Live events in Australia are set to become worse, rarer, and more expensive as the industry calls for urgent government support

Paul Kelly plays a bushfire benefit to thousands at the MCG. (Martin Philbey, Redferns)
  • The Australian events industry says it is facing the scrap heap after federal and state governments have ignored its pleas for help.
  • It is asking the Morrison government to underwrite COVID-19 cancellation insurance and offer direct grants to operators to ensure events continue in Australia.
  • Without support, organisers say events will become markedly worse, increasingly expensive, and few and far between.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The country may have largely sidestepped the worst of the pandemic, but Australians shouldn’t expect major events to be part of their ‘new normal’, as the local industry teeters on the brink and planned festivals get trashed.

On Tuesday, food and wine festival Taste of Tasmania became the latest casualty as organiser Hobart City Council pulled the plug. Attributing its decision to virus uncertainty and the related financial risks, it’s unclear whether a private organiser will be found to step in or who would necessarily want to do so.

Just one month ago, Byron Bay’s Bluesfest was canned for the second year in a row, the decision made just one day before festivities were scheduled to kick off. As a result of the last minute health order signed by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, organisers said they would lose $10 million. The local economy meanwhile missed out on a $100 million injection.

While Bluesfest had the misfortune of coinciding with two local cases, Australia hasn’t had a large outbreak since Melbourne’s back in October, with life returning largely to normal across the country. Despite its relative success in managing the virus, the two examples contradict the assumption that it is business as usual for everyone.

Events facing the ‘scrap heap’ in Australia

Estimates say more than 100,000 events have been lost since the pandemic began in Australia, totalling some $10 billion. Earlier this year former Australian Labor Leader Bill Shorten told Parliament that “many people have been affected negatively, but none harder than the live events industry.”

“They need government assistance and they need it now,” he said. “Things are desperate…this is an industry too important to be simply thrown on the scrap heap.”

But those warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears in Canberra, despite promises of ‘targeted spending’ for struggling sectors. Aviation support packages have propped up airlines like Qantas and Virgin, private colleges have pocketed more than $50 million, and the construction sector has been flooded with stimulus.

The $40 billion events industry, on the other hand, has “been treated appallingly” and largely been forgotten, according to event producer Simon Thewlis.

“In Victoria we would be lucky if 10% of normal events were happening again. Many people still haven’t done a live events since March 13, 2020,” Thewlis, the director of Event Pty Ltd, told Business Insider Australia.

“About 95% of our industry was on JobKeeper so when [it] ended we have seen a lot more retrenchments. It is estimated that our industry has now lost over three quarters of its technical talent – i.e. lighting, audio, video, rigging, etc – including many of the most experienced members of the industry.”

Heading into winter with no promise of a lifeline, he says the typically quieter period will only bring more pain for organisers.

Organisers need insurance so the show can go on

As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gets ready to deliver the Budget on Tuesday evening, there are plenty of Australian organisers anxious for what it might bring. With no leaked policies yet having concerned the events industry directly, Thewlis says the industry has “no reason to be optimistic” that support is coming.

Despite the lack of action, the industry is crystal clear on what it needs to fight another day. The first demand is for the federal government to step in an underwrite COVID-19 cancellation insurance for events, which would give organisers the confidence to plan and the safety net to take the risk.

“We are pushing for a simple model like the one in place for the film industry provided by the federal government, [where] film productions pay 1% of their budget to get insurance against cancellation due to COVID,” Thewlis said. “Without insurance quite a few events just won’t happen, [while others] will go ahead uninsured and have to be cancelled, causing financial trauma to the workers and suppliers involved.”

The insurance could be covered as part of the government’s existing ‘reinsurance pool’ which currently covers terrorism insurance and could be expanded for climate change risks. Given the virus could be around for years to come, it makes sense for it to be treated similarly, the industry argues, claiming a late cancellation at the moment “can be catastrophic”.

The other big ticket item is a broad-based direct support. While this could take a number of different forms, industry lobby group ‘Save Victorian Events’, suggests direct grants of up to $100,000 based on business turnover which could potentially be run via state governments.

“The model we have recommended is based on direct grants to event industry businesses – including suppliers – to enable them to survive until events start picking up again, and to enable them to still have the working capital to enable them to start gearing up again,” the organisation said in its recommendations to the Victorian government.

A federal program was announced in January and has since closed, with critics pointing out that it focused on large events companies rather than the bulk of the industry.

An Australia without major events

Without support, the events industry is predicting its own demise.

A recent survey found almost seven in 10 freelancers and contractors said they planned on leaving the industry without JobKeeper. Similarly, otherwise good businesses are expected to exit leading to an exodus of talent and a lack of events on the Australian calendar.

“A lot of suppliers to the event industry are already openly saying that they do not know how they are going to be able to deal with the busier part of this year as they just don’t have the people, and they don’t have the dollars to be able to afford to scale back up again,” Thewlis said.

“The result is that some events won’t be able to happen because the resources to deliver them won’t be there. The quality of some events will drop and the levels of risk on the events will go up because they are trying to make do with less experienced or untrained staff and costs of some services will go up as there will be less competition.”

The fallout will be felt widely, impacting everything from employment and spending to the vibrancy of a country now eager to market itself to the world as a business and tourist destination.

Australia could be in for a rude wakeup call if the worst does come to pass – and no government could claim ignorance. Industry veteran and production manager Howard Freeman may have put it most succinctly to a Victorian government committee.

“When any of you have been to a show at a major stadium and seen five people on stage, do you have any idea of how many people backstage put that together? Do you know? It is 1000 people. There are 1000 jobs. There are hotel rooms, there are car hires, there are caterers. There are all those other allied industries that are making money out of this. We are hurting. We need help. That is it.”