – thought such drastic measures would be needed so soon.

For more information on covid-19, go to the Ministry of Health’s website, which includes advice on self isolation, the World Health Organisation’s web page, or call Healthline on 0800 3585453. The official registration page for New Zealanders travelling or living overseas is SafeTravel

* This story has been updated to correct that WONCA is an Asia Pacific conference.

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