Final word: Robyn Johnson calls on event industry bodies to merge

The outgoing MEA boss pens a powerful final column for Spice.

In the Summer print issue of Spice Magazine, outgoing CEO of Meetings & Events Australia (MEA) Robyn Johnson makes a case for creating one, united voice for business events.

We’ve heard many stories over the past six months about the impact of COVID-19 on the business events sector. It has been a challenging time.

On the upside, we have seen companies and individuals reinventing themselves in order to keep staff employed and businesses viable. We also have JobKeeper to thank, as without this financial support from the government the events industry – which is made up of many small businesses and sole traders – could have totally collapsed.

Unfortunately, even with this support there are companies that will be unable to continue to do business if the pandemic stays with us much longer. This is heartbreaking for them and troubling for our industry as a whole.

One positive outcome is the increased collaboration between the key industry associations under the Business Events Council of Australia umbrella. I have no doubt that our collective efforts have had greater effect than would have resulted if we had taken a more disjointed approach.

It has frequently been suggested that some of these overlapping industry bodies should merge. In the past I have not supported this proposition. COVID-19 has changed my opinion.

If there was ever a time when the industry needed to come together and sing with one voice it is now. We have seen the sporting industry rebound and the live performance industry able to resume – both being able to have large audiences in a controlled environment. Yet the business events sector, which can easily control attendances, is not being allowed to do the same in order to rebound to the same extent.

If the industry bodies looked past their individual differences and united, we could create a stronger and more resourced peak body that has a far more powerful voice.

Consolidation would also minimise the overall cost to the members of these organisations. Expensive ‘back office’ functions that are currently duplicated could be streamlined, travel and advocacy expenses could be reduced and a broader range of skills encouraged among the board of a single entity.

There could also be one major annual conference positioned to be the flagship event for the combined sectors rather than the myriad smaller events that fragment the industry. When you consider the pros and cons, I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

A united body would build a strong, cohesive industry that would have powerful representation to advocate on behalf of the industry not only during times of crisis but to ensure the government and the private sector understand the value of professionally managed business events to grow trade, enhance skills and create jobs.

MEA is a registered not-for-profit. It exists solely for the purpose of providing services to its members. In more buoyant times there was no shortage of financial resources. About a decade ago MEA had almost a million dollars in the bank. Those days are gone and are unlikely to be seen again for quite some time – if ever.

The major stakeholders and partners on which we have relied in recent years are themselves cash-strapped. With a contracting events industry has come a reduction in membership. Continued lack of funding from the industry will limit the resources and programs that can be delivered.

For the foreseeable future MEA will need to continue to make hard financial decisions. Do we try to create surpluses, or do we focus on maintaining, even expanding, services to our members?

As I said, I’ve changed my mind. I can only see benefits to the industry if we combine our resources. Hopefully this article will prompt renewed discussion, with the interest of our members placed at the forefront.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Spice Magazine.
Read the full issue below and subscribe here.

2 thoughts on “Final word: Robyn Johnson calls on event industry bodies to merge

  1. Absolutely agree and I for one, will miss Robyn’s commonsense and respectful approach to our Industry throughout her MEA appointment.

  2. Firstly a thank you to Robyn for all her work. Running an industry or advocating for a industry is very hard work. It is certainly time for the event industry to have a good long discussion about how it is represented. Many years ago business events were largely traditional conferences and exhibitions, but this has long since changed. Business events take an incredibly wide range of forms nowadays from brand owned events to retail brand activations to experiential to the many forms of corporate hospitality – and they are a huge proportion of the business event sector. Similarly the make up of the business event sector has changed drastically with a much wider and diverse range of event organisers and suppliers and people involved. And many of these businesses and people have felt they haven’t had a real voice during this crisis – hence the growth of new groups and campaigns such as our’s. There is a real need for a discussion about how our whole industry is represented to government and not just the traditional parts. Our industry faces a long road ahead. There has never been a time when it has been more important for us all to work together for the future of of our whole industry.

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